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The challenge of voting in the country of the million displaced

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, during his campaign closing rally in Ouagadougou on Friday.LEGNAN KOULA / EFE

Just two years ago, Burkina Faso had 50,000 internally displaced due to jihadist violence and intercommunal fighting. Currently, more than a million people have fled their homes, a very difficult burden to manage for one of the poorest countries in the world. Some six and a half million Burkinabe are called to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president and Parliament, but it is estimated that one in three citizens will not be able to exercise their right to vote.

“Burkina Faso is in the heart of the Sahel, where the fastest and most catastrophic crisis in the world is experiencing today,” says Ornella Moderan, head of this region for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). So serious is the situation that the World Food Program assures that the country is already the fourth step out of five on its unstoppable path to famine, with 3.3 million people in food insecurity. Behind all this is violence. As of November 14, 2,254 people had been killed in attacks, intercommunity massacres, clashes between armed groups and the Army or extrajudicial executions, already exceeding 2,219 for the whole of last year according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) .

This descent into hell began in 2015 and was born as a contagion of the deterioration of the situation in neighboring Mali. “Burkina Faso was extremely poorly prepared, there was a late reaction to the first attacks. When they came out of their torpor in the capital, the catastrophe was already taking place ”, adds Moderan. At first they were incursions by jihadist groups from Mali and linked to Al Qaeda, but soon local groups such as Ansarul Islam emerged, joined with particular intensity by the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (EIGS). While the Army was giving ground, the terrorists exploited the poverty and the feeling of abandonment of the population to gain followers and weave complicities.

The region most affected is the Sahel, but the incidents have also spread to North, North-Central, East, Boucle du Mouhoun and, to a lesser extent, to the rest of the country. The cycle of violence had been unleashed. “The population is fleeing from armed groups, but also from the security forces that should protect them,” said Xavier Creach, head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who denounced that dozens of thousands of civilians were finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. “They are forced not to be neutral,” he added.

With a million people who have been forced to leave their homes with practically what they are wearing, 5% of the country’s population, and with a fifth of the territory outside state control, holding elections seems like a chimera. However, all the parties in the parliamentary arch accepted that not holding them was even worse. “If there are no elections, a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions could be added to the security and humanitarian crisis, but it is evident that the doubt about inclusiveness is going to hang over this electoral appointment,” adds the ISS expert.

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, president since 2015, is the main favorite in these elections. In front of him, 12 candidates of which two have a party apparatus behind and, therefore, aspirations to reach the presidential palace if any of them manages to force a second round. They are the historical opposition leader Zephirin Diabré and the candidate of the party of former president Blaise Compaoré, overthrown in 2014 by a popular uprising, Eddie Komboïgo. Opposition groups have already agreed to support anyone who manages to force a second round, but the dispersion of their forces indicates that they will not have it easy.

On November 11, in the middle of the electoral campaign, 14 soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tin-Akoff, a bloody reminder that the country is immersed in an all-out war. President Kaboré has allocated a quarter of the national budget to fight insecurity and his country is part of the G5 of the Sahel, an army made up of five countries that intends to confront the terrorist threat. It has also set up, with the unanimous support of Parliament, the groups of Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), civilians involved in the fight against terrorism. However, the military response has not produced the expected results. This issue has been the axis of the campaign of all the candidates, most of whom have even proposed opening a dialogue with the jihadists. Kaboré is strongly opposed to this.