Greeted by a crescendo of motor horns and cheering crowds, a convoy of pickup trucks, cars and motorcycles rolls through the streets of Pouytenga, in the West African country of Burkina Faso. As they enter an arena ringed by approximately 2,000 people, men with old hunting rifles, machetes and quivers of arrows jump from the vehicles to greet the crowd. Boureima Nadbanka emerges from a pickup truck. Draped in red and gold robes, he walks a lap of the arena, waving to the audience as they clap and shout, “He is back!”
He’s the leader of the Koglweogo, a vigilante group of around 40,000 men that has sprung up across the country’s arid savanna, especially in parts gradually falling away from government control. Translated from Mòoré, one of many local languages in Burkina Faso, Koglweogo means “guardian of the bush.” Like many other countries in the Sahel region, which skirts the southern reaches of the Sahara, parts of Burkina Faso have been ravaged by lawlessness and insecurity in recent years. Since 2015, more than 3,000 people have died and nearly 1 million have fled their homes, amid an influx of militants from Islamic State and al-Qaida.
For many Burkinabes, Nadbanka is a symbol of resistance against the terrorist insurgency and represents law and order in places where otherwise there is almost none. But he has gained infamy in near-equal measure and is himself awaiting a high-profile criminal trial, accused of involvement in a massacre.
Two days after the rally in Pouytenga, OZY sat down with Nadbanka to discuss how the group operates, his arrest and the crime he is alleged to have been involved in. As we drove to his village close to the town of Boulsa, news came in of a massacre of 43 civilians in the northwest. Local media were reporting that the Koglweogos were responsible.
If I wanted to kill these people, I would have done it here.
Boureima Nadbanka, when asked about a massacre of the Fulani people
Sitting on the floor of a modest house and dressed like a farmer in a simple tunic, with children sleeping on a mattress beside him, Nadbanka cuts an entirely different figure from the one he presents at rallies. He wears a kufi cap made from tamarind roots and looks much younger than his 60 years. “I didn’t go to school, but my parents taught me to be a good man,” he says. “My father was the chief of this village. He had three wives and 25 children.… The only way to earn money was planting and animal breeding.”
Nadbanka left home when he was 19 to become a cocoa planter in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso’s wealthier neighbor, eventually buying several farms of his own. He returned to his village to find it changed, with local criminals evolving from unarmed chicken thieves to men with guns.
Burkina Faso was ruled for 27 years by the dictator Blaise Compaoré, who kept a brutal grip on security. When the new democratic government took over in 2015, it did away with many of Compaoré’s security mechanisms. But that meant the rule of law began to ebb in areas far from major cities.
Tired of the lawlessness, Nadbanka reached out to the Koglweogos, whom he’d heard were operating in the western part of Burkina Faso. They taught the villagers how to open their own chapter of the group and how to punish thieves. “When [a suspect] tells the truth, there is no physical punishment, but when we have proof and they don’t want to accept it, we beat them,” Nadbanka says. On the way to the village, a Koglweogo showed OZY a video of a man who had been caught stealing, having his finger crushed with a pair of pliers.
The group became known for bringing a kind of justice to the region. “Anytime a village has an issue with thievery, the gendarmes [military police] call us for assistance now,” Nadbanka says. He became a de facto commander of the Koglweogos, popular and high profile. Today, he oversees four of Burkina Faso’s 13 regions. He came to countrywide attention when he was arrested last year, on suspicion of involvement in the Yirgou massacre, a pogrom that left between 200 to 300 mostly ethnic minority Fulanis dead in early 2019, according to the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities. There is a common misconception in Burkina Faso that many Fulanis are terrorists. Even before the conflict began, they were treated as an underclass.
Shortly after Nadbanka’s arrest, protests started in the capital, Ouagadougou. His supporters blocked roads to pressure the government into releasing him. In early February, the government provisionally released Nadbanka pending trial. Asked when the trial will take place, Samir Ouédraogo, deputy chairman of the Koglweogos, says, “[The government] gave [Nadbanka] a temporary release. I don’t know if they will follow up.”
Independent reports have verified that local Koglweogos carried out the massacre in Yirgou. What’s unclear is whether Nadbanka gave the order or whether it was the work of rogue group members. “Yirgou and my village are more than 180 miles apart,” Nadbanka says when asked about his involvement. “How can I be involved in something that happened in a village I don’t even know?”
“We have Fulani people here,” Nadbanka says, gesturing toward the neighboring village. “If I wanted to kill these people, I would have done it here.”
In February, Burkina Faso’s government passed a law creating a civilian defense force, to fill the huge deficit between the level of violence in the country and the military’s capacity to stop it. Analysts monitoring the conflict are adamant that such armed civilian militias will lead to more violent deaths than they would prevent. “The Burkinabe government should see Mali as a cautionary tale for the dangers of this strategy,” says Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There, hundreds of civilians have been killed, ethnic tension has deepened, the jihadis have used the violence as a recruiting tool and the militias have become a law unto themselves.”
Yet the government is pushing ahead, training volunteers for two weeks and then sending them out into the bush.
Nadbanka admits the law won’t help the Koglweogos much in fighting terrorists. It doesn’t allow civilians to carry automatic weapons, and terrorists tend to be armed with Kalashnikovs. “Could you tell me who passed the law for the terrorists to have heavy weapons?” he asks.
Still, there’s little doubt about the Koglweogos’ ability to wreak havoc. Human Rights Watch is investigating six incidents of vigilantes killing groups of civilians in Burkina Faso. A report by Amnesty International says Koglweogos also carried out the massacre that took place the day before OZY interviewed Nadbanka. He is still awaiting trial for Yirgou.