Human Rights Watch is out with a new report entitled “Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Kill, Rape Civilians.” The subtitle is equally important – “Army, Militia Respond with Summary Executions, Enforced Disappearances.” The contents of the report will not be shocking to long-time watchers of Burkina Faso, but the report is a vital update. There were a few points that stood out to me:
- The report’s focus on rape highlights, once again, the wide gap between jihadist ideology and jihadist practice. The jihadist promise is one of a utopian counter-order based on their version of justice, which includes the idea that a jihadist state will bring safety and fairness for ordinary Muslims. In practice, jihadist predation and crimes of opportunity occur frequently: “A nurse from a village near Dablo said she had treated over 55 women who had been raped by armed Islamists between September and December 2021. ‘The women came from 11 villages,’ she said. ‘The terrorists attacked Muslims, Christians, and animists alike. They cried – they couldn’t eat or sleep and were too ashamed to tell their families what happened.'” Much research has been conducted on rape and gender-based violence as a “weapon of war” (and see more on this below), including the use of rape as a tool for punishing and driving away perceived outsiders, but use of that weapon obviously narrows whatever political appeal Burkina Faso’s jihadists may have for civilians in the country’s conflict zones.
- Relatedly, the HRW report points to a high degree of deliberate displacement by jihadists: “The attacks, said security analysts, appeared designed to compel widespread displacement from towns perceived to support the government, thereby consolidating armed group control from their strongholds in northern Burkina Faso to the central regions. Humanitarian workers expressed alarm at the dramatic pace of deterioration. Said one, ‘Civilian life is being suffocated as roads are mined; villages blockaded; markets closed; and water points, telecommunication, and electricity infrastructure sabotaged.'” If this is indeed the strategy – reduce the population, and then rule over what remains – it does indicate to me that there’s some exhaustion of the jihadist political project, an admission that they cannot win over the majority. On the other hand, it takes some level of political support to have the recruits necessary to execute such a strategy.
- The closing sections of the report, focusing on abuses by the army and by civilian fighters in the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (French acronym VDP), confirms earlier trends – collective punishment, ethnic profiling of the Peul, and government empowerment of the VDP but simultaneous VDP mistrust of the government (“describing one incident [of a VDP unit ethnically profiling and then killing accused jihadists], a VDP member said, ‘We used to turn suspects over to the gendarmes, but they always released them, so we decided to sort this problem out ourselves’…) Notably, although the report focuses on dynamics in the conflict zones rather than on macro-politics in Ouagadougou, the report conveys a sense of continuity of military and VDP practice before and after the January 2022 coup; in other words, the report describes abuses both in the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. Current military President Paul-Henri Damiba has alluded vaguely to a new approach, but on the ground it does not appear that much has changed.