The Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland
In Early 2020, the ‘Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland’ (VDP) was created on the back of existing self-defense groups in Burkina Faso such as the Koglweogo and Dozo. Upon creation, Burkinabé president Roch Kaboré emphasized that the VDP were to be an inclusive force for each ‘region, ethnicity, political opinion and religious denomination’. One year after its creation, it is time to take stock.
Unfortunately, it is overwhelmingly clear that the VDP are not inclusive and are instead accused of worsening the intercommunal conflicts in Burkina Faso, especially between pastoralists and cultivators. What structures explain that the VDP has not delivered on the promise of an inclusive force?
The creation of the VDP by the Burkinabé government and military served the dual purpose of mobilizing the population against attacks by armed groups, as well as gaining more governmental control over increasingly unruly militia groups around the country. Despite this intention, data on attacks by VDP have shown that abuses and ethnic delineations previously attributed to these militias have merely carried over to the VDP.
According to interviews, there are very few members of the Fulani ethnicity in the VDP, and villages that are primarily Fulani do not have a VDP force. The few Fulani VDP are often elites or sedentary members.
More alarmingly, data on attacks perpetrated by the VDP have shown that 89% of their attacks against civilians in 2020 were against Fulani civilians. Research points to various instances of arbitrary arrests, summary executions, torture and rape by the volunteer forces.
Right from the onset: the recruitment
One major reason for the failure to deliver on inclusivity is the present VDP recruitment process, which unofficially selects against especially pastoralist Fulani.
On paper anyone can apply to become a VDP but in reality the recruitment process is mediated by the Committee for Village Development (CVD), village chiefs or the municipal administration (depending on the local political geography). The role of local authorities is supposed to ensure that any VDP selected are deemed to be trustworthy by the community, and thus worthy of protecting their village.  Through this mediated recruitment process, as well as a significant overlap with pre-existing self-defense groups, VDP recruitment heavily favors sedentary, well-connected members of the population.
From the onset, VDP recruitment and membership largely overlapped with existing self-defense groups. The decree pertaining to the VDP stipulates that being a retired member of the security forces, or being a member of local security initiatives can be an asset to VDP recruitment. As such, the VDP are in large part composed of (previous) members of existing self-defense groups, most notably the Koglweogo (mainly Mossi and Gourmantché ethnicity), and in some western parts of the country, the Dozo. The large number of Koglweogo that have become VDP means that the VDP are often seen as a Mossi force created to prop up the Mossi hegemony. In addition to this. both the Koglweogo and the Dozo are composed of primarily farming communities. The absorption of entire Koglweogo and Dozo groups thus already skews the composition of the VDP in favor of these sedentary communities.
For new members recruited into the VDP, the process as mediated by local officials, CVD or traditional authorities further selects against certain members of the population. Primarily, the process discriminates against pastoralists and nomads, and people that are less well connected to village or regional authorities. These attributes often coincide with having the Fulani ethnicity, meaning that Fulani especially are frequently excluded from the VDP. This selection bias is created on multiple levels. Firstly, sedentary communities have a more hegemonic position in the Burkinabé state system. The historical construction of the Burkinabe state also largely favored the Mossi identity and ethnic group, many of whom were sedentary at the time. Historical pastoralist communities are thus less well represented in state systems, and are less likely to have a role in VDP recruitment, on a village, municipal and national level. Both the dominance of the older self-defense groups and the biased selection could be mitigated by involving traditional authorities from Fulani pastoralist communities in the selection process. However, interviews suggest that in majority Fulani areas, (Fulani) traditional authorities are often excluded from VDP recruitment.
Secondly, pastoralists are more likely to live on the fringes of villages or have a nomadic lifestyle. They are thus less likely to be well-integrated and trusted enough to be picked by community leaders to be part of the VDP. The same holds true for the increasing numbers of displaced people. As such, a selection bias is created for recruitment of those who are similar to those in the position of recruiting- sedentary, well-known and connected members of villages. Prevailing stereotypes conflating Fulani ethnicity with armed group membership further means that many people in the state don’t want to arm and train the Fulani. While not the only reason, this could help explain the resulting over-representation of pastoralist Fulani communities as targets of VDP attacks.
As is clear from President Kaborés statements after his re-election, the VDP will remain central to the Burkinabé security response. It means that the VDP urgently need to tackle their majority Mossi composition, and the existing discriminations against pastoralist Fulani communities. As such, it is important to ensure that traditional authorities representing pastoralist communities become more involved, as this may increase the recruitment of pastoralist communities to the VDP forces. While unconventional, the state could also consider solutions like introducing an ethnic quota for the VDP, or directly integrating members of pastoral security initiatives such as the Rougas into the VDP. A more equal ethnic composition of the VDP forces could deter targeted or revenge attacks against pastoralist populations.
There remains widespread support for local populations to be involved in the defense of their communities in Burkina Faso. Like with the rest of the complex crisis in Burkina Faso, there is no easy solution to curb human rights abuses perpetrated by the VDP. However, it is possible that creating a more representative VDP force in 2021 could be one small step in untangling the complex crisis in Burkina Faso.
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 Zutterling, C. 2020. Armer les civils : la loi des Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie au Burkina Faso. Brussels : GRIP.; International Crisis Group. 2020. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, Brussels: International Crisis Group.
 Self-defense militias such as the Koglweogo have been accused on multiple counts of human rights abuses and worsening of intercommunal conflicts. See more at: Human Rights Watch; Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, Brussels: International Crisis Group.
 Clionadh, R, Linke, A, Hegre, H and Karlsen, J. 2010. “Introducing ACLED-Armed Conflict Location and Event Data.” Journal of Peace Research 47(5) 651-660.
 R. Da Cunha Dupuy and T. Quidelleur. 2018. Self-Defence Movements in Burkina Faso: Diffusion and Structuration of Koglweogo Groups. Noria Research.
 2020, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), acleddata.com.
 Venturi, B and Toure, N. 2020. “The Great Illusion: Security Sector Reform in the Sahel”, The International Spectator, 55:4, 54-68.; Human Rights Watch
  Interview with a national researcher, 15 December 2020. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
   Interview with regional state authority, 11 January 2021. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
 Zutterling, C. 2020. Armer les civils : la loi des Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie au Burkina Faso. Brussels : GRIP.
 International Crisis Group. 2020. Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence, Brussels: International Crisis Group.
 Koglweogo are mainly Mossi and Gourmantché and Dozo are mainly from Dioula.; Idrissa, R. 2019. Tinder to the Fire: Burkina Faso in the Conflict Zone, RLS Research Papers On Peace And Conflict Studies In West And Central Africa.
  Idrissa, R. 2019. Tinder to the Fire: Burkina Faso in the Conflict Zone, RLS Research Papers On Peace And Conflict Studies In West And Central Africa.
 Beucher, B. 2017. Manger le Pouvoir au Burkina Faso, Karthala
 Molenaar, F., Tossel, J., Schmauder, A., Idrissa., R., Lyammouri, R. 2019. The Status Quo Defied The legitimacy of traditional authorities in areas of limited statehood in Mali, Niger and Libya. The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
 Interview with regional traditional leader, 21 January 2021. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Hagberg, S., Kibora, L., Barry, S., Cissao, Y., Gnessi, S., & Kaboré, A. et al. 2019. Sécurité par le bas Perceptions et perspectives citoyennes des défis de sécurité au Burkina Faso, Uppsala Papers In Africa Studies.
  Bisson, L., Cottyn, I., de Bruijne, K., and Molenaar, F. 2021. Between hope and despair : Pastoralist adaptation in Burkina Faso. The Hague : Clingendael Institute.
 The Rougas are a primarily Fulani defense group that deals with issues of cattle theft and extortion that pastoralist communities often face. Bisson, L., Cottyn, I., de Bruijne, K., and Molenaar, F. 2021. Between hope and despair : Pastoralist adaptation in Burkina Faso. The Hague : Clingendael Institute.