After wresting huge swaths of territory from government control in Burkina Faso’s north, those motorbike-riding jihadis have spread south toward Ouagadougou. In August, the main political parties voted to change the electoral code, allowing presidential and legislative elections in November to proceed, even if large numbers of Burkinabe are unable to vote because of violence and the pandemic.
With jihadists operating in an area only three hours by car from Ouagadougou, many Burkinabe remain hopeful that, at the very least, the capital won’t fall to the militants. “I don’t think they can push us from here” said Mayor Abdoulaye Pafadnam of Barsalogho, referring to Ouagadougou. “The international community will never accept it.”
What the international community has largely accepted, however, are atrocities by Burkina Faso’s security forces, who have proved more capable of killing civilians than protecting them from jihadists. Almost a dozen witnesses from areas in the north described a similar sequence of events: Security forces arrived and arrested family members, friends or neighbors; some were never seen again, and others were found with their hands tied, shot through the head.
There are more than 60 distinct ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, but about half the population belong to the Mossi people, who are traditionally farmers. The much smaller Fulani ethnic group are predominantly Muslim cattle herders, many of them seminomadic, and they have long expressed discontent with government neglect of their communities and their poor representation among the political elite and in public-sector jobs. The Fulani, concentrated in the northern part of the country, where the terrorists operate, may be the most stigmatized and disaffected minority and accordingly have been the prime focus for recruitment by Islamist militants, even as Fulani civilians frequently become victims of jihadist attacks. At the same time, there’s no question that Fulani are the prime target of attacks by government troops. “On one side, they have a problem with the terrorists,” said Souaibou Diallo, a Burkinabe religious scholar and peace activist. “On the other side, they have a problem with the armed forces. They are caught between two fires.”
The present government came to power in a democratic election following the fall of Blaise Compoaré, an army officer who seized power in a coup in 1987 and held onto the presidency for 27 years. Compoaré was toppled by popular protests in 2014, and the country suffered a year of turmoil, as civilian and military powers struggled for control. Roch Kaboré, who once served as prime minister under Compaoré but later formed an opposition party, was elected president in late 2015, in an election widely considered to have been fair and valid. His military, troubled by internal strife and troops who refuse to serve in dangerous areas, has frequently failed to locate and engage jihadists and has increasingly lashed out against civilians.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department issued a report implicating Kaboré’s government in a litany of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions and “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national, racial and ethnic minorities.” Human Rights Watch documented more than 60 killings of civilians by armed Islamists between late 2017 and February 2019, but it uncovered more than double that number — 130 extrajudicial killings — by the Burkinabe security forces over that same period. Those executions and other abuses by government troops occurred in at least 19 separate incidents. This summer, Human Rights Watch reported that residents of the northern town Djibo frequently discovered corpses, around 180 in all, dumped along roadways, under bridges and in vacant lots, between November 2019 and June 2020. Locals said a majority were Fulani and that many were found bound, blindfolded and shot. There were no witnesses to the killings, but the locals who found the victims — sometimes relatives or acquaintances — overwhelmingly blamed government forces. “I have absolutely no doubt that atrocities, including extrajudicial executions by the dozens, have been perpetrated by members of the Burkinabe defense and security forces,” Human Rights Watch’s West Africa director, Corinne Dufka, said.