Burkina Faso: The Crisis of Violence and Government Shortcomings

Displaced Burkinabè people gather in a camp in Pissila town Displaced Burkinabè people gather in a camp in Pissila town © Marwa Awad


Burkina Faso is engulfed in a severe crisis due to jihadist violence, inter-communal conflicts, and the shortcomings of government in addressing security and social problems

Since the first attack claimed by a jihadist group in the country's western region in October 2015, various armed groups (jihadist and others) have been responsible for a further 553 acts of violence against civilians and self-defence groups. As a result, Burkinabé state’s authority is under extreme pressure, partly due to the gradual disintegration of the political system put in place by former President Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014). Following the popular uprisings that ousted him from power in 2014, a section of the population is now challenging - not for the first time - the legitimacy of the country’s elites and its institutions. Although it is perceived as an essentially urban phenomenon, this insurgency has also laid bare internal divisions in rural areas, helping jihadist groups gain a foothold in these areas. These groups initially appeared to pose a threat from across the border in Mali, but they have now found a new breeding ground in Burkina Faso. The 2014 uprising remains incomplete, according to some: it may have brought an end to Compaoré’s rule, but the political class and its methods of governance remain largely unchanged; most of today’s government officials, in fact, already held their positions under Compaoré, whose semi-authoritarian power structure left little room for opposition. The uprising, of course, signalled a strong repudiation of the political elites in Burkina Faso, and those currently in government have failed to dispel this sentiment. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO that collects and analyses data about armed conflict, Burkina Faso has seen 442 protests and strikes since November 2015, out of which 244 such incidents occurred between 2000 and 2013. Public-sector unions in urban areas are constantly active, putting the government under sustained pressure. Although President Roch Marc Christian Kaborè was elected with 53 percent of the vote at the end of 2015, his honeymoon seems to be almost over: citizens are increasingly frustrated with the government and official institutions. The October 2014 insurgency also had a generational component: the young people who spearheaded the movement still identify themselves as guardians of “the spirit of the insurgency”. Although these young people struggle to maintain unity, they no longer accept being excluded from decision-making and apply relentless pressure on the ruling class. President Compaoré controlled the countryside through a web of personal alliances, enabling him to neutralise threats to his authority and to defuse underlying community-based tensions. Different sectors of the local elite - elected officials and members of the ruling party at the time, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), traditional chiefs, and economic actors - preserved the political status quo by alternately repressing and co-opting dissidents, in direct contact with the central authorities. While all this was accompanied by investments in rural infrastructure, this strategy maintained the illusion of social cohesion and rural stability. In March 2012, the exclusion of key government figures (suspected of overshadowing the President’s younger brother) weakened those networks and diminished the state's capacity to ease tensions in outlying areas. The 2014 uprising undermined this system and further fragmented the state’s presence in rural areas. In November 2014, special delegations replaced the municipal and regional councils that were instrumental in managing land-related issues. The insurgency brought to the surface festering rural discontent with the state and its local representatives (71 percent of the country’s population live in rural areas). People openly accuse these government representatives and even some traditional and municipal authorities of exploiting their positions and sometimes colluding in the buying and selling of land. Increasingly sidelined, these important figures who used to control access to land and resolve land disputes at a local and state level are now less able to act as arbiters. The emergence of the Koglweogo self-defence groups, at the same time, has further eroded their influence. State authority in the countryside is dwindling just as tensions are becoming increasingly violent. 

But what is at the root of all these problems? This crisis, as argued by Crisis Group, is a home-grown one, and the origin has to be found in rural areas, where it all started. Tensions were already latent in Burkina Faso’s rural zones when the uprisings began in 2014, and since then, land disputes have evolved into full-scale conflicts that could escalate into community-based violence; meanwhile, the Koglweogo and other civilian self-defence groups are progressively taking over the state’s law-and-order role outside the towns, upsetting local equilibriums and creating new problems. Competition over land and natural resources in Burkina Faso has escalated to unprecedented levels owing to several factors: population growth that is causing internal migration of farmers; a changing climate that is degrading soils in some parts of the country; poorly planned land development using irrigation in some places; and land speculation. In Burkina’s Sahel, West and Centre-North regions, and to a lesser extent in the eastern part of the country, the increasing migration of farmers has intensified land pressures, especially among the Mossi (Burkina Faso’s main ethnic group) from the Yatenga province (North region) and the Plateau-Central region. In the early twentieth century, indigenous communities needed labour and were willing to let migrants work their lands, but in recent decades this migration has caused spiralling tensions. Indigenous populations question previous agreements when they see land values rise. The 2009 Rural Land Law has worsened this situation by undermining these populations’ property rights and by encouraging private land sales. Furthermore, in both rural and urban areas, municipal authorities commit abuses when handling land subdivisions, leading to expropriations that in turn stir up animosity. Land disputes are creating intercommunal tensions: indigenous groups complain about the financial and political clout of the new arrivals, and indeed, other communities often give the Mossi privileged access to government and therefore important political leverage. The increasing demographic weight of migrant Mossi communities offers them special influence over the election of mayors, municipal councillors and village chiefs, particularly in many districts of the Centre-North and West regions, where they are relative newcomers. In areas where elective offices are instrumental in access to land, the growing influence of non-indigenous people is creating community-based tensions, which have nevertheless remained local for the time being. Burkinabè pastoralists, meanwhile, are facing major difficulties. Security forces are extorting herders, who are struggling to assert their rights over pastoral lands. They are particularly affected by the shrinking size of these lands due to agricultural developments and land speculation; by dwindling feed and water supplies; by obstruction of seasonal migration routes; and by the non-application of legislation, in particular the 2020 Pastoral Law. Before the 2014 crisis, 49 percent of the conflicts reported in Burkina Faso were between farmers and herders. This situation has spawned several self-defence groups: in 2012, the Rouga set up a union of “herder representatives” to protect herds in eastern Burkina. As a matter of fact, in some pastoral zones, these conflicts have escalated to a community level since 2015, pitting Fulani herders against sedentary groups. As a result of these tensions, local authorities chased Gourmantchè and Mossi farmers away from pastoral lands in Kounkounfouanou (Kabonga commune) in 2015. Their steady return has fuelled resentment among Fulani herders. Similar disputes have arisen around Fada N’Gourma in eastern Burkina, and in Barani in the Boucle du Mouhoun region. They are widening social rifts, particularly in the Sahel, East and Boucle du Mouhoun regions. Furthermore, rural areas have become increasingly dangerous over the course of the 2000s throughout Burkina Faso, particularly in the East and Centre-North regions where many cattle rustling gangs and highway robbers are active. Banditry is now so widespread that certain main roads, notably in the eastern region, are no longer used: some locals claim they can look after their security. On this matter, the challenge of rural banditry has caught the state off guard. The security forces (the army and gendarmerie) are ill-equipped to deal with the problem, and rampant corruption in the security and judicial sectors has also reduced the effectiveness of law enforcement operations that previously were led by the Presidential Security Regiment. The 2011 riots also weakened the state's ability to fight crime. Aware of these limitations, authorities have encouraged the implementation of community policing strategies since 2003, which evolved into local security initiatives in 2010, tasked with passing on information to police and gendarmerie. Red tape, budgetary limitations, and the 2014 popular uprising combined to stall this project, however. Communities responded to the state's weaknesses by taking it upon themselves to fight crime by forming a self-defence group called Koglweogo in 2014. In the villages, these vigilante groups do not constitute a unified movement but exist alongside local structures. Close ties exist between these structures that are expanding through a system of patronage between neighbouring villages. They have now spread across the Centre, Plateau-Central, Centre-North, Centre-East and East regions, with the support of traditional local authorities. According to some estimates, Burkina Faso had 4500 Koglweogo groups in 2018, with a total membership of around 45000. The Koglweogo, who are generally armed with hunting rifles, has gained the support of most local people by restoring security. Their brutal punishments of suspected criminals often meet with indifference or even approval from a population keen to find effective forms of mob justice. Emboldened by this popular legitimacy, the Koglweogo are progressively assuming new prerogatives, even encroaching on the state’s traditional control of taxation, justice, policing and army operations, and while some traditional authorities are happy to endorse and profit from them, others are forced to deal with them. Depending on the location, the vigilantes’ relationship with the state fluctuates between collaboration and autonomy. Collaboration has been close in several regions, particularly in eastern Burkina, to shore up the 2014-2015 transition, including from an electoral perspective. State authorities have also called on Koglweogo to confront the Dozo - a brotherhood of some 5000 hunters that play a similar self-defence role, especially in western Burkina - suspected of maintaining ties with the former president, Compaorè. By indebting itself to the Koglweogo, the state is effectively giving these groups free rein. Authorities have not enforced a 2016 decree designed to regulate their activities due to lack of resources and resolve. The government struggles to oppose these groups directly since they enjoy widespread support in the ruling party’s electoral strongholds. The Koglweogo, with popular backing, has used violence on the rare occasions when arrests have affected its interests. The “community” aspect of Koglweogo groups also stirs up tensions among communities suffering from the rural crisis. The Koglweogo mainly recruits members from the Mossi, the community that represents almost 50 percent of the population. In the East region, their ranks are usually filled with Gourmantché, the majority group in that area of Burkina Faso. Some communities, especially in the West region, see this development as the armed front of what they call “Mossi expansionism”. In the Hauts-Bassins region, for example, the Mossi’s attempts since 2015 to set up Koglweogo groups have provoked fierce resistance from the Dozo, and occasional clashes such as in Solenzo and Karankasso-Vigué. Also in the Sahel and Centre-North regions, the arrival of the Koglweogo phenomenon has exacerbated community-based violence. Bandits and self-defence groups are two faces of the same security crisis in many rural parts of the country. Although the Koglweogo may fight crime effectively, they are also symptomatic of a fundamental lack of rule of law in rural Burkina Faso. Some Koglweogo members are even reformed bandits. However, recently, jihadist groups have emerged as the new “lords of the bush”. 

Indeed, Burkina Faso has become the main theatre for jihadist operations in the Sahel. Some members of the government remain convinced that the former ruling elite has had a hand in creating this situation: but even were this claim to hold some truth, the principal cause of the crisis is to be found elsewhere. Jihadist groups have exploited the multifaceted crisis of rural Burkina to expand their presence. A fractured countryside has allowed them to recruit fighters from among the victims of land disputes and highway banditry. Long spared jihadist attacks, Burkina Faso now finds itself in the crosshairs, especially since October 2015. Although most activities have been concentrated in Soum since the Nassoumbou attack, which killed twelve soldiers in December 2016, other areas have also been affected: the East, Boucle du Mouhoun, North and Centre-North regions, and the capital Ouagadougou, have all been hit. Jihadists seem to be enlarging their networks, and the growing number of insurgencies has added to the sense that Burkina’s capital is under siege. Three jihadist groups have been active in Burkinabè territory since 2015-2016: the local group, Ansarul Islam, and two groups from Mali, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM). Originally founded as an autonomous Burkinabè movement in late 2016, Ansarul Islam later merged with JNIM, a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and mainly operating in central and northern Mali. Ansarul Islam is active in Soum and the western part of the Centre-North region (the Bam province and the western part of the Sanmatenga province). In 2017, the movement was weakened by the disappearance of the movement’s leader, Malam Dicko. Following this, it seems to have become a “unit” (Markaz) of the brigades (Katiba) operating in central Mali: the Katiba Serma from 2017 to 2018, and mainly the Katiba Macina led by Hamadoun Kouffa. JNIM now claims responsibility for Ansarul Islam’s attacks. JNIM has not only recruited Ansarul Islam fighters active in the Soum region, but it has also been operating in western Burkina since 2016. In 2018, the jihadists opened a second front in eastern Burkina, where the group has claimed responsibility for several attacks, and until recently it seems to have been more active than ISWAP in that area. It is confirmed or highly probable that the groups currently comprising JNIM - Ansar Eddine, Al-Mourabitoun, and AQIM - were responsible for the Samorogouan (October 2015), Ouagadougou (January 2016) and Nassoumbou (December 2016) attacks. JNIM influences this area due to the presence of a group of Burkinabè fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and Ansar Eddine in AQIM units in Mali since 2012: along with the Ansarul Islam units based in Soum, they have been the driving force of the group’s expansion in eastern Burkina. In the country and the wider Sahel region, JNIM and ISWAP are joining forces against France (whose soldiers they dub “crusaders”) and its allies. In some areas where both groups have a presence, such as in eastern Soum and Burkina’s East region, they work together closely. For example, Ansarul Islam is thought to have provided logistical support for the Koutougou attack of 19 August 2019, which was claimed by ISWAP. The two organisations also differ in some ways, particularly about civilians and religious minorities. All the attacks on Christian places of worship have taken place in areas under ISWAP’s control; Hamadoun Kouffa, by contrast, has never authorised such attacks. With a few exceptions, ISWAP’s local branch has also been blamed for the jihadist attacks on Burkina Faso’s civilian population, which began to intensify in late 2019. JNIM remains opposed to targeting civilians, apart from prominent figures who speak out against them and army informers. Rivalries also exist despite this cooperation, as shown by the defection of fighters from one group to the other. In early 2019, a band of about twenty Ansarul Islam fighters stated their allegiance to the Islamic State. 

In any case, religious fervour is not the motivation for most fighters and unit commanders, who are usually Burkinabè and have other priorities. Jihadist groups have used the state’s weakness to their advantage and exploited rural tensions to establish themselves in Burkina Faso. Most jihadist fighters and commanders are Burkinabè with a set of mainly local interests. A handful of local ideologues are influential; preachers from the areas in question (such as Malam and Jafar Dicko in Soum) often give sermons that launch new jihadist activities, but jihadist fighters and commanders in Burkina are local, and they generally lack religious instruction. For their recruitment drives, jihadists exploit injustices frequently linked to land disputes and coupled with political and community-based issues. Certain situations are conducive to the enlistment of individuals or entire groups; recruits have no “typical” profile but maybe civilians struggling to assert their rights over land, gold miners facing restricted access to mines, or bandits seeking more powerful allies. As early as 2016, jihadist groups have taken advantage of the Fulani’s financial and socio-political grievances to start recruiting from within their communities and particularly by approaching expropriated individuals. Jihadists also recruit elsewhere: the supposed predominance of Fulani jihadists is less a reflection of this community’s support for global jihad than of the particular exposure of Fulani herders and landowners to injustices and their relative underrepresentation in state institutions, starting from their presence in public education. In eastern Burkina, jihadist preachers have targeted their sermons at different communities (mainly Gourmantchè and Fulani) deprived of access to water, gold deposits, pastures, hunting and fishing grounds. Jihadists also recruit from groups familiar with handling weapons. In Burkina Faso, a country that has seen no rebellions, these people include former soldiers, whether discharged or deserters, and highway robbers. Bandits are increasingly enlisting as jihadists in Burkina and, to various degrees, throughout the Sahel. Some join out of conviction, but many are simply seeking revenge on the state and self-defence groups. Jihadists are keen to tap into the know-how of these groups that were routed by the Koglweogo in 2015 and 2016. In Burkina Faso’s eastern region, many robbers from Bogandè - a hotbed of banditry - have been identified among the jihadist fighters, and one of them, a Gourmantchè, was a unit commander. But cooperation between these two types of fighters is not always smooth; they do not have the same agenda or the same sense of discipline. In 2016, Malian jihadists made an incursion into Burkinabè territory to challenge the French military and to search for new fallback locations. Their ambitions have since grown. Burkina Faso has become a theatre of combat where the aim is to expel government forces from rural areas and to impose Islamic law. This ambition is not necessarily shared by fighters and supporters, however, most of whom are more interested in local issues. Jihadist leaders in Burkina Faso seek to articulate local grievances concerning their movement’s global agenda - the imposition of their version of Islam as the sole source of law and governing authority. Jihadist sermons connect the protests against local injustices to religious precepts. Religious leaders from a given group maintain links between local cells and leaders, ensuring that they obey the movement’s rules (particularly about their application of Islamic law and their attitude toward the civilian population). That said, they are willing to risk to relax their discipline to accommodate those who join their ranks for more prosaic reasons. The autonomy enjoyed by Burkina Faso’s jihadist groups gives room for the fighters to satisfy their local (or even personal) interests. These groups are free to pick their fights, provided that they do not directly contravene the jihad’s global principles. Ultimately, they remain under the command of leaders mainly based in Mali when needed for larger-scale operations. This autonomy seems more firmly ingrained in ISWAP than in JNIM. ISWAP’s unit commanders sometimes launch attacks for personal motives of revenge or profit, although these reasons overlap with the jihadist leaders’ aim of expanding their territory. This same autonomy can also prove troublesome for certain jihadist groups since it can provoke violent clashes between communities. On one hand, by allowing their fighters to become involved in these conflicts, jihadists (from ISWAP in particular) satisfy the ambitions of a section of their membership - in this case mainly consisting of Fulanis - who are keen to protect and/or seek revenge on behalf of their community. On the other, by supporting a local group, jihadists are encouraging fitna (tribal divisions) and compromising their project of unifying the community of Muslim believers. Internal disagreements exist over the right path to take. Jihadism could continue to spread in Burkina and create new trouble-spots in the country, perhaps even opening up a corridor to West Africa’s coastal nations. The jihadists’ ability to establish a presence in Burkina can be explained by various factors that are common to different parts of the country: land disputes, competition over mining, rural banditry, and even the increasing stigmatisation of communities supposedly with close ties to the jihadists, like Fulani herders. Armed groups are highly mobile and can, when required, withdraw to areas beyond the reach of the military. Land and community conflicts in the country’s West region are particularly worrying. Clashes between the Fulani and Dozo threaten to intensify and to expose parts of the Boucle du Mouhoun region to outbreaks of community-based violence. More isolated incidents erupting elsewhere, particularly in the South-West region, point to the jihadists’ aim of expanding their presence beyond the country’s northern areas. Far from representing a global jihad guided by a religious agenda, jihadist groups in Burkina above all consist of Burkinabè insurgents, and the reason for the shift toward violence has local origins. Seen in this context, a primarily military response fails to address the root causes of the problem. Burkinabè authorities have thus far been unable to limit the spread of jihadist groups, despite some notable successes recorded since the end of 2019, including the repelled attacks in Arbinda on 24 December and in Inata on 3 January 2020. While the responses are largely military, the armed forces are ill-prepared for an unprecedented asymmetric threat. The defense and security forces’ lack of human and material resources is an obstacle in the fight against insurgency. Jihadist groups were able to establish themselves quickly in the east of the country in particular because this sparsely populated region had the lowest coverage rate by the defence and security forces until 2018. 

But what has been the State’s responses to these problems? Burkinabè authorities have largely adopted an overly military response to both the problems of jihadism and armed groups. However, for what concerns the first, several structural problems still limit its effectiveness. Indeed, armed forces lack special units trained in asymmetric conflicts and have very weak air assets. The security network is frail: Burkinabè forces are completely absent from 30 percent of the territory and unevenly distributed over another third (with only the army or gendarmerie present); only 18 percent of the forces are on the “front line”. However, Burkinabè forces are also experiencing internal fractures and weaknesses with deep-rooted origins: Compaorè confined the army and the gendarmerie to secondary roles by limiting their equipment for the benefit of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), a praetorian guard reporting to the presidency. This trend was accentuated after the army and police mutinies in 2011. Heavy and sophisticated weapons were transported to the RSP headquarters, gunpowder magazines were emptied, and a large part of the army was deprived of ammunition and training from the second half of 2011. The mutinies signalled a deep fracture between senior officers and the troops amid accusations of corruption and favouritism. The 2014 insurgency and its aftermath heightened distrust between politicians and men in uniform, further weakening the security apparatus. After the fall of Compaoré and the coup in September 2015, the government dissolved the RSP, which greatly reduced the country’s military capabilities. As a result, today the Burkinabè army lacks both seasoned soldiers and officers who can occupy intermediate positions. Since the end of 2018, a rise in insecurity has led authorities to intensify their military response. This impetus was the appointment in January 2019 of the new defence minister, Chérif Sy, a figure known for his intransigence. Special gendarmerie units and conventional military forces have carried out larger operations than before. In parallel, the army conducted two large-scale operations in the East and Sahel regions (Operation Otapuanu and Operation Ndofu respectively) between March and May 2019. Elsewhere, particularly in the Sahel region, military operations have not reduced the threat and may even have aggravated the situation. In the first eight months of 2019, 416 violent incidents were recorded in the region, causing 927 deaths, compared to 330 violent events in which 287 were killed from 2016 to 2018. Since early 2019, Burkinabè armed forces have allegedly carried out summary executions of individuals suspected of cooperating with jihadists in several localities, notably in Kain and Banh, Titao and Barani. Human rights organisations estimate that at least 200 people have been victims of such executions, and question their links with jihadist groups. In March and April 2019, two other military operations at artisanal gold sites in Tchiembolo and Filio, near Inata, reportedly resulted in dozens of deaths. Other summary executions are said to have taken place in the East region, in the Boucle du Mouhoun or the North, and, at the end of 2019, in several localities in Soum. Authorities recognise that civilians may have been collateral victims of military operations, but formally contest the extent of the abuses denounced by human rights organisations. Behind the scenes, officials point out that the government, which is “at war with terrorism”, has no option but to use force to deter civilians from collaborating with the enemy and to reassure public opinion with quantifiable results. A significant section of public opinion in the capital also seems convinced that civilian casualties are inevitable. Extrajudicial executions are doubly counterproductive. Authorities lose out on intelligence by executing suspects rather than interrogating them, which also feeds the resentment of their relatives, some of whom are then tempted to join the jihadists. Burkinabè forces often assess the degree of an individual’s militancy based on his real or supposed connections with jihadists. Yet many villages under jihadist threat have no other option but to submit to their authority. This conflation works like a self-fulfilling prophecy: those close to the identified individuals end up going to jihadists for protection or revenge. Since the beginning of 2019, the scale of the violence perpetrated by the army against civilians (often Fulani) has prompted entire villages to side with the jihadists. The army’s abuses appear to be sustained by problems in the justice system, notably prison congestion and backlogs in courts responsible for trying suspects. Last March, over 700 individuals suspected of belonging to a terrorist group were being detained in prisons across the country. The courts have tried no such detainee since 2015, while the counter-terrorism division, created in 2017 and in charge of most of these cases, is only now operational. In this context, part of the security apparatus seems to consider it illusory to rely on the rule of law. This state of mind opens the way for summary executions, which the authorities deem to be acts of war, in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. For what concerns armed groups, instead, the government is increasingly relying on them to contain the jihadist threat, further increasing, however, already existent tensions and frictions between communities. On 7 November 2019, President Kaboré called for the mobilisation of “volunteers for the defence of Faso” to fight “terrorists”. This project sounded like an avowal by defence and security forces of their inability to secure the territory on their own. The law adopted on 21 January 2020 provides that all volunteers hired as “back-up for the defence of their village or sector of residence” receive training lasting fourteen days, without specifying the nature of the weaponry they will have access to. It also stipulates that they must “obey military authority”. This strategy aims to rapidly strengthen the armed forces’ capacity, but it may prove counterproductive if volunteers are not fully supervised as per the new law. The Burkinabè state has thus far been unable to manage the Koglweogo. It is therefore legitimate to question the capacity of its already understaffed army to effectively supervise volunteers, especially since many of them will likely come from the Koglweogo. The experience of Burkina Faso’s neighbours should urge caution: in Mali as in Niger, the use of non-state armed groups against jihadists has never been an effective tool in the fight against insurgency; what is more, it has resulted in violence against civilians. In Burkina Faso’s Centre-North region, the Koglweogo’s commitment to fighting terrorism has paradoxically been one of the main drivers of jihadist insurgencies since early 2019. The Koglweogo, who recruits mainly from among the Fulse and Mossi, has upset the balance between communities in the Centre-North. By taking on police and security prerogatives, they either willfully or unwittingly became accomplices in settling scores, often concerning land disputes and to the detriment of the Fulani community. In 2017, the Koglweogo of Boulsa (Centre-North) became engaged in fighting terrorism to the overt indifference of authorities. The Fulani community then became their primary targets and sought the protection of the Rouga, Fulani groups charged with protecting herds, who were in turn perceived by the Koglweogo as “jihadists in disguise”. Thus, the counter-terrorism project merged with the settling of personal and, by extension, communal scores. This climate of mutual distrust and strong stigmatisation of the Fulani set the scene for two massacres. On the night of 31 December 2018 to 1 January 2019, unidentified gunmen killed six people in Yirgou, including the Mossi village chief and his son. In retaliation, and supported by the largely Mossi population, the Koglweogo killed between one hundred and two hundred Fulani civilians. In March, a second massacre was perpetrated by Fulse individuals against the Fulani in Arbinda (Soum), bordering the Centre-North. The massacres perpetrated by the Kogwleogo with the support of some local communities produce the same effect as the atrocities committed by defence and security forces: the Fulani approach jihadists to exact revenge or seek protection. In some cases, the atrocities that the Fulani have suffered have finally brought them over to the jihadists’ line of thought. The latter have largely profited from the deteriorating situation in the Centre-North to extend their influence. Several dozen Koglweogo were also killed, and many others fled the fighting or the justice system. The call for “volunteers” raises fears that similar scenarios could occur in other regions of Burkina Faso. This call is resonating within existing local security initiatives, in particular the Koglweogo, who are overwhelmingly Mossi. By taking part in counter-terrorism operations for which they are not trained, the Koglweogo risk targeting simple civilians whom they conflate with jihadists, in particular those from the Fulani community. They are also at risk of becoming the victims of growing violence against civilians displayed by the local branch of ISIS. The leader of the political opposition has even evoked the risk of “civil war”. This prospect cannot be discounted when the Fulani community is the second-largest in the country (8.4 percent of the population) and when violence targeting civilians are on the rise. In 2019, 934 civilians were killed by armed groups, compared to 157 from 2015 to 2018. According to many observers, strengthening local security groups reflects electoral aims, in addition to security objectives. In reality, the president’s call seems to have validated what has existed inconspicuously since the summer of 2019: the arming, equipping and financing of the Koglweogo. Some fear that the Kogwleogo and/or the new “volunteers” will be exploited by the hardline wing of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP), in the run-up to the 2020 election. In this context, the arrest, which lasted a few weeks in early 2020, of the Boulsa Koglweogo leader Boureima Nadbanka, for his supposed role in the Yirgou massacre, may have been partly motivated by the fact that he was not aligned with the authorities’ political objectives on several occasions. Should the hardliners enlist vigilantes for their purposes, it would, in turn, encourage the opposition to seek the support of other local groups, in particular the Dozo, rivals of the Koglweogo in the West. With ongoing tensions between the government and supporters of former President Compaorè, militias in the service of politicians’ agendas could start to spread across the country. The president’s announcement - likely precipitated by the attack in Boungou, which shocked the country - preempted the necessary efforts to define methods for supervising volunteers. In the following days, abuses of Fulani civilians started being reported in the North, Centre-North and East regions. On 15 October, the former secretary-general of the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) warned of the danger of self-defence groups lacking oversight. There is an urgent need to halt a potential escalation of violence from which nobody stands to gain. 

For what concerns the response of the government to social needs, instead, an appropriate strategy has been lacking, essentially for what regards the assessment of rural problems (land rivalries, draughts causing migrations, etc.). Both the authorities and their international partners present the “security-development nexus” as the cornerstone of their response to the crisis in Burkina Faso. So far, this approach has struggled to produce concrete results and is based on a vision that reduces security to a military response, neglecting the political dimension of the crisis. The Sahel Emergency Plan (Plan d’urgence pour le Sahel, PUS), adopted in July 2017, is the authorities’ main non-military response. The government designed it as a matter of urgency, basing it on a socio-economic pillar and a governance pillar that includes security issues. This plan essentially incorporates the guidelines of the National Program for Economic and Social Development (Plan national de développement économique et social, PNDES), designed in peacetime, applying them only to the North and Sahel regions. A coordinating unit reporting to the Ministry of Finance ensures the coordination of PUS projects and programs (that often predate the PUS), but with simplified procurement procedures to speed up their implementation. The PUS remains poorly adapted to an unstable security environment that requires flexibility and responsiveness. Its implementation is hampered by excessive bureaucracy since the actions of nine ministries must be coordinated. It has also suffered from a deteriorating security situation: only 51 percent of planned activities were carried out in 2018, and 49 percent in 2017. Also jihadists have destroyed infrastructure (schools and wells) built within the framework of the PUS, as they symbolize the state’s return, which they deem unacceptable. Its hasty launch led to communication problems with local authorities and beneficiaries. Authorities recognise that this action does not suffice, without knowing how to improve upon it. According to PUS advocates, poverty and underdevelopment are the root cause of violence. This precept explains why priority is given to developing basic infrastructure. In reality, however, the violence is part of more complex governance crises in rural areas, where local conflicts over access to resources are worsening. Building infrastructure is not only insufficient in the face of these challenges, but it may even prove counterproductive in some cases. Digging a well in an area disputed between farmers and herders can thus lead to conflicts over its use if no one consults the populations beforehand. The authorities also have a narrow concept of security, essentially based on military tools. Operation Otapuanu, launched in March 2019, is a good example. As part of its civil-military component, military doctors treated civilians and state services issued several thousand identity documents to those who lacked them. But the operation did not give rise to dialogue between the army and the populations. Nor did it jump-start labour-intensive or income-generating projects, which could have helped restore confidence within local communities. Military authorities recognise that the operation was planned as a matter of urgency and without involving the technical ministries or partners who could have capitalised on its success. It seems that some government officials are becoming aware of the limits of a military-focused approach, but the authorities are sending mixed signals. The national security policy being drafted under the Ministry of Security’s leadership most outline an approach that is centred on securing the population rather than just the state. Such an approach to security involves preventing conflict and addressing the weaknesses that fuel violence as a priority. But authorities seem divided as to how to achieve this balancing act, all the more since the 2020 electoral agenda and the unstable situation are pushing the MPP’s hardline wing toward a military escalation. Rivalries between the Defence and Security Ministries also complicate the design and implementation of such an integrated approach. This new approach could open the way to complementary solutions to the use of force, with options including community mediation, socio-political inclusion of systemically excluded populations, and even political dialogue with certain jihadists. Burkinabè authorities are informally exploring this path - much like in Mali and especially in Niger - but are hesitant to embark upon it. In 2017, they authorized NGOs specialising in mediation to establish contacts with the jihadists, but no concrete progress has yet been recorded. With a deteriorating security situation, the state is struggling to identify potential intermediaries: many no longer seem to want to get involved or have even joined jihadist groups following events in the Centre-North and Soum since early 2019. The army generally remains opposed to this solution, which dissuades many potential intermediaries from approaching jihadists for fear of being conflated with them. Without a consensus between state actors, the dialogue option seems inconceivable in the short term. 

This way, finally, what will be the solutions Burkina Faso will find to address the severe crisis it is facing?

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Author: Pasquale Candela; Editor: Shrabya Ghimire

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