An attack against workers travelling to Semafo’s (TSX: SMF) Boungou mine in southeastern Burkina Faso has left 39 dead and 60 wounded.
A convoy of five buses escorted by military personnel came under fire on a public road about 40 km from the mine.
It is the third attack in the last 15 months targeting employees of the Canadian mining company, which operates two mines in the West African nation.
Five gendarmes and a subcontractor travelling to the Boungou mine were killed on Aug. 13, 2018. A few days later, an employee and subcontractor were killed while travelling to Semafo’s Mana mine, in southwestern Burkina Faso, 260 km southwest of the capital, Ouagadougou.
The deaths last year prompted the Quebec-based Semafo to start flying expatriate employees by helicopter between Ouagadougou and other cities, and its two operating mines.
Management in Semafo’s Montreal office could not be reached for comment on the latest ambush.
“In addition to the impact on people, the unprecedented scale and nature of the attack has made basic administration and logistics very difficult, Semafo president and CEO, Benoit Desormeaux, said in a press release on Nov. 11.
“It will take some time to evaluate the new operating environment and to assess how we will be able to operate in a safe and secure manner in Burkina Faso. Until such time the Boungou mine operations will continue to be suspended.”
A total of 241 employees, contractors and suppliers were involved in the ambush, the company has confirmed.
Of those killed, 19 were employees of Australian mining services provider Perenti Global (formerly Ausdrill), and two worked for Geodrill.
It is unclear if any group has claimed responsibility, but Corinne Dufka, associate director in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says it’s “reasonable to assume” the attackers were armed Islamic extremists.
“They are known to be present in that particular area. They have been targeting the mining sector recently, and they have been ratcheting up their attacks on the security forces,” she says in an interview from Washington, D.C. “There’s a patchwork of armed dissident groups in Burkina Faso allied to both the Islamic state and Al Qaeda — those active in eastern Burkina Faso have more often been allied with the Islamic state — but it’s too early to say which group this is.”
Thomas Abi-Hanna, global security analyst for geopolitical intelligence group Stratfor, notes that if the number of fatalities is correct, “it would be the single deadliest militant attack in Burkina Faso since 2016.”
Burkina Faso has been struggling with armed Islamist insurgence groups since the emergence in 2016 of Ansarou Islam, a local group with roots in the northern Sahel region that borders Mali and Niger, Dufka says.
Extremist groups allied to Al Qaeda and active in Algeria first moved down into Niger and Mali, she explains.
“They dug in there, and allied in 2012 with the separatist Tuareg in Mali, and took over the entire north of the country,” she says. “Then they were kicked out and routed largely by a French-led operation in 2013, after which they started moving south. They were able to break up into smaller groups and concentrated their recruitment on a particular ethnic group called the Peuhl. They took advantage of this ethnic group’s grievances against the state, against poverty, and then got these people to move into Burkina Faso, where they started their operations in earnest in 2016.”
“I talk to a lot of people who attend village meetings organized by Islamists in Burkina Faso and Mali, and what they consistently talk about is wanting villagers to adhere to their version of Islam and to strict Sharia law,” Dufka says, “and that they want foreigners to depart from the land — meaning the French, the Americans, the large corporations.”
The jihadists seem to be sustained by kidnapping, which has proven very lucrative for them, she adds, as has artisanal gold mining and the theft of livestock.
In a report she authored called “Atrocities by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region,” published in March, Dufka cited statistics from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies that showed attacks by armed Islamist groups in the country totalled 137 in 2018, up from 29 in 2017, 12 in 2016 and three in 2015.
Abuses against civilians by the jihadists have been trending up in Burkina Faso, she says, as evidenced by their increasing attacks on mosques, churches and villagers.
“It has been a terrible year for civilians,” she continues. Thousands of people have fled their homes to escape the violence. According to Save the Children, “almost half a million people are displaced in the country now.”
The security situation in Burkina Faso has “steadily deteriorated” over the last year, confirms Stratfor’s Abi-Hanna.
In January, Kirk Woodman, vice-president of exploration for Vancouver-based Progress Minerals, was kidnapped and killed in northeastern Burkina Faso — his bullet-ridden body found in Gorom-Gorom, in the Sahel. The attack on Woodman followed the kidnapping in the country of Quebec tourist Edith Blais and her Italian companion, Luca Tacchetto, in December 2018.
Earlier this month in Mali, armed militants stormed a military base and killed at least 53 soldiers. They alsostole weapons, ammunition, explosives and vehicles. “That was the deadliest attack carried out by the Islamic state’s affiliate in Mali that we have seen,” Abi-Hanna says in an interview from Austin, Texas.
A day after the attack on the army base, a French soldier died when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
There is also growing concern that Islamic militants will continue to move southward through countries like Benin, Togo, and even Ghana. A jihadist leader based in the east of Burkina Faso was arrested in Togo at the beginning of the year.
“Burkina Faso is a lynchpin country for the spread of jihadism from the Sahel to the north to coastal West Africa to the southern countries, so it’s an important country in this regard,” Dufka says.
“As we’ve seen in Burkina Faso, if you have instability in one part of the country, there is potential for it to spread,” Abi-Hanna says. “Originally the violence was in the north of the country, now it’s in the eastern and southern parts.”
He notes that in recent months, Benin, Togo and Ghana have all ramped up security along their northern borders. Two French tourists were kidnapped in northern Benin earlier this year and taken across the border into Burkina Faso. They were later rescued in a French commando raid.
In mid-February, Reuters reported that Alpha Barry, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, warned at a security conference in Germany that “the threat is gaining ground” — with a growing number of attacks in the country and along its borders with Benin, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Several months ago, the World Food Program reported that Burkina Faso “is dealing with an unfolding humanitarian crisis resulting from a sharp increase in armed violence,” which has forced the displacement of people to increase fivefold since December 2018, “with nearly 240,000 people officially uprooted from their homes.”
Dufka’s report for Human Rights Watch released in March documented atrocities by armed Islamic extremists and security forces in the Sahel region from mid-2018 until February 2019. The report examined incidents in which armed extremist groups allegedly murdered at least 42 civilians “who they suspected of being government collaborators.”
The extremists also “abducted and intimidated local leaders; engaged in pillage, commandeered ambulances and stopped animal vaccination campaigns; destroyed schools, forbade women from socializing or selling in the market, and villagers from celebrating marriages and baptisms; and shot up local businesses.”
In response to the “growing presence of armed Islamists,” the report noted, security forces “allegedly executed at least 116 unarmed men accused of supporting or harbouring the armed Islamists.
“All of the victims were last seen in the custody of government security forces and had been shot in the head or chest hours after their detention, according to witnesses who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
“Villagers consistently decried being caught between armed Islamists’ threats to execute those who collaborated with the government, and the security forces, who expected them to provide intelligence about the presence of armed groups, and meted out collective punishment when they did not,” the report stated. “Community leaders representing different ethnic groups expressed concern that the security force abuses were serving to drive villagers into the hands of the armed Islamists.”
The report was based on 92 interviews, of which 61 were with victims and witnesses.
Mathieu Pellerin, a specialist on the Sahel region at the International Crisis Group, notes that jihadists “exploit less religious than social and political local grievances to recruit.
“Jihadism in Burkina Faso, like in the whole Sahel, is composed of local insurgency groups, which are committed to local grievances caused by a system of governance [that] produces inequalities, whether it is the judiciary system, governance over natural resources, or the governance of the Defense and Security Forces,” he says. “In that way, we can’t rule out that the attack against Semafo’s Boungou mine was led by local jihadists who have developed resentment towards the mine and the state. There is nothing to assert it for now, but considering how relations between mining companies and local communities are bad and marked by regular conflicts, we cannot exclude such a hypothesis.”
Charles Dumbrille, chief risk officer at IN-D-TEL International in Vancouver, is urging his clients to avoid nonessential travel to outlying areas of Burkina Faso, and warning not to travel to the Sahel, Est, Nord and Boucie du Mouhoun regions of the country. He also recommends avoiding all travel to areas along the Burkina Faso border with Mali and Niger in light of the threat of cross-border militancy.
“The analysis and intelligence that has come out for the past well over a year has been pointing out the dangers in this region,” he tells The Northern Miner. “The risks were always there.”