Burkina Faso will vote in a general election Sunday in the shadow of a growing jihadist insurgency, with President Roch Marc Christian Kabore favourite to win re-election.
But no votes in the presidential and parliament polls will be cast in one-fifth of the country’s territory, where large swathes remain outside the state’s control and jihadist attacks strike almost daily.
The violence has forced one million people — five percent of the 20 million population — from their homes in the last two years, and at least 1,200 have been killed since 2015.
The security crisis has dominated the campaign and an undisclosed number of troops have been deployed for polling day in the landlocked West African country, one of the world’s poorest.
Most of the 12 opposition candidates running against Kabore have criticised the incumbent’s failure to stem the bloodshed.
However political scientist Drissa Traore said Kabore remains “the big favourite against an opposition which has not managed to unite behind a single candidate”.
Kabore can avoid a run-off election by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round — as he did in the last election in 2015.
– The challengers –
The president’s two main challengers are 2015’s runner-up, veteran opposition leader Zephirin Diabre, and Eddie Komboigo, standing for the party of former president Blaise Compaore.
Compaore, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2014 after 27 years in power, is now in exile but some voters are nostalgic for his regime.
The three leading candidates all wrapped up their campaigns on Friday, with Komboigo telling a rally in the capital Ouagadougou that Compaore would “return with all honours”.
Kabore meanwhile filled Ouagadougou’s largest stadium with tens of thousands of supporters wearing his ruling party’s orange.
And Diabre told thousands in the economic capital Bobo Dioulasso that his proposals “can help our country get by”.
As the campaign ramped up, so did the bloodshed.
Fourteen soldiers were killed in an ambush in the north claimed by the Islamic State group earlier this month, one of the deadliest attacks on the military in the five-year insurgency.
Days later, the IS propaganda arm published a picture of two jihadists killing a man wearing an army uniform — but the military denied there had been a new attack.
Jihadist violence in the north — as in neighbouring Sahel states Mali and Niger — has become intertwined with clashes between ethnic groups.
The Fulani community has in particular been targeted for recruitment by jihadists, and attacks regularly spark reprisal attacks, continuing the cycle of violence.
Humanitarian groups have condemned massacres of Fulani civilians by pro-government militias or the army.
Despite regularly claiming successes, the poorly equipped and trained army has slumped from loss to loss.
Security expert Mahamoudou Savadogo told AFP that the initial diagnosis of the threat “was poor and the response was neither adequate nor appropriate”.
– Dialogue with jihadists? –
Almost all of Kabore’s challengers have called for dialogue with the jihadists to be explored — a suggestion Kabore has emphatically rejected.
Diabre said that “military action on its own has never been able to defeat terrorism in any part of the world.”
“Alongside military action, there must be other actions.”
One of Kabore’s efforts has been the creation earlier this year of volunteer militias supervised by the state, called Volunteers for the Defence of the Nation (VDP).
Their role in Sunday’s election remains unclear, but a Western source in Ouagadougou said the presidential party “could be accused of using its troops” to push for Kabore votes.
A VDP leader in a central region assured that the militia will remain “neutral”.
“We will be there to support the army and protect polling stations,” the VDP leader said.
Around 6.5 million people will vote in Sunday’s election, but not in nearly 1,500 of the country’s 8,000 villages, nor in 22 of more than 300 communes, because of the security risks.