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Why Burkina Faso matters to US counterterrorism efforts in Africa

Burkina Faso has been a key mediator of regional conflicts and a Western partner in fighting terrorism. President Blaise Compaoré was ousted last Friday, and a military junta has assumed power, raising objections from the African Union.

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Burkina Faso Lt. Col. Issac Yacouba Zida pauses as he makes an announcement to the media in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso Nov. 1, 2014. Burkina Faso's former president fled to neighboring Ivory Coast with his family after violent protests drove him from power after 27 years in office.

AP Photo/Theo Renaut

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For decades Burkina Faso had avoided the messy coups, civil wars, and terrorist insurgencies that besieged many of its West African neighbors. At the same time, former President Blaise Compaoré — who resigned last Friday after 27 years in power — quietly positioned the country as a key mediator of regional conflicts and, more recently, as a US and European counterterrorism partner. 

Late last week, protestors stormed the Parliament in Ouagadougou and set it ablaze in an effort to halt legislation that would have extended Mr. Compaoré's rule. Its new military rulers have promised to restore civilian control. And, while Ouagadougou is hardly a household name, Mr. Compaoré's dramatic fall from power has gotten the world's attention. 

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“It may be surprising, but a country like Burkina Faso is on everyone’s plate,” says David Zounmenou, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. “It’s important diplomatically for a huge number of countries.”

The central point of US military interest in Burkina Faso, an impoverished nation of 17 million, lies in a small base attached to Ouagadougou’s international airport. There, as part of a Pentagon operation codenamed Creek Sand, small manned spy planes carry out surveillance missions across the sandy expanses of northern Mali and Mauritania. Their targets are fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Islamist militant network based in Algeria known for several high-profile kidnappings of Westerners.

The US operation in Burkina Faso grew in strategic importance after a 2012 coup in neighboring Mali made the country a literal frontline in blocking the advance of jihadist militants. A 2013 counter-terrorism report from the State Department lauded Burkina Faso as “a strong U.S. security and defense partner in the region,” which “aggressively undertook measures to combat the regional danger posed by terrorist organizations.”

The Ouagadougou base — established in 2009 — anchors a growing US spying network in west and central Africa. This includes a major drone base in neighboring Niger (with a second currently in the works), periodic spy flights from Mauritania, and a temporary operation set up in Chad to search for nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by militants in northern Nigeria earlier this year, according to a series of reports by the Washington Post.

“Just look at Burkina Faso’s strategic position geographically — between al-Qaeda linked groups operating in countries to its north and Boko Haram operating in northern Nigeria,” says Maja Bovcon, a senior West Africa analyst with the UK-based consulting firm Maplecroft. “It wants to protect its territory from these extremist groups, and countries like the US want to use it as a base to fight those same groups, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Mediator vs. provocateur

It's unclear what Compaoré’s departure means for such cooperation, given his long tenure at the top, says Mr. Zounmenou. Indeed, Compaoré’s shrewd charm at the negotiating table internationally and his suppression of political dissent at home yielded a stable country lauded by Western allies. 

“Like in so many countries in Africa, the powers or the factors that should limit and balance out the power of the executive have not historically been very strong in Burkina Faso,” says Corinne Dufka, associate director for West Africa at Human Rights Watch.

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Over his decades in power, Compaoré played a hand in several high-profile conflicts in the region, alternating between mediator and provocateur. During the 1990s, he funneled arms and aid to rebels in the civil wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia. But in 2010, the UN Security Council lauded his role in mediating the peace process in Cote d’Ivoire, although it later emerged he had previously smuggled arms to rebel leader Laurent Gbagbo. 

As of Monday afternoon, Compaoré was in Cote d’Ivoire again, this time as an exile, and Lt. Col. Isaac Zida was interim head of state. Protesters have continued to gather and to demand that the Army immediately relinquishes power. 

“Will the next administration be able to cooperate internationally at the same level [as Compaoré]? That’s the question for me,” Zounmenou says. “That will be very dependent on the negotiations that will take place and how the next government is formed.”