Burkina Faso to Vote Amid Escalating Violence

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) -- Burkina Faso will vote in presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, amid escalating extremist violence that's killed more than 2,000 people this year and displaced some one million people from their homes.

Speaking at a packed rally on his campaign tour in Bobo-Dioulasso town this month, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore promised, if reelected, to keep fighting until the country was secure.

“We will not give up, we will keep fighting until we will have peace and victory on our soil,” he said.

But Kabore, who is seeking a second five-year term, is being accused by the dozen opposition candidates vying for his position, for failing to secure the once peaceful West African nation, which has plunged into a humanitarian crisis and been overrun by jihadist attacks linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State since taking office in 2015.

Leading the charge against him is Eddie Komboigo, head of the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), the party of former President Blaise Compaore who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2014. Komboigo told the AP that Burkina Faso was in a “catastrophe” and blamed Kabore for being unwilling to pursue a more diplomatic approach with the jihadists.

“I don't think that terrorism can be overcome only with weapons but with intelligence, dialogue and diplomacy. Nowhere in the world was terrorism overcome with weapons,” he said.

The other main rival, Zephirin Diabre, candidate for the Union for Progress and Change party (UPC), is running against Kabore for the second time, under the slogan, “let's save the country”. Diabre told the AP the fractured nation, once known for its social cohesion, needs to reconcile and present a united front against the gunmen because “you can't fight the war and win it if you're not united and together,” he said.

Kabore is expected to be re-elected and needs more than 50% of the vote to win in the first round. The opposition, however, hopes to split the vote, deprive the President of an outright win and form a coalition behind the strongest candidate for round two. Election results should be announced within 48 to 72 hours, said a representative from The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI).

Analysts warn this election will be a major test for the nation's young democracy and that a “failure to hold a peaceful and transparent poll will give extremist groups operating in the region a significant propaganda boost and reinforce their message that governments across the region are illegitimate and ineffective,” said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk consultancy.

But the election's legitimacy is already being questioned as violence has cut off large swaths of the country leaving people unable to cast ballots. Approximately 166,000 potential new voters weren't able to be registered, according to CENI. A change in Burkina Faso's electoral code earlier this year means that election results will be considered valid even if people can't vote in parts of the country, threatening to undermine the winner's legitimacy. Burkina Faso already has a low voter turnout: Less than 2 million votes, only 10 percent of the population, determined the presidency in the last election, said Aristide Bere, a government official in charge of providing national identification cards.

A spate of attacks in recent weeks also has security experts cautioning of potential trouble on election day. Earlier this month the Islamic State took credit for killing 14 soldiers in the Sahel's Oudalan province and a few days earlier, an attacker threw a flammable bottle into a mosque in the capital, Ouagadougou, injuring six people.

“We're going to see so many layers of insecurity at play both before, during and after the elections with dozens of incidents around polling stations, against civilians, against authorities. And clearly the government doesn't have the capacity to control this,” said Flore Berger, a Sahel analyst.

Significant military reinforcements have been dispatched around the country to help secure the polling, according to a military leader who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press.

Civilians in hard hit areas say they're already being threatened by jihadists not to vote. The permanent ink mark given after a vote has become a worry for many in the Sahel region.

In less volatile parts of the country, feelings about Sunday are mixed. Some citizens in Ouagadougou said Kabore deserved more time to prove himself, while others felt it was time for a change.

“We have had (Kabore) in power for a long time, but security is still not stable,” said Vincent Gango, a Ouagadougou resident. “Why not hand it over and let someone else have a turn?” he said.