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 authorised 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.
VI. Ending Violence
Faced with a multidimensional security, social and political crisis that threatens national stability and cohesion, the largely military response is proving ineffective and the threat is growing. While some senior state officials are considering a shift in strategy, others remain tempted by military escalation. Considering that crucial electoral deadlines are barely one year away, this temptation is understandable, but it could jeopardise the country’s future. Faced with the unprecedented rise in violence perpetrated by jihadists and certain self-defence groups since the beginning of 2019, a change of course is necessary.
To contain the jihadist threat, they will have to prevent the local community-based violence that nourishes it.
With the support of international partners, Burkinabè authorities could plan a series of actions for the short, medium and long term. The security tool will remain a fundamental part of their response, but authorities should take care to minimise the counterproductive effects of military operations and the militarisation of local security initiatives. To contain the jihadist threat, they will have to prevent the local community-based violence that nourishes it. Finally, the state must respond to the structural challenges which largely explain the increase in violence in rural areas, and of which jihadism is only one expression.
A. Limiting and Overseeing Civilian Involvement in Counter-insurgency Operations
By calling on volunteers to take up arms against terrorism, the government is formally encouraging civilians to get involved in the fight against insurgency. It is thus responding to pressure from part of the population and to understaffed Burkinabè forces. The initiative has the merit of showing that Burkinabè authorities want to supervise – and encourage – a trend that already existed informally. While civilian involvement in counter-insurgency operations may prove to be useful, it also risks further exacerbating local community-based tensions. The role of civilians, volunteers and self-defence groups should therefore be limited to auxiliary security tasks (securing buildings for example) or to surveillance and intelligence gathering, and they should only be equipped with light weapons. Those wishing to participate in offensive operations should join the regular army, especially since it is launching major recruitment drives between February and May 2020.
The Ministry of Security should also better supervise the actions of the Koglweogo and Dozo, while clearly distinguishing them from the volunteers. The revised 2016 decree regulating these structures should take into account the risks of local community-based violence resulting from their actions. Authorities could set up local community control mechanisms to prevent abuse, including representatives of different sedentary and nomadic communities that share the same space. To limit the prerogatives of the Koglweogo (to a protection and intelligence role, for example), they could be placed under the authority of the national police, the body closest to them on the ground and the least engaged in counter-insurgency operations. The Koglweogo would thus be less involved in direct operations against insurgent groups, which would limit the risk of creating tensions with other communities. Ultimately, authorities will have to regain control over these local armed groups and stop tolerating the abuses they have perpetrated.
Civil society organisations that are concerned about violence against civilians should encourage traditional, religious and community leaders to speak out about the risk of community-based violence. The moral authority represented by traditional and religious elites might help forestall large-scale conflict between communities. This effort should primarily target the Fulani ethnic group, whose members struggle to be heard by other communities, and many of whom feel stigmatised. If respected figures from Fulani communities rise to the occasion, they will be able to make their voices heard by other traditional leaders, including the Mossi, who can influence the Koglweogo’s actions.
Political actors of all stripes should refrain from hiring men with guns, either directly or indirectly, in the run-up to and during the 2020 presidential election. The government and the opposition should open discussions on the subject, and both should pledge not to use such actors for electoral purposes.
B. A More Effective and Proportionate Military Response
In parallel, authorities should devise a more effective and more proportionate military response, consisting of the following: improving conditions for front-line troops; building a more reliable intelligence system to better distinguish civilians from insurgents; and investing in the judicial system to reduce summary executions.
A woman crosses the dam in Ouagadougou as she returns home on her motorbike, in October 2017.CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
The excessive use of force during counter-insurgency operations is not inevitable in the Sahel. It is largely linked to the conditions in which troops are fighting. The politicisation of the armed forces and the fear of a mutiny among their ranks dissuade the government from enhancing the resources of a service that has long suffered from insufficient training and equipment. Soldiers therefore operate in fear, which is conducive to abuses. Improving the living and operating conditions of troops at the front (with better equipment, shorter shifts, increased food rations and bonuses, psychosocial monitoring, provision of interpreters and medical evacuations) would limit the risk of abuses, as would improved training, an area in which the country’s partners could play a significant role. The deployment of European missions – now under discussion in the EU – within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) would be useful provided that lessons are learned from the limitations of such efforts in neighbouring Mali and Niger.
The propensity for abuse is also linked to the difficulty the military faces in distinguishing civilians from insurgents. A more reliable intelligence system would reduce the risk of error. The creation of the National Intelligence Council, provided for by Act 026/2018 on general intelligence regulation in Burkina Faso, is a first step toward improving communication between services and cross-checking data. Such cooperation requires overcoming rivalries between the police, army and gendarmerie. Burkinabè authorities would also like their better-equipped international partners to share information, starting with France and the U.S., which could indeed help address shortcomings in this area. This contribution would not, however, exempt Burkinabè authorities from improving their own intelligence measures.
To prevent summary executions from becoming an integral part of the counter-insurgency strategy, it is crucial to place the penal system at the heart of the state’s response. By bringing alleged terrorists to justice, the specialised anti-terrorism division also helps tackle prison overcrowding. Its means are clearly insufficient, given the large number of cases and the difficulty of investigating in high-risk zones. The government should considerably increase the resources of this division, both for investigating offices and the judicial police. International partners should come together in support of this new division and the country’s special anti-terrorism unit (Brigade spéciale des investigations antiterroristes, BSIAT), which plays an essential role in conducting investigations that allow for a fair trial. With a similar context and staffing figures, Niger was able to ease its prison overcrowding thanks to such backing.
Authorities should finally increase control over deployed units, even if they must do so with tact and caution given recurring discontent among troops. By concretely improving conditions on the front, the government could gain leverage to demand exemplary behaviour from its soldiers. International partners could help in this area. Thus, the UN compliance framework – of which the G5 Sahel Joint Force is part and which is struggling to obtain the authorisation of Burkina Faso’s authorities for its implementation – supports this effort to strengthen transparency and accountability among deployed units. With the help of partners, these internal control mechanisms, which for the moment only benefit Joint Force battalions, could be applied to all troops engaged in counter-insurgency operations. Training paralegals and supporting early warning mechanisms in local communities could also limit the risk of abuse by defence and security forces.
C. In the Medium Term: Redeploying the State and Regaining the Confidence of Populations
Although essential, the use of force cannot be the only response to the crisis facing the country. Beyond the counterproductive effects of certain military operations, the Burkinabè forces’ limited human and material resources mean that other solutions must be considered. The security response would be much more effective as part of a more comprehensive and integrated approach, including prevention, mitigation and stabilisation efforts. The use of force should, for example, give way to mediation when dealing with primarily land- or community-based conflicts. More specifically, in order to re-establish good relations with communities in areas where the central authority is disputed, the state will have to demonstrate its usefulness.
The possibility of a dialogue with jihadist groups should at least be considered in the medium term.
The possibility of a dialogue with jihadist groups, which is barely acknowledged amid today’s rising violence, should at least be considered in the medium term. Authorities should explore opportunities for such a dialogue – following the elections scheduled for 2020, for example – as is already the case in Mali and Niger, without considering this option as precluding the use of force. Many Burkinabè “jihadists” are not terrorists but insurgents driven by local demands that the state could easily satisfy. At a minimum, the state could explore the possibility of negotiating the surrender of highway robbers or bandits before jihadist groups recruit them.
With or without such dialogue, the state must adapt its responses to the local contexts in which violence spreads. It also needs to make its prevention, mitigation and stabilisation policies more coherent in regions affected or threatened by violence. To this end, the state could set up an institution responsible for coordinating the government’s civil actions for violent crisis management. Better equipped than the ministries to act in a crisis situation, it could, for example, promote community reconciliation in the Centre-North, launch stabilisation and dialogue programs between security forces and communities in the East region, or initiate dialogue between communities in the West as a measure to limit the consequences of the land crisis.
Several conditions should be met to prevent this institution from becoming an empty shell, like others in Burkina Faso. To have sufficient legitimacy to act on behalf of the state, it should report directly to the Presidency of the Republic; its director should have the rank of minister and sit on the National Security Council. To lead this body, authorities will have to choose a figure listened to and respected by both civilians and the military. The latter should be represented within this body to facilitate relations with the military hierarchy and participate in designing an integrated approach that embraces both civil and military actions. Finally, the institution’s proper functioning will rely on the recruitment of competent experts from the different regions of intervention, who are ready to work in proximity to vulnerable populations and with a variety of actors: local civil society, local authorities and traditional leaders. Specialised structures such as the National Observatory for the Prevention and Management of Communal Conflicts could also be called upon.
Multilateral and bilateral partners must follow and support the guidelines set by the state and not replace them.
The support of Burkina Faso’s international partners is also essential for this body to react effectively to emergencies. Some have already indicated their interest in setting up a body to coordinate government action. As the UN’s presence is currently being strengthened, particularly in terms of peacebuilding, this can be an opportunity to provide such an institution with human and material support. In any case, multilateral and bilateral partners must follow and support the guidelines set by the state and not replace them. They should nevertheless remain vigilant. Such an institution can turn into another empty shell or be taken over by the authorities’ hardline supporters.
A body of this type already exists in the region: through the High Authority for Peacebuilding (Haute autorité à la consolidation de la paix, HACP), neighbouring Niger has demonstrated that a Sahelian country can acquire a relatively effective tool in a fragile context (and despite a profusion of state institutions) similar to Burkina Faso. The HACP has indeed promoted a more integrated approach to preventing and managing conflicts, thanks to a range of tools and European and national funds that have given it full financial autonomy. It has notably relied on non-military means, in particular by using the seat occupied by its president on the National Security Council. A great deal rests on the figure appointed to its presidency, General Mahamadou Abou Tarka. A senior army officer as well as a university graduate, he embodies a balance between security and development.
The HACP’s limits should also be taken into account when creating a similar institution in Burkina Faso. The HACP is struggling to monitor the results of its actions on the ground. It bears the marks of its president’s personal positions; at times, he has irritated certain communities with his words or actions. To lead this body, Burkinabè authorities will have to choose the most inclusive and least divisive figure they can find, both at the community and political level.
D. In the Longer Term: Solving the Rural Crises
In the longer term, Burkina Faso must tackle the structural issues that facilitate jihadist recruitment, and more broadly the various forms of violence in rural areas.
The state should act as a legitimate mediator and peacefully arbitrate land disputes.
In the longer term, Burkina Faso must tackle the structural issues that facilitate jihadist recruitment, and more broadly the various forms of violence in rural areas.
The priority issue is that of land disputes, which plays a significant role in exacerbating local tensions between communities. In the Centre-North as in other western and eastern regions, indigenous and non-indigenous populations argue over land use and land ownership, each defending what they consider to be their right. The state should act as a legitimate mediator and peacefully arbitrate land disputes. To do so, the government will likely need to revise Land Laws N°034-2009 and N°034-2012, which are proving difficult to implement and therefore generate local tensions between communities. Beyond that, the government should look for ways to limit land speculation and its related conflicts, starting with the issue of housing developments in urban, suburban and, increasingly, rural areas.
The government should also initiate a discussion about the governance of protected areas, whose creation has led to frustration in the East region. In particular, authorities should encourage more communities to involve themselves in the management of these areas, but also take care to include nomadic herders, who were often overlooked when these areas are created.
The governance of peripheral zones – and especially nomadic areas – should also include specific policies that respond to the concerns of local communities. The government would thus demonstrate that it considers the locals to be full citizens in their own right. For example, with regard to bilingual schooling, the French-Arabic bilingual primary education support project (Projet d’appui à l’enseignement primaire bilingue franco-arabe, PREFA), under way in several regions including the North, could serve as an educational model in these areas. PREFA schools, run by the Ministry of National Education and Literacy, have high enrolment rates and have thus far been spared by jihadist groups. Mobile court hearings, provided for in Burkinabè law but very rarely held, could be organised in the most isolated areas that lack courthouses, particularly in the Sahel region.
To strengthen the sense of belonging of nomadic populations and better protect them, the state could continue to distribute identity documents, as it has been doing since early 2019, to populations that tend to avoid public administration, which they often see as synonymous with predation. Finally, it should correct the extreme under-representation of Fulani nomads within the administration – both local and national – and in particular among Defence and Security Forces, for example through positive discrimination policies.
The deterioration of the security situation in Burkina Faso is extremely worrying. While authorities are gradually losing their control over certain rural areas, jihadist-type insurgencies are spreading into them and could even, in the long term, turn the country into a corridor toward the coastal states to the south.
The counter-insurgency struggle too often fuels local community-based violence; with inadequate state supervision, the volunteers or local security forces that it intends to mobilise could further aggravate this violence. While Burkina Faso is at a turning point in its history, most of its leaders are preoccupied with short-term politics and in particular the 2020 elections.
Authorities are faced with a three-fold challenge: to pursue military efforts while limiting violence against civilians; to regain the trust of communities and redeploy the state in rural areas; and to adapt their responses to local contexts by combining prevention, crisis management and stabilisation measures. Reconciling short-, medium- and long-term actions and finding the right balance between the use of force and the protection of communities pose major challenges. To overcome them, authorities and international partners must rapidly adopt a new approach.
Dakar/Brussels, 24 February 2020
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