In Burkina Faso, violence is rapidly escalating across the country with a recorded civil death toll reaching over 1000 in 2020 alone. Violence first mainly plagued the Sahel, East and Centre-North regions, but since 2018 VEOs are expanding their actions into the North and the Boucle du Mouhoun regions. While attacks used to be mainly against security forces, now, however, the militants are increasingly targeting civilians.
While many acts of violence remain unclaimed, they are allocated to a mix of actions by self-defence groups, abuses by national security forces and attacks by VEOs. There are a number of interrelated factors underlying these conflicts; however, a major influence is the spread of VEOs from Mali and Niger, who import violence by instrumentalising existing tensions and in particular exploit pastoralist grievances. They tap into the discontent that many rural communities have towards the state, which was weakened by the fall of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014.
Militants are largely motivated by local concerns, including farmers and herders who are victims of land-related injustices or racketeering, bandits, gold miners, or stigmatised populations seeking protection. A common factor is contesting governmental authority in the areas where it operates which has translated into the targeting of security forces, civil servants, traditional authorities or community members who are seen as collaborating with government representatives in order to create a power and governance vacuum.
The main extremist groups that are active in Burkina Faso are the homegrown Ansarul Islam and groups from Mali, like the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which started gaining a foothold in Burkina Faso in late 2015.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), originally based in Mali and Niger, is mainly operating in the Liptako-Gourma border zone (Mali, Burkina and Niger) and made its first inroads in the North of Burkina Faso by the end of 2016. In their aim to stretch their zone of influence, their strategy is to take advantage of existing tensions at community level to weaken the social fabric and to establish the authority and legitimacy of militant extremism. In Mali, for example, ISGS has exploited grievances over cattle thefts in order to intensify conflicts between Tuareg and Fulani nomads.
Particularly the FLM and Ansaroul Islam incorporate local grievances in particular as Fulani preachers concentrate on stoking Fulani herding feelings of injustice and resentment toward the government. The FLM, also known as Katiba Macina, has played a particularly effective role in destabilizing the region using a rhetoric focused on Fulani grievances to fuel existing tensions. Emphasizing their domestic roots, they draw on narratives of the historical Macina Empire to gain popular support and allude to the reinstalment of the Macina Empire, dominated by the Fulani ethnic group and under Islamic rule. Their effectiveness stems from using radio to communicate in Fulfulde (the native Fulani language), endorsing feelings of injustice and discrimination while calling for more equality of opportunity and political reform. This resonates, in particular, among young Fulani herders.
Ansaroul Islam appeared on the scene in late 2016 and are mainly active in the Soum and Centre-North regions of Burkina Faso. Founded by Ibrahim Malam Dicko, a Fulani preacher, this group also aims at recruiting young Fulani men by drawing on their feelings of neglect by the central government. These tactics explain why many of these groups’ recruits are likely to be Fulani and why the media and the authorities alike often refer to these groups as Fulani movements.
Fulani participation in or support for these (and other) groups has led to many observers simplifying the situation as a ‘Fulani Jihad’, which served as part of the justification for state and self-defence groups’ violence against Fulani civilians. Despite the fact that it is a minority of Fulani who take up arms or join these groups, it has led to the subsequent stigmatization and abuse of the entire Fulani community. VEOs are however not exclusively driven by Fulani concerns and recruits and neither do they target only Fulani, but rather tap into a broader tendency of the increasing breakdown of social trust and cohesion at the local level.
Exploiting injustices is frequently linked to land disputes and coupled with political and community-based issues. Before the 2014 political crisis, most reported conflicts concerned disputes between herders, generally from the Fulani tribe, and farmers. Moreover, unequal competition over land and water resources due to agricultural developments and land speculation, declining supplies, the obstruction of transhumance routes and the non-application of legislation was another reason. While these farmer-herder tensions have a long history all over Africa, these tensions were often locally managed in a more or less peaceful manner, and violence was limited in scale.
The activities of extremist groups and the emergence of civilian self-defence groups have increased violence. Civilian self-defence groups began to form in 2014 and three self-defence groups have emerged. The Koglweogo mainly operate in the eastern, central and northern provinces and are often tied to traditional authorities as they fight crime and provide – often brutal – justice. They mainly recruit their members from the Mossi ethnic group that represents almost 50 per cent of the population. In the Eastern regions they are known as Gourmantché and different variations of the Koglweogo exist. There are an estimated 4500 Koglweogo groups that are active in Burkina Faso, and they are made up of around 45,000 members.
Second, the Dozos are traditional hunters of the Dogon community mainly active in western Burkina Faso and provide security and protection services. The stigmatization of Fulani has triggered the targeting of this community by Koglweogo and Dozo militias. Brought into the fight against VEOs, the Koglweogo are responsible for several massacres of members of the Fulani ethnic group, who they accuse of collaborating with these militants. This has escalated into a deadly cycle of revenge and reprisals. In 2012, a union of herder representatives went on to protect pastoralists in the East and North of the country though the Rouga. The Rouga are dominated by the Fulani and emerged specifically to counter Koglweogo and Dozo activities, and they mainly deal with issues of cattle theft and extorsion that pastoralist communities often experience.