By John Ikani
When militaries in Mali and Burkina Faso rode on popular anger to erode years of democratic gains, many expected that they will contain growing extremist violence over the last decade that has killed thousands of people and displaced millions more.
“There’s no more room for mistakes,” said Mali’s coup leader Col Assimi Goïta as he seized power in August 2020.
“We have more than what it takes to win this war,” echoed Burkina Faso’s Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba who took charge earlier this year.
Are citizens now more safe under military rule? To answer that, let’s go way back to the beginning of extremist violence in both countries.
The extremist threat first came to West Africa in Mali in 2012, when Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaeda, hijacked an ethnic Tuareg uprising sparked by the return of Tuareg fighters from Libya after the toppling of the Gadhafi regime.
The French military initially pushed the extremists back, but they regrouped and in 2015 unleashed a wave of deadly attacks that later spread to Burkina Faso and Niger.
One of the first signs of trouble in Burkina Faso came in January 2016; al-Qaeda claimed an attack on a restaurant and cafe in Ouagadougou that killed 30 people.
Since then, the insurgency has grown, especially in rural areas that have borne the brunt of violence in the Sahel, a vast belt of mostly arid land south of the Sahara desert.
How is Mali faring under military rule?
In Mali security has not noticeably improved under the military-led government. According to a recent UN report, authorities are fully in control of as little as 15% of the country’s territory.
Attacks on civilians and the military have continued since 2015, leaving many destitute and under the control of groups linked to global jihadist networks including the Islamic State.
“The tallies for each year are increasing year by year,” says Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher covering West Africa’s Sahel region for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (Acled).
Data supplied to newsmen by Acled in June compares the 661 days before and after Mali’s coup in August 2020, and the 138 days before and after Burkina Faso’s coup in January 2022.
To gather this data Acled relies on a network of “informants and professionals” as well as media reports.
One of the deadliest months on record was March 2022. Acled says 790 civilians were killed in Mali.
Some of these civilians were killed by militants from the local branch of the Islamic State group in Ménaka, according to Acled, and there were other smaller attacks. But the vast majority were civilians massacred in the town of Moura by the Malian army, rights groups agree.
How is Burkina Faso faring under military rule?
The narrative is not any different across the border in Burkina Faso where the West African regional bloc Ecowas says only about 60% of the country is under state control.
According to former Burkinabè soldier-turned-analyst, Mahamoudou Sawadogo: “Attacks are on the up, there’s more violence against civilians and more territorial control has been lost to armed groups – so the putschists’ strategy isn’t adequate against the threat.”
Structural changes to unify Burkina Faso’s armed forces under a single command have also failed, says Mr Sawadogo.
The development is not surprising as analysts have long predicted that junta will not do anything different from the government it ousted, given limited resources at its disposal.
Similarities in nature of extremist violence bedevilling both nations
Like in Mali, Islamist militants in Burkina Faso have a huge amount of firepower, analysts say.
“It’s warfare between an army and a clandestine army” and in large swathes of these countries “the staying power of the state is not there”, argues political scientist Abdourahmane Idrissa, based at the University of Leiden.
In Burkina Faso as well as Mali, Islamists engage in “classic asymmetric warfare,” says International Crisis Group (ICG) Sahel project director, Richard Moncrieff. “Where they don’t take control of any cities. They do increasingly encircle cities and cut them off in order to flex their muscles, and render the cities rural,” he adds.
Coups no longer ‘last resort’ to containing extremist violence
According to Maggie Dwyer, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who has studied military coups in West Africa: “People are not against democracy as a principle, but they are very disenchanted with elected leaders.”
She adds that: “There is more leniency for military leadership now during the insurgency than in peacetime.”
However, with the glaring failure of military rule in Mali and Burkina Faso to improve security is changing the narrative.
It is a view shared by Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum – who withstood a coup attempt days before his official swearing-in – as well as by Ghana’s President and Ecowas leader Nana Akufo-Addo, who told the BBC in April that “the initial evidence doesn’t point to the fact that Mali is doing anything better about the insecurity and the fight against the jihadists than the civilian government.”
Compiled by Heritage Times (HT) with resource from The Arab Weekly and BBC.