A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge. [Update: On Twitter, Nicolas Desgrais points out that there is an  intelligence and counter-criminality framework, ratified in April of this year, that groups together these four countries and Cote d’Ivoire.]

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.

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Burkina Faso: Salafis Urge the Government Not to Conflate Them with Jihadists [Updated]

A corollary to today’s post – about the flawed “conveyer belt” metaphor of people moving from hardline religious activism to jihadism – is that non-jihadist Salafis are very keen to avoid being labeled jihadists. Last month an example of that occurred in Burkina Faso, where there is a significant jihadist presence in the north and escalating violence in the east. Amid those developments, the Burkinabé Salafi movement Daawatoul Islamia (Islamic Call) has been urging authorities and the public not to conflate them with jihadists.

In public remarks, Daawatoul Islamia Salafi leader Mohammad Kindo praised the work of authorities and security services, described jihadist violence and banditry as divine tests, and then said:

Faced with this terrorist menace, the Burkinabé must unite and rule out any conflation between these killings, religion, and certain ethnicities. The victims of terrorism are Muslims, Christians, Mossis, Samos, Peul, etc. Therefore in the struggle against terrorism we must pay attention in order to avoid [causing] other conflicts through accusations and oppressions between the sons and daughters of our nation.

In other words, Salafi movements are keenly aware of the reputational risks – and therefore the dangers – that jihadist escalation poses for them.

Of course, Salafis are not alone in making such arguments – as International Crisis Group has put it, policymakers around the world should “disaggregate not conflate” (p. iii) when it comes to confronting jihadism.

For a brief biography of Kindo, see Frédérick Madoré’s Ph.D. dissertation, p. 182.

[Update: A reader writes privately to correct me – Daawatoul Islamia is a Salafi media platform in Burkina Faso, but Kindo and others refer to themselves as Ahl al-Sunna, “People of the Prophetic Model” – a moniker adopted by many Salafis around the world.]

Roundup of Recent Reports and Commentary on Jihadism in Central Mali and Burkina Faso

Several in-depth reports have come out recently looking at jihadism in central Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as a much-discussed article that focuses on Peul/Fulani identity in those areas and across West Africa. Here are some excerpts:

Philip Kleinfeld, IRIN, “In Central Mali, Rising Extremism Stirs Inter-Communal Conflict.”

Before the emergence of jihadism, the social fabric in central Mali was already fragile. For decades weak governance and competition over land and water caused lingering conflicts between the Fulani pastoralists, who move their herds across the region, and largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities.

[…]

Convinced the state cannot protect them, traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou, which translates roughly as, “hunters in God’s hands”.

The group is responsible for a string of indiscriminate attacks on Fulani civilians and is alleged to have received weapons and training from the Malian government. Fellow Dozos from the Ivory Coast and Niger are also believed to have joined their ranks.

Support from the Dogon community itself is mixed however, with many accounts of Dogon chiefs and civilians protecting their Fulani neighbours against the hunters.

France24: “In Burkina Faso, the Terrorist Threat Is Spreading to the East.”

A forest region bordering Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, eastern Burkina Faso has long been regarded as a bastion of organised crime. Thanks to the central government’s neglect of the region, self-defence militias known as “koglweogo” have become the guarantors of security for the local population. And thanks to the dense forests and the lack of adequate road networks, the area is practically inaccessible for national security forces. Thus, eastern Burkina Faso is fertile ground for jihadists.

[…]

A response from the Burkinabé government is long overdue. In a memo on the security situation in the east, relayed by local media, the regional police chief Commissioner Karim Drabo warned that “if security forces do not respond vigorously, the attackers will have time to settle and to spread IEDs throughout the areas they have occupied […] and they are gaining ground”.

And, finally, Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré of the human rights organization Kisal recently published a commentary piece at The Conversation (French). I’ve translated the first paragraph below.

The Peul are currently attracting attention because some of them are instrumentalized by fundamentalist groups seeking to implant themselves at the local level in the Sahel. The jihadist terror creates social distress among the other communities in the affected zones, making the Peul the scapegoats due to their supposed historical affinities with radical Islam. Peul identity thus appears as a bogeyman symbolizing the jihadist threat. However, this identity is too heterogeneous to create such a simple link.

 

Burkina Faso: Trial of Accused Coup Makers Resumes

In September 2015, Burkina Faso experienced a serious but short-lived coup. The military’s seizure of power came a little less than a year after the popular uprising that overthrew the country’s longtime ruler, Blaise Compaore. The coup was staged by the Regiment of Presidential Security (French acronym RSP), Compaore’s elite guard, and could be seen as a sort of would-be counter-revolution. The coup leaders detained Burkina Faso’s interim authorities and installed Compaoré loyalist General Gilbert Diendéré as head of a military government. Pressure from France and from the Economic Community of West African States, however, soon led the coup organizers to hand back power. Elections were then held in November 2015, and the winner – Roch Kaboré – remains president today.

The echoes of the coup are still being felt, however, including in the ongoing trial for officers involved in it. The trial, conducted by a military tribunal, began on 21 March 2018 (after an initial delay). There are 84 accused persons, including Diendéré and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Djibril Bassolé.

In front of the court this week have been several junior officers. On 27 August, the court heard the not guilty plea of Sergeant Souleymane Koné, as well as the testimony of Lieutenant Boureima Zagré, who seems to be pleading not guilty as well. Much of the testimony and the questioning concerns communications and orders – who told whom to do what? Who knew what?

There is more going on here, it seems to me, than just assigning guilt and blame. The testimonies of the accused provide an opportunity for authorities, the public, and the officers themselves to review, in exhaustive detail, the events of September 2015. The trial is partly functioning to create a national record and facilitate a national discussion about what exactly happened and what it all meant. In a way, this also becomes a conversation about where the country is headed and how power should be structured and apportioned there.

A Public Relations Balancing Act Amid Burkina Faso’s Counterterrorism Operation

The Burkinabé army released a communiqué (.pdf, French) on 18 July describing counterterrorism operations that units of the Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (Grouping of Anti-Terrorist Forces) have been conducting since 8 July in the northern frontier zone of the country. According to the communiqué, around 100 people were interrogated in the north, of whom sixty were transferred to the Gendarmerie for further questioning. The communiqué also states that anti-terrorist units dismantled bases and seized explosives, contraband, and other materials.

The communiqué takes pains to state that the soldiers “act with strict respect for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.” This emphasis comes on the heels of public comments by Burkinabé President Roch Kaboré about the importance of human rights – comments that in turn were responding to allegations of human rights abuses by Burkina Faso’s security services. In particular, a recent Human Rights Watch report really appears to have gotten authorities’ attention.

Here is an excerpt from that report, one relevant to the official descriptions of the current operation:

Community leaders complained of numerous instances in which the security forces appeared to randomly detain men en masse  who happened to be in the vicinity of incursions, attacks or ambushes by armed Islamist groups. Gendarmes released the majority of detainees after preliminary investigations which often lasted several days, but others have been detained for months.

The security forces, then, have at least two public relations objectives that are now in tension: on the one hand, they want to demonstrate their efficacy (“we got a lot of bad guys”); on the other hand, they want to demonstrate their professionalism (“we’re not just detaining any fighting-age men”). Amid this public relations balancing act, ascertaining the truth of what is happening is hard, especially in the moment.

In related news, RTB (French) reports on the recent killing of the chief of Hocoulourou, a commune in Burkina Faso’s Soum Province (Sahel Region).

 

Burkina Faso: President Kaboré’s Public Comments on Human Rights Abuses and Allegations of Abuse

On Sunday, June 24, Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kaboré appeared on three Burkinabé television stations to discuss a variety of issues. Fasozine offers a roundup (French) of the president’s statements on various controversies. Here is one excerpt that caught my eye:

Every time I have a meeting with the General Staff of the Armed Forces, I have always insisted on the fact that we must be respectful of human rights. It is true that we are on the ground, but we must have the confidence and the collaboration of the populations, which we must treat with maximum respect and consideration. This message is consistently repeated. At the level of the security forces, work is also done on all these human rights questions. [Human Rights Watch] really sent a message to the Burkinabé government to take action on a certain number things. We have asked them to come meet the minister of defense, to go on the ground. We have opened an investigation to apportion responsibilities on all of these questions. Everywhere that problems have been brought up, arrangements have been taken up in terms of investigation, in terms of sanctions. We think that there is more dramatization than reality. We always wait for proofs to be established and that they be shown to us.

For context, here is the report from Human Rights Watch.

Pre-Transition Politics in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On October 11, Burkina Faso will hold presidential and legislative elections. Senior members of the current interim government, which took office in November 2014 following the fall of long-time ruler Blaise Compaore the previous month, are ineligible to run in the elections. For now, though, the primary political struggle in the country is not over the October vote, but over who will wield power today, and what the role of different factions of the military will be in the government.

In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).

The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.

These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.

The International Crisis Group has urged parties in Burkina Faso to look forward:

With less than four months to go, the transition in Burkina Faso must focus all its efforts on the October elections…

The transitional government is caught in its own trap. It has made many promises without being able to satisfy them. The public is still waiting to see justice served for the economic crimes and murders committed under Compaoré. However, investigations have come up against a brick wall in the form of the RSP, some of whose members are accused of being involved in such crimes. There can be no final resolution of the question of the RSP’s future without destabilising the country. The transitional government is too weak to tackle their future role head on and seems to have decided to leave it to the new authorities.

With less than four months left before the elections, the transition has no more time to begin reforms and must focus on organising the ballot and promoting a peaceful climate.

For once, I find myself torn about Crisis Group’s recommendations (usually I agree fully with them). I wonder if postponing the question of the RSP’s future is tantamount to settling it in their favor. That does not mean I think the interim government should move to disband the unit – clearly Crisis Group is correct that such a move could prompt a crisis or even a coup. But I worry about a scenario for Burkina Faso where none of the issues that prompted the October 2014 revolution find resolution, even after the elections produce a winner. It seems to that the international community should take a strong stand not for or against the RSP’s existence, but for investigations of crimes. Supporting such investigations should involve creative thinking about how to ensure that the transition to the next government does not end up entrenching an atmosphere of impunity.

[Update July 10]: There have been two very smart responses to this post:

  • Jay Ufelder relates the case of Burkina Faso to broader questions of civilian control over security forces.
  • Michael Kevane offers concrete steps that civilian authorities and civil society activists could take to reduce the risks (or raise the costs) of a coup and to move the RSP close to “acquiescence to civilian rule.”