OUAGADOUGOU: Burkina Faso will vote in a general election Sunday in the shadow of a growing extremist insurgency, with President Roch Marc Christian Kabore expected to win re-election.
But no votes in the presidential and parliament polls will be cast in one-fifth of the country’s territory, where large swathes remain outside the state’s control and extremist attacks strike almost daily.
The violence has forced one million people — five percent of the 20 million population — from their homes in the last two years, and at least 1,200 have been killed since 2015.
The security crisis has dominated the campaign and voting will take place under heavy surveillance in the landlocked West African country, one of the world’s poorest.
Most of the 12 opposition candidates running against Kabore have criticized the incumbent’s failure to stem the bloodshed.
But the opposition did not unite behind a single candidate and Kabore is aiming for a first round victory — as he won in 2015 — to stave off a run-off vote.
He faces stiff competition from 2015’s runner-up, veteran opposition leader Zephirin Diabre, and Eddie Komboigo, standing for the party of former president Blaise Compaore.
Compaore, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2014 after 27 years in power, is now in exile but some voters are nostalgic for his regime.
Komboigo told a rally in the capital Ouagadougou Friday that Compaore would “return with all honors,” praising his “sacrifice for the development of Burkina Faso.”
Fourteen soldiers were killed in an ambush in the north claimed by the Daesh group earlier this month, one of the deadliest attacks on the military in the five-year insurgency.
Days later, the Daesh propaganda arm published a picture of two extremists killing a man wearing an army uniform — but the military denied there had been a new attack.
Extremist violence in the north — as in neighboring Sahel states Mali and Niger — has become intertwined with clashes between ethnic groups.
The Fulani community has in particular been targeted for recruitment by extremists, and attacks regularly spark reprisal attacks, continuing the cycle of violence.
Humanitarian groups have condemned massacres of Fulani civilians by pro-government militias or the army.
Despite regularly claiming successes, the poorly equipped and trained army has slumped from loss to loss.
Security expert Mahamoudou Savadogo told AFP that the initial diagnosis of the threat “was poor and the response was neither adequate nor appropriate.”
Almost all of Kabore’s challengers have called for dialogue with the extremists to be explored — a suggestion Kabore has emphatically rejected.
Diabre said that “military action on its own has never been able to defeat terrorism in any part of the world.”
“Alongside military action, there must be other actions.”
Emmanuel Macron — president of Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler France, which has troops in the country — waded into the debate on Friday, ruling out negotiating with extremist groups in the Sahel.
“We don’t talk with terrorists. We fight,” he said in an interview.
One of Kabore’s efforts has been the creation earlier this year of volunteer militias supervised by the state, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Nation (VDP).
Their role in Sunday’s election remains unclear, but a Western source in Ouagadougou said the presidential party “could be accused of using its troops” to push for Kabore votes.
A VDP leader in a central region assured that the militia will remain “neutral.”
“We will be there to support the army and protect polling stations,” the VDP leader said.
Political scientist Drissa Traore said that because the opposition “did not manage to unite behind a single candidate,” Kabore hopes to get more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday to avoid facing only one of them in a in a second round.
Throughout the campaign, Kabore has promised to restore peace.
“Once the election is over, we will take care of serious matters,” he said in a meeting.
Around 6.5 million people will vote in Sunday’s election, with enrolment not taking place in nearly 1,500 of the country’s 8,000 villages, nor in 22 of more than 300 communes, because of the security risks.