Burkina Faso moves ahead with vote despite extremist attacks

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Supporters of Burkina Faso President Roch Kabore attend a campaign rally in Bobo-Dioulasso Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Burkina Faso will go to the polls on Nov. 22, 2020, to vote in presidential and legislative elections marred by ongoing violence. Attacks linked to Islamic militants have ravaged the once peaceful nation. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

KAYA – A change in Burkina Faso’s electoral code means results from this month’s election will be considered valid even if people can’t vote in parts of the West African country that are overrun by Islamic extremist violence.

Candidates like Tegawende Ouedraogo, who ran and lost in 2015, fear the change could cost them the election. The 38-year-old is based in one of the hardest hit areas in the country, Sanmatenga province.

The province accounts for almost 10% of the more than 2,000 fatalities due to violence this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and thousands of people might not be able to vote.

“When a tire bursts, people run away. There might be rumors of attacks and people will not go to polling stations,” he said.

Burkina Faso will go to the polls on Nov. 22 to vote in presidential and legislative elections marred by ongoing violence. Attacks linked to Islamic militants have ravaged the once peaceful nation, forcing more than 1 million people from their homes and making swaths of land inaccessible. It now threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the elections.

Burkina Faso’s main political parties voted to change the law in July, making the election valid based on the areas where people can vote, instead of previously requiring ballots to be cast across the country. Candidates whose supporters are mainly in villages unreachable due to violence fear they won’t get the numbers they need to win legislative seats.

The new law signifies the government’s inability to secure the nation said, Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights, a local advocacy group.

“In certain regions, a lot of Burkinabe will be denied their right to vote,” he said.

Communities in the hardest hit regions, in the Sahel, north and the east, already feel marginalized, which could exacerbate tensions, he said.

This month’s vote is only Burkina Faso’s second democratically held election since gaining independence from France in 1960. The first one was held five years ago after a popular uprising ousted President Blaise Compaore, who came to power in a bloody military coup and ruled the nation for nearly 30 years.

While November’s elections are said to be more inclusive than the last — allowing opposition parties to run that were previously denied participation — the violence and the pandemic have had officials scrambling to find ways to register citizens, in a country with a historically low voter turnout.

The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) used helicopters to reach places inaccessible by road and registration was extended after coronavirus movement restrictions temporarily halted the process in March. Despite the challenges, Yacouba Bambyam Ouedraogo, communications director for CENI said that 95% of the country was covered adding more than 1 million voters.

But local officials say the more than 1,000 villages that were not reached, is where most of the population lives. Four of 11 communes in Sanmatenga province weren’t fully covered and a lot of people were missed, Youssouf Ouedraogo, president of the municipal electoral commission in Kaya told the AP.

Even people in large towns, such as many of the approximately 500,000 displaced people now living in Kaya, won’t be able to vote come November. People fled their homes without ID cards, which are needed to vote, while others arrived after enrolment was over.

Politicians and community leaders are targets for the extremists too. In July, the mayor of Pensa town was killed by gunmen while traveling to Kaya and in August, the Grand Imam of Djibo was kidnapped by terrorists and killed in the Sahel’s Soum province, according to government statements.

The government outwardly says it will secure the country for the elections, but officials have privately acknowledged to the international community, that efforts will likely focus on a portion of the country and “not seriously try to hold elections in the most insecure parts,” according to internal foreign embassy cables seen by the AP.

Out of the $157 million budgeted for November’s elections and the municipal ones next year, none of it is allocated to securing the roads and polling stations, said the cables.

Sahel analysts caution Burkina Faso’s government to heed the political upheaval in neighboring Mali, where disputed legislative elections and dwindling support for the government amid its handling of the jihadist insurgency, resulted in President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s overthrow in August.

“The stakes are high in a way, because of (Burkina Faso’s) severe problems and the importance of consolidating democracy,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati in the United States.

“In the present I don’t think (President) Kabore is in much danger of a coup. But in a few years, if insecurity worsens, a questionable result in this election could come back to haunt him,” he said.