When Sherbrooke, Que., resident Edith Blais set out on her last known journey in Burkina Faso, she and her Italian companion Luca Tacchetto would have been travelling through one of the few parts of the country that was not covered by a high-alert Canadian travel advisory.
Leaving the city of Bobo-Dioulasso in the country’s west, the two faced a 361-kilometre drive to the nation’s capital Ouagadougou on the paved two-lane N1 toll road — the country’s best.
The start and end points for the journey and all the land along the way fall under Canada’s general travel advisory for Burkina Faso, which recommends Canadians “avoid all unnecessary travel” — the second-highest level for such advisories.
But the N1 route skirts an area that lies within 80 km of Burkina Faso’s long border with Mali — all of which is under Canada’s most restrictive level of travel advisory: “avoid all travel.”
Roadblocks, carjacking and gunplay
“Canada’s travel advisory for Burkina Faso is about as explicit as you can make these things,” said Gar Pardy, a former director-general of consular affairs who also served as ambassador to multiple countries. “It’s a very troubled country.”
Since the killing of six Quebecers in Ouagadougou in 2016, the country once known as Upper Volta has been seen as a place where jihadists can strike anywhere at any time.
And it’s not just the wide swath of land along the northern border with Mali that Global Affairs Canada has labelled “avoid all travel.” The same warning applies to most of Burkina Faso’s east, which borders Niger, and its southern provinces bordering Togo and Benin.
Blais and Tacchetto do not seem to have followed those warnings. They had arrived in Burkina Faso from Mali — a country flagged “avoid all travel” on the GAC website — and would have also crossed through the Burkinabe red zone on their way to Bobo-Dioulasso, where Blais made her last call home on December 15.
After reaching Ouagadougou, the next stage of their journey would have seen them head to a reforestation project in Togo, which is considered safer by GAC. But getting there overland would have required a journey through another red zone in southern Burkina Faso. (“Avoid all travel to 40 km within borders of Benin and Togo due to the threat of banditry and terrorism.”)
Global Affairs doesn’t mince words about the perils of travelling by vehicle in Burkina Faso: “Incidents of illegal roadblocks and carjacking have occurred. Armed criminals don’t hesitate to shoot at vehicles to stop and rob their occupants …. Such incidents can happen …. day or night, on both main and secondary roads.”
Pardy said that when he was in charge of consular affairs for Canada, most Canadian travellers were “totally indifferent” to travel advisories — and little has changed.
“Canadians have their own views. We tried allying with the insurance business and with travel agencies to get the advisory out there. It didn’t make any difference.”
Pardy said it presents a dire dilemma for governments.
“Every hurricane season, thousands of Canadians buy tickets to the Caribbean because they’re slightly cheaper. Then when the hurricane hits, they raise bloody hell for a plane to come and get them out.”
At the time of Hurricane Irma, Canada’s then ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle told CBC News he believed such rescues “should be on a cost-recovery basis.”
“There are thousands and thousands of Canadians who get themselves in all kinds of trouble around the world.”
Some countries try to exert stronger controls over citizens who ignore warnings. South Korea has been locked in a battle with Korean citizens who live in Libya, a country riven by fighting between rival militias and jihadist groups.
Over Christmas, Korean authorities took the unusual step of revoking the passports of the last three Koreans who refused to leave Libya.
“Countries like South Korea and China seem to have more control over their overseas communities,” said Pardy. “Cancelling passports is not something you could do here. There’s a guarantee of freedom of travel under section 7 of the Charter. You’d get such a strong pushback, you could never do it.
“We tried to remove the passport of a child sex offender who was overseas, and the courts wouldn’t let us.”
Different ransom policies
International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau is also the Blais family’s MP. Her office told CBC News Canada is treating the case as a potential kidnapping. But no ransom demand has been made public, nor has any claim of responsibility.
If it is a kidnapping, the citizenships of the two abductees may complicate matters.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are thought to have collected tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from European governments — including the 12 million euro Italy is believed to have paid jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra to liberate aid workers Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli after they were seized in Aleppo, Syria.
The Trudeau government, on the other hand, has been vocal about its no-ransom policy and has tried to get other countries to sign on.
“There’s nothing wrong with the policy per se, but you don’t want to stand up and call attention to it in the middle of a kidnapping incident. Last time we did that was a disaster,” said Pardy, referring to the kidnapping and murder of two Canadians by a Filipino jihadist group.
In practice, Pardy said, the no-ransom policy doesn’t necessarily mean no money ever changes hands.
“The money might come from the victim’s employer, from insurance, from family, from various sources, and the Canadian government can facilitate that,” he said.
Calgary philanthropist Allan Markin anonymously donated $750,000 to help secure the release of Amanda Lindhout from Somali kidnappers in 2009.
But a senior government official speaking to CBC News on condition of anonymity said the Trudeau government’s policy on ransoms is “ironclad” and precludes taking any part in negotiations over payouts to kidnappers — even with privately held funds — because that would undermine the message that there is nothing to be gained from kidnapping Canadians.
The official added that Canada is co-ordinating its efforts in the Blais case with the government of Italy.
Jihadist attacks, ethnic tensions worsening
The year 2019 has already seen one massacre as a result of tensions between settled farmers and nomadic pastoralists in Burkina Faso.
Last week, 46 members of the Mossi ethnic group died in a raid on their village. Mossi fighters killed seven Fulani herders in retaliation the following day, said a spokesperson for the Burkina Faso government.
Those events came just hours after Burkina Faso declared a state of emergency following the killings of ten gendarmes by jihadists in the country’s north.
Right across the central Sahel region that includes much of Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Chad, settled farmers often accuse Tuareg and Fulani nomadic herders of supporting jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which kidnapped Canadian Robert Fowler when he served as UN special envoy to Mali.
Like Nigeria’s Boko Haram — which means “Western learning is forbidden” in local patois — the jihadist groups in Burkina Faso have targeted schools and teachers in an effort to end secular education in the country.