Burkina Faso: Update on the Kidnapping and Murder of the Grand Imam of Djibo

Last week I wrote about the kidnapping of the Grand Imam of Djibo, Souaibou Cissé, one of the most prominent religious figures in northern Burkina Faso and particularly in Soum Province, where Djibo is the capital. Cissé was kidnapped on August 11. A tragic update is that he was found dead on August 15.

The imam was kidnapped while traveling by car, returning from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to Djibo. More specifically, he was kidnapped near the town of Gaskindé, south of Djibo, on a particularly dangerous stretch of the journey. His body was found in Tiléré, a village north of Gaskindé and just south of Djibo (map). His funeral was held the same day.

The imam’s murder has elicited national outcry and consternation in Burkina Faso. President Roch Kaboré said that the murder “aimed at undermining our model of religious tolerance.” The government condemned the killing and promised that the security forces will hunt the murderers. The Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina Faso, in a statement, offered its condolences and condemned “the inhumanity” of the killers.

As far as I can tell, no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder, although most journalists, Burkinabè elites, and observers (including me) assume that jihadists were the perpetrators. As I wrote in my last post on the topic, the kidnappers appear to have known exactly who they were taking (they let the other passengers in the car go). I wonder now whether the kidnappers on the spot were only empowered to take him, and not to kill him, and thus ended up having to get further instructions from their superiors, which may explain the brief interval between the kidnapping and the discovery of the body. But that’s just a hypothesis. And I could find almost no details about how exactly the body was discovered – why Tiléré? Did any of the residents see the body being deposited there? Burkinabè security forces may be asking some tough questions of Tiléré residents, although this situation shows exactly why the pattern of collective punishment by the security forces is so counterproductive – who will want to talk to the soldiers, whenever they show up in the village? And if the soldiers do get information, how can they know it’s not someone using the imam’s death as a pretext for pointing the finger at a hated neighbor? And if the soldiers don’t get information, will they punish the whole village? And thus the cycle of collective punishment would not only undermine the investigation of this death but might even be perpetuated by that very same investigation.

Finally, the kidnapping exemplifies and reinforces the sense of uncertainty I’ve referred to as a feature of the Sahelian crisis (and mass violence more generally). When someone, even someone prominent, is kidnapped, there is little sense of what will follow. Will the victim be found dead four days later, as in the case of the grand imam? Or will the victim’s captivity drag on and on, as the Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé’s (no relation to the imam, I assume) has? Soumaïla Cissé is coming up on five months in captivity.

This is not about me – at all – but on a personal note I will say that this incident bothered me a lot. Just really sad and grim.

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