A rifle hangs in the corner, refuse bags of seized cannabis strewn in the dirt at the men’s feet. Heavy chains have been fixed to the trees in the surrounding field. As we arrive, a group of teenage boys are being shackled to them by their ankles.
This is the headquarters of a local branch of the Koglweogo, a network of crime-fighting volunteers that are proliferating across Burkina Faso, west Africa. For the group’s members in Poessen, a village a few hours’ drive from the capital, Ouagadougou, the afternoon has been a success.
“The small kid under the shade tree has stolen money, and during the interrogation he revealed his accomplices,” said Emmanuel Tiendrebeogo, the branch president. “We’ve run our own investigation and arrested his accomplices in a village not far from here.”
Burkina Faso is one of the frontlines of a security crisis in the Sahel, a semi-arid region that extends from Senegal eastward to Sudan. A popular revolution starting in 2014 removed Burkina Faso’s strongman president Blaise Compaoré and the authoritarian apparatus he nurtured over his 27-year rule.
The resulting vacuum has allowed armed groups, including jihadists affiliated with Islamic State and al-Qaida, to spill over from neighbouring Mali, driving the government from swathes of Burkina Faso’s northern and eastern frontiers, and sending nearly a million citizens fleeing for their lives.
It has also lightened the police footprint on the fringes of cities and in rural areas, including in Poessen. “You couldn’t even breed an animal here without dealing with thieves,” said Tiendrebeogo.
Depending on who you ask, the Koglweogo – “guardians of the bush” in Mooré, a local language – are either a solution to the insecurity or a growing source of it.
Armed with one or two guns, and sometimes makeshift uniforms, men who work day jobs as farmers, masons or drivers moonlight as village detectives, judges and juries.
Their ranks have swelled since the organisation was formed in 2015. “The sheer number of volunteers is huge,” said Philippe M Frowd, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa who researches the phenomenon. “You can extrapolate and say there are 20,000 to 40,000 [members].”
Koglweogo leaders say their men operate according to a code, and deliver justice more swiftly than the police, whose investigations can drag – if they show up at all.
But nobody disputes their brand of justice is often brutal. “We no longer excessively beat people,” said Tiendrebeogo. “If you are arrested and say what you’ve done truthfully, you won’t be beaten. If you resist, we can try to convince you by beating you.”
When that fails, they have other methods. One of the men pulls out a handful of small animal bones, and demonstrates how they are placed in the gaps between a suspect’s fingers. Plastic tape is wrapped around the hand, then pulled. “And then you will speak,” Tiendrebeogo said. “Loudly.”
Politicians in Burkina Faso acknowledge the problems with crime and militancy and have largely embraced the vigilantes.
“It’s the failure of the state to provide security that has prompted citizens to protect themselves,” said Zéphirin Diabré, the leader of the opposition party Union for Progress and Reform. “The Koglweogo’s contribution has been extremely useful in stopping petty crime.”
But one of the walls of Diabré’s party headquarters is taken up by a banner demanding justice for the Yirgou massacre.
In January last year, armed men attacked a northern village whose members mostly belonged to the majority Mossi ethnic group, killing seven people. The next day, the Koglweogo in the village, named Yirgou, launched revenge attacks against nearby communities from the minority Fulani ethnic group. The official death toll was 39, but rights group say more than 200 may have been killed.
Some security analysts argue that sparking this kind of inter-ethnic violence is precisely the plan of terrorists groups in the region, to isolate Fulani communities and drive them into the arms of militants.
“Before this event, we never had violence in this town,” said Mahamadou Sawadogo, a conflict researcher. “But after Yirgou, the areas all around this village descended into violence.”
In a sign of the desperate state of its war against militants, the Burkina Faso government in January passed legislation to begin training and equipping volunteers, including Koglweogo members, to join the fight against the militants.
“The army itself cannot do the job,” said Diabré. “When Britain was at war, even Princess Elizabeth came out and drove cars and changed wheels.”
Some observers acknowledge that vulnerable villages in the north and east need assistance to defend themselves, but worry that arming an undisciplined force with its own loyalties and grudges could exacerbate the boiling ethnic tensions.
“If these volunteers are under the security forces – and the security forces themselves have often shown complete and utter disregard for the rule of law in fighting terrorism – how confident can we be that volunteers are going to act lawfully?” said Corinne Dufka, the Sahel director of Human Rights Watch.
Sawadogo worries it risks pushing the country closer towards all-out ethnic conflict: “It’s the worst decision, because we’ll end up fighting each other.”
In March the government announced it had received reports of a fresh massacre: 43 people killed in the northern province of Yatenga. Initial speculation was that Islamist militants had committed yet another atrocity. But the victims were all Fulani, and witnesses said the killers belonged to the Koglweogo.
Additional reporting by Oumar Zombre
• This article was amended on 19 July 2020. Philippe M Frowd had referred to an estimated 20,000-40,000 “groups”, when the intended word was “members”.