French and Burkinabe officers inspect burned vehicles outside the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Jan. 17, a day after security forces retook the hotel from al Qaeda fighters. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Last week, Burkina Faso seemed a bright spot in the troubled Sahel region of Africa. Little known and rarely discussed, the country found its way into international headlines after a dramatic popular uprising in October 2014 put an end to President Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year reign.

Subsequent events demonstrated a strong popular commitment to democracy. Perhaps the best example was when civil society rallied to thwart an attempted coup against the transitional government in September 2015. Back on track, Burkina Faso organized the freest, fairest and most competitive elections in its history in November, and one month later inaugurated its new president, Roch Marc Kaboré. On Jan. 13, a new government under Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thieba was announced.

Sadly, only days later, Burkina Faso was back in the headlines. A terrorist attack on Jan. 15 on the Hotel Splendid and the Cappuccino café in the capital Ouagadougou left more than 30 dead and many more wounded. The majority were foreigners of many nationalities.

This attack is unprecedented in Burkina Faso, typically characterized by a refusal of political violence and by relative peace, social tolerance and hospitality. The Ouagadougou attack echoes similar terrorist attacks around the world in recent months.

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The attack also signals another incremental step in the deterioration of the security situation in the greater Sahel region (immediately south of the Sahara desert). It follows a strikingly similar and brazen attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, in November 2015, and earlier incidents in neighboring capitals: Niamey (Niger), N’Djamena (Chad), and Nouakchott (Mauritania).

Trying to identify the roots of increasing insecurity in the Sahel

The situation in the Sahel has been circling complete disaster since early 2012, when al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), displaced an ethnic separatist movement and took control of northern Mali, eventually occupying a space roughly the size of Texas. When AQIM attempted to advance toward southern Mali and the capital in early 2013, French-led military forces intervened, restoring very tenuous de jure political control of the northern territory to Malian officials.

The intervention, however, did not put an end to AQIM. Rather, the jihadi movement has split into a number of nebulous factions, joining remnants of other jihadi groups who have found refuge in the Sahara. From these havens, these groups have shown themselves capable of organizing and perpetrating terrorist attacks not only in Bamako, but in Niamey, Ouagadougou and further afield.

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Little to nothing of what we knew about Burkina Faso, or about the Sahel more broadly, provides insights into how we came to this tragic situation. Having turned their attention to this long-ignored region, terrorism experts around the globe are attempting to track the global networks of the perpetrators. Others have focused on the effort to identify the “violent extremist” ideology that motivates the individuals who join such groups, and to find ways to “counter” it.

Yet we find little in these analyses that can explain why these countries—among the least developed and materially poorest on earth, but also until not so long ago considered peaceful and secure—are now in the eye of the storm. In the current focus on violence and conflict in the region, it is easy to forget that just a few years ago the story was quite different.

Some analysts might argue that these attacks are unsurprising given the characteristics of the Sahel: it is complex and inhospitable and there is significant social diversity, extreme hardship, demographic pressures, and an expansive geographic space. Some might also point to religious change among the large majority Muslim populations in much of the Sahel. But the overwhelmingly dominant religious ideologies of the region remain distinguished by their categorical refusal of social or political violence. Overall, experts and long-time observers of the region, it must be admitted, have failed to provide a convincing explanation of how we arrived at the current situation.

What the Ouagadougou attack is NOT

It is important to say something about what the attack in Ouagadougou is not. First, it is not an indication of political failure on the part of the new government. Burkina Faso has shown remarkable resilience throughout the long democratic transition. The transition’s successful conclusion points to the relative capacity of the state in Burkina.

Second, the attack should not be read as a sign of increased “radicalization” of Burkinabé Islam. Indeed, the attack is quite alien to the country’s religious landscape. Nothing specific about the Burkina context can be identified as the cause. Rather, the country is one more victim of a global phenomenon over which it has strikingly little control or influence.

Short- and long-term consequences of the attack

If little can be done to prevent these kinds of attacks, it is nevertheless possible to mitigate the consequences. Beyond the tragic and immediate loss of life, the political and economic ramifications of the Ouagadougou attack can endanger the Burkinabés’ hard-fought democratic gains.

The attack represents a terrible first test for the newly elected government. Its reaction will be scrutinized under the microscope of public opinion, and there will be domestic pressure to prove capacity to govern while respecting citizens’ rights. The inevitable trade-offs challenge the government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic progress—the rallying cry in Burkina for the past year—while maintaining security and order—the priority for international actors.

The pressure to ensure security was immediately apparent: dozens of individuals were quickly detained and held for questioning by authorities following the attack. New security checkpoints were established throughout the country at principal crossroads and in urban areas.


Soldiers stand guard in front of the Splendid Hotel after the attack on Jan. 18. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Increased policing and security will translate into increased economic costs, undermining the government’s campaign promises about development. Beyond the direct costs of additional security personnel and activities, the attack’s indirect costs are potentially devastating, especially for Ouagadougou, Burkina’s political center.

The tourism sector, already struggling because of the political instability before the elections, will certainly suffer. While tourism is limited, Burkina Faso has developed some distinctive attractions of both economic and symbolic importance. Notably, the bi-annual Panafrican Film Festival (commonly referred to by its French acronym FESPACO) draws large crowds of African filmmakers and their fans from around the world, bringing not only jobs and revenues but a certain cultural prestige.

Inevitably, the NGO and humanitarian aid sector will also be affected. Humanitarian organizations will have to reassess the security situation, many will reduce staff, and in some cases organizations may leave the country altogether. Similarly, volunteers and/or humanitarian professionals may reconsider the risks of being stationed in Burkina Faso. The same kind of considerations will no doubt be made by universities and other institutions looking to conduct research in the region.

Humanitarian organizations that choose to continue their work will implement new guidelines to increase staff security. As is the case in many other countries, humanitarian workers will face new restrictions on their activities, and these will have a negative impact on local vendors, restaurant owners, taxi drivers and others dependent on the patronage of the humanitarian sector. While these factors may seem relatively insignificant, in the service economies of Sahelian capital cities the international presence has a meaningful impact on the bottom line for many small and medium-sized businesses.

Challenges facing the new Burkina government and key international partners

The challenges thus facing the new Burkinabé government are enormous, far more than what it could have imagined when it assumed power just days ago. While there is certainly capacity among Burkinabés to confront such challenges, it would be foolish to take these for granted. As Mali has shown, even significant international intervention focused on security may not be sufficient to stop a slow but steady downward spiral, whose tragic consequences for the region—and the world—are still unfolding.

Much care should be taken to balance the securitization or militarization reflex with the need to ensure a viable and legitimate political order. In Burkina Faso, where there is clear popular support for democracy, nongovernmental organizations, the international community, and donors can take steps to help provide the kind of support needed to sustain the successes of the past year. Failure to do so would be a huge victory for the terrorist forces that threaten us all.

Daniel Eizenga is a research associate with the Sahel Research Group and a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Florida.

Leonardo A. Villalón is dean of the International Center, professor of African Politics, and coordinator of the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida.