When Burkina Faso swore in its first new president in decades last month, many people hoped the democratic transition would pave the way to an era of progress. Now a deadly raid by al Qaeda militants has shaken that optimism.
Thirty people were killed when gunmen struck a restaurant and hotel in the capital Ouagadougou on Friday, exposing a days-old government to a critical security challenge that risks derailing its pledge to transform the economy of one of the poorest nations on earth.
Mass protests in October 2014 drove out former President Blaise Compaore, who had ruled for nearly three decades after taking power in a 1987 coup. Following a year of transition, Roch Marc Christian Kabore won an election to become leader.
Kabore promised to improve access to water, healthcare and education and signalled a break from the past last week by naming a cabinet packed with ministers with no ties to Compaore.
But those ministers had not even been sworn in when the al Qaeda fighters killed citizens of several countries including six Canadians at the Cappuccino cafe and Splendid Hotel, two Ouagadougou establishments popular with foreigners.
“The timing is not random,” said Cynthia Ohayon, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “We are at a moment of political fragility because the country is coming out of a transition after 27 years and the new government is just starting to get to work.”
Compaore’s departure has left Burkina’s security apparatus in disarray.
Having taken power in a coup himself, Compaore sought to prevent his own overthrow by pouring resources into the elite presidential guard.
However the unit, the best equipped and trained in the army, was disbanded last year after it mounted an unsuccessful coup against the transitional government in September.
Compaore’s fall also disrupted discreet links his security officials had established with militant and rebel groups in the region that could perhaps have served to warn the authorities of the attack or even prevent it, according to Ohayon.
While neighbouring Mali has been subject to a growing campaign of militant assaults in the past year including one on a hotel in the capital in November, until last week Burkina Faso had been spared a major attack.
President Kabore and his ministers have taken to the airwaves to reassure the public, investors and potential tourists that the government can face down the threat facing Burkina Faso, one of a belt of French-speaking countries in the Sahel, south of the Sahara.
“All security measures have been taken to make Burkina Faso peaceful,” Foreign Minister Alpha Barry told ambassadors on Tuesday at a specially-convened meeting.
Security Minister Simon Compaore was even more direct: “We want to reassure everyone who lives on Burkinabe soil that foreigners can continue to come to our country, to invest in our country and live here.”
In the days to come, France is set to play an important security role both in terms of investigating the attack and using its intelligence network to track potential threats.
Burkina’s former colonial master has around 200 special forces based in Ouagadougou as part of a regional operation against Islamist insurgents. Some of them participated in the counter-attack that killed three of Friday’s attackers.
“Everything depends on the effort by the government after this attack to reassure our international partners and the friends of the country to continue to come here,” said Idrissa Nassa, chief executive of Coris Bank, a leading lender in Burkina Faso.
“If the government can limit it to just one attack then I think the climate of fear will dissipate quite quickly and things will go back to normal,” he added.
The stakes are high. Kabore campaigned on promises to revive the economic and social fortunes of a landlocked country that produces gold and cotton but remains impoverished.
Political uncertainty has slowed an economy already hurt by a fall in global gold prices, but one senior security official said the attack would put security at the top of the public agenda.
Former President Thomas Sankara, who was murdered in the 1987 coup that brought Compaore to power, remains a hero in the country that he named Burkina Faso – meaning “The land of the upstanding people” – and his image is plastered on walls around Ouagadougou.
Sankara himself took power in a coup in 1983 and pursued a philosophy of Marxism and pan-Africanism that led him to be called “Africa’s Che Guevara”. Many African intellectuals view him as a visionary.
Adama Ouedraogo, who teaches philosophy at a high school in the capital, said Sankara’s revolutionary spirit was shown in the 2014 uprising and would now help the country overcome the militant threat.
“The Burkinabe people are proud to be able to give their contribution to the government,” he said. “I think the Burkinabe people are prepared to contribute to develop their country.”