Can Old Ghosts Help Burkina Faso Contain Trouble in the Sahel?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Vigilante groups have rarely helped in quelling violence.
Burkina Faso’s descent into anarchy began as a play in two acts set in motion by a populist uprising in October 2014. That movement foiled then President Blaise Compaoré’s attempts to amend the constitution and extend a 27-year tenure that had begun with the assassination, in 1987, of his predecessor Thomas Sankara. In 2015, Gilbert Diendéré, a close Compaoré ally, led a failed coup attempt against the transitional government that had replaced Compaoré. Both incidents ultimately led to a weakening of the army’s tight grip on the country.
Islamic radicalism that had been bubbling under the surface rose to the fore. Swathes of Burkina Faso, previously home to refugees fleeing sectarian violence and terrorism in Mali, have now become the epicenter of Islamist insurgency in the Sahel. Since 2015, there have been more than 3,000 fatalities and 750,000 people displaced in the country by the independent actions of at least three major jihadi groups: Ansarul Islam, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Schools have closed and economic activity has all but ended in the north and center of Burkina Faso.
To fight back, the Burkinabe Parliament passed a law in January allowing the military to work with vigilante groups. While the Sahel’s challenge with Islamic militancy might be relatively new, Burkina Faso’s strategy has roots in Sankara’s four-year stint in power — and experts worry it risks exacerbating the region’s security problems instead of fixing them.
We can’t optimistically expect security to rein in these vigilante groups.
Corinne Dufka, West Africa director, Human Rights Watch
After the revolution, Sankara established the Comités de Défense de la Révolution (CDR), patterned after the Cuban local revolutionary cells Fidel Castro set up as “a system of collective vigilance.” Sankara’s supporters say the Burkinabe equivalent of the CDR was meant to stop the army from seizing power for itself. His critics say it was a smoke screen to keep enemies in check, sometimes brutally. When Compaoré took over, he abolished the CDR. After his own exit, the Regiment of Presidential Security, his elite execution squad headed by Diendéré, was also disbanded.
The new law establishing the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland as an umbrella for existing and new vigilante groups, has revived those arguments. Volunteers will work in groups incorporated into the state defense structure and complement the military and intelligence capabilities of security forces.
With national elections scheduled for November, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s actions are seen by experts as an attempt at an unorthodox solution to the security crisis. But human rights campaigners say the law could open up even more opportunities for violence and abuse.
“These self-defense groups are symptomatic of the absence of the state and the lack of public services,” says Romane Da Cunha Dupuy, a doctoral candidate at Sciences Po’s Centre de Recherches Internationales in Paris.
The cornerstone of this new policy is the 40,000-man militia known as the Koglweogo — “guardian of the bush” in Mòoré, one of the country’s major languages. In January 2019, more than 200 members of the ethnic Fulani community were murdered by suspected Koglweogo militiamen as reprisal for a jihadi attack. The Fulani are often accused of supporting or hiding jihadis.
Koglweogo spokesman Samir Abdoul Karim Ouedraogo has denied participating in ethnic killings, but the group’s role in that massacre and other similar incidents remains unresolved. If groups like the Koglweogo have state backing that threatens to deepen the cycle of violence and impunity, given the increasingly ethnic dynamics of the conflict.
Jihadis have frequently focused their attacks against agrarian communities while also concentrating their recruitment among the Fulani, explains Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“Communities with massacred civilians are the same communities that are forming the civil defense groups,” Dufka says. “These men have suffered profoundly from violence for which there really hasn’t been justice.” They are being supervised by security forces that themselves haven’t been held accountable for extrajudicial executions, points out Dufka. “We can’t optimistically expect security to rein in these vigilante groups.”
If this national experiment goes south, Burkinabe citizens will effectively find themselves trapped by violence from at least four different quarters: jihadis, armed bandits taking advantage of the confusion, vigilante groups and government forces. It’s a murky mix for a poor country dealing with the coronavirus pandemic too; as of May 3, Burkina Faso had more than 600 confirmed cases and 45 deaths. And the country’s central position today in the fight against Islamic radicalism in the Sahel means the impact of its successes or failures will be felt far beyond its borders.
To stem this bloody tide, Kaboré’s administration needs to act decisively and wisely. It needs to tweak its counterinsurgency strategy to allow the vigilante groups to operate only in a limited capacity or under the censorship of a body that can hold them accountable for human rights abuses and other excesses. The government should also investigate those implicated in recent massacres, to begin an exercise in justice and reconciliation in what is an already fragile country.
The example of Mali to its north is a cautionary tale for Burkina Faso of a Pandora’s box that could be hard to shut, warns Dufka. The Malian government never officially recognized vigilante groups, instead turning a blind eye to them. “Those groups have murdered hundreds of Fulani civilians and they have now become uncontrollable,” says Dufka. Burkina Faso and the broader Sahel can’t afford a repeat.