In Burkina Faso, voters left voiceless amid escalating violence


Djeneba Sawadogo was making a cake when she heard a noise she did not recognise – a series of sharp cracks that rang across the village of Tongomayel in northern Burkina Faso in June 2019.

A dozen gunmen had opened fire, killing her friends and neighbours and forcing the survivors to flee south. In the rush, Sawadogo left behind her identity card, which would have allowed her to vote in Sunday’s legislative and presidential elections.

“My papers are at home. There is no one there to get them,” said the 20-year-old as she comforted her crying baby daughter.

Eighteen months on, she is stranded on a vast moonscape at the edge of the capital Ouagadougou, where thousands of displaced people scrape by without electricity or water, and children crack rocks to turn into gravel to sell to construction workers for a pittance.

She and thousands of others there will have no say over who will run the former French colony for the next five years.

Once a pocket of calm in a turbulent region, landlocked Burkina Faso has been sucked into a security crisis that has overwhelmed much of West Africa in recent years.

Islamist insurgents with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State have killed over 2 000 people this year, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a consultancy that tracks political violence. That is up from around 300 killed in 2018.

Ethnic and religious tensions have increased, pulling at the seams of once-peaceful communities. Over one million people – one in 20 – have been displaced.

At least 400 000 people, or nearly 7% of the electorate, will be unable to cast their votes on Sunday, official data show, because they cannot access voting locations. Polling stations will not open in hundreds of villages because of the threat of violence. In addition, an unknown number of people like Sawadogo who do not have identity documents will also have no vote.

President Roch Marc Kabore is seeking a second term but analysts say it will be tight. He promised development and prosperity, but violence reigns.

In the capital, where jihadists have carried out attacks in recent years, the army presence has increased in the lead-up to the vote. Armed soldiers patrol busy intersections on foot.

“I cannot vote for the president,” said Tapsoba Ali, 33. “It is under his regime that there have been all these problems. We want someone who can lead better.”


In a crowded field of 13 candidates, two opponents stand out: former Finance Minister Zephirin Diabre, who came runner-up in 2015 and who has a lot of young support; and Eddie Komboigo who runs the party of ousted former President Blaise Campaore and enjoys the large funding network that brings.

Both have sought to exploit the security situation, which could hurt the president. Much of his votes come from the countryside where so many have fled.

“Traditionally, cities are not favourable to the standing president. The current situation could reduce Kabore’s chances of winning,” said Siaka Coulibaly from the Center for Public Policy Monitoring by Citizens in Ouagadougou.

On the dusty plain outside Ouagadougou, a rare few did make sure their vote would count.

Yompoco Ilboudo, 73, fled her home in the northern Soum province last year when gunmen raided her village, killing many of her cousins. She walked for five days to find safety in the nearest city.

She took her birth certificate with her when she left, which allowed her to register. On Sunday she plans to take the short walk to a polling station on the edge of town.

“It is important for us to vote,” she said. “I want this country to sort itself out.”