Kalashnikovs and no-go zones: east Burkina Faso falls to militants

Locals say they live in fear of violence and face harsh punishment for breaking rules

When a stranger arrives in Bartiébougou, the Kalashnikov-wielding men in charge check his ID. But first they check his forehead. They are looking for the indent left by a beret – an instant indication he is a soldier and therefore an enemy spy.

Like much of eastern Burkina Faso, the government has no control over what happens in Bartiébougou; local militants, backed by west African extremist groups, do.

“They control the whole zone. The men have big motorbikes and they ride around with guns,” said a resident. “They’ve mined the whole area. If the military comes, they’ll tell people to attack them. The army doesn’t even try to come any more.”

Relative to its Sahelian neighbours, Burkina Faso was until recently considered one of west Africa’s more peaceful and moderate countries. But over the past two years the authorities have lost control of large regions to a spreading insurgency. Conflict has escalated dramatically, researchers say. Over the past five months, the civilian death toll has risen by 7,000% compared with the same period last year.

The armed groups are painted as “terrorists”, and it is true they are backed by extremist groups. But in the east, where conflict is rising fastest, the groups are made up of ordinary Burkinabés taking up arms against a “predatory” government seen as taking land and mineral wealth while offering nothing in return.

Bestowing both benevolence and cruelty on people under their power, the groups attack security forces, schools and other state symbols, and execute suspected government spies.

“The ideology is to destroy the administration,” said the communications minister, Remis Dandjinou.

Burkina Faso map

At first, Burkina Faso seemed to escape the fate of its northern neighbour, Mali, where a 2012 uprising was hijacked by extremists, and where the government has lost control of vast areas. But from early 2015, cross-border attacks began, after an uprising that had led to long-time president, Blaise Compaoré’s, downfall. In late 2016, Ansarul Islam, a new homegrown group, claimed the killing of 12 soldiers in the northern Sahel region. Since then attacks there have increased dramatically, involving vigilantes and ethnic militias as well as Islamist and state forces.

In the gold-rich trafficking hub of the east, meanwhile, there was anger but no extremist-driven violence before 2018, according to data collected by the Burkinabé researcher Mahamoudou Savadogo.

“The state stopped people mining and using the traditional hunting grounds. In 2016 and 2017, there were no attacks in the east – just protests,” said Savadogo.

In early 2018 this suddenly changed and attacks began. Teachers fled. Rangers were chased out of the Parc national du W, a major regional park crossing Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin, and militants moved in. Improvised explosive devices were planted around occupied areas.

A woman sifts through mud as she looks for gold in Namisgma, the largest gold washing site in the country.
A woman sifts through mud as she looks for gold in Namisgma, the largest gold washing site in the country. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Much of the east has been carved up under several local leaders, allied with Ansarul Islam, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS), and Mali’s al-Qaida affiliated Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM). There appears to be no conflict between the factions; according to Savadogo, they use the same techniques, meaning they probably have common trainers.

No outsiders can openly enter these areas so it is unclear whether the extremist groups give instructions as well as supplies.

The Bartiébougou resident, who for his safety cannot be named, said the town has been revitalised by the armed men, formerly local farmers and herders. Foreigners have been chased out of nearby gold mines. The solar panel trade is booming: the electricity provider cannot get to Bartiébougou to deliver bills, so has cut the supply.

The groups give people maize, medicine and money, he said – a $600 (£459) monthly salary for those who work with them (triple a standard teacher’s salary), plus a $800 bonus for those who carry out attacks.

“They say they love people who work, that they’re fighting the state – and everyone agrees with them,” he said.

This approach is not new in west Africa, said Crisis Group’s Rinaldo Depagne. “These groups are successful because they have a double narrative,” he said. “Hardline Islam, but also the social speech: ‘We are going to give you a much more egalitarian system, and bring services the state doesn’t give you.’”

In Bartiébougou, like in many parts of the east, the militants are hardline about some things and not others. “At 6pm, everyone has to go to the mosque, then home,” said the resident, describing conditions reminiscent of those in Isis-controlled Raqqa or Mosul.

“In the middle of the night, you must go and listen to sermons. You’re forbidden to criticise them. Women have to cover their heads. There’s no talk of cigarettes, alcohol or music, no celebrations.”

Punishments are harsh, he said: “If you smoke, at first they just tell you not to. The third time, they kill you.

“They’ve forbidden prostitution in the mines – they slit their throats. They kill someone about once a month, I’d say, and it’s always people they’ve warned. Except the prostitutes. They don’t warn them. They just kill them.”

School is banned. For the moment, though, Christians – who make up a third of the population in traditionally tolerant Burkina Faso – are left alone.

“We see them, we know them, but they never do anything to us. Every Sunday we hold a service. We can even sing,” said a pastor from another occupied village in the east.

The deteriorating situation in Burkina Faso is part of pattern of militant expansion in the Sahel, where there has in recent months been a “massive spike” in violence. Other parts of the country are becoming more dangerous, with reports of attacks in the south-west. Some warn that the country’s southern neighbours could also be at risk.

The humanitarian emergency is unprecedented, with 1.2 million people needing aid. Across the country, more than 100,000 people have fled, and those who stayed feared they would be killed, although not necessarily by the armed groups.

The military’s reaction to losing control of parts of the country for the first time since independence has been to crack down hard on those it considers “terrorists”, particularly targeting Fulani herders, according to activists.

“We know that those paying the highest price are herders,” said Boubakary Diallo of the Rugga national union, a Fulani rights and education group.

Human Rights Watch has documented 40 killings by armed Islamist groups in the northern Sahel region since mid-2018 but the country’s security forces killed three times that many, its latest report said.

A man reads a newspaper in Ouagadougou after a deadly jihadist attack claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in January.
A man reads a newspaper in Ouagadougou after a deadly jihadist attack claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in January. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

The government said a new year’s massacre in the northern village of Yirgou resulted in 49 dead but rights groups put the toll at 210. “They were all Fulani,” said Diallo. “The authorities say they’re investigating but they haven’t arrested anyone.”

After 14 people were killed in northern Yatenga in February, the army announced it had “neutralised 146 terrorists”. Sixty of these were summary executions, according to the Burkinabé human rights movement’s (MBDHP) investigation. Witnesses across three communes said men in national military uniforms arrived at 4am and executed people. Some were shot while they slept. The government said it is looking into these allegations but cast doubt on MBDHP’s methods of investigation.

“People live in a permanent state of panic,” the Bartiébougou resident said. “We’re most scared of the army – we know the day they come, they’ll kill everyone. Everyone has become a suspect. Even little children.”


Ruth Maclean in Ouagadougou

The GuardianTramp

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