Burkina Faso capital joins Paris in edgy aftermath of extremist attacks

A vast world stands between the dusty streets of Ouagadougou and the grand boulevards of Paris, but the sleepy West African city now finds itself on common ground with its former colonial master.

In Ouagadougou, many fear foreign aid workers and businesses alike will be reluctant to keep helping

Aid worker Victorine Naba in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, worries that people will be reluctant to come to there. 'For the future of my country, I would say to the government to add more security.' (Richard Devey/CBC)

Though a vast world stands between the dusty streets of Ouagadougou, and the grand boulevards of Paris, on one violent evening last week the sleepy West African city found itself on common ground with its former colonial master.

Like Paris, Ouagadougou convulsed with a violent attack on innocent civilians perpetrated by Islamist extremists, the likes of which it has rarely seen.

Both cities recoiled in horror. And among the people of both countries something perceptibly changed.

In Paris, it was the quiet acquiescence to the new bag searches at some establishments; the extra vigilance on the metro. In a resignation to the idea of more attacks, there were also the calls to retrain emergency services to respond better to such violence.

A man reads newspaper headlines that talk about the al-Qaeda-linked attack Jan. 15 on the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino cafe that killed 28 people from at least seven countries in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

In Ouagadougou, it is the quiet respect for checkpoints and the curfew now imposed from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Then there are the many calls from people demanding the government do more to protect them, and their valuable visitors, from a growing and evolving threat.

Ask Victorine Naba, an aid worker who helps care for the impoverished country's orphans and to whom the attack struck too close to home.

In last week's attack, she almost lost her brother, who landed in hospital with a gunshot wound.

She also lost her Canadian friends: Quebec aid worker Yves Carrier, Gladys Chamberland, their children Maude and Charlelie, as well as their friends Louis Chabot and Suzanne Bernier.

Naba's personal trauma mirrors the dual threat facing Burkina Faso in light of such attacks — the threat to loved ones, and to livelihoods.

Could stop coming

This country relies on foreign aid and investment to muddle along. Canada is one of the top foreign countries to provide such assistance. Many people, like the Carriers, also come to help the less fortunate.

Without a guarantee of security, Naba and many others fear foreign aid workers and businesses alike will be reluctant to keep helping and could stop coming altogether.

"For the future of my country, I would say to the government to add more security," Naba said in an interview.

"The Burkinabe way is to open their arms, to whoever, wherever.

"We'll have to change our mentality and we have to become mean. We have to search people. We have to say 'no' when we're suspicious."

Official mourning is now over in Ouagadougou, and the streets are heaving again with markets and mopeds. Foreigners, however, are wary. Many have limited their movements. Some are considering whether to leave, if they haven't already gone.

Three of the attackers, says the French prime minister, are apparently still on the loose. The government here has promised to do what's necessary to protect local people and foreigners alike.

Dangerous corner of world

So you can add Burkina Faso to the list of countries, like France, violently forced into a serious rethink of their security.

But unlike France, Burkina Faso lives in a particularly dangerous corner of the world. Its neighbour in the north is Mali — where extremists are active, and where another hotel-full of foreigners was also attacked last year.

Burkina's borders are porous. And unlike France, the country doesn't have all the resources necessary to secure them. It even had to call on French soldiers to help free the hostages at the Splendid Hotel.

The latest spate of ISIS- and al-Qaeda-linked attacks—from Tunisia to Lebanon to Indonesia and Istanbul — proves once again that Islamist extremists are increasingly willing to make their point by attacking civilians.

So both Paris and Ouagadougou — and Nairobi, Jakarta, and other cities around the world — know it could happen to them again.

Ouagadougou has much more on the line than most other cities, and needs far more help than most to weather a disturbing, bloody trend.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.