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.

Burkina Faso: A Major Kidnapping in the North

In my post about the latest United Nations report on human rights in Mali, I noted that there is a significant trend of fairly localized kidnapping in Mali. This trend appears in other parts of the Sahel as well, notably in Burkina Faso and Niger. It is true that Westerners still get kidnapped, but the situation is far different now than it was in the late 2000s and especially the early 2010s, when al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms for Europeans. These days, victims are often nationals of the countries where they are seized, and the primary motivations sometimes appear political or reprisal-based, with ransoms sometimes seeming to be a secondary motivation or even not a motivation at all, given that a disquieting number of the captives are eventually executed. It is not always clear, moreover, who the perpetrators are – jihadists appear to be behind many, but not all, of the kidnappings.

An important kidnapping occurred on August 11 in Burkina Faso. The victim is the Grand Imam of Djibo (map), Souaibou* Cissé. Djibo is the capital of the Soum Province, which is a conflict hotspot and the birthplace of the Burkinabè jihadist movement Ansar al-Islam or Ansaroul Islam (Defenders of Islam) – a movement in the orbit of the Mali-centric al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). According to Jeune Afrique, the imam was seized while returning from Burkina Faso’s capital to Djibo – more precisely, he was kidnapped on the road between Namsiguia (spellings vary) and Gaskindé (map). The road from Namsiguia to Djibo is so dangerous that it was the subject of an in-depth report by the Burkinabè journalist Tiga Cheick Sawadogo (see my writeup on his report here). The deputy mayor of Djibo, Oumarou Dicko, was killed in an ambush near Gaskindé on November 3, 2019 while traveling the same road.

Continuing with Jeune Afrique‘s account, unidentified gunmen stopped the car the imam was riding in, searched the passengers and checked their identities, took the imam, and let the others go. The imam has been threatened before, and a jihadist blockade of Djibo and environs reportedly involves searching vehicles going in and out of Djibo. To me, this reads as a premeditated and targeted kidnapping of the imam, rather than a crime of opportunity.

Radio Omega adds other details: gunmen fired at the imam’s house in a 2017 incident that killed a retired policeman; he received a series of telephone threats after that; and Burkinabè security forces were guarding his house until February 2020, when they were withdrawn without explanation. Radio Omega is not a source I know well.

If it was Ansaroul Islam that kidnapped Imam Souaibou Cissé, some context helps to explain why there may be personal bad blood beyond the wider context of jihadists not liking clerics who oppose them. Here is Crisis Group in its 2017 report on northern Burkina Faso (p. 4):

At the beginning of 2016, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam, whose daughter Malam [Ibrahim Dicko, Ansaroul Islam’s founder, who reportedly died in 2017] married, disowned him. He then repudiated his wife and took to the bush, losing most of his followers in the process. Only a close circle of loyal supporters followed him to Mali for training. From there, he tried to eliminate his former comrades. Ansarul Islam has a strong tendency toward settling accounts, which led one locally elected representatives to fear that a “cycle of vengeance” would be established in the long term. The attack on the Nassoumbou military base on 16 December 2016, reportedly led by Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) cost the lives of twelve Burkina soldiers and made Ansarul Islam’s existence official.

Dicko and Cissé had a war of words as well, with Cissé taking to the radio in an attempt to counter Dicko’s messaging and reduce local recruitment to Dicko’s Ansaroul Islam.

Threatening, kidnapping, or even killing Muslim clerics has been a tactic of jihadists in central Mali and elsewhere, so this incident fits into a larger trend. Still, this is one of the most prominent figures in the region to be kidnapped or harmed.

*For the Prophet Shu’ayb.

Burkina Faso Roundup: Stories on Insecurity, Campaigning, Security Force Abuses, Displacement, and Mining

AFP has a good article focusing on insecurity and the early stages of the campaigning for November’s presidential elections. I’ve never really paid attention before, but the English and French versions of the article are slightly different; the French version, for example, discusses President Roch Kaboré’s recent, campaign-esque visit to the besieged northern city of Djibo, whereas the English version leaves that bit out.

Ivoirian authorities say that soldiers arrested a Burkinabè national accused of plotting the June 10 attack at Kafolo, Cote d’Ivoire, near the border with Burkina Faso.,

The New York Times published a major article on security force abuses in Burkina Faso, amplifying a theme that has been receiving a lot of coverage recently. One excerpt:

One mostly Mossi vigilante network called the Koglweogo is notorious for a massacre of Fulanis in Yirgou in January 2019, in which the Collective Against Impunity said more than 200 people were killed. There are vigilante units and spies all over the country.

They do not always try to hide their killing.

One such vigilante leader, Moise Kinda unapologetically described how soldiers around Kongoussi, his sleepy hometown, kill people, dumping their bodies at roadsides. He was incredulous at the suggestion that people suspected of collaborating with terrorists should be arrested and prosecuted, rather than summarily killed.

“If they were in prison, we’d have to feed them and give them water, and their friends might come and attack the prison,” he said, reading glasses tucked into his shirt.

In his office in the capital, Simon Compaoré, the president of the ruling party, a former secretary of state and mayor of Ouagadougou, said, “I don’t want to hear these people telling me human rights, human rights.”

He denied that the military and allied vigilantes were targeting the Fulani, and carrying out what activists have called “political extermination.”

Recent displacement figures are available through the International Organization of Migration’s latest (June 23) update for the Central Sahel and Liptako Gourma. Burkina Faso alone is on track to have a million internally displaced people before long.

Finally, at Africa Is A Country, Diana Ayah asks what “local” really means in Burkina Faso’s mining sector:

Direct employment at mine sites…often implies a restricted access for residents of the locality where operations take place. A constant concern and argument of the industry spanning the national headquarters to sites of extraction is that residents of mining-impacted communities would lack the needed capacities and skills to participate in the global working assignments and supply chains of the sector. As a response, mining companies establish different scalar categories of workforce, (“expatriate,” “national,” “local,” and “local-local”) that are—intentionally or not—usually connected to different job categories (“skilled,” “semi-skilled,” and “unskilled”). The different job categories ranging from “skilled expatriate” to “unskilled local” differ significantly in nature, quality, hiring practices and most importantly, wages. While “skilled expatriate” workers are for instance hired through Globe 24-7, a “professional Human resource consulting in the mining industry,” “unskilled labor” is usually recruited though local intermediaries in charge of assuring the “localness” of a candidate.

For analyses of how jihadists have tapped into tensions around mining in Burkina Faso and in the Sahel more broadly, see here and here.

Burkina Faso: A Glimpse of Conflict-Torn Djibo

For lefaso.net, the Burkinabè journalist Tiga Cheick Sawadogo has written two vital pieces: one about his journey in a convoy from Namsiguia to Djibo, and one about the situation in Djibo. Both pieces also include videos. Since 2016, Djibo has been one of the most affected zones amid the wider insurgencies troubling Burkina Faso’s north and east.

Sawadogo calls the 36-kilometer journey “by far the most securitized” that he’s made – it included not only a convoy of trucks and a group of FDS (Burkinabè security forces), but also air support. The context was a “caravan of provisions” for Djibo organized by the “Action Group for Soum,” whose Facebook page is here (Soum is the province of which Djibo is the capital).* Sawadogo writes that traveling the Namsiguia-Djibo axis has become prohibitively dangerous for ordinary people, and notes that he and his fellow passengers counted at least six corpses along the route, in addition to numerous abandoned trucks. Sawadogo notes that under normal circumstances, it should take four hours to drive from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to Djibo, but that the trip he was on took seven hours in total, and that on the Namsiguia-Djibo portion they stopped roughly every twenty minutes so that the security forces could perform reconnaissance. The caravan arrived to Djibo on 13 May.

Sawodogo includes a powerful quote from the Emir of Djibo:

It’s a very difficult period. For two years, we haven’t been able to go to Dori any more. For more than a year, we haven’t been able to go to Baraboulé any more. Soon it will also be a year that we can’t go to Ouahigouya. And now, it is the road from Ouaga, which allows us to resupply the town, that is cut off. Everything used to come from Ouaga. With this blockade, resupplying is becoming more difficult. Many have come under strain, their trucks and their buses were shot at.

Sawadogo notes that the convoy’s journey allowed other trucks, that had been stuck in Namsiguia, to join the convoy to Djibo, and that other trucks joined them on the return journey. But as Sawadogo sagely observers, the convoy was “a circumstantial gesture facing a structural problem.”

The two pieces give a vivid impression of a zone under siege. As Sawadogo suggests, the level of resources mounted to enable the trip from Namsiguia to Djibo appears as the exception to the rule – namely, extreme and its seems increasing difficulty for civilians and security personnel attempting to access the conflict zones. Closely related to that issue is the issue of relations between the security forces and local civilians, which are, to say the least, bad – Djibo was, on 9 April, the site of an alleged massacre of 31 civilians by the FDS. Sawadogo does not go into detail about how civilians reacted to the convoy, but describes “the curious gaze of villagers” who watched from the roadside as the convoy left Namsiguia. Friends, foes, or neither? The point, I think, is that the FDS cannot tell the difference.

*You can read a short interview with Hamadoun Dicko, coordinator of the Action Group for Soum, here (French). He discusses this same trip.