Burkina Faso swings between joy and worry after the release of hostages held in Mali

Burkinabe soldiers patrol the village of Gorgadji, in northern Burkina Faso, a region at risk of jihadism, on March 3, 2019.

Relief and worry, joy and anger. In Burkina Faso, a country bordering Mali and also facing the jihadist peril, the release of French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin and Malian politician Soumaïla Cissé provoked mixed feelings. These hostages had until then been held in northern Mali by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel linked to Al-Qaida.

As soon as the news was confirmed by the presidency of Mali on the evening of Thursday, October 8, the Burkinabé web got carried away. “Finally, thank God! “, exclaimed many Internet users on social networks. “The great deliverance”, headlined Thursday evening the Burkinabé daily The country, taking up in his article the famous quote from the American director Woody Allen: “Eternity is a long time, especially towards the end. “

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The political class has not been left out. Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré rejoiced over the hostages, saying on Twitter on Friday morning: I join in the happiness of their respective families and congratulate all the actors who contributed to their release. “ “It is a great relief and a joy to see that they were able to regain their freedom, the deprivation of liberty is torture”, underlines the leader of the opposition, Zéphirin Diabré, wishing ” A lot of success ” to Soumaïla Cissé, his “Friend and brother, in his future battles”.

“Their life counts for nothing! “

But in Burkina Faso, where jihadist violence attributed in particular to Al-Qaida and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has left more than 1,600 dead since 2015, the announcement of the release of dozens of prisoners, presented as “Jihadist fighters” – 200 according to pro-GSIM channels on the Telegram network – in return for the return of the hostages, also sparked anger and outrage. Some fear a resurgence of attacks on Burkinabé territory, which shares nearly a thousand kilometers of border with Mali. On social media, many wonder: “How many members of the security forces and civilians will fall afterwards because of these released terrorists?” Their life counts for nothing! And unfortunately we are going to pay for the broken pipes ”, worries a user on Facebook.

The price may seem high for the relatives of the victims and the populations of the north and east of the country where armed groups are rampant. But also for the Burkinabé defense forces which, in this war against terrorism, are paying a heavy price with more than 400 soldiers killed in five years. ” It’s a waste, bitterly berates an officer, on condition of anonymity. It is already difficult to control the border with Mali, if this is true, it may further strengthen them and we can expect more attacks soon. ”

According to information from “World Africa”, several jihad executives appear on the list of suspected terrorists released, such as Mauritanian Fawaz Ould Ahmed, a lieutenant of Mokhtar Belmokhtar arrested in 2016, involved in the attacks perpetrated a year earlier in Mali against the restaurant La Terrasse in Bamako (6 dead) and the Byblos hotel in Sévaré (22 dead).

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Some also wonder if such an operation might fuel hostage and ransom trafficking in the Sahel. “The release of terrorists, regardless of their number and rank, can only ignite the powder keg in the sub-region. The latter will be returned to their base and rearmed. The currency trading strategy is a vicious cycle “, deplores Raogo Antoine Sawadogo, former Burkinabe security minister and current president of the think-tank Citizenship Laboratory.

“Change strategy”

Despite everything, the negotiated release of the last French hostage in the world and of the former Malian opposition leader is reviving the hopes of families who have been watching, sometimes for many years, for the return of their loved ones. At least five Western hostages are still being held in the Sahel. In Djibo, in northern Burkina Faso, residents are counting the days with chalk on the walls of Dr. Kenneth Elliott’s clinic since he was kidnapped in 2016. “If we could negotiate for Mme Pétronin and Mr. Cissé, maybe it’s playable for Elliott, we want to continue to believe in it “, confides Sidiki Tamboura, the spokesperson for the support committee of the inhabitants of Djibo to the Australian surgeon now 85 years old.

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Also kidnapped in the region, Iulian Ghergut, a Romanian security officer, in 2015 at the Tambao mine, and Christo Bothma, a South African miner, in 2018 in Inata, are still in captivity, as are several local elected officials and notables Burkinabés, such as the priest of Djibo.

For the moment, the Burkinabe presidency has always shown its refusal to discuss with armed groups. But some voices are raised to demand the opening of a “Dialogue”, like what Mali has started to undertake. The party of former President Blaise Compaoré, which in its time had established contacts with some jihadist leaders in the region, has for its part never hidden its willingness to negotiate. “Terrorism cannot be fought by arms but by diplomacy, we must change strategy, discuss to understand why we are being attacked and find a solution towards peace”, argues Eddie Komboïgo, president of the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) and presidential candidate of November 22.

“In all conflicts in the history of mankind, at some point there has to be contact with the belligerents. In what form ? This is another debate “, believes Zéphirin Diabré, the Burkinabe opposition leader, is more cautious. About a month before the presidential and legislative elections in Burkina Faso, the subject remains sensitive and politically explosive. When contacted, the government spokesperson declined to answer our questions.

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