For the better part of two decades, the United States has poured billions of dollars into efforts to train, equip, and assist security forces in Burkina Faso and elsewhere in West Africa as part of an ongoing fight against Islamist militants. During that same time span, the number of terrorist groups, attacks, and fatalities in the Sahel region has skyrocketed, sparking overlapping humanitarian crises. The failures of these U.S. efforts have recently been highlighted by the unlikeliest of critics, the very agencies funding and carrying out those activities—the State Department and the Department of Defense. Evaluations from watchdogs at both departments paint a startling picture of problem programs and dismal outcomes that call into question the efficacy of American security assistance. In 2005, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) was established to “eliminate terrorist safe havens in northwest Africa by strengthening countries' counterterrorism capabilities and inhibiting the spread of extremist ideology,” according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. To that end, under the TSCTP, the U.S. has provided more than $1 billion for “security assistance activities” in 11 countries: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. In September, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General released an audit of eight TSCTP efforts managed by the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs and conducted between the fiscal years of 2015 and 2020. The investigation found the program was debilitated by waste and deficiencies, which left the effectiveness of the TSCTP in serious doubt: A review of six TSCTP contracts found five “were missing government quality assurance surveillance plans” which the office deemed “essential oversight tools.” The Inspector General also discovered record-keeping deficiencies that made it impossible to ascertain if goods and services purchased under TSCTP contracts were actually delivered. Additionally, they found that the Bureau of African Affairs could also not ensure that equipment provided to partner forces, including the Burkinabe military, was being used for its intended purpose.
“We ran. We couldn’t even bury the bodies.”
In total, the Office of the Inspector General judged the $201.6 million spent on the six contracts to be “potential wasteful spending due to mismanagement and inadequate oversight” and highlighted “longstanding challenges with the execution of foreign assistance” that guaranteed the State Department would “have limited assurance that TSCTP is achieving its goals of building counterterrorism capacity and addressing the underlying drivers of radicalization in West and North Africa.”The report followed another review of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, released earlier this year, that found “poorly developed contract requirements for three foreign-assistance projects supporting counterterrorism programming in West Africa resulted in an estimated $14.6 million in questioned costs.”
The investigation found the program was debilitated by waste and deficiencies.
A separate September report from the lead inspector general for East Africa and North and West Africa Counterterrorism Operations, provided a scathing adjunct to the Africa Center’s statistical analysis: “In West Africa, where al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates operate in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, violence continued at high levels and expanded to new territories,” wrote Sean W. O’Donnell, the acting inspector general at the Department of Defense. The investigation found that attacks by terrorist groups in West Africa were increasing, and they referenced “a long-term trend of expanding violence in the region.” Violent extremist organizations, the report said, had “expanded their operations to the western Sahel and some northern parts of the West African coastal states.” The report also painted an especially bleak picture of Burkina Faso, and noted that it faces “multiple, interrelated crises that make the country vulnerable to destabilization, including growing food insecurity, increasing levels of internal displacement, worsening physical security, and the spread of COVID-19.” The pandemic has added to the complexity of the humanitarian crisis and, according to the September report, “exacerbated many of the underlying conditions that foster [violent extremist organization] growth, including economic and food insecurity.”
The obsessive focus on counterterrorism in the midst of this complex cascade of crises is yet another reason, according to some experts, why U.S. and European efforts in the Sahel have yielded dismal results.
The Fulani, composed mainly of Muslim cattle herders from the northern part of the country where terrorists operate, have long been stigmatized and discriminated against, allowing Islamist militants to recruit within their communities while still attacking Fulani villages. Souaibou Diallo, the president of the Tabital Andal Association of Koranic Masters of the Sahel, a group conducting workshops that bring together Muslim religious scholars, members of violence-affected communities, and representatives of the security forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, told VICE World News that abuses by government troops drove Fulani into the arms of militants. “Eighty percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the armed forces. So many people have been killed—assassinated—but there has been no justice,” he explained. Diallo said the Burkinabe military failed to act on his organization’s suggestions to curb human rights abuses. “They have never applied the recommendations that we made,” said Diallo. “They didn’t listen to us and the situation has worsened.”
“Eighty percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the armed forces. So many people have been killed—assassinated—but there has been no justice.”
It is essential, Ibirogba told VICE World News, to replace the counterterrorism security model with one rooted in holistic peacebuilding measures. “What is needed is a human security approach that addresses the multidimensional root causes of issues,” she said. “One that focuses on investing in African nations’s infrastructures, health care systems, mental health services, social welfare programs, businesses and more, rather than investing in their militaries and police forces who are guilty of gross human rights violations.”Over the last two years, Burkinabe security forces have killed far more civilians than militants—819 versus 425—according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The number of noncombatants killed by Burkinabe troops is also likely understated according to Nsaibia, who believes that many extrajudicial killings have gone unreported. At the very same time, Burkina Faso’s government has been powerless to stop regular attacks by jihadists. Survivors report military patrols passing through their villages, but not being on hand to respond to attacks. In some cases, those driven from their homes are told by government authorities that it’s safe to return, only to be attacked again. Sawadogo Amadou said that following an attack on Sargo, villagers fled to Barsalohgo where they stayed for a month. “They told us it was secure and to go back. That was in August , but the army left and we were only there for 45 days before the next attack,” he added. In October, militants attacked a convoy carrying dozens of displaced civilians returning to their homes in the villages Wintokuilga and Tang-kienga and executed 25 of them.For the displaced in Kaya, the violence that drove them from their homes wasn’t a “perennial reality” but a complete shock. Scores of displaced Burkinabe explained that they could not understand why they were attacked nor why their government had repeatedly failed them. “Our country is in trouble. We’re facing so many problems. We need food. We need assistance,” said Alimata Sawadogo, a Burkinabe from Dablo. “Most of all, we need to go home. For that, we need peace.” This article was reported in partnership with Brown University’s Costs of War Project and Type Investigations.
For the better part of a decade, the U.S. has poured money into the Burkinabe security forces; the results have been little better.