top of page

Signs of terror, signs of change - Nowhere in (West) Africa Part 1

Arrival in Ouagadougou

Right after my arrival in the capital Ouagadougou (spoken uagadugu, isn’t it possibly the funniest name for a city ever?) I noticed changes.

People were friendly and the queue at the immigration service required a lot of patience.

No, those were not the changes that I am referring to in the title. When my turn at the immigration service finally came I was asked to give my fingerprints – that was quite stunning and new. But before I could actually grasp it as a change, my mind kept me distracted with anxiety. My French was rusty, and I asked whether they needed also prints of my back (“dos” in French) instead of the fingers (“doits”) of my other hand. After I was amused about myself and then, with green lights, happy to move on, it slowly came to me when I was waiting for my backpack: in Burkina Faso, being one of the poorest countries in the world, I did not expect such a modern control procedure. But more surprises awaited me right around the corner. After waiting a few minutes in vain in the suspiciously empty arrival hall, wondering where my normally reliable friend Margo was, a taxi driver kindly let me know that visitors are not allowed inside the airport anymore.

It clicked in my mind

'2014 Burkinabé Uprising' monument

This brought me back to my memories of India, where I first noticed this (at least for me back then) uncommon regulation, which had been implemented in 2008 in response to the terror attacks in Mumbai. It clicked in my mind. The new regulations at the airport – security police – terror. There must be a connection.

Burkina Faso contributes to the UN peacekeeping initiative in Mali and is therefore considered a legitimate target by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its associated groups. Since 2016 terror attacks occurred in the country, mainly in the capital Ouagadougou, where, just to name one example, in 2017 19 people including 9 foreigners have been killed during one attack at a restaurant, and near the borders with Mali, Niger and the Ivory Coast and in the Eastern region. It is not recommended, particularly for foreigners, to travel into these areas. The latest major attacks only happened December 2019 in the North of the country.

Fear is what remains

The terror has left its marks in Burkina Faso, in the ‛land of the sincere people’. Here are some examples: The Avenue Kwamé Kourouma is with all its shops, bars and discos known as the best place for nightlife, entertainment and fun. Bright, loud, international – very vibrant. As we ride through this long street on a Friday’s late evening, the emptiness and calm we find here are quite a contrast to what it used to be like. In only a couple of bars we spot a few people sitting outside. The terrorism that happened here is already passé – but fear is what remains.

Preventing terror attacks: Soldiers are stopping cars on the road connecting Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou and Ghana.

We noticed another action against terror taken by the government when we were on the road that connects the capital Ouagadougou and Ghana. Armed soldiers had all cars stopped so then they could pick and check the suspicious vehicles – but no, they did not suspect us and waved us through without control. Maybe because a “blanche” – a white women – is more likely the target of terrorists than a terrorist herself, or because people with children in the car are unlikely to commit a terror attack or because both factors together reduce the chances of us planning the crime even more. Who really knows!? It doesn’t matter so much. ... We happily travelled on, as the village was awaiting us.

“A white foreigner should not sit in the front – it is safer to sit behind”

The few measures taken against terrorism that I had noticed gave off the impression that the government takes security of the country serious and does its best to keep the situation under control. I was positively surprised as I did not expect so much law and order from the current regime that has been established some time after the Burkinabé uprising in 2014.

The former president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, had taken over the power after leading the coup d’état through which his predecessor Thomas Sankara was killed. Compaoré won his elections usually under ‛unfair conditions’ and latest he tried to keep the power and to extent his 27-year term by changing the constitution. By this Compaoré provoked riots that led to the 2014 Burkinabé uprising and had him dissolving the government before Blaise Compaoré fled into the Ivory Coast.

Focused while driving through Ouagadougou.The perceived danger of having an accident was more tangible to me than the idea of terrorists stopping our car.

The new regime is more democratic, however it has also “some disadvantages”, as Margo’s mother in law reports, who was a syndicalist representing Burkina Faso in Brussels before retiring. “The rules are not as much respected as they were under Blaise Compaoré, where people were afraid of the consequences.” And regarding the terror, she reminded us, that it is not as safe here as it might appear. I was driving the car a couple of days through Ouagadougou with Margo, practising and getting used to the traffic, as she asked me to drive to the village. That was when I noticed the sign: “A white foreigner should not sit in front – it is safer to sit behind.”

Coming up next: "Timelessness - life in a West African village"



bottom of page