Pope Francis has expressed his sorrow for yet another attack in Burkina Faso in which at least 160 were killed, including 20 children, and more than 40 were injured. The massacre and torching of a market and homes followed an attack by gunmen on motorbikes on 4 June in the small town of Solhan in Yagha province, near Niger.
Speaking last Sunday, Pope Francis said: “Africa needs peace and not violence,” and “I am close to their families and to the entire Burkinabé people who are suffering greatly from these repeated attacks.” The country’s Catholic Bishops invited Catholics – around 19 per cent of the population - to pray for the victims during Corpus Christi celebrations.
The UN condemned the “heinous attack” and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres was “outraged”, calling for renewed international efforts against violent extremism in the region. Describing it as the worst militant attack in Burkina Faso in recent years, the country’s government declared a 72-hour period of national mourning, describing the attackers as terrorists.
While no group has claimed responsibility, the area is plagued by jihadists linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in West Africa’s Sahel region. This area is strategic because it connects Mali and Niger via Burkina Faso and the authorities believe the assailants wanted to demonstrate their ability to control the territory. Sources from the Apostolic Nunciature in Ouagadougou on Monday reported Burkina Faso being “in shock” and reported that the country’s ill-equipped army has organised self-defence groups in Sahelian towns, including Solhan, and “with these massacres, the terrorists seem to want to respond to these defence initiatives”.
Once a beacon of peace and religious coexistence, Burkina Faso has been embroiled in militia violence since 2016. There are economic motives – Solhan is the site of an informal gold mine that terror groups frequently exploit for funding – and there are religious undertones, although Solham itself is a diverse town.
Last month in the north, a baptism service was attacked, specifically targeting Christians, and at least 15 people were killed. Instability is also affected by climate change and desertification. Armed groups have driven up religious and ethnic tensions between farming and herding communities in the Sahel as a means of increasing their own power.
The latest attack brings the number of civilians killed by militias in the Sahel region to more than 500 since January. More than one million people in Burkina Faso have been displaced by violence over the past two years and jihadist attacks have increased despite the presence of more than 5,000 French troops heading a counter-terrorism force.