Long spared by armed groups active in the Sahel, Burkina Faso is facing increasingly frequent and deadly attacks, particularly in the northern part of the country. While the insecurity is largely the result of an extension of the Malian conflict, the crisis in northern Burkina reveals a social dynamic of its own. The arrival of Fulani herders from the interior Niger delta has led to the eviction of sedentary farmers. It is also necessary to take into account the displacement of the population due to regional conflicts. This leads to the creation of a new social organization. The majority of Fulani groups entered into armed struggle against a central power dominated by the Bambara in Mali and by the Mossi in Burkina Faso. It is in this atmosphere of ethnic tension that the armed group Ansarul Islam is gaining importance in Burkina Faso.
This group was originally a movement to challenge the prevailing social order in the Soum province. Despite a recovery of the situation by the authorities in spring 2017, the crisis is far from over. Burkina and its partners are aware that this crisis requires a comprehensive response, not just a military one, and that its final resolution depends in part on the situation in Mali. This response will have to take into account the social and local dimensions that prevail over the religious and security dimensions of the crisis.
Malam Ibrahim Dicko, whose real name is Boureima Dicko, comes from a family of marabouts and originates from the locality of Soboulé, in the province of Soum in Burkina Faso. He started preaching in 2009 in the surrounding villages. He founded an Islamic association called Al-Irchad and created his own Koranic school in 2012. In his speeches, he advocates equality between the Fulani and the Rimaïbé (descendants of enslaved indigenous populations). The same year, his association was officially recognized by the authorities. He was listened to throughout the province, thanks in particular to his talents as an orator and his contentious speech.
For years, Malam advocated equality between social classes. He challenged the omnipotence of the customary chieftaincies and the monopoly of religious authority held by the maraboutic families, whom he accused of enriching themselves at the expense of the population. This rhetoric has earned him a considerable following, especially among the youth. Although he lost a large number of his followers when he switched to armed struggle, he managed to retain enough to wage a low-intensity war against local and national authorities.
Yet in 2015, Malam is increasingly isolated. He joined the Macina katiba, led by Amadou Koufa and affiliated with Ansar Dine in northern Mali. Northern Burkina Faso was already serving as a rear base for the 40 or so men fighting under his command. At that time, Amadou Kouffa was opposed to an insurrection in Burkina Faso, which he considered premature and likely to disrupt the traffic in gasoline and foodstuffs that supplied his fighters. Malam Dicko initially obeyed his instructions. He was arrested by French forces with about twenty of his students near Tessalit during the Serval operation before being released in mid-2016. Back in Djibo, he changed his tune. Malam has become more radical. Within Al-Irchad, his extremism does not sit well with the majority. The Emir of Djibo disowned him. Only a small circle of followers followed him to Mali to train.
With his most fervent supporters, they decided to leave and create their own group: Ansarul Islam. At the time of the “Séguéré” operation, carried out by the Burkinabe army near the Malian border, Dicko decided to switch to armed insurrection. A month later, Ibrahim Dicko published a communiqué in which he claimed responsibility for the Nassoumbou attack against the Burkinabe army and gave himself the title of “commander of the believers” and “guide of Ansarul Islam. His goal is clear: to push back the state in the north in favor of the rebirth of the Fulani kingdom of Macina, founded in the early 18th century by Sékou Amadou, an illustrious marabout.
It is true that Mali serves as a rear base for Ansarul Islam, but the insecurity in northern Burkina Faso is not only the result of a development deficit, it is above all the result of a deep crisis. It is on these very local fractures that Malam is building his popularity. So much so that Ansarul Islam is first a revolt movement, the voice of the “Fulani slaves”, the Rimaïbés, before becoming a movement to challenge the social order of the populations of the north, who hold neither political power nor religious authority.
Unlike the attitude of some jihadist movements, Ansarul Islam did not seek control of a part of Burkina Faso. Rather, it has succeeded in tipping the entire province into widespread violence by using a rhetoric based on the struggle against social inequality, injustice, and the misgovernance of the political elite. It is because he attacks mainly the security forces, civilian representatives of the state, and its symbols that his discourse has gained some resonance among the populations of these areas.
In Burkina Faso, the absence of the state is most noticeable in rural areas. Criminal groups have therefore focused on these regions. But they do not settle in the areas they have conquered. They have adopted a remote style of governance.
It is also in rural areas that people have a negative view of the state and central power. Here, it is the abuses, abuses and legal impunity of the forces of law and order against citizens that are the causes of the rise in violence. It is therefore easy for extremist groups to present themselves as a virtuous alternative by raging against the immorality of the ruling elites. The evidence is clear: on the one hand, the absence of the state provides an ideal stage for terrorist groups; on the other hand, its presence in certain affected localities facilitates the establishment of extremist groups and helps to sway the populations of these areas in their favor.
Ansarul Islam is not the only group to be violent in northern Burkina Faso. Since 2016, the country has been threatened by terrorist groups from Mali who have found the Sahel region of Burkina Faso a fertile ground to grow. While these terrorist groups still use Mali as a rear base, they rely overwhelmingly on local citizens of Burkina Faso. At the beginning of their incursions, they had the same goals as Ansarul Islam. Indeed, Malam shared the same progressive vision as Malian preacher Hamadou Koufa, founder of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), an Ansar Dine affiliate. However, the two men quickly fell out of favor. Malam disapproved of Koufa’s decision to join the JNIM, whose birth was announced on March 1. Chaired by Iyad Ag Ghali, founder of Ansar Dine, it brings together the big shots in West African terrorism, from AQIM to Al-Mourabitoune.
In this part of Burkina, the JNIM’s modus operandi includes kidnappings, attacks on state symbols and the planting of improvised explosive devices. It is around this organization that other small groups of traffickers and criminals operate and control the grey economy. Evolving on the same terrain, they later became radicalized as they saw the evidence of collaborative interest.
In June 2017, a post on an Ansarul Islam Facebook page asserted that Jafar Dicko, who is Malam’s younger brother, was taking over as leader of the movement confirming his death. Yet jihadist violence in the Sahel of West Africa has spread to northern Burkina Faso. It is still too early to assess the long-term effectiveness of the response on the ground. But already, the expected lull due to the rainy season has not occurred. Several new deadly attacks took place in northern Burkina in July, August and September. The weakening of this armed group will not be enough to resolve the security and social crisis in northern Burkina. It will continue as long as the root causes that allowed it to develop exist, with the possibility of the crisis spreading to other provinces.
Its final resolution will depend in part on the stabilization of Mali and the implementation of effective development plans by the government and its partners. But it will also and above all come from the creation of new social balances and a settlement by the local populations of their current divisions.