Two million people depend on humanitarian aid; over half a million are refugees. Attacks and assaults, people injured and dead, a third of the country is not under state control. Life in Burkina Faso has become more dangerous. Yet we’re staying put.
Burkina Faso means “land of the honourable people”. It’s the name that was chosen by former revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara in 1984. Before that, the country had been baptised Upper Volta by the French colonial rulers. Sankara broke with the colonial past and wanted to lead his nation to a brighter future. To this day, he is revered for this.
Unfortunately the Burkinabes continue to live in one of the poorest countries in the world. When looking at the headlines from the past months and years, it’s clear that it’s getting more and more dangerous.
Since early 2015, at least 700 people have died from violent conflicts and attacks in Burkina Faso according to estimates by the French press agency AFP. The UN puts the number of internally displaced persons at 560,000 i.e. people that fled within the country. From violence and terror as well as a lack of opportunities, notably in terms of income.
More than 100 health centres are closed, no longer receiving any medical aid or have been attacked. More than 300,000 children can’t go to school because more than 2000 schools are closed. According to the UN refugee relief organisation UNHCR, 2.2 million people are urgently relying on humanitarian aid.
Since November 18th 2019, the French Foreign Ministry has officially advised against any travelling to or within Burkina Faso. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs recently issued similar warning.
In addition to its travel warning, the French Ministry published a new map separating the country into zones of varying degrees of danger. The map previously had three zones, but is now left with only two: "Not recommended for travel" and "Not recommended for travel, unless there is an urgent reason".
However, the map paints an incorrect picture according to Ousseni Porgo. Ousseni is Burkinabe and leads the agronomy and purchasing department at gebana Burkina Faso. "If one were to believe this map, the whole country is in flames," he says. This simply isn’t the case. "We live here, we work, planes take off and land every day. We have a functional everyday life."
The many deaths and refugees are still facts that must be discussed, adds Ousseni. The north-eastern part of the country is indeed particularly dangerous. And even in the west where things aren’t so bad, when Ousseni sets out from Bobo-Dioulasso to meet with the farming families in the west, he calls in advance to ask about the current situation and ensure the streets are safe.
There are many hidden layers to the current situation in Burkina Faso. Jihadism and old power structures from the Compaoré regime play a role. Yet the instrumentalisation of many different ethnicities in the country and the prejudices against minorities are increasingly a part of the problem, according to Linda Dörig
Linda is part of gebana’s development team and is frequently in Burkina Faso herself. She lived there many years. She regularly speaks with Burkinabes and has long-time friends in the country.
The brother of Linda’s friend is a ranger of sorts, tasked with protecting the forests in the east of the country. Since August, he’s been sitting at home. He has no equipment to defend himself, and terrorists would be hiding in the forests, he told Linda when she was in Burkina Faso in October 2019. Since the beginning of the year, he is once again in the East. But he still can’t really work. He left his wife and daughter in Bobo-Dioulasso to keep them safe.
The eastern part of the country is also dangerous due to a lucrative source of income for terrorists: gold. Since the discovery of a new gold mine in 2012, the Sahelian zone is in a downright gold frenzy. This is especially true in Burkina Faso, where Canadian mining company SEMAFO opened a new mine in Boungou between 2017 and 2018.
When buses transporting mine workers were attacked in November 2019, at least 39 people were killed and 60 others were injured. There is no certainty as to who was behind the attack. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, armed groups have been deliberately bringing gold mines in the Sahara under their control since 2016. Some of these groups are Islamists. With the gold, they are able to finance their weapons and recruit their followers.
Linda believes that a big role is played by prejudice and false information, which are widespread both on social media and in real life. They lead to tensions and ethnic slurs such as the Peul. Whenever something illegal happens or someone looks suspicious, then it was the Peul. They are the ones responsible. They are dangerous.
In reality, the Peul people only account for 5% of the country’s population. They roam the country as cattle-raising nomads. Of course, their way of life holds potential for conflict. They are also under threat from foreign attackers, since the Peul also live in neighbouring countries. According to one of Linda’s acquaintances, the Peul are a strong and courageous people. They are used to wandering on their own in the wilderness. They often live in precarious conditions, which make them more easily recruited by criminal leaders. But it would be wrong to call them all terrorists and criminals for this reason.
No matter who is guilty, young men are starting to arm themselves in the villages on the countryside. They form militias to protect their villages and receive encouragement from their communities.
Yet due to the tensions in the air, there is great danger that such village militias all too quickly come into conflict with one another, says Linda. When there are ethnic differences among villages, this can create a vicious cycle. This is not a rare occurrence in a country with 30 to 60 different ethnicities.
Investing in education and work places could dial down the situation, since poverty leads people into the arms of criminal groups. But development organisations and companies are already pulling out. Committed funds don’t flow in, business trips get cancelled. The country is thought to be simply too dangerous.
Even the State cannot chisel the investments. That’s also what Linda’s taxi driver Pascal in Ouagadoudou says: "We live in a poor country. We need foreign investors to propel development. These terrorists are setting us back in terms of development, because the investors are staying away. At the end of last year, I was supposed to work with foreign businesspeople for three months – but they never came. For them, it was too dangerous to work here. And that’s how we lose urgently needed income."
"All the people who leave their villages – they leave everything behind and come to the capital with their empty hands. Some find shelter with their family, but there’s often not much there either. On the streets of Ouagadoudou I see many more beggars and poor people on the sidewalk. But we ourselves don’t have anything to help them."
We’re in Burkina Faso, we’re staying there and we’re investing. For example, we’re currently planning a factory for 2000 workers who live in an area where, for safety reasons, it is not recommended to travel there.
But even we have to take precautions to protect ourselves and our workers. Our agricultural consultants, who travel to meet with these families, train them, advise them and pay them, don’t wear any gebana-branded clothes, for example. Same goes for their vehicle.
One really big problem is how to pay the farming families. Quite a few families insist on getting cash for cashews and mangos. Whoever travels the country with a lot of cash likes to live dangerously.
The good news is: we can pay more and more families by mobile phone. Phone payments have been common in African countries for many years already compared to western countries. The reason is that this method of payment does not require a bank account. Transfers are completed in a few minutes or hours.
But some villages are so remote that there is no mobile network reception. Or the next pay kiosk, where they could exchange the money on the mobile phone into cash, is 20 or 30 kilometres away. Still, we continue to work with families from these villages.
Perhaps the situation in the country will improve. Ousseni Porgo is optimistic. He says things are slowly getting better. The population is opposing the terrorists instead of falling prey to their promise of money and prosperity, and the military is learning how to better tackle the aggressors.
We’re staying on it.
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