Burkina Faso faces a dangerous threat from armed Islamist fighters who are killing civilians and threatening to destabilize other West African countries. But the government’s abusive counterterrorism strategy, including summary executions of suspects, may further inflame the conflict by pushing more people into the arms of recruiting agents of militant Islamist groups.
Since 2017, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces of more than 150 men accused of supporting or harboring terrorists. I can not confirm whether or not each of these men supported armed Islamists. But all were seen for the last time while in the custody of the government security forces and were found a few hours later shot in the head or chest.
Almost all the victims belonged to the Fulani ethnic group (Fulani), whose grievances against the government were exploited by the Islamists to gain recruits. « We have become hostages on both sides, » said one notable Fulani. « The day we are afraid of the army and at night we are afraid of jihadists. «
On a Sunday in May in the morning, armed Islamist fighters arrived in the city of Dablo in Burkina Faso and immediately headed for the Catholic Church. « We were singing when they broke in, » said one congregation member. « They killed the priest and then ordered five men, including a member of the choir, to lie on the ground and executed them in front of their families. Before leaving, they ordered our women to start wearing the veil. «
This church attack is the latest in date committed by armed Islamists since the appearance in 2016 of a local jihadist group, Ansarul Islam. Since 2016, this group, along with others, linked to both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, have murdered teachers and mayors; slaughtered customers in cafes in the capital, Ouagadougou; removed strangers; looted cattle; and prohibits villagers from cultivating their land or celebrating weddings.
The accelerated pace and magnitude of their attacks resulted in the displacement of more than 130,000 people, led the government to declare a state of emergency and fueled fears that the violence was spreading beyond Burkina’s borders.
The kidnapping in May of two French tourists and their guide in a nature reserve in northern Benin, and reports of the appearance of armed Islamist cells in other West African countries not previously affected by this kind of violence, should sound like a wake-up call for the international community.
However, in response to a genuine threat, the Burkinabè government adopted an anti-terrorist approach in which large numbers of suspects were illegally executed. By this approach, he has put himself against Fulani nomads, members of the ethnic group most affected by these methods, many of whom live in many of the other countries at risk.
Dozens of people who witnessed more than 20 government forces operations in northern Burkina Faso provided me with lists of victims and maps showing where the bodies were found.
« The military surrounded the market and arrested 17 men, » said a witness in a May 10 operation in the northern city of Titao. « Before taking them away, one soldier said: ‘you will not live another day of market.' » Another witness described how these men were found two days later about 25 kilometers away, some of whom were killed a bullet in the head.
Three witnesses described how nine suspects were found dead shortly after their arrest in a similar operation in Belharo village in February. A witness showed me pictures of the burial of a victim and said, « We found Hamadoun, who was 72 years old, with his knees and forehead against the ground, as if he had asked to pray before ‘to be killed. «
A Burkinabe human rights organization has documented another 60 executions of suspects that it says took place during a massive operation in February, near the town of Kain.
Fulani villagers I met bitterly complained of being caught between armed Islamist groups and government forces. Islamists are trying to enlist them and threaten to execute those who collaborate with the government, and security forces are pressuring them to get information about the presence of armed groups and inflict collective punishment if they do not provide them .
In a recent interview, Defense Minister Moumina Cheriff Sy, appointed in January, said one of her first priorities would be to reassure the population that « there is a government and an army, including the role is to protect it. «
And yet, the villagers who are in the front row to attend the operations of his army do not see the same eye. « People are fleeing the army in large numbers; for them, their army is synonymous with fear, no security, « said a community notable.
Civilians and members of Burkina Faso’s security forces have paid a heavy price since 2016, but killing security suspects is fueling its terrorism problem. The government is obliged by its own laws and international law to ensure that suspects receive a fair trial and to prevent its security forces from committing illegal killings. In addition, the atrocities committed by the army seem to draw against it the population it has a mandate to protect, and risk to swell the ranks of these abusive groups.
Burkina Faso’s international partners should make their voices heard, insist that the authorities contain units that commit atrocities and provide crucial support to the systematically neglected civilian and military justice systems.
Burkina Faso faces a very real threat, but it needs to rectify its counterterrorism strategy. This implies anchoring it in respect of human rights.