Alexandra Lamarche and Arden Bentley
Burkina Faso is now the epicenter of the Central Sahel’s rapidly deteriorating displacement and humanitarian crises. Clashes between armed groups—many with affiliations to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda—and national security forces and attacks on civilians by all warring parties continue to cause widespread displacement and massive humanitarian need.
Since 2018, violent clashes have internally displaced more than 1.8 million people—a 62 percent increase in the last year alone. Out of Burkina Faso’s 20 million citizens, one in five Burkinabès requires emergency assistance. At present, more than 2.8 million people are food insecure, and this number is expected to rise significantly over the coming months as the country braces for a longer dry season. Yet the country’s humanitarian crisis gets little international attention.
Armed non-state actors, national forces, and pro-government volunteer fighters have been repeatedly accused of committing atrocities against civilian populations—including murder, rape, torture, and violent persecution based on ethnic and religious grounds (primarily targeting the country’s Fulani Muslim minority).
In January 2022, dissatisfaction with the government’s inability to quell the threat of armed groups led a group of mutinous soldiers to overthrow President Roch Kaboré. A few weeks later, coup leader Lieutenant-colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was inaugurated as the transitional president. He announced that the military transition would last until March 2025 and then formed a new government.
The international community has largely condemned the coup d’état. However, most citizens appear to have either celebrated the change in leadership or resigned themselves to accept it. The coup marked a major step back for Burkina’s already troubled democratic and governance institutions. Furthermore, the military’s history of human rights abuse against ordinary citizens raises serious concerns about what the coup could mean for the protection of civilians in the next phase of the country’s conflict. The coup should be condemned, and efforts made to move toward governance that better reflects the will of its citizens and provides them with adequate protection.
However, in the immediate term, the change in leadership may provide some opportunities to address the humanitarian crisis. There has been cautious optimism about the transitional president’s expressed commitment to addressing the crisis and the appointment of the new Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Lazare Windlassida Zoungrana. The latter is a former head of the Burkinabè Red Cross and is known for being a staunch supporter of humanitarian action.
Immediate international diplomatic and donor engagement is needed to mitigate the consequences of the worsening crisis and to push the new government to better protect and provide for Burkinabè civilians. A useful metric of success will be the government’s compliance with the terms of the African Union’s Kampala Convention—the continent-wide convention on state obligations to uphold the rights of internally displaced people (IDPs). Burkina Faso ratified the convention but has yet to implement its terms.
Unfortunately, donor engagement has failed to keep up with humanitarian challenges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely exacerbate the shortfall of donor funding and food insecurity across the Sahel. One major concern is the risk that financial support will be diverted from ongoing crises like Burkina Faso to the Ukrainian crisis. In addition, more than a third of Burkina Faso’s grains are imported from Russia and Ukraine, and many analysts expect a global shortage and a sharp increase in the basic price of grains. Faced with this reality, aid organizations must be prepared to improve the effectiveness of their work by better researching, planning, and coordinating their efforts.
To head off the worst, the transitional government and donors must support and bolster the work of United Nations humanitarian agencies, as well as national and international non-government organizations (NGOs) to avoid unnecessary and dangerous gaps in the humanitarian response.
The transitional government of Burkina Faso must:
End violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. National authorities must denounce abuses and transparently investigate allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by members of its military and police force and the state-assisted volunteer fighters.
Cease targeted attacks on the country’s Fulani community by national security forces. Years of government neglect of this minority group have left them vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups that prey on their grievances. Government forces have indiscriminately attacked Fulani civilian communities—wrongfully painting all Fulani as extremists. The attacks on these communities must cease.
Fulfil its obligations under the African Union’s Kampala Convention. Burkina Faso has failed to live up to the principles and commitments of the convention—the continent’s main legal framework for the protection of IDPs—despite ratifying the Convention. The new Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Lazare Windlassida Zoungrana, should be tasked with implementing the terms of the Kampala Convention. To this end, Burkina Faso must guarantee unrestricted humanitarian access and allow aid groups to adhere to humanitarian principles. The transitional government must also acknowledge and assist displaced people in Ouagadougou, allow IDPs to receive aid before being registered, and ensure that military operations do not unnecessarily fuel displacement.
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations must:
Engage and pressure the authorities to improve the protection of and provision of basic services to Burkinabè citizens and guarantee humanitarian access to those in need.
Collect more detailed information on the push and pull factors of displacement. This information helps humanitarian actors to understand the reasons for displacement, project trends, and plan programming. This information could be collected using existing data collection and dissemination platforms such as the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM).
Ensure that cluster leads and co-leads increase their analysis of the humanitarian situation. More in-depth evaluations of needs, trends, and critical gaps by sector of the response will help relief groups to coordinate within the cluster to allow better coverage of needs and decrease programmatic overlaps.
Conduct frequent intention surveys of displaced communities. Collecting and sharing this data will allow organizations to understand if IDPs hope to return to their areas of origin, security permitting, or if they prefer local integration or relocation as long-term solutions to their displacement.
Donor governments must:
Increase, or at a minimum, maintain current overall funding levels for aid. Despite global competition for funding, donors must not disengage as the humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso continues to deteriorate.
Act quickly to provide funding for food assistance. With food security rapidly deteriorating in the coming weeks and months, donors must act quickly to provide the resources needed for aid groups to mitigate the consequences of national food shortages.
Support the localization of the response. Engaging in dialogue with national NGOs, donors, and international aid agencies can help local groups learn more about donor standards so that they can play a more active role in the response. International partners should then support their capacity-building efforts to meet these standards.
A Refugees International team traveled to Burkina Faso from February to March 2022 to assess the impact of the country’s recent coup d’état on the deteriorating humanitarian crisis and the effectiveness of the aid response. Team members conducted interviews with representatives of UN aid agencies, foreign embassies, and local and international non-governmental organizations.