OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—Not long before the New Year, I paid a visit to an Islamic teacher, known as a marabout, who lives in an unfinished house here on the outskirts of Burkina Faso’s capital. I had first spoken with him earlier in 2020, after he was displaced from his home near the northern city of Djibo, in Soum province, near the border with Mali—a part of the country that has become a major frontline in the campaign against violent jihadist organizations.
The marabout belongs to the Fulani ethnic group, often the target of persecution despite being one of the largest constituencies in Burkina Faso. He narrowed his eyes as he outlined the difficulties he and his neighbors faced after fleeing their village. Other displaced members of the marabout’s community told me that in March, Burkinabe soldiers rounded up 23 Fulani men of varying ages from the area and took them into the bush, where they shot them dead. The remaining villagers fled and warned the marabout, who was in neighboring Cote D’Ivoire at the time, not to return. It was evidently not an isolated incident—residents of another nearby village told me that 12 men were massacred in the same way there.
“When you are in your home and people chase you out of it and the government doesn’t do anything, even if you feel like you are a Burkinabe, the government doesn’t see you as a Burkinabe,” said the marabout, who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety. “If you do anything, they say you are a jihadist and they kill you.”
The marabout said he voted in Burkina Faso’s general elections on Nov. 22, which resulted in a first-round victory for the incumbent president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore. But the marabout expected the vote to do little to heal a divided nation, in which he and many others feel as though they are being violently pushed out.
Kabore, a 63-year-old former banker, is a political ally of former dictator Blaise Compaore, who ruled the country for 27 years before being overthrown after a popular uprising in 2014. During his speech at an inauguration ceremony on Dec. 28, Kabore recognized his country’s divisions, pledging to hold consultations in the coming months “to define a path for a real national reconciliation.” But he had only praise for his security forces, and made no mention of pursuing accountability for the numerous allegations of atrocities leveled against them. Despite reports from domestic and international human rights organizations documenting allegations of extrajudicial killings said to have been committed by the military since mid-2018, there have been no prosecutions.
Despite taking 57.9 percent of the vote in the November polls, Kabore’s victory was overshadowed by relatively low voter turnout of just 50 percent, and the electoral commission estimated that around 400,000 displaced people were unable to register. Kabore’s mandate thus remains fragile in an unstable region, where political discontent led to the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in neighboring Mali last August, and where affiliates of the Islamic State and al-Qaida control large swathes of territory.
While jihadist attacks appear to have waned in recent months, the insurgency has taken a steep toll, displacing at least 1 million people and claiming thousands of lives. In early July, Human Rights Watch collected testimony from residents of Djibo and surrounding villages, which seemed to support the claims made to me by the marabout’s neighbors. They said 180 bodies had been found, grouped in mass graves of between three and 20 people, “along major roadways, under bridges, and in fields and vacant lots.” Locals said that security forces, who control Djibo, were responsible for the killings.
Officials from the United States, which provided a total $100 million in security assistance to Burkina Faso’s government in 2018 and 2019, have threatened to withhold further aid due to the government’s apparent reluctance to investigate the killings. Tibor Nagy, the State Department’s top diplomat for Africa, said on Twitter that the Human Rights Watch report was “very troubling” and that “U.S. security assistance cannot continue without action.” Human Rights Watch has called for the United Nations to investigate the massacres.
With relatively low voter turnout and an estimated 400,000 displaced people who were unable to register in the elections, Kabore’s mandate remains fragile.
J. Peter Pham, the U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region, attended Kabore’s inauguration last month to show Washington’s ongoing support for the security and development partnership. But Pham told WPR that he had “a conversation with the president about the need to move investigations along.”
“I think we’ve made progress insofar as investigations are underway,” he said, “but they are not moving as fast as some of us would like.”
Pham added that his understanding was that commanders of the units said to be involved in the atrocities documented by Human Rights Watch have been removed from their posts in Djibo and are currently serving desk jobs in Ouagadougou. (WPR could not independently verify this claim.) While the U.S. military provides training and materiel to Burkina Faso, “We have no evidence that any of the units we trained were involved,” he said. Pham separately told reporters recently that continued U.S. security assistance “will be conditioned on credible investigations and follow-up.”
The security crisis in Burkina Faso first began with the deadly 2016 attacks on the Splendid Hotel and the Cappuccino restaurant, in central Ouagadougou, in which gunmen affiliated with al-Qaida’s local affiliate killed 30 people and took many more hostage. Kabore had been sworn in for his first term just weeks earlier; his supporters maintain that his ambitious development plans were derailed by the insurgency and he needs another four-year term to fulfill them. His critics, though, argue that the government’s aggressive strategy to defeat armed groups has backfired.
In January 2020, Burkina Faso’s legislature passed the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland Act, which allows for the arming and recruitment of volunteers to help the army in its fight against armed extremist groups. Despite allegations of extrajudicial killings said to have been committed by these volunteers, the government program remains opaque, with no official figures as to how many volunteers have been recruited and how they are selected and trained. Key international supporters of Burkina Faso’s security sector, including the European Union, France and the U.S., have not publicly commented on the controversial program.
Mamadou Savadogo, a former military officer and researcher focused on violent extremism in Burkina Faso, told me he worries these volunteers could act outside the military chain of command and potentially commit abuses against local populations, alienating them from the security forces.
“The challenge for the government in 2021, first of all, is to organize the army well. The government needs to manage the VDPs and make sure they are under state control,” Savadogo said, using a French abbreviation for the volunteer forces. “If the army continues in this way, for sure they will lose the confidence of the people. The population’s confidence is the most important thing in the fight against terrorism.”
Back in Ouagadougou, the marabout sat outside the one-bedroom house that he shares with 18 women and children, all of whom were displaced from his village in Soum.
The yard had all of the trappings of village life. Goats bleated in the shade under a thatched roof supported by branches; an elderly man rested in a straw hut while the breeze stirred the sand skyward. A teenage boy sat memorizing a page of the Quran. But there is no land to cultivate and no cows to herd and milk.
Over the past few months, around half of the 250 villagers have slowly returned to see whether it is safe to resume their lives. One woman, who sat in the yard quietly breastfeeding her son, said she hopes to join them soon. “We are still scared, but we are hoping that things will get better.”
The marabout also hopes to return one day to his village, where his fellow Fulanis lived side-by-side with members of other ethnic groups, like the Mossi. He said they celebrated births and weddings together, mourned deaths, and even exchanged names for their children—that is, before the onset of the security crisis in recent years. Now, there is only suspicion.
“Since the beginning of the insecurity, people don’t visit one another anymore,” he said. “People talk about jihadists, but I have never seen one.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Clair MacDougall is a journalist and writer who is currently covering the ongoing security crisis in the Sahel. She is a fellow at the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.