While the security and humanitarian situation in the Sahel region continues to deteriorate, this deterioration is particularly rapid and acute in Burkina Faso, a country that has long been considered an island of stability in a region in crisis. Humanitarian workers are having to cope with the effects of a formidable spiral.
In February 2020, in a report entitled ‘Breaking out of the spiral of violence’, the International Crisis Group stated that Burkina Faso had become the Sahelian country most targeted by recurrent jihadist attacks in 2019. It had fallen prey to them since 2015. Since then, the situation has only deteriorated, leading to a humanitarian crisis, displacement of populations, and growing frustration among citizens. This frustration crystallised shortly after the deadly ambush on 26 September in the locality of Gaskindé of a convoy (more than 200 trucks escorted by the army) carrying supplies to the town of Djibo, which is under siege (with its nearly 350,000 inhabitants) by armed groups in the north of the country. The toll of the attack was 37 killed (10 civilians and 27 soldiers), 29 wounded, including 21 soldiers, 3 people missing and significant material damage (burnt trucks). In a previous article (Humanitarian innovation put to the test in the field: the example of the Orisa water purifier), I mentioned the situation in the town of Djibo, which has been under siege by armed groups since the beginning of 2022. The conditions in this locality, where everything is lacking, have worsened. A few days after the ambush in Gaskindé, the hashtags “#PontAerienPourdjibo” (#AerialBridgeForDjibo) and “#AgirPourDjibo (#ActforDjibo), #BurkinaFaso” were launched within Burkinabé civil society. The Burkinabe army then managed to heli-lift more than 70 tonnes of food aid to the town (a derisory volume compared to the needs). The crystallisation of frustration in the country on this occasion was one of the elements, as Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba acknowledged afterwards, of the coup de force that led a group of officers led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré to dismiss him. Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba had himself, it should be recalled, ousted from power, in the name of the inadequacy of the fight against armed groups in the country, the president of the republic Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, last January. Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who took part in the first coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba, was formally inaugurated as President of Burkina Faso on 21 October. His term of office normally ends in July 2024, when elections are due to be held. The case of Djibo is not isolated, as 11 towns are currently under blockade, and almost 40% of the national territory is out of state control. The armed groups have put in place a real strategy of “suffocating the population”. Moreover, armed violence has caused more than 3,350 deaths since the beginning of the year, according to the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
The seizure of power by the group of officers led by Captain Traoré was accompanied by demonstrations calling both for the liberation of the country from foreign influence, symbolised by partnerships – particularly defence partnerships – with France, and for alliances with new partners, such as Russia, whose flags were seen among the protesters. Sustained activity on social networks seems to have fuelled this feeling. It should be noted that the French embassy was attacked by these demonstrators during the recent events.
Burkina Faso has a population of just over 20 million (of which nearly 10% are currently internally displaced), with an estimated poverty rate of 40.1%, and ranks 182nd out of 189 countries on the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index. In this vulnerable area, the combination of a deteriorating security situation weakening institutions and forcing people to move, a deterioration in political stability; a deterioration in the climate (drought) due to global change, which is accelerating and reducing food resources; a deterioration in the population’s access to basic services and the withdrawal of state agents (closure of health centres and schools, etc.); a deterioration in the global economic situation, particularly in Africa and the Sahel, limiting access to food resources on the international or national market, and finally a gradual deterioration in humanitarian access. ); a deterioration in the global economic situation, particularly in Africa and the Sahel, limiting access to food resources on the international or national market; and finally a gradual deterioration in humanitarian access to populations in distress, as well as in the perception of these humanitarian organisations – depending on the country from which they come – by the population, can only lead to a spiral that is as fearsome as it is dangerous.
One of the characteristics of this type of situation is the disappearance of any predictability, and therefore the extreme difficulty of anticipating and programming. As Jean-Hervé Jezequel, Sahel Project Director at the International Crisis Group, puts it: “Not so long ago, we would have envisaged scenarios for a year; today we do not know what the situation will be in a few months’ time…”. This characteristic affects both the humanitarian situation itself and the response of NGOs.
The humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso is primarily marked by the impact of population displacements due to insecurity. According to the GCORR (Groupe de coordination opérationnelle de réponse rapide), the increase in deadly attacks has caused more people to flee between January and July 2022 (398,471 people) than in the whole of 2021 (335,723 people). These displacements have increased by more than 7,000% since August 2018 (there were 27,571 IDPs at the time, according to the UNHCR). They are now affecting new regions, with movements noted in the Mouhoun loop, the Centre-East and the Hauts-Bassins. Along with Mozambique and Ukraine, this is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world. And this crisis is one of the roots of hunger: “All too often, displacement and hunger constitute a double punishment”, according to Hassane Hamadou, Country Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “People forced to flee are leaving behind their fields and livestock. Many displaced families report that they only eat once a day, so that their children can have two meals. In fact, displaced families in Burkina Faso suffer from food insecurity to a disproportionate extent: 1 in 3 displaced people are food insecure, compared to 13% of the general population. Severe food insecurity affects 12% of the displaced population, compared to 3% of the general population. Philippe Allard, director of Humanité et Inclusion in Burkina Faso, says: “We are now seeing more and more people being forced to leave not their village, but the place where they had previously found refuge… Each new displacement increases their vulnerability and undermines their resources and their mental health.” These repeated displacements particularly affect children: Benoit Delsarte, Country Director of Save the Children, points out that “For children, who make up the majority of the displaced, leaving their homes is traumatic enough, but having to flee repeatedly while their families try to survive deprives them of any chance to rebuild their lives.
A telling example of these “repeated displacement shocks” is the town of Seytenga, near the border with Niger. It was hosting more than 12,000 displaced people when it was attacked on 11 June, killing dozens. In the hours and days that followed, more than 30,000 people left Seytenga for Dori, a town that had already tripled in size since the crisis began…
Repeated displacement, climate change and global inflation are combining for the worse: according to Omer Kabore, Oxfam’s country director in Burkina Faso, “Communities are experiencing an exceptionally difficult lean season due to the food crisis resulting, in part, from last year’s disastrous agricultural season… The effects of climate change, massive displacement and the rising global cost of cereals have created the conditions for a downward spiral that has engulfed more than 3.4 million Burkinabes.
Sudden loss of assets and income, drastic decrease in agricultural production and access to food, water, health, education… Increased risk of epidemics due to massive displacement… Pressure on basic infrastructure… Displaced populations have an immediate need for household items, shelter, food, access to health, water, hygiene and sanitation, protection… and finally durable solutions, while more than 50% of the displaced have been displaced for more than a year now.
In this context of acute crisis, solidarity – which is most often the first humanitarian response to crises – has been the first reflex of Burkinabes: Antoine Sanon, Director of World Vision’s response in Burkina Faso, recalls that “Host communities across the country have shown remarkable solidarity by taking in tens of thousands of displaced people, opening up their homes and sharing their food for months, if not years… The efforts of the international community to provide life-saving assistance must be equal to theirs.
This humanitarian response is indeed trying to be up to the task, with two main difficulties, the lack of funding for emergency aid in Burkina Faso: with four months to go before the end of the year, the amounts have only reached 36% of the annual funding required despite the explosion of needs. Let us remember that these needs are massive: according to the UN, 4.9 million people need aid. In April 2022, according to the OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) / CONASUR (National Council for Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation) count, 1.5 million people had been displaced within the country, including 285,000 in Djibo. In October 2022, according to humanitarian organisations, the number of displaced people is now approaching 2 million. For the first time, the risk of famine has been mentioned.
The second difficulty that the humanitarian response must face is the need to adapt to an unpredictable, volatile and difficult context in terms of security and access (which is inexorably shrinking and becoming more militarised), and where solutions implemented elsewhere cannot be implemented here. This adaptability is illustrated by the testimony of Philippe Dianou, head of food security and livelihoods activities at SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL in Burkina Faso: “In a blockade situation, food distributions are difficult to carry out; we therefore distribute money so that people can obtain the few resources available on the local markets”. He adds: “In Djibo, our teams have also distributed ‘discreet’ water filters, limiting the risk of vandalisation” (vandalisation by armed groups: see my previous article Humanitarian innovation tested in the field: the example of the Orisa water purifier).
In conclusion, humanitarian action in Burkina Faso is faced with a formidable spiral which poses a triple challenge, both in practice and in principle: how to overcome the impasse of access by delivering aid in blockaded areas, and, in so doing, how not to acquiesce in the deliberate creation of humanitarian needs by these same blockades? All this while risking the hostility of the parties in conflict, and possibly, because of the country of origin of such and such an NGO, of part of the population… The response to these challenges is, as is often the case, every day, by moving forward, as much as possible…
Writer and humanitarian
Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian work and volunteered in Rwanda, which was devastated by genocide. In early 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn apart by civil war. There he took on the responsibilities of programme coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.
When he returned to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had been on mission. He will be in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write… In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he commits himself totally to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation as a writer.
Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He has been in the field in North-East Syria, in the Calais “jungle” in November 2015, and in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016.
Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy:
January 2006: publication of his first novel “Barnum” by Calmann-Lévy, a story born from his humanitarian experience.
September 2008: publication of his second novel, “JAB”, the story of a little Spanish orphan girl who grew up in Morocco and becomes a professional boxer as an adult.
March 2014: release of her third novel “Fenicia”, inspired by the life of her mother, a little Spanish orphan during the civil war, refugee in France, later an anarchist activist, seductress, who died in a psychiatric institute at the age of 31.
End of August 2017: release of his fourth novel “Le triangle d’incertitude”, in which the author “returns” again, as in “Barnum” to Rwanda in 1994, to evoke the trauma of a French officer during Operation Turquoise.
In parallel to his work as a writer, Pierre Brunet works as a co-writer of synopses for television series and feature films, in partnership with various production companies. He also collaborates with various magazines by publishing columns or articles, particularly on international news.