Burkina Faso is set to hold presidential and parliamentary elections later this month, but the presence of extremist groups has disrupted voter registration in some parts of the country and could prevent people from casting ballots on the day.
A controversial new law passed by parliament in August – stating that votes will be counted irrespective of people’s ability to access polling stations on 22 November – is also triggering fears of widespread disenfranchisement in already marginalised areas.
“If one half [of the country] votes and another half doesn’t, it is not normal,” said Saïdou Wily, a government official in Barsalogho, a conflict-hit town in northern Burkina Faso.
Analysts say a low turnout in rural areas could further undermine the state’s ability to govern the West African country, entrenching the power and legitimacy of jihadist groups linked to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The proliferation of self-defence militias – including volunteer groups who are fighting extremists with support from the government – could also raise the prospects of political violence, according to analysts and opposition candidates.
A recent report from the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in The Hague, stated that politicians may be tempted to use these groups to secure electoral gains, particularly as the polls are expected to be tightly contested.
Violence linked to jihadist groups, defence militias, and government forces has displaced more than one million people in Burkina Faso – the vast majority since early last year – and left millions more hungry.
The insecurity has dented confidence in the incumbent president, Roch Kaboré, who vowed to help the country turn a corner when he took office in 2015 – a year after mass protests ousted former dictator Blaise Compaoré.
Experts are now warning that Burkina Faso could find itself in a similar situation to neighbouring Mali, where a disputed election earlier this year sparked months of protests that eventually led to a military coup in August.
“We have seen the outcome of mishandling and abuse of power during and after the latest legislative elections in Mali,” Rida Lyammouri, an associate fellow at the Clingendael Institute, told The New Humanitarian.
“Maybe the situation is different right now in Burkina Faso and the political environment is not as tense, but the situation remains unpredictable and could change rather quickly,” Lyammouri added.
Even before the current violence, voter enrolment and turnout were low in Burkina Faso. Just five million out of 11 million eligible voters were registered in the 2015 polls, of whom 60 percent voted, according to Aristide Béré, a government official in charge of providing national identification cards.
Yacouba Ouédraogo, a communications director at Burkina Faso’s election commission, CENI, defended the organisation of the current polls. He said 95 percent of the country had been reached for voter registration, with an extra one million people added to the electoral list.
But even with helicopters helping CENI staff move around the country, at least 1,000 villages proved inaccessible, amounting to roughly 166,000 new potential voters, according to the commission’s own statistics.
Abdoulaye Pafadnam, the mayor of Barsalogho, said CENI agents were unable to register thousands of people living in villages surrounding his town because of insecurity.
“Our population has not benefited from the registration like they should,” Pafadnam said.
In nearby Kaya, where the population has more than doubled in the last year due to an influx of displaced people, some local residents said they were unable to register when electoral commission workers arrived in June because the queues were so long.
Other residents may have missed registration because they were fleeing attacks, according to a local CENI official, who asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue. Commission workers said they would return to Kaya to complete the process, but residents told TNH they never did.
“With the vote, I thought I could choose the best person to bring change in 2021,” said a disappointed Fatimata Sawadogo, who fled her village last July but told TNH she was unable to register in Kaya because of the long lines.
While the government has promised to secure the polls on voting day, analysts say the controversial change to the electoral code – which will see results validated whatever the turnout – indicates that it expects to struggle.
“Burkina Faso’s government is acknowledging that it is unable to secure large swathes of the country,” said Alexis Arieff, Africa policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service in the United States.
“The last five years they’ve been in power, on many many fronts there have been deep failures in their leadership.”
The electoral code has also been tweaked so that people who have fled their homes will vote for parliamentary candidates standing in the towns they have taken refuge in, rather than in their own villages.
Local government officials and civil society organisations told TNH this could mean that lawmakers in hard-hit provinces with high levels of displacement get elected with barely any votes.
“[If] those who are supposed to elect you are no longer in the locality, it is clear that there is a problem of legitimacy,” said Armand Joseph Kaboré, director of Labo Citoyennetés, a Burkinabé think tank.
Kaboré suggested that people unable to access their villages – including to vote – might look more to armed groups for protection. "The fact that citizens don't have the possibility to come and go in areas that they are living… this can contribute to push [them] to other groups that are able to offer them better security,” he said.
Kaboré, the incumbent, is expected to win the polls, and could benefit from a lower vote in conflict-torn parts of the countryside, where grievances against the government are strongest. But analysts say opposition parties could push the 63-year-old to a second round run-off.
Thirteen candidates have been validated to stand in the elections, including the leader of Compaoré’s former ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party, which was barred from running in 2015.
In an interview with TNH, CDP leader Eddie Komboïgo called for a dialogue with jihadist groups to prevent further conflict in the country. “We need to have the courage to go and talk to people and try to understand why they are attacking us,” he said.
Zéphirin Diabré, a presidential candidate for the Union for Progress and Change party, told TNH that Kaboré’s security record was poor, and vowed to restore order by reconciling communities and ensuring the army is better equipped.
“The last five years they’ve been in power, on many many fronts there have been deep failures in their leadership,” said Diabré, who – alongside Komboïgo – is one of Kaboré’s main election rivals. “Before they came to power, did you have all these terrorists hanging around all these places?”
Residents in areas affected by violence told TNH they were more concerned about attacks from armed groups – and where to find their next meal – than voting for a president.
“I watch the politicians parade and do their things, but this is not my concern,” said Oumar Cissé, from Dori, a town in the northern Sahel region – the epicentre of the violence – that is seeing a daily influx of internally displaced people. “Our real concern is that security comes back first, and after that we can think about elections.”
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