African leaders are gathering for a summit meeting from Friday in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, with combatting violent extremism, stopping the recent run of military coups seen in Africa, and getting help to the hungry all on the agenda.
While the leaders meet, help can’t come soon enough for the people of the town of Djibo in Burkina Faso’s far north who are faced with all the challenges: extremism, drought, coups.
In the Sahel region close to the border with Mali, Djibo has effectively been under siege by jihadist extremists since February.
The extremists have restricted movement in and out of the city and cut water supplies. Few truckers want to run the jihadist gauntlet.
The town’s population has swollen from 60-thousand to some 300-thousand over the last few years as people flee the countryside to escape violence. Residents now complain of thirst and hunger.
Djibo has been at the epicenter of the violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that has killed thousands and displaced nearly two million people.
While Djibo and Soum province where the town is located, has experienced periods of calm, such as during a makeshift ceasefire between jihadis and the government surrounding the 2020 presidential elections, the truce didn’t last and since November insecurity has increased.
Conflict analysts say blockading cities is a tactic used by jihadis to assert dominance and could also be an attempt to get Burkina Faso’s new military junta, which seized power in January, to backtrack promises to eliminate the jihadis.
A UN team flew in to assess the situation but stayed for just a few hours due to the threat level.
Locals said they had no food or water, while the few grains available in the market had spiked in price and their animals were dying.
“We have been living here for three months. Animals are not being bought. Most of the animals I came with here died of hunger. When you sell five animals and go to the market you can’t get a bag of food to eat. You can’t even see food. You can look for food in vain,” said Mamoudou Oumarou.
The 53-year-old father of 13 fled his village in February and said the blockade in Djibo has prevented people from coming to the market to buy and sell cattle, decreasing demand and lowering the price by half.
Before the violence Djibo had one of the biggest and most vital cattle markets in the Sahel and was a bustling economic hub.
Some 600 trucks used to enter Djibo monthly, now it’s less than 50 a week, said Alpha Ousmane Dao, director of Seracom, a local aid group in Djibo.
Burkina Faso is facing its worst hunger crisis in six years, more than 630,000 people are on the brink of starvation, the majority of which are in the Sahel, according to the UN.
As a result of Djibo’s blockade, the World Food Program has been unable to deliver food to the town since December and stocks are running out, said Antoine Renard, country director for the World Food Programme in Burkina Faso.
“We are in clear need of access to the area. All we do now is actually to sustain a quarter of the population for any goods that manage to come in the city,” he said.
Efforts to end the blockade through dialogue have had mixed results.
At the end of April the Emir of Djibo met with Burkina Faso’s top jihadist, Jafar Dicko, to negotiate lifting the siege. However, little progress has been made since.
Locals say the jihadis have eased restrictions in some areas allowing freer movement, but that the army is now preventing people from bringing food out of Djibo to the surrounding villages for fear it will go to the jihadis.