Insurgency leads to university closures, staff deaths

Higher education and research institutions, their staff and research projects in Burkina Faso are under threat from a jihadist insurgency, as the West African country’s military government struggles to maintain security in several regions.

Human Rights Watch says insurgents control 40% of the country’s territory and 1.4 million people have fled their homes out of an overall population of 22.1 million, recounting hundreds of deaths in the conflict – civilian, military and insurgents – although it has not released an overall figure, and nor has the United Nations.

There have been 12 higher, secondary and primary education teachers killed by jihadist groups in the country since 2017, said Souleymane Badiel, the secretary-general of the Burkinabe Federation of National Unions for Education and Research Workers (F-SYNTER – Fédération des Syndicats Nationaux des Travailleurs de l’Éducation et de la Recherché).

Recent higher education casualties were four killed in Bittou, in the province of Boulgou, south-eastern Burkina Faso, in December, although military authorities have not released the names of their institutions.

As it stands, higher education classes in universities and colleges within the north and east of the country have been suspended. The affected institutions are Dori University Centre (Centre Universitaire de Dori) and the University of Fada N’Gourma (Université de Fada N’Gourma) – both public universities.

Education spending plummets

The ministry of higher education, research and innovation budget had been increasing before the upsurge of the jihadist violence in 2021. The 2020-21 budget was up 5.1% year-on-year, to West African franc XOF97 billion (about US$160 million), with 67.1% of the allocation being sent to teaching institutions.

But, with the government prioritising security spending, the 2021-22 ministry budget fell to XOF89.7 billion (US$148 million) and the budget for 2022-23 is still under discussion.

Research spending budgets have also been falling as Burkina Faso’s economy was disrupted by jihadist groups such as Ansar ul Islam. Their presence in rural areas has hampered agricultural and livestock production – GDP growth in 2022 was 2.5% according to the International Monetary Fund, with the insurgency hitting a robust post-Covid recovery.

Badiel, of F-SYNTER, said 4,258 education establishments of all levels were now closed, telling University World News: “Thousands have been physically and psychologically traumatised, and more than 700,000 students [of all levels] deprived of their right to education.”

There are 190,218 higher education students in Burkina Faso; 36.6% are women, at 22 universities and colleges, of which 19 are public.

Badiel said the sector needed to be reviewed and placed under an internal crisis management system “to make higher education and research resilient”.

There are 21 higher education universities and colleges in Burkina Faso, 12 research centres and 17 research institutes, employing 2,538 lecturers and researchers, 17% of them being women, said the ministry.

The largest proportion of lecturers teach natural sciences and agronomy, followed by arts and humanities; medicine, pharmacy and veterinary science. There were 722 researchers and technicians at Burkinabe research institutions in 2020, of which 32.5% are women, with 1,295 student trainees, 28.9% of whom are women.

Talks with advisory body

Faced with the problems of keeping the country’s higher education running, transitional President Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who took power in a September 2022 coup, in January conferred with the Burkina Faso scientific and university committee, an independent national advisory body.

The meeting was held at the country’s largest university, Joseph Ki-Zerbo University, in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Commenting, Professor Jean-François Kobiane, the university president told University World News: “We explained the major concerns of the higher education and research sector to the head of state.” The committee is especially concerned about budget cuts, given higher education student numbers have been growing, from 30,000 in 2005-6 to 204,000 in 2022 – the country’s population is 22.1 million.

And security fears are growing, he said, with jihadist terrorism growing in the past 10 years, and two military coups in 2022.

Professor Adjima Thiombiano, the minister of higher education, research and innovation, noted at the meeting that “formerly spared by terrorist attacks, institutions of higher education and research are increasingly subject to serious threats, and research centres like Kouaré, Dori and Di are experiencing difficulties related to terrorism.”

In Dori, north-east Burkina Faso, in the Sahel, students have spent more than a year without classes. The National Association of Students of Burkina (Association Nationale des Etudiants Burkinabé – ANEB), Dori section, raised concern about this problem in January. Three months later, the situation has not changed, said section president Amadou Diallo.

He told University World News: “The most recent class at Dori University Centre was held last March [2022]. The 1,800 students at the university found themselves overnight without teachers,” he said. His association has suggested the government commutes lecturers by helicopter to Dori from the comparative safety of Ouagadougou, 268km to the south.

“Until now, we are waiting,” said Diallo. The Dori region, closed to the Niger border, has strong security challenges, with most state services and banks absent, including the military, even though the university has not been directly attacked. There have been similar problems in Kouaré, eastern Burkina Faso, at the University of Fada N’Gourma where, in November 2022, a terrorist attack on a military unit took place near the university – which is in the outskirts of the city – sparking panic.

The General Union of Burkinabé Students (Union Générale des Etudiants Burkinabé – UGEB) and ANEB’s Fada section subsequently asked the university president for classes to be temporarily relocated away from the city until security improved.

However, the president asked the students to be “resilient and to continue the courses on the site”.

Unfortunately, in January, insurgents attacked the university with gunfire, peppering its walls with bullet holes – there were no casualties. This time, classes were suspended, with the university authorities seeking alternate sites for the resumption of classes in non-university buildings closer to the city centre.

This effort has not been maintained, with the university administration saying classes were to resume at the Fada campus of the university on March 1, even though families have been fleeing surrounding villages through fear of jihadist attack.

The result, said student representative Guiro Salif Naïm, was a refusal of teachers and students to return without improved security, with further disruption to courses and research.

Research setback

Near the rural town of Di, western Burkina Faso, near the Mali frontier, agricultural research has been disrupted following October 2021 attacks on military and police posts, killing five police officers, which led to a withdrawal by the armed forces and families fleeing their homes.

However, the University of Dédougou, 118km by road to the south, is still operating and preparing for Ramadan celebrations, with research on food insecurity ongoing, as indicated on a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, the Burkina Faso Environment and Agricultural Research Institute (INERA – L’institut de l’environnement et de recherches agricoles du Burkina Faso) has been unable to operate effectively because of security concerns and the government’s budget squeeze.

Commanding 52.4% of Burkinabe higher education project spending but exposed to the mainly rural area-focused jihadists, 47 of 57 projects and programmes have been suffering from delays.

Similar delays have occurred at the Institute for Research in Applied Sciences and Technologies (IRSAT); the Institute for Research in Health Sciences (IRSS); and the Institute of Social Sciences (INSS).