Armed civilians in Burkina Faso to fight terrorism

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Demonstration in Ouagadougou, June 22, 2019, demanding
Demonstration in Ouagadougou, June 22, 2019, demanding “truth and justice” for the victims of the Yirgou massacre, in northern Burkina Faso, in January. OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT / AFP

Can armed civilians fight back against terrorists? For the Burkinabè government and deputies, yes. On January 21, the National Assembly unanimously adopted a law allowing the recruitment of “Volunteers for the defense of the fatherland”. Objective: to train and arm the population, in certain localities, to fight terrorism in Burkina Faso, where the massacres of civilians do not stop increasing since 2015. In one month, a hundred people were killed.

On the ground, the under-equipped, ill-trained and too few defense and security forces seem incapable of stopping the cycle of violence. And ten months before the presidential election, time is running out. “Only a general mobilization of the sons and daughters of the nation, regardless of region, ethnicity, political opinion and religious denomination, can overcome these murderers”, supports President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who, according to our information, was maturing this project “Popular defense” for almost a year, before making the official announcement on national television on November 7, after a major attack on a mining convoy in the east of the country.

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According to the law promulgated on January 29, these volunteers, whose minimum age is fixed at 18 years, will be recruited in their sector of residence, after approval of the local populations in general assembly, and placed under the supervision of the Ministry of National Defense . Their mission will be to “Contribute, if necessary by force of arms, to the defense and protection of persons and property of [leur] village or [leur] sector of residence “, specifies the text. And, if necessary, “Until the supreme sacrifice”.

Risk of reprisals

Concretely, these inhabitants will carry out surveillance missions in their area, collect information and can respond in the event of an attack. Kinds of “Rural lookouts” who will have a “Specific equipment” composed of“Small arms, shoulder or handgun” and of “Means of communication and observation such as binoculars”, explains the government. Each volunteer will benefit from a “State financial support” and a “Initial training of fourteen days”, focusing in particular on armaments, basic tactics and respect for human rights. For “Avoid drifts”, each recruit will be subject to a “Moral inquiry” and will be held at a “Strict code of conduct”, would like to reassure the government.

Behind the scenes, we say we want to be inspired by the “patriots” launched in the 1990s in Algeria to fight against the armed Islamists or even the famous committees for the defense of the revolution, by the former Burkinabé president Thomas Sankara (1983-1987) , in which armed militants were responsible for ensuring the security of their neighborhood. The Burkinabé authorities have already received “Many spontaneous applications”, says an official source. “Our soldiers can’t do it, [l’opération française] “Barkhane” either, we can only count on ourselves now to save the country! “, claims a Ouagalais who says he is ready to commit.

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But on the ground, the balance of power is risky. “How can barely trained and armed civilians defend themselves against highly organized groups, well equipped and determined to die?” It will be cannon fodder and they will expose their village to the risk of reprisals ”, alarms a security source. According to our information, ‘Voluntary’ reportedly already retaliated in early February after an attack in Pobé-Mengao in the north of the country. A dozen people were reportedly killed. The Ministry of Defense, which prefers to remain discreet on the file “So as not to expose future volunteers”, denies this information.

The Gear of Vengeance

In this context, the government initiative raises many questions. While we are witnessing a dangerous escalation of reprisals between communities scalded by attacks by armed groups, is it not likely to add fuel to the fire? “By subcontracting the defense of villages to their inhabitants, there is a risk of exacerbating tensions between ethnic groups and seeing summary executions multiply, especially since the security forces are themselves implicated in cases of abuses alleged against suspects “, points Corinne Dufka, director for West Africa of the NGO Human Rights Watch.

Since the Yirgou massacre (Center-North), the 1st January 2019, where dozens of Fulani were killed by neighboring residents accusing them of complicity with the terrorists, the gears of revenge are already well underway. Some villagers, but also members of koglweogo, a local vigilante group, did not wait for the state to seek justice. “We have to defend ourselves well, the army needs help. We have already killed around 50 terrorists, most of them Peuls ”, assumes a chef koglweogo from the region, claiming to lead “Combing operations for four months already”.

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Like these “Vigilantes de la brousse”, political scientist Thomas Ouedraogo fears that future groups of armed volunteers may constitute “Competitive forces with the State”. “Will the authorities have the means to control them? And once we no longer need them, can we demobilize them? In this electoral year, they also risk being exploited for political ends ”, underlines the researcher. So many questions which, a few months before the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 22, deserve to be clarified.

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