(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Is Ivory Coast attack the new normal?

    The attacks that killed 16 people yesterday at a beach resort in Cote d’Ivoire were shocking and brutal, but not entirely unexpected.

    Security experts had been warning that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was a growing threat outside its traditional stronghold in northern Mali. The group, and its affiliate al-Mourabitoun, claimed responsibility for attacks that killed 30 people in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in January, and 21 people in the Malian capital, Bamako, in November.

    In a comprehensive briefing last month, IRIN found the two attacks likely to be the beginning of a trend that would continue in 2016.

    See: Briefing: The new jihadist strategy in the Sahel  

    Authorities in Cote d’Ivoire were well aware of the threat and had prevented several attacks recently, said William Assanvo of the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank. But there’s only so much they can do to prevent attacks that do not require sophisticated planning and are relatively easy to carry out.

    “You can’t have security personnel everywhere at every time,” he said on the phone from the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

    In a statement posted to social media in Arabic, Spanish, French and English, AQIM said three of its members “were able to storm the tourist resort” in Grand Bassam in south-eastern Cote d’Ivoire, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups.

    The Ivorian government said six gunmen killed 14 civilians and two soldiers at the popular resort area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 40 km east of Abidjan, the country’s largest city and commercial capital. The United States and France have offered to help with the investigation.

    The best bet to prevent future attacks is better intelligence gathering, Assanvo said. But he warned that such attacks are likely to reoccur in the region as AQIM aims to expand its influence outside of northern Mali.

    “Now the threat is permanent,” he said.

    Here are some key take-aways from IRIN’s in-depth look at the recent spread of AQIM and its affiliates in West Africa:

    • Militant groups are working together. The Burkina Faso attack was carried out by a group called al-Mourabitoun, which had pledged allegiance to AQIM.
    • AQIM has changed tactics from attempting to hold territory in Mali to flexing its muscles regionally and attacking countries collaborating with the West, particularly the US and France, which have military operations in West Africa. Ivory Coast is a strong ally of France and home to a logistical base for French forces.
    • AQIM has its roots in an insurrection against the French-backed military of Algeria, which annulled the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992. Militants later took shelter in northern Mali, where the government had little control.
    • In addition to using an extreme interpretation of Islam to motivate its recruits, AQIM taps into discontent amongst poor, local communities resentful of rich and corrupt political leaders, and distrustful of Western countries.
    • Leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso have formed the G5, a regional organisation to strengthen cooperation on development and security in the Sahel. But they have been criticized for prioritizing border security over the provision of social services, the lack of which is thought to fuel militancy.


    Is Ivory Coast attack the new normal?
  • Briefing: The new Jihadist strategy in the Sahel

    Security has been intense over the last few weeks in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, with police and soldiers on the streets, vehicle searches, and round-ups of alleged Islamist militants.

    It’s the response to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attack in Burkina Faso on 15 January that left 30 people dead. Until the assault on the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel, next door on Ouagadougou’s trendy Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, Burkina Faso, like Senegal, felt safe from the jihadist violence that has destabilised other countries in the region.

    “We thought we were not really concerned by terrorism, that we were shielded by our armed forces and our diplomacy,” Ousmane Ouedraogo told IRIN outside his cellphone shop on Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. “But now we know we are vulnerable.”

    That vulnerability stems from the political instability in Burkina Faso following the youth-led toppling of Blaise Campaore after nearly three decades in power. 

    But there is a more fundamental fragility that has its roots in the legitimacy and authority of governments across the Sahel region, which AQIM, AQIM-linked groups, and, more recently, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) are seeking to exploit.

    The Burkina Faso attack was carried out by the militant group al-Mourabitoun, which had recently pledged allegiance to AQIM. The targets were popular with Western aid workers, businessmen, and soldiers serving with Operation Barkhane, France’s regional counter-insurgency mission.

    The raid put together a team of young men based in Mali (AQIM named three but there are suggestions three escaped); at least one of the identified men seems to have been Fulani – a pastoralist ethnic group that spans West Africa; and their cars had Niger license plates. It was, then, a fine example of regional militant integration. 

    It followed an earlier al-Mourabitoun attack in November that killed 21 people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako.

    It’s a fairly safe prediction that these two events are the beginning of a trend that will continue in 2016.

    “Three years ago, AQIM’s plan was to hold territory in northern Mali. That has changed,” Jean-Hervé Jezequel, the senior Sahel analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN. “The new strategy is that instead of managing territory, they want to show they can impact a much larger area by attacking the capitals of countries collaborating with Western forces.”

    Why should Senegal worry?

    The heightened security in Dakar is a recognition of how tempting a target it is. It’s the regional base of scores of international organisations. Senegal is a pro-Western partner, especially of France and the United States, and Dakar has provided troops to the French-backed African Union military intervention in Mali. More than 500 people have been picked up in the current crackdown.

    There is ample evidence of Senegalese recruitment to various jihadist causes. Senegalese are among IS forces in Libya; a small group of Wolof speakers (an almost exclusively Senegalese language) were believed to have fought alongside Islamist militants in northern Mali; men speaking Wolof were among the kidnappers of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler in Niger in 2008; young militants from the large Senegalese diaspora are believed to be with IS in Syria; and there have been periodic arrests of individuals, most recently four activists detained for alleged ties to Nigeria’s IS-linked Boko Haram

    But Senegal is also a traditionally tolerant and democratic society. Although 90-percent Muslim, for the first 20 years of independence it was ruled by a still well-regarded Catholic president, Léopold Senghor. Four popular and powerful Sufi brotherhoods dominate religious practice. The brotherhoods have been described as the gatekeepers between the people and the state, conferring legitimacy on the latter.

    Salafism, a more conservative literal interpretation of Islam, is growing in popularity – backed by Gulf state money. But Salafism does not equal jihadism and there have been no clashes with the state. The bulk of the 500 arrests made so far are likely to have been of people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, explained one Dakar-based analyst, who asked not to be named. 

    “Although there is certainly a credible terrorist threat to Senegal from AQIM and related groups, the recent crackdown seems to be far in exaggeration of what would constitute even reasonable suspicion,” Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told IRIN.

    Roots of radicalism

    AQIM’s lineage extends back to Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and further still to the brutal insurrection of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which took up arms after Algeria’s French-backed military annulled the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992. GSPC militants looking for a safe base began crossing into remote northern Mali in 2003. Among the pioneers was the one-eyed Mokhtar Balmokhtar, who built the foundations of the “Sahara Emirate”

    By 2006 he had aligned with AQIM and was attracting followers from across the West African region. In an example of the fluidity of the armed groups, he split with his superior in Algeria, formed a new unit the ‘Masked Battalion’, merged with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and then set up al-Mourabitoun, the ‘Signed-in-Blood Battalion’. Other like-minded formations have ranged across the region for years, kidnapping and attacking perceived Western targets in Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

    Mali has been an excellent choice as a militant hideaway. Foreign jihadists established themselves in the communities in which they operated through marriage, kinship connections and largesse. Key to their survival was a tacit agreement with the Malian military and state officials that largely left them alone. In Mali’s dysfunctional political system, the north has historically been marginalised, with what limited central control there was exerted through patronage, proxies and pay-offs. Taking a slice of the region’s lucrative informal economy – from drugs, to migration routes and famously, in the case of Balmokhtar, contraband cigarettes – provided yet more impunity.

    The message

    Beyond Islamic ideology, in a region that often distrusts Western intentions, AQIM and other related movements have framed their message as one of fighting a neo-colonial enemy bent on stealing Africa’s riches. They have also tailored their narratives to fit their local contexts – reflecting some of the concerns of the diverse ethnic groups, Tuaregs, Arabs/Moors and black African Fulani and Songhai. 

    “A lot of this is to do with justice,” said the Dakar-based analyst. “The feeling that the world is not right, the state is oppressive, the global economic system is unfair. Basically, you are living with nothing while ministers have mistresses and big cars. It’s a very populist story of resentment. People can easily connect their personal life stories with a global discourse around the idea of justice and injustice, which at its very core says religion can make it right.”

    Socially complex northern Mali has long been a region of simmering discontent. On-off peace over the years between Bamako and secessionist-minded Tuareg, the government’s manipulation of ethnic-based militia, and a lack of state services have all contributed to the stew. Full-scale rebellion was triggered by the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2012, when some Tuareg that had served in his army returned with their weapons, helping form the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The north splintered as competing groups emerged – some narrowly ethnic, others throwing in their lot with the jihadists.

    French military intervention in 2013 was instrumental in clearing the militants from the cities they controlled. But the north remains volatile, despite an Algerian-brokered peace deal signed in Bamako in June 2015. Unable to impose its authority, the government has resorted to its old policy of using proxy militia. But this has only succeeded in further militarising the region – it does not deliver the governance, accountability and freedom from corruption that can generate stability.

    But, according to an ICG report released in December, a détente has begun to emerge between leaders of the Coalition of Azawad Movements, the main rebel coalition, and those of the Algiers Platform, the pro-government coalition, as a result of negotiations in Anefis. “In the last few months these guys, the businessmen, the warlords and key politicians have come to realise neither side can win. The war is too costly and bad for business,” said ICG’s Jezequel.

    The ceasefire has lasted for five months but remains fragile. There is the “persistent threat posed by radical groups excluded from the peace process”, warned the ICG report, and it urges all sides “to refocus attention on the implementation of the Bamako agreement.” Among the key outstanding goals are the setting up of a transitional authority in the north and a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme. 

    The idea of DDR is that at the end of the process the only people holding guns will be the security forces, and the now easy-to-identify Jihadists. But in reality, ideological affiliation can be fluid, with divided loyalties within individual families. “I’m not convinced that among the local security forces in the north there won’t be connections with radical groups, and that you will be willing to target your cousin or your brother who may be with the jihadists,” said Jezequel. 

    Niger and Mauritania

    Mali’s policy of accommodation of the radicals has infuriated its neighbours, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria. All have suffered attacks at the hands of the jihadists. But in Mauritania, whose Islamic schools and Salafist mosques have turned out a cadre of senior members of AQIM, there is currently stability, although it cannot be taken for granted, Mauritanian specialist Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem told IRIN.

    Among the reasons for the apparent calm are: major reforms of the security sector, with a special focus on anti-terrorism training; a strong intelligence network in northern Mali; and a deradicalisation programme, working with mosques and detainees, with the goal being their reintegration. Excluded from that programme are AQIM members convicted of attacks in Mauritania, said Salem, author of an influential study on the subject.

    There has not been an attack in northern Niger since the 2013 raid on the French-owned Areva urnanium mine in Arlit, 1,000 kilometres from the capital Niamey. Niger is the base of French and US special forces and a drone programme, and its military is seen as capable. But of far greater concern to the authorities, said Jezequel, is the expansion of Nigeria’s Boko Haram violence into the southern Diffa region, which shares the same ethnicity as the people across the border, and the same lack of opportunities that can spur recruitment.

    Regional response

    The Western donor response has been “some 16 different stabilisation strategies”. But the “lack of coordination among the actors involved, and weak ownership at the local level, cast doubt on their overall effectiveness,” noted a report by Clingendal, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “They have been accused of feeding insecurity precisely because of their security-specific focus.”

    In 2014, the leaders of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso formed the G5 – a regional organisation to strengthen cooperation on development and security in the Sahel. The African Union’s Nouakchott Process expands the number of participants in enhanced security cooperation, which includes regular meetings of security chiefs. But the area is vast, the terrain unforgiving, and regional security forces are small. 

    “The emphasis should not be on securing borders,” said Jezequel. “The emphasis should be on providing exactly what’s missing – social services, state services. It’s a huge project, a long-term project, but it’s the central issue.”


    Jihadist groups in the Sahel
  • Africa’s meningitis A vaccine: how partnership replaced ‘Big Pharma’

    Four years after it was first used in a mass vaccination campaign, the MenAfriVac vaccine has achieved an extraordinary outcome; cases of meningitis A have dropped to almost zero in the epidemic belt across Africa.

    But if it hadn’t been for an experimental partnership between the World Health Organization and the not-for-profit health organisation, PATH – working without the involvement of multinational pharmaceutical companies – the vaccine might never even have been developed.

    Outbreak season in the so-called meningitis belt across the Sahel starts annually in late December. Every 10 or 15 years, conditions come together to set off a major epidemic. In 1996-7, there were more than 250,000 reported cases; more than 25,000 people died, and many more were left with permanent disabilities.

    After that epidemic, African governments came together and demanded that something be done. More specifically they wanted an effective, affordable vaccine that could be rolled out across the region.

    The problem: there wasn’t one. The only vaccines available were tailored to the strains common in Europe and North America, not to Meningitis A, which caused the epidemics in West Africa. They were also far too expensive for a mass campaign in the region.

    As ever, the problem was money. Meningitis A affected poor people in the poorest regions of some of the poorest countries in the world.

    For global health specialists, this is a sadly familiar problem. Mogha Kamal-Yanni, senior health advisor at Oxfam, says the situation is typical. “Clearly the current model of research and development is not working,” she told IRIN. “It's a broken model, failing public health. It's not producing what we need, or else it's unaffordable.”

    The unwillingness of pharmaceutical companies to invest in a disease that affects the poor has been widely blamed for the lack of a vaccine against Ebola, which seriously hampered the response to the recent outbreak in West Africa.

    But this time, in response to the appeal from African governments, the WHO and PATH set up the Meningitis Vaccine Project with the objective of getting a vaccine approved and into production. With $70 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to oil the wheels, they began by approaching the big pharmaceutical companies. “That was the accepted approach at that time,” says the project manager, Kathleen Tiffay. “And that was what people expected.”

    Negotiations, however, soon stalled. Two big companies were interested, but finally, after 18 months of negotiations, they said they couldn't bring the price down below $2 a dose; the project's target was 'under 50 cents'. Discussions with another company, which owned technology needed to produce the vaccine, also collapsed, again over pricing. “There was just too big a gap,” says Tiffay.

    That – she told IRIN – was the low point. “We had hoped we could have it set up and ready to go in a year or a year and half. Everything was taking much longer than our estimates.” Finally, those behind the Meningitis Vaccine Project decided to go ahead and do it themselves. “And to be realistic,” says Tiffay, “we weren't any slower than Big Pharma; in fact we were probably faster.”

    They describe what they did as setting up a kind of virtual pharmaceutical company. While the big established companies could have done everything in-house, they had to put together a series of partnerships – to supply the ingredients, license the technology, do the clinical trials and get all necessary approvals, and to manufacture the vaccine. Some partners, like the manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India Ltd (SIIL), were commercial companies. Others were public bodies. The US Food and Drug Administration licensed a conjugation method at negligible cost and supported transfer of the technology to the Indian company. Britain's National Institute for Biological Standards and Control worked on the licensing. The clinical trials were done with national partners at eight study sites across Africa and India.

    The whole essence of this approach is that there is no permanent organisation, but a coalition of public and private partnerships forged afresh for each project, and tailored to its specific needs.

    The final product, MenAfriVac, has proved effective, safe even for infants, thermostable without refrigeration, and is now being produced in India for just 40c a dose. Although, in the end, the big multinational drug companies weren't involved in producing the vaccine, they didn't try to stop it, and the big companies that make up part of the board of the Vaccine Alliance, GAVI, supported the use of GAVI funds to pay for the mass vaccination programme.

    Another similar and even more ambitious project is in the pipeline, again led by PATH and the WHO, using the same Indian manufacturer. The plan is to produce a vaccine that will protect against five different strains of meningitis – A, C, Y, W and X. This time the funder is the British international development agency, DFID. Its Research for Development arm has allocated more than 5.5 million US dollars to develop a vaccine against multiple strains of meningitis and take it as far as Phase I trials. Clinical trials will start in January.

    Marie-Pierre Preziosi of the WHO, one of the directors of the vaccine project told IRIN: “The initial phases were challenging because the landscape was complicated by there being a lot of existing patents. We needed to find unpatented technology for all the different strains.

    “But in the end, if the clinical trials are successful, the product will be very affordable and there will be a high demand from affected countries.”

    So is this the way forward?

    Not so fast, says Tiffay. “The whole way that vaccines and drugs are being currently produced is very dynamic. It's evolved a lot since we began the Meningitis Project and started transferring technology and working with developing countries. But the next time would be different, because the whole field has changed, and each disease and each vaccine is different.”

    Preziozi also says one size won't fit all. “In this case,” she says, “there was a clear call from WHO member states, and an identifiable solution existed, but no product was available. But if you want to go with different types of vaccine where the technology is not available, then you might need to go with a different approach.”

    So can you do without the big companies? “No, no, no. Always there will be a need for Big Pharma to be there,” she says. “Because research and development is very costly.”

    Oxfam's Kamal-Yanni agrees. She says multiple models are needed, and where there is substantial research and development work to be done, the big drug companies will be essential. “The key thing we need to do is to delink the cost of R&D from the cost of the resulting product. So then the issue becomes how to finance the R&D, and that could be by up-front grants, for instance, or by research prizes awarded for progress at each stage of development.”

    (Further reading on the Meningitis Vaccine Project)



    A new approach to vaccine development
  • Burkina Faso: ‘There must be justice’

    There can be no amnesty for any members of Burkina Faso’s elite presidential guard found to be responsible for the deaths of 14 unarmed civilians and the wounding of hundreds more in the days following the 16 September coup. This is the message human rights groups and the Burkinabe people want heard loud and clear now that the country is back on the path of democratic transition.

    For ordinary civilians, the presidential guard, known as the RSP, has long been seen as its own private army, the enemy of the people, stalling progress, committing abuses and protecting the elite.

    Roger Kabore, a mason in Ouagadougou, told IRIN he was so angry he was ready to go into the barracks and “flush the guards out with his own hands.”

    “We’ve had enough with these guys,” he said. “They have harmed this country too many times and now we must try them for all that they did.”

    Kabore also called for former president Blaise Compaore – who set up the RSP but was overthrown in a popular uprising last October after seeking to extend his 27-year term – to face trial as well, so the country could move forward peacefully.

    Shot in the back

    According to recent investigations by Amnesty International, at least six of the 14 latest victims were shot in the back while trying to flee after members of the RSP opened fire on peaceful demonstrations in the capital. Among the dead were two children. 

    Many of those wounded, including a pregnant woman who gave birth to a baby boy with a bullet wound on his buttocks, were hit by stray bullets while hiding out in their homes. 

    “What we saw time and time again was that demonstrators would protest with their arms in the air to show their lack of intent,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for West and Central Africa, explaining that the RSP is then alleged to have chased them down and fired into crowds, pursuing people into populated areas, where bystanders were injured and killed.

    Other victims were simply beaten or whipped. 

    “The patterns of abuse that we saw this time around show clearly they were not doing a legitimate policing function,” Cockburn told IRIN. “They were not trying to use non-lethal means to control the crowd.”

    A history of violence and impunity

    Earlier this year, an Amnesty report detailed how the RSP committed similar atrocities during the demonstrations that led to the ousting of Compaore in 2014.

    “So this is a clear pattern of violation that is extremely important but also not new, and shows us that to prevent abuse to the people themselves, we need to get to the bottom of what happened and hold those responsible accountable,” Cockburn said.

    The transitional government announced in early September that it planned to investigate the alleged shootings of civilians by the RSP last October and November, as well as the 1987 assassination of revolutionary icon and former president Thomas Sankara, whose murder, along with 12 other officials, was part of a coup organised by Compaore.

    But two weeks after the announcement that the RSP would be investigated, the latest coup attempt happened. On 28 September, the transitional authorities created another Commission of Inquiry to bring the leaders of the coup to justice, but they made no mention of the earlier investigations into the RSP members.

    In an initial effort to restore peace and order, and dissolve the RSP once and for all, many of its 1,300 members have since been reintegrated into the national army.

    A necessary compromise? Perhaps. However, if the RSP guards who committed crimes are not held accountable, they could continue to pose a threat to civilians.

    “Burkina Faso has a very significant history for many years of brushing over security forces and allowing impunity to continue to fester,” Cockburn said. “And it’s that lack of impunity and accountability that led security forces to go out into the streets and shoot civilians, because they thought there would not be consequences.” 


    Simon Regtoumda, a security guard for a local NGO in Ouagadougou, agreed. He told IRIN he was happy the RSP had been disbanded but said its former members couldn’t just be let off the hook. 

    “They were a threat to the citizens and to our quest for democracy because it seemed they still wanted to bring back the old and corrupt system,” he said. “Now that they have gone, we hope that there will be justice for those killed during the past 30 years.”

    The RSP is also accused of assassinating investigative journalist Norbert Zongo and three colleagues in 1998, and is alleged to have been involved in the disappearances and deaths of more than 100 others, including civilians and soldiers, according to the Burkina Faso Human Rights and People’s Movement. 

    “The time has come to bring forward all unsolved crimes,” said Halidou Ouedraogo, president of the civilian election monitoring body CODEL. “The RSP may have been dissolved, but their crime cases have not been resolved.” 


    Burkina Faso: ‘There must be justice’
  • Is Burkina Faso’s elite guard still a threat?

    Burkina Faso’s interim government adopted a decree last week dissolving the Presidential Security Regiment, which mounted a short-lived coup two weeks ago. But despite promises to disarm and subsequent interventions by the army, some RSP members still refuse to give up their weapons, leaving many to wonder if the elite force will continue to pose a threat to the transition to democracy.

    Ever since long-term president Blaise Compaoré was ousted after the popular uprising on 30 and 31 October 2014, democracy advocates have wrestled with the troublesome issue of demilitarising politics. The armed forces have maintained almost exclusive control over the political scene since 1966, which is to say 49 of the 55 years since Burkina Faso gained independence in 1960.

    The RSP, which was created in 1995, officially became “a large unit attached to the national army and at the disposition of the president” in July 2000, but is still thought of by most as an “army within the army,” or a body of troops loyal to and recruited by Compaoré. 

    It is therefore unsurprising that the RSP remains a major concern for the stakeholders of transition. Following repeated calls from the general public, the National Reconciliation and Reform Commission (CRNR) submitted its general report to the prime minister on 15 September, officially recommending the RSP’s dissolution. 

    Unfortunately, the actions of members of the RSP – two disruptions of the transition, the constant noise of intervention threats and finally the 16 September coup – have not helped calm people’s fears about the regiment.

    Following the intervention of the regular army to enforce the 25 September dissolution decree, however, one can confidently say that the RSP no longer constitutes a threat to the transition of Burkina Faso. 

    Indeed, absent a dramatic turnaround, the same forces that foiled the coup – the general population, the national army and pressure from the regional and international community – will always be there. 

    The RSP is regarded as a professional and well-trained outfit, but, once disarmament is complete, its members will no longer have the equipment necessary to threaten actions that could sabotage the transitional process once again underway in Burkina Faso.

    Moving forward

    Nonetheless, it remains important to pay attention to a number of factors if the transition and post-transition phases are to proceed without further disruption. 

    Firstly, we must ensure that members of the RSP, except those who need to be held to account for past actions, are reintegrated as quickly as possible into the national army. This will ensure that rather than finding themselves with no prospects, former RSP soldiers will still have a purpose. This will also enable the army to take advantage of the capabilities and competence of this elite corps, which most agree contains some of the highest quality personnel within the security forces. 

    Secondly, after helping to ensure that the RSP has been totally dismantled, we must ensure that the army returns to barracks so the transition to control by civilian government can be completed. This must be done while ensuring that the army has the necessary means to ensure safety throughout the country. It must then help promote the integration of former members of the RSP into the regular army without finger-pointing or score-settling.

    Finally, the people of Burkina Faso need to be listened to. They have already shown their strength and their ability to resist all attempts to challenge the transition, so they will remain a key driver of future events. 

    While this power has proved beneficial, it comes with great responsibility. Both the authorities, and those who wish to help them, must work together in search of solutions to future challenges while respecting the rules. This will include taking any disputes that arise in the lead-up to the upcoming elections before the Court (and not into the street), while remembering always that peace, national cohesion and the consolidation of democracy in Burkina Faso are the only goals worth pursuing. 

    *Mathias Hounkpe is the political governance program manager for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).


    Is Burkina's elite guard still a threat?
  • The rocky road to democracy in Burkina Faso

    A coup, a counter-coup, a stand-off, a missed ultimatum to lay down weapons: the uncertain situation in Burkina Faso is developing quickly and no one knows how it will end.

    After the army marched into the capital of Ouagadougou overnight to demand that the presidential guard disarm, regional mediators are gathering today at an ECOWAS summit in Nigeria to discuss the details of an accord aimed at ending the post-coup crisis and restoring the country to civilian rule.

    It was the elite 1,300-strong presidential guard, known as the RSP, who set off the crisis by overthrowing the interim government last week and kidnapping transitional President Michel Kafando. They were unhappy at a law banning candidates who had supported former president Blaise Compaoré from running in elections to find a new leader slated for next month. Compaoré was overthrown in a popular revolution last October as he tried to amend the constitution to extend his 27 years in power.

    Proposals from Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediators call for the reinstatement of Kafando as well as the continuation of the electoral process and the transition to democratic rule. However, they also include more controversial items such as granting amnesty to those involved in the coup. There is also no offer of compensation to the families of the 13 people killed or more than 100 people injured in the ensuing crackdown.

    “When you look at all the suggestions from this ECOWAS protocol, you feel like they just gave everything to the coup-makers,” Mathias Hounkpe of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) told IRIN. “There are still a few questions that need to be answered clearly and I can understand why people are feeling betrayed.” 

    Boukari Ouedragogo, a trader in the capital Ouagadougou, told IRIN: “I am very angry. How can they give amnesty to the putschists (coup-makers) after they have killed people and thrown our country into disorder? It is not right.”

    General Gilbert Diendéré, the former right-hand man of Compaoré who led the coup and is the self-appointed president of the junta’s National Council of Democracy (CND), said on Monday evening that he plans to step down and return the country to civilian rule. As a gesture of good faith, he released Yacouba Isaac Zida, prime minister of the interim government and former RSP leader, who had been held hostage since the coup.

    It remains unclear, however, which parties will sign what, if anything, at Tuesday’s meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

    “They [these terms] have clearly been proposed by ECOWAS mediation, but the opposition we are seeing from the transitional authorities and from the political parties from the former opposition and from the civil society will make it very, very hard to be implemented and particularly to have amnesty implemented,” said William Assanvo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

    But OSIWA’s Hounkpe said that getting the coup-makers to agree to anything without an amnesty clause would be a challenge.

    “It’s not easy to ask coup leaders to hand over themselves and go to trial,” he said. “So most of the time it is necessary to give them something. But you also need a mechanism to guarantee that they will not come back again. If they just walk away and remain with the same strength, the same equipment and everything, they may just come back after the election, which is a threat to the transition.” 

    Underlying causes

    It appears that the catalyst for the coup may have been the final report by the Commission on National Reconciliation and Reforms calling for the dissolution of the presidential guard.

    “The Commission’s report was both a betrayal and a sign of impending powerlessness,”  said Dorina Bekoe, a faculty member at the Washington DC-based Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.

    See: Unloved but unyielding: Burkina's presidential guard could derail transition

    Bekoe explained that in May the parliament had approved an amendment to the electoral law that prohibited anyone who had actively supported the alteration of the constitution to allow Compaore another term from standing for office. 

    But in July, the ECOWAS Court of Justice announced that the amendment was illegal. Burkina Faso’s constitutional court disagreed and ruled on 9 September that some previously banned candidates were clear to run while others were still not.

    Former members of Compaoré’s regime were not happy. Under the deal being put forward by the ECOWAS-led mediations team, all candidates, even those formerly excluded, would be allowed to run.

    This change is broadly welcomed by observers and others in the country who feel it will help Burkina Faso’s transition, and at no real risk as the voters themselves will still ultimately be able to cast their judgment on the candidates.

    “[There is a] need for an inclusive transition for Burkina Faso, as a sign of what a more democratic country looks like,” Bekoe said. “Members of the former ruling party should have the opportunity to compete in elections. If they should lose their positions by the ballot box, it would be a significant message from their constituents. Similarly, if they were to gain or retain their seats, it may have been done by responding to their constituents – the essence of representative government.”

    Ouagadougou resident Mamadou Congo agreed. “It is not a problem if former supporters of Blaise Compaoré can stand in the elections, because they will be punished by the people not voting for them,” he told IRIN.

    While Compaoré’s opponents worry that allowing an amnesty to the presidential guard and letting the former president’s supporters stand in next month’s elections will only encourage further interference in the democratic process, experts said it could be the only realistic path to a successful democratic transition.

    “In the same way that power-sharing agreements are critical – if flawed – components of resolving civil wars, peacefully transitioning from autocracy to democracy requires negotiations that must secure the buy-in by vested interests of the old regime,” Bekoe said. “In the case of Burkina Faso, Compaoré’s departure notwithstanding, the political, social, and security institutions that supported his regime remained powerfully in place.”

    However, ISS’s Assanvo warned that the negotiations ahead would be far from easy.

    “The next step will be very tricky,” he said. “The position of the presidential guard and the ability of either the international community or the rest of the Burkina Faso army to prevent the RSP from intervening in the political process will be key.”

    (Zoumana Wonogo contributed to this report from Ouagadougou)


    Rocky road to democracy in Burkina Faso
  • The lost childhoods behind our chocolate

    Twelve-year-old Arouna* stands shirtless in a cocoa field in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire holding a hoe, his ribs clearly visible under his dark skin.

    “I have to get up very early each day to be the first in the field with my younger brother, aged 10, to start clearing [the land],” he told IRIN. “I’m so tired.”

    Arouna, who was born across the border in neighbouring Burkina Faso, was sent to Côte d’Ivoire’s Sassandra village eight months ago to join his father and his father’s second wife, who needed help – in the form of free labour – cultivating cocoa.
    He told IRIN he thought he was coming to Côte d’Ivoire to continue his studies. But upon arrival, Arouna was taken into the forest and subjected to hard, manual labour in the cocoa fields each day. He has yet to step foot inside a classroom.

    Côte d’Ivoire continues to show signs of economic and social recovery following a 2010-2011 political crisis, which left 3,000 dead and 500,000 displaced, but stories like Arouna’s are becoming more and more common.

    As peace and security have improved, the number of people willing to cross the border – and send their children – to work in Ivoirian cocoa fields is on the rise. 

    Between 2009 and 2014, the number of children involved in hazardous work in cocoa production in West Africa increased by 46 percent, according to recent research by the US-based Tulane University. 

    The estimated number of child labourers in Cote d’Ivoire has more than doubled, from 800,000 pre-crisis to 1.62 million now, according to a joint investigation by UNICEF and the Ivoirian government. The vast majority come either from abroad – Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo – or from the poorer, rural parts of Côte d’Ivoire in the north and centre of the country.

    A growing problem

    More than 70 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring Ghana. The market price for cocoa beans has fallen sharply since the 1980s and local farmers have increasingly turned to the practice of recruiting children to work the fields.

    Much of the recent increase in child labour in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa fields came in 2011, following the end of the country’s post-election crisis, when Burkinabe farmers – traditionally a significant part of the sector – once again felt safe enough to come and work their fields.  

    “Over the past four years there has been a strong migration of people from countries like Burkina Faso into Ivoirian forests,” said Maxime M’bra, head of Stop Child Trafficking, a local NGO that fights against child labour. 

    More than half the child labourers in Côte d’Ivoire work in agriculture, with as many as one million children being exploited within the cocoa sector, according to the International Cocoa Foundation Initiative (ICI). 

    While the majority of these children are officially “employed” by their parents, an estimated 10.9 percent are victims of cross-border human trafficking, according to UNICEF. 

    “Despite significant efforts by the government, including educating families about the dangers of child labour and requiring all children between the ages of six and 16 to attend school, child labour and poverty is still rampant in the cocoa plantations of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana,” the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) has said. 
    See: Efforts too small to curb child labour on cocoa farms

    Government efforts

    Forced child labour is technically illegal in Côte d’Ivoire, with penalties ranging from one to five years in jail and between $800 and $2,200 in fines. But the reality is that the law is rarely enforced and prosecutions are almost unheard of. The US State Department says Côte d’Ivoire fails to fully comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

    Since 2013, the country has invested an estimated $40 million in initiatives to reduce child labour, including building and rebuilding schools, and creating a tracking system intended to identify kids at risk and conduct investigations.

    Martin N'Guettia, Executive Secretary of the Inter-ministerial Committee of Côte d'Ivoire and national coordinator for the operation Akoma, which fights against child trafficking, said these actions would make little difference unless the culture of legal impunity changed.

    “The actions of prevention and protection cannot eradicate the phenomenon of child labour without vigorous action of prosecution and punishment against the perpetrators of trafficking and exploitation by offenders,” he told IRIN.

    In June, more than 48 children not far from Arouna’s village in Sassandra were rescued and 22 people – mainly parents – were arrested as part of an Interpol operation targeting the trafficking and exploitation of children in Côte d’Ivoire.

    Most of the rescued children were between the ages of five and 16. They were found working in conditions that were adjudged “extremely dangerous” for their health.

    “The victims, some of whom had been employed in the fields for more than a year, told authorities they regularly work long hours without receiving pay or education,” Interpol said.

    But many children, such as 10-year-old Aicha* who works in a field next to Arouna, are too afraid to describe the conditions they actually work under. 
    “In the morning, I help each day in the family farms,” Aicha told IRIN. “Then we pick fruit that I must go and sell before dusk to buy oil and salt. This is what I do every day.”

    She said she would never admit to the authorities that her parents were forcing her to work.

    “I’m too afraid of being taken away and living alone.”


    Chocolate’s lost childhoods
  • Avian flu threatens West Africa poultry farmers

    Naba Guigma, from Burkina Faso’s Boulkiemdé province, southwest of the capital Ouagadougou, watched helplessly as his chickens and guinea fowl began to die off one by one. His very livelihood – like that of the millions of other poultry farmers across West Africa – faces ruin.

    “At first we thought it was (the) Newcastle (virus), a routine poultry disease, and so we rushed to sell some of them,” Guigma told IRIN.  

    In less than two weeks, all 120 of his birds were dead. 

    Now I have no more poultry. The henhouse is empty.

    That was in April. Come June, some 1.7 million birds in five countries had succumbed to what had by then been diagnosed as the highly contagious and deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu.

    The strain hasn’t been seen in the region since 2008, but was confirmed in Nigeria in January and has since spread to Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

    Guigma used to sell between 80 and 100 chickens a month, which together with egg sales earned him between $415 and $515. 

    “That was our main activity for revenue,” he told IRIN. “Now I have no more poultry. The henhouse is empty.”

    The poultry sector has grown tremendously in West Africa over the last 10 years and is now a main source of income for many rural, small-scale farmers.

    In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, the sector increased by more than 70 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

    The FAO and regional governments are still assessing the extent and impact of the outbreak but are clearly extremely concerned.

    “I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth told IRIN. “I have sufficient information to be worried and insufficient information to be at ease.”

    In Burkina Faso, farmers across nine of the country's 13 regions have been affected by avian flu since April.

    Around 215,000 birds have died. With each selling for about $10, this amounts to more than $2 million in direct losses, with poultry farmers and local merchants bearing the brunt of them. 

    Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Animal Resources estimates that direct and indirect losses due to the virus could amount to more than six million dollars this year. 

    Loss and more loss

    In an attempt to stop the outbreak, any bird – even healthy ones – within a three-kilometre radius of an infected animal, is now being confiscated and incinerated by government agents. The Ministry of Animal Resources says it has destroyed more than 16,000 birds and 166,000 eggs since April.

    Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Trade says it has disbursed close to $100,000 in compensation. It initially offered around $2 per head of culled poultry, but has since doubled this to nearly $4 as an incentive to farmers to own up about their sick birds. 

    But the amount they are offering is still far less than what a farmer could sell a chicken for at market, depending on its size, colour and overall health.  

    To avoid such a loss, many farmers have begun hiding their sick birds, hoping to still sell them, according to local veterinarians tasked with killing the infected birds. 

    This year will be terrible for me. During the lean period, I can sell a chicken for up to $15, but now I lost all my savings and it is a desperate situation.

    While the compensation programme has helped some farmers partially recoup their losses, Guigma, like many other early victims of the outbreak, will not receive anything from the government.  

    Only farmers who allowed their sick birds to be killed by government agents once the outbreak was declared will be paid. Nothing is paid for birds that died early on or that died before being formally identified as infected.

    Pedi Nana, for example, received just $22 for the loss of his entire flock, around 45 guinea fowl and 50 chickens in total. By the time an agricultural agent arrived to take away the sick birds, all but six had already died.

    “This year will be terrible for me,” he told IRIN. “During the lean period, I can sell a chicken for up to $15, but now I lost all my savings and it is a desperate situation.”

    Over the past three months, poultry breeders in Burkina Faso have lost around 70 percent of their revenue, according to the chairman of the National Association of Local Poultry Businesses Moussa Koné.

    The rural regions, which depend on poultry trade as a main source of income, have been the worst hit.

    Several neighbouring countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Mali recently closed their borders to poultry imports from Burkina Faso. 

    According to the FAO, it is too early to predict what sort of impact the outbreak will have on food security, but the widespread loss of poultry is likely to have affected food supplies and market prices.  

    “One area of concern is that we know this virus, we know the damage it can do and we know how it can (affect) peoples livelihoods,” Lubroth said. “If, for example, there is no consumer confidence and people stay away from poultry, you will have market pressures. Prices will either go too high (because of limited supply) and so people can’t afford them, or too low and producers can’t make ends meet.” 

    I received ($175) when the veterinarians killed my poultry as part of the preventive measures. But this is nothing compared to our losses.

    Lubroth said the situation is particularly worrisome for farmers in the Sahel region, where recurrent drought has left them more vulnerable and less resilient to other shocks in recent years.

    Moving forward

    Beyond compensation, many farmers say the government also needs to implement a plan to restart the country’s poultry business once the outbreak is under control.

    “It’s true that we are calling for better compensation,” Kone said. “But we must agree that compensation will not solve the problem. There must be a protocol including all actors – producers, sellers, and processers – with the government after the avian flu to boost poultry trade activity.”

    Martin Kabore, who recently started a poultry farm in Koudougou, agreed. 

    “I received ($175) when the veterinarians killed my poultry as part of the preventive measures,” he said. “But this is nothing compared to our losses. Not only do we need money to restart business… there are now some species we won’t get again.”

    The Burkina Faso government says it will need an estimated $8.2 million to fight the outbreak and compensate farmers, but that it has only raised about half that amount from local and international partners.


    Avian flu threatens poultry farmers
  • What a funding crisis is doing to AIDS patients in Burkina Faso

    For years you couldn’t tell if someone in Burkina Faso had HIV/AIDS just by looking at them. Now it’s getting easier again because cuts in food assistance are depriving them of nutrition, AIDS advocates say.

    Some 12,000 HIV/AIDS patients who rely on food aid are at risk of food insecurity and health problems this year if programmes don’t receive the required level of funding, local and international aid agencies warn.

    “The situation is quite worrying because these HIV/AIDS patients need balanced nutrition to support the heavy ARVs [anti-retroviral treatment regimens] to avoid being stricken by opportunistic diseases and to ensure their survival,” said Jean Charles Die, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP) in the capital, Ouagadougou. 

    WFP has been assisting the most vulnerable HIV/AIDS patients in Burkina Faso, including 8,400 adults and 3,800 children, handing out an average of 117 tonnes of food aid each month since the scheme was created in early 2000. But now they say their funds have dried up and the usual quantity of corn, beans and cooking oil has dwindled. 

    If the trend is not reversed, the lives of the infected and their children are at risk.

    Making matters worse, the transitional government, which took power following last year’s ousting of longtime president, Blaise Compaore, was forced to adopt an austerity budget earlier this year, cutting funding to government-sponsored HIV/AIDS programmes. 

    The WFP estimates it will need around $1.8 million to reach all 12,000 patients this year. As of April, the initiative was just 27 percent funded. 

    This has meant that only 3,000 people in five main cities are currently receiving food aid, down from 15 cities and surrounding villages. 

    “If the trend is not reversed, the lives of the infected and their children are at risk,” Die said, explaining that food aid helps lessen the burden HIV/AIDS patients often place on their families, and gives them a reliable source of nourishment, especially when they are too sick and weak to work or grow their own food. 

    “The consequence of this brutal end of the [food aid] programme, in the context of the inability of the government to mobilise more resources, will worsen food insecurity among an already vulnerable group,” Die said.

    The effect is visible

    A decrease in rations due to 50 percent funding shortfalls last year has already affected the health of many HIV/AIDS patients and their families, local advocacy groups say.

    It’s been a long time since we saw skinny HIV/AIDS infected people in our country.

    “For more than 10 years, it was difficult to tell if someone was infected [with HIV/AIDS] just by looking at them,” said Doctor Marcel Lougue, coordinator of the Support Programme for Communities Everywhere (PAMAC), created by the government to help HIV/AIDS associations generate income. 

    “It’s been a long time since we saw skinny HIV/AIDS infected people in our country,” he told IRIN. “But now we recognise them, and this means there is something wrong and we need to fix it.”

    The funding crisis means PAMAC has had to stop enrolling new beneficiaries into its scheme and reduce the number of microloans given to existing patients to help them start earning.

    Awa Darankoum was diagnosed with HIV in 2009. She used to receive a 50-kilogramme bag of rice, plus enough sorghum, cooking oil, and other food supplies each month to allow her to properly feed herself and her two children. Her husband died of AIDS six years ago and she is often physically unable to work.

    "Now we just get four kilogrammes of corn, two litres of cooking oil, some enriched flour and either sorghum or beans, each month,” she said. “Every month, one of the items is taken off the list, as we are told there are fewer donors now.” 

    Darankoum, 42, said that when she “feels strong enough” she washes clothes and cleans houses in her neighbourhood to make ends meet, but that life if much harder without the food aid. 

    Local NGO Zemstaaba, which helps care for more than 375 HIV/AIDS patients in Ouagadougou and 300 children who have been orphaned because of AIDS, says 90 percent of its patients are women and 40 percent are widows. 

    “The situation [regarding reduced or no food aid] is even worse for them,” said Pauline Ilboudo, who runs Zemstaaba’s HIV/AIDS food aid programme. “Patients are calling every day asking for better news [about funding].”

    Some donors think that the job is over in Burkina Faso. But we need to maintain the funding.

    Mamadou Sawadogo, president of the National Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (REGIPIV), shared Ilboudo’s concerns. 

    “HIV [positive] women carry the biggest burden, especially in rural areas, since most of them are destitute widows who need to take care of their offspring,” he told IRIN.   

    Victim of its own success?

    Sawadogo, who helped set up the food aid programme alongside the WFP more than a decade ago, said the initial decision to provide nutritional assistance to such a vulnerable group was aimed at avoiding a “humanitarian disaster.” 

    For a while it worked. 

    But then came a cruel irony: the country’s success in lowering the prevalence of HIV/AIDS from seven percent in 1999 to just 0.9 percent last year actually contributed to the recent funding shortfalls. 

    "Some donors think that the job is over in Burkina Faso, which has been able to reverse a high prevalence to almost nothing today,” Die said. “But we need to maintain the funding.”

    There are still some 110,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Burkina Faso, according to UNAIDS. Many of them rely on various organisations and government programmes for assistance, whether for medications, food, psychosocial support, loans or medical care. 

    Sawadogo said the country could ill afford any further cuts to any of these schemes.

    "Demand is still high but [there are] fewer resources available,” he told IRIN. “The lives of the majority of patients with HIV/AIDS are at risk because they remain, more than ever, in a situation of precariousness."


    AIDS funding crisis in Burkina Faso

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