Self-defence groups, politics and the Sahelian State
For years, one key difference between the conflicts in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso was the role of self-defence groups. Whereas self-defence groups have proliferated in Mali and Burkina Faso for years, they barely existed in Niger despite its three active conflict zones (Maradi, Diffa and Tillabéri/Tahoua).
Yet, over the past year, self-defence groups have progressively emerged in Tillabéri, Tahoua and Maradi. What explains this? And what does this tell us about the interaction between the state and such groups?
For many, the key explanation is “state weakness.”
The narrative has it that in Burkina Faso and Mali, self-defence groups emerged to protect local communities against insecurity as state security forces faltered. In contrast, the Nigerien state is relatively “strong” with a particularly firm presence at the local level (through the chefferie system). Hence, local communities in Niger’s conflict-affected areas would not need to rely on self-defence groups. From this perspective, the emergence of Arab, Djerma and Tuareg self-defence groups since the late 2000s is seen as proof that the Nigerien state is crumbling in the face of growing VEO violence.
Yet, the Sahelian state is neither absent nor particularly weak. Its elites are strong when they wish to be, extractive when they can be, and concealed but present when they have to operate out of sight.
With this commentary, we complement those who claim that there are no “ungoverned spaces” in the Sahel, as local actors (such as self-defence forces) take over state functions. Yet, rather than resorting to blanket hybridity where self-defence forces fill the void left by the state, we stress how these hybrid organizations are intertwined with the state and its elites.
We demonstrate this by tracing the evolution of self-defence groups in Mali and Burkina Faso and the recent rise of self-defence groups in Niger. Rather than replacing the state, these groups act in collaboration with the state and at times further state goals.
In Burkina Faso, self-defence groups such as the Dozo and Koglweogo have expanded considerably since 2015. In January 2020, the state mobilized existing self-defence groups into the state-controlled force Volontaires pour la Défense de la Patrie (VDP) to support state security forces in their fight against VEOs. In October 2022, the Traoré regime announced a massive expansion.
The proliferation of self-defence groups in Burkina Faso has deep historical antecedents. The colonial administration set up village committees for self-defence. In the 1970s and 80s, vigilance committees cooperated with the city council in Bobo-Dioulasso and conducted nightly patrols to protect the community when and where the police and gendarmerie could not do so. During the Thomas Sankara period (1983-1987), the regime unified civilians in Comités de Défense de la Révolution (CDR) to defend the ideals of the revolution at the local level in both urban and rural areas.
These groups were also central to community policing. In 2003, Burkina Faso authorized the creation of local security committees (Comités locaux de sécurité) and in 2005 tasked those committees with providing information to the police. In 2010 the creation of a neighbourhood police force (police de proximité) further encouraged the organization of self-defence groups. Next to state-created groups, local security movements emerged from the 1990s onwards to deal with growing banditry and crime (e.g. Dozo and later the Koglweogo).
Since independence, there have been deep ties between the state and self-defence groups. Sometimes, these relationships have been merely for mutual benefit. Hagberg shows that Dozos have been bought into the CDP (until 2014) and MPP (since 2015) party machinery and, up until today, they are still protected by some politicians.
At other times these groups were doing the bidding of political elites. Prominent Burkinabe politicians have strong links with Koglweogos, which they used for youth mobilization and to settle political scores. During the Compaoré regime the security of gold mining sites was in the hands of private security companies (known as concessionaires), but these also involved self-defence groups often tied to politicians. When the war broke out, this concessionaires structure disintegrated and self-defence groups were employed to secure mining sites, some to advance the economic interests of state elites.
Historically, the Burkinabe state has often sought to contain and encapsulate these groups into the political fold. For example, the Dozo association Benkadi was not officially recognized, but had to register and be represented through the CDP, Compaoré’s ruling party. In 2016, the state attempted to incorporate the Koglweogo into the state’s neighbourhood police. The State’s creation of the VDP in 2020 is a similar attempt to (re)gain control over these self-defence groups.
In short, the case of Burkina Faso highlights a long history of state involvement with self-defence groups. When VEOs spilled into Burkina Faso in 2015 and violence surged, state security forces were often unable (and arguably unwilling) to protect the population. Consequently, more self-defence groups emerged to defend their communities against these outward threats. Yet, at the same time, many key CDP politicians (e.g. Simon Compaoré, Roche Kaboré, Salif Diallo) moved to the MPP and continued to exert influence over these groups. There are still close ties between the Koglweogo and Simon Compaoré, who was at some point even named Honorary National President of the Koglweogos. Hence, self-defence forces do not necessarily indicate an absent state, but are rather a platform through which a struggling and extractive state seeks to survive.
The Malian case similarly shows deep ties between self-defence groups and the political centre.
The Malian state has historically funded, trained and created militias organized along ethnic lines to support state security forces against insurgent groups during the country’s various rebellions.
During the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, the state supported Ganda Koy (Masters of the land), a militia that represented sedentary Songhai populations. Although initially created to protect the Songhay communities from attacks by the nomadic Tuareg and Arabs, the group was known to terrorize Tuareg communities, even calling for ethnic cleansing.
During the Tuareg rebellion in 2008, a breakaway movement formed Ganda Iso (Sons of the land) to protect Fulani communities against Tuareg attacks. Similarly, Ganda Iso members were responsible for killing Tuareg civilians. The Malian state supported and funded both militia groups to bolster their counterinsurgency against the Tuareg, ensuring impunity for any atrocities committed.
In the same vein, the state has supported the Groupe Auto-défense Touareg, Imghad et Allié (GATIA) to counter the 2012 Tuareg uprising and the rise of VEOs. Created in 2014 by an army general, GATIA is a pro-government Imghad Tuareg group with strong ties to the state and the military.
The latest example is the Dogon self-defence group Dan Na Ambassagou (DNA), created in 2016 to protect Dogon communities against VEOs. The Malian state supported the group in 2018 (providing weapons and allowing training camps to be set up). Official state support was withdrawn in 2019 amid public outrage at DNA’s indiscriminate attacks on the Fulani, but collaboration has continued under the radar.
As in Burkina Faso, the Malian state’s support for groups such as GATIA and Dan Na Ambassagou shows how states deliberately opt to circumvent formal state structures and instead seek to remain relevant through strong links with hybrid self-defence institutions.
The case of Niger highlights how the state makes deliberate choices as to whether to work with self-defence groups.
Traditionally, Niger has been cautious in engaging with self-defence groups. For example, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad all instrumentalized local vigilante groups to combat Boko Haram, but Niger has been reluctant to do so. In the Lake Chad basin, Niger banned civilians from carrying arms and staffing roadblocks. Instead, it offered an informant role within the army’s civil-military units. In the Sahel conflict, Niger has likewise sought to resist the formation of self-defence groups.
The key reason for this reluctance is a history of rebellions (e.g. the Tebu insurgency of the 1990s) and subsequent difficulties with demobilizing Fulani and Arab militias. Hard to control sources of power have made Nigerien authorities wary of self-defence groups and the rise of (and the problem with) self-defence groups in Mali has only strengthened this perception. 
The Nigerien position also stems from deep local networks of the Nigerien state. Nigerien state elites have intricate and deep sub-national ties. For example, Niger’s formally integrated chefferie system is deeply connected to the central state and the state is able, by and large, to impose its will on local politics. In turn, these customary authorities tend to call upon the formal security system, indicating a generally cordial relationship. Hence, countering the emergence of self-defence groups has been a deliberate political strategy to prevent alternative centres of power at the local level (cf. the lesson drawn from the Tebu insurgency).
What this means is that the absence of self-defence forces is not simply because the Nigerien state is strong (and its neighbours weak). Rather, the political calculus in Niamey has been that self-defence forces do not further their interests.
It is this calculus that is changing. Already in 2017-2018, the Nigerien state made an exception by allying itself with the Malian pro-government militias GATIA and Mouvement pour le Salut d’ Azawad (MSA) to counter the spread of the Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) from Mali into and within Niger’s Tillabéri region. Niger authorized strikes and provided fuel for these “self-defence groups”. Moreover, following a series of mass civilian attacks by alleged VEOs in the first quarter of 2021, Nigerien authorities realized that they could no longer prohibit self-defence initiatives if they were not able to effectively protect civilians. Hence, when self-defence activity increased, the state’s response was muted; the Bazoum government refrained from formally banning self-defence forces (even though it continued to warn against their dangers). The government continues to offer alternatives as evidenced by a training programme for young Nigeriens to join the National Guard.
The emerging role of self-defence groups in Niger is thus not necessarily a sign of a crumbling Nigerien state, but rather a change in the political calculus given a growing threat. The Nigerien state has been struggling to protect civilians against VEOs, which are deeply embedded. The new calculus with French support seems to be that self-defence groups may serve state interests (e.g. assist in better helping to navigate the terrain). The first sign of direct state involvement with these groups becoming apparent is to be awaited.
Self-defence groups have a long history of state involvement in the Sahel. Historically, political elites have engaged with self-defence groups to reap their benefits and support state power. Far from “failed,” “fragile” and “weak,” the Sahelian state remains present in the current breakdown of political order, even if it remains concealed.
There is one uncomfortable implication of this insight. Stabilisation efforts in the Sahel tend to rely heavily on the ideas of “bringing back the state” and “rebuilding institutions.” European policy-makers continue to define the crises in the Sahel in pathological terms: violent extremism, self-defence groups and banditry have flourished in a security vacuum left by a failing, weak or fragile state. The prescribed remedy is obvious: rebuild the state and its security forces.
This reading sets stabilisation engagement up for failure as it overlooks the underlying reality of Sahelian politics: the Sahelian state is still ruled through “intermediaries” and was ruled in this exact same way before the Sahelian conflict broke out. What is urgently needed is to rethink how to include these hybrid institutions into state structures and how both the national state and these hybrid institutions can subsequently become more attuned to peoples’ needs.