Postcolonial Struggles and the War on Terror®: Burkina Faso

“We don’t have food, we don’t have anything. We only rely on the leaves.”

This is how Daouda Maiga described the current situation for people in Djibo, in the north of Burkina Faso (which has a Muslim population of around 64%).

It is estimated that upwards of 32 Djibo residents have lost their lives since June 2022. The town has been under blockade for three months and continues to suffer, even this week, from fighting between rebels and the military.

This is the kind of instability that the Burkinabé people deal with on a daily basis. Burkina Faso had not always suffered from such instability, as has been discussed previously.

Being one of the largest producers of gold in Africa also makes the country vulnerable to both internal and external exploitation, and the citizenry remains largely impoverished. These gold mines have even been the target of attacks by militant groups.

We’ve also previously quoted research showing how, prior to the sale of the War on Terror to Africa, violence across the region—and within Burkina Faso in particular—was at a significantly lower level than it is now:

Since Burkina Faso entered the U.S. government’s Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) more than a decade ago, the Burkinabe state has acted on the premise that waging a ‘war on terrorism’ is the best, and indeed the only, way to respond to Islamist militant violence. It has carried out this war with U.S., European, and other foreign resources and based it around a U.S.-sponsored logic centered on capturing or killing those identified as “terrorists” and conducting military operations in spaces that could potentially harbor militants. This approach is not self-evident; militant violence need not be treated as a problem to be battled with a domestic war. In fact, historical research shows that governments have been more effective in curtailing such violence when they deal with the social and political sources of people’s grievances. Sahel analysts argue the region’s conflict is rooted in domestic political crisis, so identifying the problem as one of terrorism is a fundamentally flawed presumption. Yet Burkina Faso has adopted the framework of counterterrorism, and in doing so has targeted and abused a minority group, the Fulani [semi-nomadic Muslim herders], as well as justified undemocratic governance.” (Savell, 2)

And as we’ve mentioned before, Burkina Faso has in large part been drawn into what can only be described as a man-made’ conflict, part and parcel of the War on Terror®.

RELATED: New Attacks in Somalia: Gray Area in the War on Terror in Africa

Here’s more evidence of this from The Intercept:

“Just before the forever wars got underway after 9/11, the United States searched for terrorist threats in Africa but failed to locate them. A 2000 report from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, for example, examined the ‘African security environment.’ While noting the existence of ‘internal separatist or rebel movements’ in ‘weak states,’ as well as militias and ‘warlord armies,’ it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terror threats. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003 in all of Africa, resulting in a combined 23 casualties.

Despite this, the U.S. poured more than $1 billion into the nations of West Africa through various military assistance efforts, including the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a program designed to ‘counter and prevent violent extremism”’in the region. The United States also employed a host of other episodic training programs, including the African Crisis Response Initiative, the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program, the International Military Education and Training program, the Counterterrorism Fellowship Program, the Global Peace Operations Initiative, and the Joint Combined Exchange Training program. In Burkina Faso alone, the U.S. has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars through more than 15 security assistance programs. The payoff has been abysmal.

This is particularly tragic due to being part of a bigger story of foreign interference—interference that is to the detriment of the local people—largely functioning to maintain the country’s subservience and to bolster the geopolitical strength of the ‘invading’ power.

The Second Coup This Year

Last month, Burkina Faso had seen its second coup in just one year. Ibrahim Traoré, who aided in leading the coup, was sworn in as interim president last month (October 2022).

One of the main reasons behind the coup was discontentment with Damiba’s mishandling of the armed conflict in the country.

AP News reports:

“To some in Burkina Faso’s military, Damiba also was seen as too cozy with former colonizer France, which maintains a military presence in Africa’s Sahel region to help countries fight Islamic extremists.

Some who support the new coup leader, Traore, have called on Burkina Faso’s government to seek Russian support instead. Outside the state broadcaster on Sunday, supporters of Traore were seen cheering and waving Russian flags.”

In a way, the Russian Flags are no huge surprise, especially since the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group has been known to operate in the region. In general, Putin has been making efforts to strengthen relations with Africa, a move that seems to have been welcomed by many African states.

RELATED: The Secret to Putin’s Geopolitics Is Found with This Russian Philosopher

In an interview discussing the recent coup, a Human Rights Watch employee (Corinne Dufka) and a Senegalese-Egyptian academic (Aziz Fall) provided two distinct perspectives that illustrate well how the root problems of much of the conflict in Burkina Faso and also elsewhere in Africa are overlooked.

Corinne Dufka:

“So, I see this as primarily a Burkinabe problem. And it’s situated within the wider Sahel, in which, you know, it’s the fastest-growing area for armed Islamist activity pretty much in the world. And it’s situated in between Mali…which has been battling these armed Islamists linked to IS, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda. So, it’s really a very complex situation…there are 10% of that population, 2 million out of 20 million people…displaced on account of this insecurity.”

Aziz Fall:

“Well, I think, truly, this is not a Burkinabe case. The United States and France have a great responsibility in what is happening in the region, despite of what my colleague is saying. I think here we have to look at the geopolitcal problems that were actually implanted in that region, in the Sahelian region. So, people are outraged with the role of France but also the role of the United States, who have started these terrorist cells in the region for geopolitical reason. So, yeah, in a way, people want to change the landscape.”

“I think Human Rights Watch and many other organizations, like Amnesty International, have to look at also the big picture, not just the local picture but look at the big picture, the role of China, the role of India, the opposition of the imperialist forces on the ground, and the fierce resistance of the people of Mali and Burkina Faso and the rest. But having said that, most [of] this hierarchy, this military hierarchy, have been formed and trained by the U.S. AFRICOM, as well. So, we have to have…introspection here and look at the deep causes in order to have a new momentum that gives the Burkinabe people the worthy title of the land of the upright people. And I think these are very proud people who are trying, with very little means, to counter a geopolitical tide that is beyond the scope of their capacities.”

Try reading about the many militant attacks that take place in Burkina Faso. You will be able to find the basic, unfortunate information. However you won’t find much at all when trying to figure out why militants are fighting.

This is a major problem.

Regardless of what one thinks of these groups, understanding the reason why they are fighting each other is essential for understanding the kind of problems the country is facing. Are those fighting also impoverished? Are they tired of government corruption, or are they merely war mongers?

Without recognizing some of the fundamental reasons why violence exists in places like Burkina Faso, how can these problems ever be solved? This is an especially pressing question when we see that the the War on Terror® has been sold to the government itself.

What this surface-level analysis reflects is how organizations with more power—not simply consumers of news—also look at and respond to this conflict. They too forget (or perhaps never realized) that this ‘local’ problem of warring groups is not just part of a regional wave of power-hungry groups.

This overlooking of some of the root causes of this seven-year conflict allows the War on Terror® to remain profitable.

Thomas Sankara; and Burkina Faso’s Continual Struggle Against Colonialism

Fall is also a great admirer of Thomas Sankara, who was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, until he was murdered. I’m going to just acknowledge right off the bat that while we celebrate many of Sankara’s policies and long for leaders like him—who have a backbone and want to lift up their own people—he was not a Muslim, and some of his policies thus reflected this fact.

Like with a lot of left-leaning anti-colonialists, we may agree with them on many concerns, but ultimately it is inevitable that religion will divide us in the end. With that being said, there’s still quite a bit that can be admired with regard to Sankara’s policies.

This may have happened over thirty years ago, but the weight of his life and death are still felt by many Burkinabé. Furthermore, Sankara demonstrates to us very clearly what so many countries are up against when they try to live how they want, rather than how the superpowers and their satellites dictate.

Sankara was one of the anti-colonial leaders in Africa who worked towards separating their countries from their colonial handlers and forging truly independent paths. In opposition to foreign aid, Sankara famously said:

“He who feeds you controls you.”

Here’s some insight into his political approach:

“Sankara declared war on corruption and embraced personal austerity, paying himself a salary of $450 a month, slashing the wages of his top officials and forbidding the use of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants. He refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings…”

RELATED: Muslims Fighting Colonialism 101 Years Ago: The Mappila Rebellion in Kerala, India

Historian Brian Peterson, who wrote a book on Sankara, argues that it was these policies of Sankara that led to his overthrowing and assassination. In an interview, Peterson stressed upon the key role that France’s disapproval of Sankara played in his assassination:

Q: “You describe the repeated efforts by French officials to persuade Sankara to sign with the economic programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. How did Sankara perceive and attempt to handle his country’s relationship with France?”

A: “Yes, definitely, and it’s quite a yarn to unravel. I think that Sankara had a complicated, even ambivalent, relationship with France. At different points in this history, France did try to work with Sankara, and even tolerated quite a bit of revolutionary rhetoric targeting France. But Sankara expected to be treated as an equal, a peer head of state of a fully sovereign country. He refused to accept his country being a vassal in a neocolonial relationship of domination.

However, there were risks involved on this path — opposing debt repayment, criticizing foreign aid, publicly attacking France, and so forth. As I see it, Sankara knew that he couldn’t break with France completely, and the CNR [the National Council for the Revolution] was still depending on foreign aid, especially from France. A transition to greater autarky would take time, and in four short years, this wasn’t possible.

My research shows that it was Sankara’s reluctance to accept an IMF agreement in 1987 that led to many economic problems and loss of political support within the CNR. Moreover, from the moment Sankara emerged as a political force in 1983, France had been trying to remove him from power. France finally succeeded in October 1987, when an array of French economic pressures, intelligence operations, diplomatic maneuvers, and disinformation campaigns in the French press paved the way for his overthrow.”

It is not uncommon for westerners to view conflicts in African nations as proof of their dysfunction; as evidence of their failure to adopt the democratic ways of their colonizers. Laugh if you will, but what I write here is based on my own personal observations and things I’ve heard with my own two ears.

This viewpoint must be challenged, not only to set the record straight but also in standing up for our brothers and sisters, some of whom as we’ve learned are currently subsisting on leaves. Along with rampant corruption at the very top, their struggle is in many ways a continual one against the scars left by colonial rule as well as the continual efforts of Western nations to keep them under the boot, in subservience. The War on Terror® aids in that effort.

Who knows, when explained well and carefully, perhaps it could also open up the doors to having conversations regarding why liberalism allows for this manner of exploitation and how an Islamic system would be superior (especially taking into consideration how a significant number of Muslims live within this area).

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JazakiAllah khyer. Very insightful.

Mohammad Talha Ansari

Colonialism did not end.