Ouagadougou/Dakar — Aid agencies have stepped up security measures in Burkina Faso and Niger as the threat of kidnappings by Islamist groups mounts.
Security specialists fear Islamist groups currently in control of northern Mali will increasingly abduct foreign nationals to raise money to prepare for conflict, given the likelihood of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military intervention predicted to take place early next year. Some say hostages could also be used as human shields.
As a result, UN agencies are using armed escorts for travel into rural areas of Niger and much of Burkina Faso, international staff have been withdrawn from many areas, and NGOs travel to at-risk zones only in convoy.
Five Nigerien aid workers were freed on 4 November, while a sixth aid worker – a Chadian national – died after having been shot by hostage-takers in southeastern Niger on 14 October. The freed hostages said they were mistakenly kidnapped by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which had been “looking for a white person”.
Western workers are the principal target, though regional African staff may also be pursued once ECOWAS member states firmly commit to contributing troops or support to the military intervention mission, say security specialists in Niger and Burkina Faso.
Areas deemed most at-risk include northern Burkina Faso near the Mali border – where most of the 35,000 Malian refugees are currently sheltering – and rural areas outside major towns throughout Niger.
Simmering popular discontent over the lack of development in Burkina Faso, high youth unemployment and the regime’s failure to raise living standards also provides fertile ground for Islamist groups to boost their influence, say analysts.
Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré is playing a prominent mediation role in the Mali crisis while also supporting the call for international intervention; while Niger has been at the forefront of states neighbouring Mali to call for military intervention in the north.
Porous borders mean “there is a lot of movement of Islamist groups” across Burkina Faso and Niger, including suspected Boko Haram members in southern Niger on the border with Nigeria, according to Germain Mwehu, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Niger and Mali.