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Fear and exodus on front line of jihadist fight in Burkina Faso

Fear and exodus on front line of jihadist fight in Burkina Faso

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso | AFP | On the edge of the forbidding Sahara in the dusty northern market town of Djibo, Burkina Faso’s battle against jihadism is at its most acute.

This impoverished corner of West Africa has always seemed distant from the central government in Ouagadougou. Today, though, that isolation feels more extreme than ever.

Three years of murders, targeted killings of officials, blasts and kidnappings in northern Burkina Faso have worn down residents’ faith in the state’s ability to protect them.

Thousands have fled the remote region, and bit by bit the presence of the state is fading away.

According to an official toll, 80 attacks have taken place since March 2015, causing 133 deaths, in addition to a triple assault by jihadists in the capital Ouagadougou in March this year in which 60 people were killed.

Two hundred schools in northern Burkina Faso have closed, leaving around 20,000 pupils and 800 teachers idle, authorities say.

In April, a teacher was kidnapped “because he was speaking French to the pupils”, according to the jihadist group the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which claimed the abduction. The same month, students took to the streets, begging teachers to allow end-of-term exams to go ahead despite the threat of violence.

In Djibo, even the courthouse has shut down as judicial staff are too afraid to go to work.

“The schools have closed, the town halls as well, and now it’s the turn of the courthouse. Have we lost the north of our country?” asked Kouliga Nikiema from the Union for Progress and Change, an opposition party.

“It’s clear that national sovereignty has been badly shaken by this closure,” he added of the courthouse shutdown.

“For the people of Djibo, this closure may be viewed as an abandonment by the central state.”

Last year, reinforcement of the military presence in the north and joint operations with Mali and France enabled the Burkinabe army to regain control and restore some trust.

– Security forces ‘powerless’ –

But attacks by the shadowy enemy resumed, and fears have grown.

“Despite many efforts, the lack of personnel and effective military strength are creating a growing risk of losing the region or seeing it become a no-man’s-land,” said security expert Karamoko Traore.

“The security forces seem powerless dealing with militants who are prepared to die,” said Traore, referring to the killing last month of three people, including a traditional local leader.

Burkinabe political analyst Souleymane Ouedraogo said that seven out of the nine administrative areas in the northern province of Soum had been hit by attacks since 2015.

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