April 5, 2016:
France is sending about a hundred counter-terrorism commandos of the GIGN (Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale) to Burkina Faso to serve as a rapid reaction force for most of West Africa. Burkina Faso is south of Mali and east of Niger, two countries that have had a lot of trouble with Islamic terrorists recently especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The GIGN are ideally suited for this sort of work.
In 2007 France decided to expand GIGN from 120 troops to 420. GIGN was formed in 1973, in response to the Palestinian terrorist attack on athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany. Since then, GIGN has taken part in over 1,600 operations, which has led to the rescue of over 600 hostages, the arrest of over 1,500 terrorists and criminals, and the killing of dozens of terrorists. Seven GIGN commandos have died (two in action, five in training) and over a hundred wounded. GIGN is similar to the U.S. Delta Force and the British SAS. GIGN usually deploy as teams, each with fifteen operators.
GIGN recruits are all members of the national police with at least five years’ experience and able to meet high physical and mental qualifications. There is a ten month training course before they get assigned to a team. The GIGN teams train constantly, and each of the dozen or so active teams is called on for an operation at least five times a year. Before 2007 only about eight new recruits were added each year. To expand the force over a hundred new recruits had to undergo training a year.
The GIGN force is being stationed in Burkina Faso not just because of its strategic location and vulnerability to Islamic terrorists but also to help back up a new government. In October 2014 Burkina Faso, a former French colony that became independent in 1960, suffered an unexpected government change. Burkina Faso has suffered under a series of corrupt or revolutionary dictators since the 1960s until one (Blaise Compaore) took over in 1987 and managed to hold onto power for 27 years until the winds of change finally caught up with him and he resigned on October 31st 2014. This came after two days of demonstrations that the security forces, despite killing 32 people and wounding hundreds, could not control. The immediate cause of the unrest was Compaore’s effort to get a law passed to allow him to run for office again. For over a decade Compaore had been keeping revolution in check with a series of reforms that, whatever else they did (and it was not much) left him in charge. Compaore finally ran out of angles and new schemes. Military commanders who took over until elections could be held in 2015 were not considered completely trustworthy and there was widespread fear that the country would end up with another dictator. That almost happened again in late 2015 but, in part because of French pressure, the elected president held onto power and France would like to keep it that way. So would most of the locals. So would the GIGN.
Burkina Faso is a small (17 million people) landlocked country near the West Coast of Africa and the Equator. It is one of the least developed countries in Africa, largely because of the corruption and over half a century of one-man rule. The dictators tended to put more emphasis on retaining power than in fostering economic freedom and growth. The most powerful people in Burkina Faso are dependent on a web of corrupt government and commercial relationships for their own wealth and power. Dismantling all these relationships is not easy. Thus while the most corrupt and powerful man, Blaise Compaore, was out of power in late 2014 the people who kept him in charge for so long were still running the government and the military. The opposition to the corruption and Blaise Compaore himself was never able to unite all the opposition groups and the recent unrest was more of a spontaneous explosion of frustration by many people who were just fed up. The new government is still trying to root out all of the Compaore collaborators.
Rulers that stay in power for decades are still common in Africa. Even when there are elections that bring in new leaders on a regular basis. These “democratically elected” presidents tend to all be from the same party, one that usually practices organized corruption by a coalition of powerful families. While cell phones and Internet access have enabled many Africans to easily communicate with each other, a major discussion topic is the seemingly unshakeable power of the corrupt families that dominate government and commerce throughout the continent. Being able to discuss the problem with other victims does not automatically fix things.
What the cell phones and Internet do provide is easier ways to organize demonstrations and organized opposition to dictators. The perpetual unrest might attract some international peacekeepers, but it is no quick way to obtain an end to corruption and dictatorship. The people of Burkina Faso are not eager for the kind of endless civil war and violence so common in neighboring countries, but at the moment they are not willing to just accept any replacement for Compaore. The UN, the AU (African Union), France (who originally sponsored Compaore) and all the neighbors are hoping for the best and bracing for the worst and appreciate the French contribution of GIGN police commandos.