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While You Weren't Looking

Extremism Is on the Rise in West Africa. Education Is Suffering.

A new report from Burkina Faso shows that rising violence is taking a toll for a generation of children.

Primary school children leave their classrooms in Dori, Burkina Faso, on Feb. 3. 2020.
Primary school children leave their classrooms in Dori, Burkina Faso, on Feb. 3. 2020. OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Children are forced out of school in Burkina Faso as terrorist attacks on education facilities surge, the Pentagon accuses Russia of sending warplanes to Libya, and a plague of locusts has devastated crops in India.

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Growing Extremism Threatens Education

In Burkina Faso, militant groups aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic State have stepped up attacks on schools, forcing some 350,000 children to stay home over the past three years. According to a Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday, 107 schools have been burned, looted, and destroyed by militants opposed to secular education since 2017. Half of the documented attacks took place last year. “It’s their war against education,” a teacher told Human Rights Watch. Fifteen teachers and other school employees have been killed in the attacks.

The attacks have not been confined to Burkina Faso. A UNICEF report issued last summer found that 1.9 million children across Central and West Africa had missed school as militant groups opposed to secular education have stepped up their attacks. Once out of school, children are at greater risk of being recruited by the armed groups or forced into child marriage, Al Jazeera reports.

Uphill battle. Clashes between security forces and armed groups in Burkina Faso forced over 700,000 people to flee their homes last year, as part of a broader regional trend: In the last year alone, there was a fivefold increase in terrorist activity in the Sahel. In March, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, warned that “ISIS and al Qaeda are on the march in West Africa.” Attacks have been particularly acute in the largely ungoverned border area between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

“Western, international, and African efforts there are not getting the job done,” Townsend said. The general’s warnings came as the Pentagon is considering withdrawing some of its 1,400 forces from the region—part of a wider move to focus U.S. troop deployments on confronting Russia and China.

Unstable partnership. Despite their ideological opposition, groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State have worked together to take control of swaths of territory in the Sahel, a dynamic that has not been seen elsewhere. But a recent breakdown in relations between the groups increases the risk of conflict—which could plunge the region into further chaos, as Jacob Zenn and Colin P. Clarke write for Foreign Policy.


What We’re Following

U.S. police brutality sparks protests. Protests broke out in Minneapolis this week and quickly spread to other cities after George Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes during his arrest. Floyd’s death has fueled public outrage over police killings of African Americans. In a video of the man’s death, Floyd says he can’t breathe while onlookers plead with the officer, Derek Chauvin. On Friday, Chauvin was taken into custody and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder. He and three other officers who were at the scene have been fired.

Protesters burned a Minneapolis police precinct on Thursday after the city’s mayor ordered officers to abandon the building, and Gov. Tim Walz activated the National Guard in a bid to contain the chaos. In the early hours of Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump described the protesters as “thugs” on Twitter—adding, “[W]hen the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The social media company added a label to the tweet, noting that it violated the social network’s rules on glorifying violence, but it remains accessible “in the public’s interest.”

Russian planes in Libyan skies. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense accused Russia of sending warplanes to support the forces of Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive last year to take the capital of Tripoli from the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord. The Pentagon’s Africa Command said that the MiG-29 fighter jets had been repainted to disguise their country of origin. Russia has sought to engage different factions in the conflict but in September stepped up its support for Haftar, deploying hundreds of mercenaries to the front lines.

Such public assessments by the Pentagon are rare. The announcement may have been an attempt to nudge the White House to pay more attention to the conflict, which the Trump administration has largely overlooked since National Security Advisor John Bolton stepped down last year, FP’s Jack Detsch reports. If Russia is able to gain a foothold in bases along the Libyan coast, it could upend the security calculations for NATO member states in Southern Europe.

Showdown over Hong Kong. The Trump administration announced on Wednesday that it no longer considers Hong Kong to be autonomous from China, after Beijing moved to increase its control over the territory through passing a draconian national security law. The announcement may significantly affect Hong Kong’s trade status, currently recognized on a separate basis from the mainland’s. The White House is expected to announce further measures as early as today, including imposing tariffs or tougher export controls to attack Beijing by undermining Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center.

As the Chinese economy boomed in recent decades, Hong Kong’s share of China’s GDP fell from 16 percent in 1997 to just 3 percent—but it still serves as an important gateway for foreign investment. “The big question the administration is going to face is whether there is a sweet spot that enables them to apply enough pressure on the Chinese Communist Party that deters them from acting against Hong Kong, and ensures that those steps hurt the CCP and not the people of Hong Kong,” Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Obama administration official, told FP’s Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer.


Keep an Eye On 

Another plague—of locusts. Swarms of locusts have descended on central and western India this week, threatening livelihoods and food supply chains as they destroy swaths of crops. The swarms are the largest to hit India since 1993, adding to a list of challenges: a recent deadly cyclone, rising coronavirus infections, and a heat wave in the country’s northern states. East Africa has also been hit by unusually large swarms of locusts this year. Scientists say rising temperatures and increased rain have created ideal breeding grounds for the insects, and their threat to crops will only increase as climate change continues.

Suriname’s new leadership. Preliminary results from Monday’s parliamentary elections in Suriname point to a victory for the opposition Progressive Reform Party. The national assembly elects the president, and an opposition victory would bring an end to a decade of rule by President Desi Bouterse, who has remained in office despite being convicted in November for his role in the murders of 15 political opponents in the early 1980s. 

Bouterse is a fixture of political life in South America’s smallest country, leading the military dictatorship that ran the country for much of the 1980s. He returned to power in 2010 when his party won a majority of seats in parliament.

Murdoch’s media empire. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. announced on Wednesday that it will stop producing print editions of 112 local and regional newspapers in Australia, as advertising revenues have been squeezed by pandemic lockdowns. In a massive shift, 76 of the papers will now be online only, while 36 will cease to exist. The scale of job losses to come at News Corp. remains unclear, with the Guardian reporting that it could be in the hundreds.


Odds and Ends

A Central American first. Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to legalize same-sex marriage on Tuesday. Couples celebrated by getting married after the law came into effect at midnight. Alexandra Quiros and Dunia Araya were among the first to marry, and their wedding was broadcast on national television. The move follows a 2018 ruling by Costa Rica’s Supreme Court, which found the country’s ban on same-sex marriage was discriminatory and unconstitutional and gave lawmakers 18 months to change the law.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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