Jihadism entrenches itself in Burkina Faso with bullets and bribes

Fada N'gourma (Burkina Faso) (AFP) - Once-bustling markets are hushed, popular bars are shut and tourists no longer venture to local sights in areas threatened by the encroachment of armed Islamist insurgents in eastern and northern Burkina Faso.

"Before, in the time of highway robbers, we managed better, but with the jihadists it's really serious," said Amadou Nassouri, who runs a struggling meat business in the eastern city of Fada N'Gourma.

The city lies close to territory constantly harassed by jihadists, if not under their control.

"Today there are areas where you don't go (to graze your cattle). With the jihadist problem, nothing is okay," he told AFP, saying the numbers shopping at local markets were down.

"I find it hard to feed my family."

Authorities in this West African state have largely abandoned regions in the north and east that are now classified as "no-go" zones due to the frequent attacks and risk of being kidnapped.

Since the jihadist violence began in March 2015, more than 200 people have been killed, official figures show.

Most attacks are attributed to Ansarul Islam, which emerged near the Mali border in December 2016, and to the JNIM (the Group to Support Islam and Muslims), which has sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Ansural Islam was the first jihadist force created inside Burkina Faso with the violence spilling over from Mali, where radical Islamists seized key Sahara towns in 2012 before being ousted by French troops.

Smaller groups are also active, with the overall number of fighters estimated at "up to 500", a security source said.

The jihadists extend their hold gradually, forcing government workers and others who oppose them to flee. The violence has so far displaced some 40,000 people.

- Poverty, abandonment -

Some welcome the jihadists for their ideology while others appreciate their economic approach: hardline Islamic rule proscribes state-imposed taxes.

In the north and the east, witnesses describe a calculated strategy of jihadist encroachment.

The groundwork is laid by preachers who claim to teach "true Islam" as opposed to a "false" expression of the faith.

They speak out against the "Mossi state" -- a term for the ethnic majority concentrated in the capital Ouagadougou. It dates back to the powerful Mossi kingdoms that ruled pre-colonial West Africa from the 11th century until 1896.

Jihadists play on disillusion with the "Mossi state", its weak infrastructure and its failure to provide essentials such as electricity or a reliable water supply.

"The aim of the 'terrorists' -- which is 'to terrorise' -- has been achieved," Ly Boukary of the Citizen's Broom movement for good governance told AFP in the northern town of Ouahigouya.

Senior officials have all left the north, which has no factories or other economic activity, leaving the population totally abandoned -- and vulnerable to exploitation.

"Above all, it's a matter of poverty," he said. "Young people have no work. It's easy to bribe them by offering them 20,000 or 25,000 CFA francs (up to 40 euros/$43), otherwise they won't earn more than 100 francs."

Jihadists play this card to the full, arguing that poverty is created by the government and that industrialised Western nations are "looting (the nation's) wealth", a local source said.

- Migration with a message -

In the north, armed groups move freely through the country's porous borders. The seasonal migrations of Fulani cattle herders also help spread the jihadist message through young herdsmen.

The jihadists mainly target the security forces, but also attack government officials and local chiefs who oppose them.

Teachers are vulnerable due to the jihadists' fierce opposition to secular, French education, with their threats and attacks sparking the closure of hundreds of schools in the north and the east.

Fearing for their lives, many teachers have fled.

But the jihadists have also targeted civilians.

- 'No man's land' -

"These places are no man's land, zones of total insecurity," said journalist Guy-Michel Boulouv, who works for Les Echos de l'Est, a local paper in Fada N'Gourma.

"They're inside Burkina, but they're no longer Burkinabe," he added.

Fada N'Gouma's local authorities have buckled under the pressure and closed five popular bars "for security reasons".

Standing at the entrance to the Calypso bar by stacks of chairs covered in dust, owner Pascal Anin said he missed the "great atmosphere".

The bar's closure has left 60 people out of work, he said.

And in Ouahigouya, Burkina's third city, the Hotel Amitie, which was built mainly for Western tourists, lies run-down and empty.

- 'Tourism is dead' -

Former tour guide Issa Sankare used to take visitors to the spectacular Bandiagara escarpment in nearby Mali with its cave houses. But now he works as a mechanic.

"Everything's spoilt. Local tourism is dead. We've suffered a lot since 2015," Sankare said.

Travellers on the road to Mali are prey for jihadists, and those living along the border just busy themselves cultivating their crops.

Nobody wants to provoke the jihadists.

"They are not necessarily there the whole time but you can feel that they're around," says a former resident who fled.

"The more they get away with, the more they advance. The more they advance, the less you can do."