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Archbishop Philippe Ouédraogo sits at Place de la Nation square in Ouagadougou along with other religious leaders in August 2012. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Report 240 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Preserving the Religious Balance

In a troubled region, Burkina Faso is a rare example of religious​ diversity and​ tolerance​.​ But a perceived discrepancy between a significant number of Muslims and their low level of public representation has created tensions. To safeguard Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence, the government must address this sensitive issue through careful reforms, particularly in the education system.​

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Executive Summary

Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments. It would be risky to raise the sensitive issue of religion in a country where religious identity is of secondary importance. But the government must take steps now to ease frustrations and regulate religious discourse to safeguard Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence.

Burkina lies at the crossroads of two large regions in West Africa: the Sahel region, where a fundamentalist form of Islam seems to be gaining ground and armed and terrorist groups are active; and the coastal region, where new Protestant churches sometimes adopt an intolerant discourse toward other religions. Given the porosity of borders and the speed at which ideas circulate, the country cannot remain untouched by the changes that are affecting its neighbours.

Burkina has never suffered civil war or religious conflict. Muslims, Christians and animists are neighbours, live together and inter-marry. However, the January 2016 attacks in Ouagadougou were a shock to both the general public and the ruling class. Isolated incidents of verbal aggression against Muslims were reported in the following weeks. They revealed some degree of stigmatisation and reflected concerns that had not been present until then. Religious matters are taboo in Burkina. Peaceful coexistence is based on religious pluralism and the secondary importance of religious identity. Bringing the question of religion into the public and political arena carries risks, including exacerbation of religious differences and political manipulation of identities. However, in a worrying regional context and as new domestic tensions emerge, it is time to break the taboo.

Muslims have long been frustrated at the discrepancy between their numbers – according to a contested census they represent about 60 per cent of the population, Christians 25 per cent and animists 15 per cent – and their low representation within the political elite and the civil service. They also feel that public administration is sometimes biased in favour of Christianity and does not take their interests sufficiently into account. Frustrations are sometimes exaggerated, but perceptions are more important than reality. In a country long ruled by a mainly Christian elite, this imbalance is not due to intentional discrimination; rather, it is the legacy of colonisation and a multi-tiered education system. Burkina’s authorities must correct the imbalance while avoiding sectarianism. They must upgrade Franco-Arab education, which caters for a certain number of Muslim children and aims to combine Islamic and general education. If they fail to do so, some parts of the population may no longer feel the state is a useful interlocutor and turn to other ways of expressing their feelings.

It is all the more important to maintain the balance between communities given that individual religious behaviours have evolved, though it is difficult to assess the extent of such changes. Some Muslims are attracted to a fundamentalist form of Islam inspired by Wahhabism. Certain Muslim leaders are concerned about foreign influence, especially from Gulf countries, which, although difficult to measure, may contribute to the development of stricter religious practices. Meanwhile, some Protes­tants are attracted by the discourse of new churches, some of which preach values that have little to do with tolerance.

However, the rise in religiosity does not mean a higher risk of violence – a distinction rarely made in the current debate on violent extremism and religious radicalisation. The return to a more fundamentalist Islam does not necessarily involve a greater propensity to violence, as shown by the existence of fundamentalist quietist currents. Similarly, violence that seems to be religiously motivated may in fact be due to other reasons, such as crime, greed and local, ethnic or socio-economic grievances. Changes in religious behaviour may nevertheless be dangerous when they disrupt social relations. Disregard of or refusal to dialogue with other faiths could lead to communities withdrawing into themselves. The authorities must understand the significance of this risk and do more to regulate religious discourse.

Burkina’s technical and financial partners can play a key role in providing advice and support for the necessary reforms, including building the capacities of the Ministry of Local Government, Decentralisation and Internal Security (MATDSI), which is responsible for overseeing religious affairs, and the National Observatory on Religious Affairs (ONAFAR), which is attached to the ministry. Burkina is a small, very poor country with few natural resources. But its position at the heart of the increasingly troubled Sahel region and its capacity to withstand political instability have made it a firewall against religious radicalisation and terrorism in West Africa. Burkina’s religious pluralism and tolerance set a good example. For all these reasons, the Burkinabè government and its international partners should address the tensions that are starting to appear between religious communities and between them and the state.


To ensure a more representative political and civil service elite

To the Burkina Faso authorities:

  1. Improve the representation of Muslims within the political and civil service elite without resorting to the dangerous method of using quotas by:
    1. continuing efforts to upgrade the Franco-Arab education system, especially by requiring high standards in the use of the French language, introducing a national curriculum for all French-Arab schools, and publicising such efforts through the media;
    2. granting equivalent status for degrees awarded by universities in Arab countries and ensuring that graduates are well-informed about the procedures, so as to facilitate their access to employment and reduce their feelings of social exclusion; and
    3. exploring opportunities to facilitate French language learning for Arab university graduates, for example by creating training centres, possibly with the support of technical and financial partners.
  2. Realise the dangers posed by begging and the limited prospects for thousands of children leaving Quranic schools, and release financial resources to remedy these problems.
  3. Give greater status to Arabic in secondary and higher education, for example by offering Arabic courses and re-considering the creation of an Arabic language department at the University of Ouagadougou.

To Muslim leaders:

  1. Improve communication with the public about the government’s efforts to upgrade Franco-Arab education so as to reduce misunderstandings between the government and Muslim leaders and citizens.
  2. Work with the government to reform Franco-Arab education and accept the government’s requirements in this respect.

To ensure visibility of all religions in the public sphere

To the Burkina Faso authorities:

  1. Encourage better representation of the various religions when participation of religious authorities is requested, by giving equal representation to Christians and Muslims.
  2. Guarantee equal status and visibility to all religions in public affairs and in the media, particularly on Burkina Radio-Television (RTB) and during religious holidays.

To improve the regulation of religious discourse and promote coexistence

To the Burkina Faso authorities:

  1. Begin, as far as resources allow, a mapping of all places of worship and their leaders throughout the country, following the Ivorian example where religious leaders have an electronic ID with names, contact details and religious affiliation.
  2. Grant more financial resources to the public freedoms and political affairs department of the Ministry of Local Government, Decentralisation and Internal Security (MATDSI) so that staff are able to work effectively.
  3. Adopt the bill on religious freedom prepared by the MATDSI and then publicise the new law to the general public.
  4. Strengthen the National Observatory on Religious Affairs (ONAFAR) by increasing its budget, recruiting administrative staff to support its volunteer members and providing office equipment.

To religious leaders:

  1. Prepare the next generation of leaders by ensuring greater participation by young people and women in faith associations, and promote unity within each movement and each religion.


  1. Formulate a communications strategy to publicise its role and activities, organise public education campaigns, using the media (especially radio) and, in the long term, set up regional and provincial offices.

To the authorities, religious leaders and the media:

  1. Give greater publicity to examples of religious coexistence using the media, especially radio.

To technical and financial partners:

  1. Increase support to interfaith dialogue initiatives, whether they come from the government or from religious associations, prioritising youth organisations, and consider providing financial assistance to ONAFAR and budgetary support for the reforms that the government must implement (Franco-Arab education, mapping of places of worship, etc.).

Dakar/Brussels, 6 September 2016

Map of Burkina Faso CRISIS GROUP

I. Introduction

According to the 2006 census, Burkina’s population is 60.5 per cent Muslim, 19 per cent Catholic, 15.3 per cent animist and 4.2 per cent Protestant.[fn]Statistics are available here. A regional breakdown of figures is available here.Hide Footnote  These figures should, however, be treated with caution. The census was conducted ten years ago; religious mobility is high in Burkina; and many Christians and Muslims adhere to a syncretic version of their religions that draws on animist practices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analyst, journalist, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Katrin Langewiesche, Mobilité religieuse. Changements religieux au Burkina Faso (Münster, 2003).Hide Footnote  Most families are mixed and it would be unwise to deduce from names or the head of the family’s faith that all relatives are followers of a particular religion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, priests, Ouagadougou, Ouahigouya, April 2016; minister, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  These figures, though they are disputed,[fn]For example, a minister told Crisis Group that a Muslim was in command of the ministry in charge of the census and that the results were therefore biased. Crisis Group interview, minister, Ouagadougou, January 2016. The economy and finance ministry, responsible for conducting the census, was led at the time by Seydou Bouda.Hide Footnote  give some idea of the situation until the results of the census scheduled for December 2016 are published.

The question of the balance between religious communities differs from region to region: in Ouagadougou, the capital, the religious landscape is varied and more susceptible to external influences; the Sahel, northern and western regions are strongly Islamised; and in the central, southern and eastern parts of the country, Islam either has less of a majority or is in a minority, while animism is still important.

Although, for the moment, Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence remains robust, it is beginning to be eroded at the margins.

Although, for the moment, Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence remains robust, it is beginning to be eroded at the margins. Tensions are emerging between the state and religions (neutrality is difficult in a multi-faith context) and between and within the different religious communities. Religious matters are largely taboo in Burkina. Several interviewees recognised that problems exist but preferred not to discuss them, or at least not publicly, for fear that it would create tensions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January, April 2016.Hide Footnote  With typical Burkinabe optimism, others were convinced that there is no threat to the peaceful religious coexistence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, civil society representatives, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Dédougou, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Most interviewees nevertheless admitted that tensions are emerging and that they might prove dangerous in the long term. These difficulties highlight the need to start a discussion on these issues, which are sensitive but crucial for social cohesion.

These questions pose a genuine dilemma for the authorities. It is tempting to believe that the country’s model of religious tolerance is strong enough to dispense with a complex discussion on sensitive questions with no obvious solution. Such a debate carries the risk of exacerbating religious identities, or even provoking antagonisms, and could tempt some politicians into manipulation. However, as the regional context is coloured by the rise of religiosity and violence in the name of Islam, combined with longstanding frustrations, it would be sensible to start the discussion.

This report aims to encourage and contribute to the discussion about relations between the state and religions, between the different religious communities and the tensions within these groups in Burkina.

This report aims to encourage and contribute to the discussion about relations between the state and religions, between the different religious communities and the tensions within these groups in Burkina. It is part of a series of Crisis Group reports on the theme of religion, state and society.[fn]For example, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°229, Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism, 3 September 2015, and Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°117, Ethiopia: Governing the Faithful, 22 February 2016.Hide Footnote  The report shows that Burkina’s model of peaceful coexistence remains strong and that countries faced with religious tensions or at risk of facing such tensions can learn from Burkina’s example. However, Burkina’s model, which is the product of the country’s specific history and culture, cannot be exported as it is, especially to countries such as Niger and Mali, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim and the religious context therefore differs. Finally, although it is not a study of radicalisation, this report highlights that relations between religions and the state create frustrations in Burkina, and concludes that interested parties must take these into consideration so as to preserve the model of tolerance. It finally makes recommendations that contribute to a solution.

The report is based on more than one hundred interviews with Catholic, Protes­tant and Muslim leaders, members of youth associations, civil servants, government and civil society representatives, researchers and analysts in Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Kaya, Dori, Ouahigouya, Dédougou and Fada N’Gourma, mainly in January and April 2016.

II. A Resilient Model of Religious Tolerance

Understanding Burkina’s religious diversity requires taking a look at the history of how religions spread across the country. Several factors explain the resilience of the model of religious tolerance, despite recent tensions.

A. A Deeply-rooted Religious Pluralism

The peaceful progress of Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism explains why religious pluralism in Burkina is so deeply rooted. From the sixteenth century onwards, Yarsé and Dioula traders and Fulani herders helped spread Islam respectively in the north, west and Sahel regions of the territory that is now Burkina Faso.[fn]Issa Cissé, “Islam et économie au Burkina Faso. Relations et enjeux”, History and Archaeology Department, Ouagadougou University, undated; Adrienne Vanvyve, “L’islam burkinabè sous la IVème République”, Cahiers d’études africaines, no. 219, vol. 3 (2015); and Assimi Kouanda, “La progression de l’islam au Burkina pendant la période coloniale”, in Gabriel Massa, Georges Madiéga, La Haute-Volta coloniale: témoignages, recherches, regards (Paris, 1995). Crisis Group interview, specialist on Islam in Burkina, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Eager to boost their business, traders accepted customary power structures. They gradually spread Islam to other groups, particularly the Mossi, but African traditions based on animism continued to carry considerable weight.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Adama Ouédraogo, “Les mosquées de Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso): organisation et fonctionnement”, Revue algérienne d’anthropologie et de sciences sociales, vol. 38, pp. 45-71 (2007).Hide Footnote  After having resisted for a long time, the Mogho Naba, King of the Mossi, converted to Islam in a personal capacity at the end of the eighteenth century. It continued to spread during the colonial period.[fn]“La progression de l’islam au Burkina pendant la période coloniale”, op. cit.; and “L’islam burkinabè sous la IVème République”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  With no political aspirations, Islam long remained under the “triple domination” of customary power, then colonisation and finally Catholicism.[fn]Assimi Kouanda, “Les confits au sein de la communauté musulmane du Burkina: 1962-1986”, in Ousmane Kane, Jean-Louis Triaud, Islam et Islamismes au sud du Sahara (Paris, 1998).Hide Footnote

Catholicism arrived much later, at the start of the twentieth century, with the French colonial administration. The Catholic Church wanted to promote literacy and education, in accordance with the colonisers’ civilising mission, and to produce Burkina’s future elites. The work of Father Joanny Thévenoud, a French priest who arrived in Upper Volta at the start of the twentieth century, was decisive for the establishment and development of Catholicism in the country. His opposition to colonial administration attracted many to Catholicism. After independence, the Catholic Church became a major political force, notably thanks to its close relations with the country’s first president, Maurice Yaméogo.[fn]Maurice Yaméogo received a Catholic education at the Pabré Seminary, nursery of the elites. However, his relations with the Church deteriorated following his second marriage (the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce). The loss of support from the Church contributed to his fall from power in 1966. Jean-Marie Bouron, “Amitiés, inimitiés. Les rapports incertains de l’Eglise catholique avec la Première République voltaïque (1960-1966)”, Civilisations, no. 60, vol. 1 (2011). Ismaïla Kane, “Etats et minorités religieuses: les représentations des catholiques au Burkina Faso et au Sénégal”, thesis, Ottawa University (2015).Hide Footnote  The Church was also active in social and humanitarian work, which helped consolidate its position.

Protestantism was imported from the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Church of the Assemblies of God was the first evangelical church to establish itself in Burkina and it remains the main Protestant denomination in the country to this day. Burkina quickly became one of the main targets for evangelisation in West Africa. Protestantism initially grew in rural areas and spread to the towns from the 1980s onwards.[fn]For more on Protestantism in Burkina, see Pierre-Joseph Laurent’s work, especially Les pentecôtistes du Burkina Faso: mariage, pouvoir et guérison (Paris, 2003).Hide Footnote

This brief historical outline helps understand the current situation. There are many Catholics among the political and administrative elites while Muslims, who form the majority of the country’s population, are underrepresented. For a long time, Muslims avoided Catholic schools, which they perceived as instruments of colonial domination and evangelisation. What a Muslim leader called the “massive delay in Muslims’ involvement in the administration of the country” is a result of history.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Ouagadougou, January 2016. All the Muslims interviewed by Crisis Group recognised that this “delay” was due to their rejection of school during the colonial period and the first two decades after independence. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representatives, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Kaya, Dori, Dédougou, Ouahigouya, Fada N’Gourma, February and July 2015, January, April 2016.Hide Footnote

The situation evolved in the 1970s due to several factors. In 1966, General Sangoulé Lamizana, the only Muslim president of independent Burkina, came to power. This opened a period of diplomatic rapprochement with Arab countries, which provided development aid. At the same time, the return of many Burkinabè from the pilgrimage in Mecca increased the visibility of Islam in Burkina and its inclination to make demands. This “Islamic awakening”, as anthropologist Maud Saint-Lary termed it, took place in many sub-Saharan African countries.[fn]See Maud Saint-Lary’s work on Islam in Burkina, for example, “Le Coran en cours du soir. La formation comme outil de réislamisation des musulmans francophones”, ethnographiques.org, no. 22 (May 2011).Hide Footnote

Muslims gradually became more aware of their identity and demographic weight, and also of their lack of organisation, stark in contrast to the well-structured and organised Catholic Church. This was manifested in 1962 with the creation of the Muslim Community of Upper Volta (now the Muslim Community of Burkina Faso, CMBF), which aimed to represent the interests of all Burkinabè Muslims. From then on, Muslims want to “ensure their aspirations are taken into account while respecting the principle of secularism”.[fn]“Les conflits au sein de la communauté musulmane du Burkina: 1962-1986”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  They believe that only those Muslim elites who are capable of navigating the political and administrative system inherited from the West will be able to defend their interests.

Attending school became indispensable and produced a Muslim elite capable of formulating demands. In the 1970s, competition to this Francophone elite, many of whom had been educated at Christian schools, emerged with Arab-educated intellectuals who had studied at Arab universities with the help of scholarships. This prompted an increase in the number of Franco-Arab schools that aimed to provide a Western education while promoting an Islamic identity.[fn]Issa Cissé, “Les médersas au Burkina Faso. L’aide arabe et l’enseignement arabo-islamique”, in Islam et islamismes au sud du Sahara, op. cit., and René Otayek, “L’affirmation élitaire des arabisants au Burkina Faso”, in René Otayek (dir.), Le radicalisme islamique au sud du Sahara (Paris, 1993). For more on Franco-Arab schools, see section III.B.3.Hide Footnote  For several reasons, however, these changes did not call into question the country’s model of religious tolerance.

B. The Factors behind the Resilience of the Peaceful Coexistence Model

Several factors ensure the strength of Burkina’s peaceful coexistence model. All interviewees emphasised that the different religious communities do not simply live side by side, they live together. There are few Burkinabè who do not have a friend, relative or neighbour of a different faith. Even though the religious landscape varies from one region to another, there are no exclusively Christian, Muslim or animist areas, regions, towns or districts.

All interviewees emphasised that the different religious communities do not simply live side by side, they live together.

Religious mobility is high and it is rare for all members of a family (in the broader sense of the term) to practise the same religion. Conversions and mixed marriages are common, and although they sometimes lead to quarrels, families generally accept their children’s choice. Faith is a very personal thing in Burkina, as a Catholic representative summarised.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catholic representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This great diversity sustains the country’s model of religious coexistence, because, as many interviewees underlined, “one is human and Burkinabè before being Christian or Muslim”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, priests, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Religion is not therefore a primary badge of identity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Christians and Muslims draw on animist practices, which tend to bring people of different faiths closer together. In Burkina, as in many other African countries, Sufi Islam and Catholic retention of animist practices, such as sacrifices, has produced religious syncretism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, minister, deputy, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The weight of tradition is evidenced by the strong influence of customary chiefs in social relations and politics.[fn]During recent crises (October 2014 insurrection, September 2015 attempted coup), the Mogho Naba’s intervention, at the request of politicians, helped avoid confrontations.Hide Footnote  One legacy of this tradition, the “parenté à plaisanterie”, is a practise whereby members of some ethnic groups can tease and insult each other light-heartedly, without coming across as offensive. This sense of humour helps defuse certain social tensions.[fn]The parenté à plaisanterie is a widespread social practise in West Africa. It is a kind of “inverted politeness” that allows members of lineages, ethnic groups, territories or neighbouring villages to tease and insult each other during meetings and discussions. Among the parentés à plaisanteries most practised in Burkina are those used by the Bobo and the Fulanis and also the Samo and the Mossi. The insults and teasing often refer to eating habits or livelihoods. For example, the Bobo say that the Fulanis destroy their crops with their cattle while the Fulanis say that the Bobo are alcoholics. All Crisis Group interviewees emphasised the importance of the parenté à plaisanterie in maintaining good relations between ethnic groups. This also applies by extension to people of different faiths because it promotes a culture of accepting differences.Hide Footnote

Although the post-independence nation state is still under construction, a sense of national identity facilitates social cohesion amid ethnic, regional and religious differences. This is partly due to the existence of a relatively present administration, even though the state is weak and absent from some areas, as is often the case in developing countries. The sense of national identity is also a legacy of the Sankarist revolution, which intensified patriotic sentiments and political consciousness.[fn]The revolution (1983-1987) was led by the young captain Thomas Sankara whose anti-imperialist ideas, patriotism and integrity had an enduring impact on Burkina’s history, culture and politics. Many young people who demonstrated against President Blaise Compaoré’s attempts to amend the constitution in October 2014, many of whom were born after his death in 1987, claim to follow Sankarism.Hide Footnote

Interfaith dialogue supports peaceful coexistence. Religious leaders are aware of the importance of such dialogue and they play a crucial role, although their sincerity is sometimes doubted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, deputy, minister, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Some people complain about the hypocrisy of religious leaders who say they believe in dialogue. Moreover, some religious leaders tend to proselytise and defend the followers of their own religion. Crisis Group interviews, members of civil society, Ouagadougou, Fada N’Gourma; young Protestant, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  They are respected, know one another personally and visit one another during religious holidays, which provides a positive, top-down example. Even though this dialogue is not enough to guarantee religious tolerance, it makes an indispensable contribution. In Burkina, Christians and Muslims demonstrated together against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in January 2015, while in Niger demonstrators burned down bars and churches.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, February 2015; Bobo-Dioulasso, July 2015, January 2016. “Affaire Charlie Hebdo: musulmans et chrétiens récitent les mêmes versets à Bobo”, L’Observateur, 25 January 2015.Hide Footnote

Interfaith dialogue is also a reality at the grassroots level. For example, youth associations of different faiths regularly work together. At university, Joint Interfaith Dialogue Committees (CMDIRs) bring together the Catholic Student Youth (JEC), the Association of Muslim Pupils and Students in Burkina (AEEMB) and the Union of Biblical Groups in Burkina (UGBB).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, JEC, AEEMB and UGBB members, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016. A student in Dédougou told Crisis Group that students from all faiths helped Muslims arrange a prayer area and that all agreed to pause classes at 4pm for Muslim prayer. Crisis Group interview, student, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Most Crisis Group interviewees shared anecdotes that illustrated the good relations between religions: in Dori, the imam of the main mosque helped the Assemblies of God to obtain a plot of land to build their church; in Dédougou, a private Christian radio station gives Muslims airtime to broad­cast their sermons; in Fada N’Gourma, the bishop offered Muslims the church’s contribution to renovating their main mosque, etc.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, minister, Dori; Christian leader, Dédougou; Muslim representatives, Fada, April 2016.Hide Footnote

C. A Worrying Regional Context

The model remains strong, but religious coexistence should not be taken for granted. The regional context, marked by radicalisation of religious discourse from some quarters and a rise of violent extremism that hit Burkina’s capital in January 2016, suggests caution.

The 15 January 2016 terrorist attacks, the first in Ouagadougou, came as a major shock, even though the threat had been palpable for at least several months. The statement issued by the Federation of Islamic Associations in Burkina (FAIB) condemning the attacks showed that Muslims refused to be associated with violence, but also revealed their fear of this conflation.[fn]“Déclaration de la Fédération des associations islamiques du Burkina (FAIB) relative aux attaques terroristes au Burkina Faso”, 17 January 2016. A Muslim student told Crisis Group that Muslims had to condemn the attacks to avoid greater stigmatisation. Crisis Group interview, AEEMB member, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Although the attacks fostered solidarity between Burkinabè, who all characterised the attacks as contrary to Islam, there were instances of verbal harassment against Muslims. These incidents remained rare, but caused concern and prompted the government to issue a statement calling on citizens to be sensible.[fn]“Attaque terroriste: des Burkinabè, en colère, agressent des personnes portant barbes”, Xinhua, 18 January 2016. A second statement was issued two months after the attacks, demonstrating continued concern. “Attaques terroristes au Burkina: le gouvernement s’inquiète d’actes de stigmatisation”, Burkina24 (www.burkina24.com), 9 March 2016. For example, an interviewee said his wife, who was wearing a full-face veil, was harassed when she stopped at a red traffic light while riding her motorbike. Another mentioned the case of an acquaintance wearing a full-face veil who was booed in a public place. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders and youth, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Most Muslims interviewed after the attacks knew at least one person who had been stigmatised, particularly those wearing visible religious signs (beards, skull caps and short trousers for men, full-face veil for women).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders and youth, Ouagadougou, January 2016, Ouahigouya, April 2016. Some Muslims complain they have been treated differently since the attacks, for example at hospitals. They say that doctors are reluctant to provide care to women wearing full-face veils or insist that they take their veils off when they bring their children to receive health care. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Some said that the security forces did not react strongly enough to these incidents and even that some police officers and gendarmes discriminate against Muslims because of their physical appearance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Ouahi­gouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  A Muslim women representative said that on the day after the attacks, schoolchildren were pointing fingers at Muslim classmates.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim women representative, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Most Muslim interviewees denounced the harmful role played by the media. They said the use of the words “jihadists” and “Islamists”, which are general terms for Islamic concepts, to refer to terrorists implicitly accuse the entire Muslim community.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim youth and leaders, AEEMB member, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

These were isolated cases, but terrorism is a new phenomenon in Burkina and the climate of distrust that it inevitably generates could pose a long-term threat to peaceful coexistence. Crisis Group interviews with Christian and Muslim youth and leaders revealed fears that fundamentalist Islam and extremism might affect Burkina (see section IV.A).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, Catholic representative, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016, Dédougou, April 2016; Muslim leader and customary chief, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Many were alarmed at the upsurge in religiosity among Muslims, and at the real or perceived sympathy toward violence of a small minority of Muslims. In Dori, a Christian representative said that some Muslims in the town rejoiced when churches were burned down in Niger in January 2015.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Christian representative, Dori, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Muslims, for their part, sometimes feel that Christians, particularly Protestants, want to convert them and that the government is not always neutral, although there is no evidence of this.

III. State and Religion: Frustrations

The government faces the challenge of maintaining its neutrality in a multi-faith country where religion is increasingly visible and assertive.

In addition to the new context of terrorism, the government faces the challenge of maintaining its neutrality in a multi-faith country where religion is increasingly visible and assertive. Muslims have long been poorly represented among the political and administrative elites and were initially not particularly interested in politics, but that has changed. A researcher explained that the “historical contract” between the communities, according to which politics was traditionally reserved for Christians while Muslims dominated trade and business, has been broken.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  These changes have led to frustration among some Muslims, who are conscious they form a majority of the population.

These longstanding frustrations could be amplified in the current context. Muslim leaders have been better organised since the FAIB was formed in 2005 and are increasingly expressing their grievances, even though they largely remain a taboo. Muslims have raised these issues at the political level in recent years, for example at the Consultative Council on Political Reform in 2011 and at the forum on secularism in September 2012, but no comprehensive solution has been found.[fn]For example, “Propositions de réformes pour l’enracinement de la démocratie et d’une citoyenneté responsable”, contribution by FAIB, 16 May 2011, document provided to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

A. The Emergence of Muslim Demands

Muslim demands are addressed to the government and the administration, and thus remain within a legal framework. Muslim leaders are not calling into question the peaceful religious coexistence, but are demanding even-handed treatment by a secular state that should regard all religions equally.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Centre for Islamic Study, Research and Training (CERFI), Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Muslims are conscious that they form a majority of the population and they believe that the authorities do not always properly take their interests into account. Many interviewees insisted that it is a demand for justice.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Ouahi­gouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

These grievances are the product of a collective vision of Muslim interests: beyond individuals, Muslims’ common faith makes them into a community. This feeling is strengthened among some by the perception that they are persecuted throughout the world and are victims of Western intervention, terrorism and their repercussions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Young Burkinabè Muslims increasingly see their grievances against the state through this global lens, which carries the danger of exacerbating tensions. Some Muslim leaders confessed that they are under the impression that the government is deliberately trying to harm Islam and promote Christianity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Most interviewees did however acknowledge that the imbalanced makeup of the elites is a legacy of colonisation and not the result of official policy, and that the government has shown willingness to respond to pending issues. Nevertheless, many believe that more should be done.

Although this imbalance is not the result of official policy to discriminate against Muslims, the resulting frustration can be dangerous. Unless the authorities start to remedy the situation, some Muslims could feel it is no longer worth talking to the government and turn to other ways of expressing themselves.[fn]Several interviewees highlighted the danger of allowing these frustrations to accumulate. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, February 2015, Bobo-Dioulasso, July 2015, Fada N’Gourma, April 2016; minister, researchers, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  For the moment, there is no sign that such a trend is emerging, but the sense of marginalisation felt by some communities may lead to problems.[fn]Young Muslims told Crisis Group that they are not giving full voice to their frustrations for the moment but that “they shouldn’t be pushed around”. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

The question was posed more acutely during the transition that followed the October 2014 downfall of Blaise Compaoré. The creation of transitional institutions provoked friction. Although he was seen as the army’s candidate, the transitional president, Michel Kafando, was initially the choice of the Catholic Church.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè politician, Abidjan, August 2015; Muslim intellectual, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  A Muslim leader told Crisis Group that Muslim representatives firmly rejected the idea of appointing the Archbishop of Bobo-Dioulasso, Monseigneur Paul Ouédraogo, as head of the transition. “Fortunately, Cherif Sy [president of the transitional parliament] is a Muslim”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim leader, Ouagadougou, February 2015.Hide Footnote  Muslims requested parity with Christians for posts in the transitional institutions, a demand that was neither feasible nor desirable.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, June 2016.Hide Footnote  In private, many people later deplored the fact that the prime minister, Isaac Zida, a Protestant, appointed many Protestants to posts in the administration. Even if these appointments were not driven by an evangelisation ideology, and were simply nepotism, they gave the impression that “you needed to be a Protestant to get appointed to a post”.[fn]These words, spoken by a young soldier in the former presidential guard, were reported to Crisis Group by an eminent Burkinabè political figure. Crisis Group interview, Ouagadougou, July 2015.Hide Footnote

The government must respond to Muslim grievances while avoiding the dangerous pitfall of sectarianism.

This critical discourse is not without consequences. In a country where religion is only a secondary badge of identity, formulating demands based on religious faith may give religion a more important role than it used to play. Politicising religion carries clear risks of hijacking and manipulation.[fn]In recent years, the Blaise Compaoré regime tended to manipulate religious leaders and take advantage of their divisions. The project of creating a Senate, with the secret aim of introducing an amendment to the constitution to allow Compaoré to stand again in the presidential election, had drawn support from some Muslim representatives who saw it as a means of gaining more political influence.Hide Footnote  The Burkinabè seem to be aware of this. For example, the candidate to the November 2015 presidential election, Ablassé Ouédraogo, caused an outcry when he said he believed his Muslim faith gave him a better chance of winning.[fn]“Burkina – Ablassé Ouédraogo: ‘J’ai toutes mes chances à la présidentielle d’octobre’”, Jeune Afrique, 8 June 2015.Hide Footnote

The government must respond to Muslim grievances while avoiding the dangerous pitfall of sectarianism. It is difficult to find a balance. Many interviewees, both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that the upsurge in identity-based demands might disturb coexistence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Catholic and Protestant representatives, Ouagadougou, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This warning betrays their fear of losing their status as the “dominant minority” and of seeing the rules of the game change if Muslims gain more political and administrative power.[fn]Crisis Group interview, priest, Ouagadougou, April 2016. The expression “dominant minority” was used in “Etats et minorités religieuses: les représentations des catholiques au Burkina Faso et au Sénégal”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  However, most of them recognised the need to correct the imbalance in order to preserve social cohesion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, Ouagadougou, Kaya; Protestant representative, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

B. A List of Grievances

With time, demands have become more precise. During the November 2015 presidential election campaign, Muslim representatives presented candidates with a document entitled “Muslim concerns in Burkina Faso”.[fn]“Despite the fact that Muslims are a majority of the population in Burkina, their real concerns are practically ignored by both the political class and public administration”. Extract from the document “Préoccupations des musulmans au Burkina Faso”, written by the Coordination of Islamic Associations of the West, document on file with Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  These concerns can be divided into three categories: the visibility and representation of religious communities in public and political life; the administration’s treatment of religions; and the crucial issue of education, which is related to representation among the elites.

1. Public and political representation and profile

The grievance most frequently mentioned by interviewees concerned the representativeness of religious authorities relied upon to resolve political or social crises, or appointed to institutions. Usually, when the government requests the participation of religious leaders, each faith – Catholic, Protestant, Muslim – nominates a representative. Muslims deplore the fact that this formula allows them to have only one representative compared to two for Christians, even though Muslims form a majority of the population. They argue that while Catholics and Protestants form two branches of Christianity, Muslims are also divided into several denominations. This problem arose in Bobo-Dioulasso upon appointments to the special delegation, an administrative body designed to replace municipal authorities that were dissolved after Compaoré’s fall. The disagreement was quickly resolved by appointing a second Muslim representative. The same problem emerged in the Economic and Social Council, where it proved more difficult to resolve.[fn]The Economic and Social Council includes three representatives of traditional, religious and customary authorities. In addition to the customary chief, two religious representatives are appointed. Catholics and Protestants say it is difficult for them to appoint a joint representative because of the historical differences between the two faiths.Hide Footnote

The public profile of religions is also a cause of frustration. For the last two or three decades, religion has been playing an ever increasing role in public life. In a multi-faith country, this has resulted in competition between religions and between currents within each religion, leading to a race to build places of worship, quarrels over noise pollution, an increase in the number of religious media, etc.[fn]For example, see, Frederick Madore, “Islam, politique et sphère publique à Ouagadougou”, thesis, Laval University, 2013; and the work of Maud Saint-Lary.Hide Footnote

Some Muslim leaders believe that the airtime given to each religion on the state-owned Burkina Radio-Television (RTB) is not equitable. No evidence has been offered to support this claim. Some deplore the fact that government offices and streets are decorated to celebrate Christian holidays but not Muslim holidays.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representative, journalist working for a faith-based media, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016.Hide Footnote  There is no Tabaski tree equivalent to the Christmas tree but these are symbolic issues and it should not be difficult to find an adequate response. The government and public administration need to realise that such apparently insignificant details can fuel frustration. For example, school holidays are now called “quarterly holidays” rather than “Christmas holidays” or “Easter holidays”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè citizens, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

2. Treatment of religions by the state and the administration

The constitution enshrines the secular nature of the Burkinabè state (article 31). Sec­u­­lar­ism does not have the same meaning as in France, however, though the French system inspired Burkina’s constitution. The state subsidises private faith-based education and Muslim pilgrimages, and the government often asks religious authorities to play a role in defusing social and political tensions.[fn]Sponsorship of Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca, the Hadj, often causes controversy. Christians deplore the fact that the government does not fund any Christian pilgrimages. Every year, there are arguments over the management of pilgrimage grants by Muslim associations and over the organisation of the pilgrimage. “Hadj 2015: Des agences de voyage demandent un audit”, Le Pays, 11 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Some Muslim representatives believe that Burkina’s form of secularism favours Christianity. An interviewee even mentioned a “double standards secularism” defined by its opposition to Islam.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representatives, Ouahigouya, April 2016. For example, weekly holidays are Saturdays and Sundays, while the Muslim day of prayer is Friday.Hide Footnote  Instead of importing a rigid form of secularism from the West, Burkina should find its own definition.

Muslims publicly expressed their frustration at the adoption of the continuous working day (7.30am to 3pm) in September 2015. They repeatedly asked for a meeting with the prime minister to point to the impossibility of attending Friday prayers if lunch breaks are only 30 minutes long, but the prime minister never received them. When the continuous working day was introduced, the Centre for Islamic Study, Research and Training (CERFI) published a strongly-worded open letter, reflecting the anger felt by many Muslims.[fn]“Journée continue de travail: Le CERFI demande la prise en compte de la grande prière du vendredi”, LeFaso.net (www.lefaso.net), 9 September 2015. Crisis Group interviews, CERFI member, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016. Created in 1989, CERFI is a Burkinabè association composed mainly of Francophone Muslim intellectuals.Hide Footnote  The government eventually agreed on a longer lunch break on Fridays, but this episode illustrates Muslims’ perception that secularism is defined by its opposition to Islam and that their interests carry little weight.

Another recurring problem concerns the allocation of plots of land for building places of worship when new housing estates are being developed. When local authorities allocate three plots of the same size for each community, Muslims point out that they are often more numerous than Christians. Tensions also arise when local authorities only allocate one plot of land for all three religions to share.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Bobo-Dioulasso, young Muslim, Ouagadougou, January 2016. In Orodara, in the west of the country, a dispute over land between Muslims and animists led to the destruction of the Sunni Movement’s mosque in July 2016. “La mosquée des sunnites de Orodara a été saccagée”, LeFaso.net, 16 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Disputes around the allocation of land for the construction of places of worship are common.

As in many other countries, problems have emerged in relation to wearing the veil. The controversy over the partial veil (hijab) in France prompted a debate in Burkina. The hijab is generally authorised in private and state schools but veiled girls are sometimes stigmatised and even expelled from school.[fn]Crisis Group interview, AEEMB member, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  In 2012, an imam exposed the discrimination faced by Muslim women wearing the hijab at entrance examinations for the civil service.[fn]Imam Ismaël Tiendrébéogo, “Du port du voile lors des concours”, L’Observateur Paalga (www.
lefaso.net), 21 May 2012.Hide Footnote
 These controversies reinforce the feelings of some Muslims that secularism is defined by its opposition to Islam and that their own interests count for little.

The full-face veil (niqab) poses a particular problem in the new context of terrorism. In December 2015, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recommended member states to ban the niqab in public places on security grounds.[fn]Final Communiqué, 48th Ordinary Session of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, Abuja, 16-17 December 2015.Hide Footnote  This worries some Burkinabè Muslims, especially followers of fundamentalist Islam, who fear that the government will ban the niqab under the pretext of security. This concern is another illustration of the sense of victimisation felt by some Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sunni Movement members, Ouagadougou, January 2016. Some young Muslims are convinced that the government claimed women were involved in the 15 January terrorist attacks to justify the ban on niqab. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote

3. The modernisation of Franco-Arab education

One important demand from Muslims concerns their underrepresentation among the political and administrative elites. Some interviewees mentioned the small number of Muslim government ministers as an illustration of the problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim women representative, Ouagadougou; Muslim representatives, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  This is not the result of government policy but is due to historical factors, disparities in the education system and the weakness of Franco-Arab education, which has developed and now attracts many Muslim children, while others attend state or private Christian schools.

According to a researcher, 15 to 20 per cent of children in Burkina attend Franco-Arab or Quranic schools.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher, Ouagadougou, April 2016. Quranic schools are exclusively dedicated to teaching the Quran. Their pupils often endure poor living conditions and are reduced to begging.Hide Footnote  There are more than 1,700 Franco-Arab schools in the country, representing around 70 per cent of private education.[fn]“Ecoles franco-arabes au Burkina: état des lieux et difficultés d’insertion des diplômés”, LeFaso.
net, 29 May 2013. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representatives, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016. “Plaidoyer pour une réforme de l’enseignement franco-arabe au Burkina”, National Democratic Institute CEPPS program, July 2013. As an illustration, private schools account for about one fifth of all schools (2,279 private schools out of a total of 11,545 schools in Burkina). “Etablissements d’enseignement privé: L’Etat ouvre la voie au désordre”, LeFaso.
net, 21 November 2012. However, these figures must be treated with caution because there are probably many unaccredited and unregistered private schools.Hide Footnote
 The schools were born out of the need to adapt Quranic education to modern-day demands, to allow children to learn about Islam while being prepared for the job market. The schools provide courses in Arabic, religion and general subjects.

However, Franco-Arab schools do not always successfully combine Islamic education with the need to teach general subjects that would give children the same chance of graduating, passing the civil service entrance examinations or finding a job. The schools often lack resources; curricula and diplomas vary from one school to another and fail to follow the state’s program; the level of French is weak; teachers are not always well-trained; their wages are often below average; and the textbooks received from Arab countries do not correspond to local realities.

The government has begun to deal with this problem. The Support for Primary Bilingual Franco-Arab Education Project (PREFA), a CFA7.5-billion (€11.5 million) project launched in 2015 by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), subsidises some schools and is building new schools in seven regions and 21 provinces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Franco-Arab school director, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016. See the national education ministry website here.Hide Footnote  In 2015, the government and the FAIB signed an agreement on a CFA400-million (€610,000) state subsidy per year for three years in the form of supplementary payments to 555 teachers. The government has also recruited 40 Franco-Arab schools graduates for a teacher training program, which will give them jobs and staff the schools with competent teachers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  There has been some progress on harmonising curricula, but much remains to be done. Joint curricula are currently being prepared, government-designed Arabic textbooks have been distributed to some schools and some examinations are now held jointly.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The government does not bear sole responsibility for the slow pace of progress; Franco-Arab school directors are sometimes reluctant to conform to standards and some of them do not see improving the employment prospects of their pupils as a priority. It is also difficult for the government to act effectively given that it must negotiate with various organisations – each Islamic association has its own schools and curricula, often funded by Arab donors.

Students who received scholarships to study in Arab countries also struggle to find jobs when they return, even those with degrees in subjects like medicine, law and engineering. Their command of the French language is not always strong enough for passing civil service examinations or obtaining highly qualified jobs in the private sector, and their diplomas are not always recognised despite the existence of a National Degree Equivalence Commission. They are not well informed about the procedures they need to follow, and the negative image of Franco-Arab education and Arab universities means that the administration is sometimes reluctant to help them. Graduates educated in Arabic feel devalued because they have studied at an Arab university. Marginalising these young graduates presents clear risks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim intellectual, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016. Several studies have been published on this issue, for example, Sylvie Bredeloup, “Etudiants arabophones de retour à Ouagadougou cherchent désespérément reconnaissance”, L’Année du Maghreb, vol. 11 (2014).Hide Footnote

The reform of Franco-Arab education, which needs significant financial resources, will not happen overnight. However, the lack of communication on efforts to modernise this system seems to constitute the main obstacle. Muslim interviewees said that “the government does nothing for our schools”,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Fada N’Gourma, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  while others recognised that efforts have been made without knowing exactly what they consist of. Some said the system of subsidies awarded to private schools is unfair and does not reflect the fact that Muslims form the majority of the population. Few were aware that the government owes Catholic schools CFA2.9 billion (€4.4 million) for subsidies promised but not paid for in years.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim intellectual, young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016; civil servants, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Apart from the Franco-Arab system, there is another problem related to education. In Bobo-Dioulasso, some pupils are sent to private schools that have agreements with the government because state secondary schools lack capacity. Some Muslim parents are uncomfortable with the idea of sending their children to Catholic or Protestant schools for fear that attempts will be made to convert them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, director and former director of Franco-Arab schools, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  An interviewee wondered whether the government perhaps wanted to “force evangelisation” on pupils, saying they have to go to the schools they are assigned to and that some schools refuse to exempt them from religious education and prayers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former director of a Franco-Arab school, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Divides within the Muslim Community

Burkina’s Muslim community is not a monolithic entity and its members have diverse practices and perceptions. The many Islamic associations have not always had friendly relations and the gap between the younger generation and the old guard continues to grow. These divides sometimes make it difficult to address Muslims’ demands.

Islam in Burkina is riven by ideological differences and personal rivalries, including within each branch. The first attempt to unite Muslims produced the Muslim Community of Upper Volta (now the CMBF) in 1962, but this organisation had to deal with personal rivalries and financial scandals. It remains one of the major Muslim associations, along with the Tijanyyia, Burkina Faso’s main Sufi branch, the Sunni Movement, which represents the Wahhabi tendency, and Ittihad Islami, a Tijanyyia branch that aims to unite all Muslims.

The main division within the Muslim community is between Sufi Muslims on the one hand, and Wahhabis and Salafis on the other, who are mainly represented in Burkina by the Sunni Movement. The latter established themselves in the country in the 1970s, but cohabitation with the other branches has never been easy.[fn]For example, see Maïmouna Koné Dao, “Implantation et influence du wahhabisme au Burkina Faso de 1963 à 2002”, in Muriel Gomez-Perez, L’islam politique au sud du Sahara (Paris, 2005).Hide Footnote  Members of the Sunni Movement and Sufi branches often distrust each other: the former believe the latter are “bad” Muslims, who tarnish Islam with African traditions that do not conform to the life of the Prophet, while Sufis describe members of the Sunni Movement as radicals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim representative, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; Sunni Movement member, Dori, Ouagadougou, Muslim leader, Ouagadougou, April 2016. For example, the tension is palpable every year with the approach of Maouloud, when Sufis celebrate the Prophet’s birthday, a practice that Wahhabis believe does not conform to Islam. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  So-called modernist and reformist movements, combining Saudi-inspired Islam and an African identity appeared later, with the creation of the AEEMB and the CERFI in the 1980s.

Created in 2005 to strengthen unity, the Burkina Federation of Islamic Associations (FAIB) suffers from these ideological differences but also from personal rivalries. This is especially so after the death of wealthy businessman Oumarou Kanazoé in 2011, an illiterate Muslim who managed to keep the community unified largely thanks to his charisma and personal fortune.[fn]The government allegedly supported the creation of the FAIB so as to have a single Muslim interlocutor. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker of an Islamic organisation, researcher, Ouagadougou, January 2016. For more on Oumarou Kanazoé, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°205, With or Without Blaise Compaoré: Times of Uncertainty, 22 July 2013, footnote 91, p. 16.Hide Footnote  Ten years passed before the federation organised its first congress, in June 2015. Kanazoé’s death left the Muslim community without a leader. After many quarrels, FAIB members finally agreed that the federation should be led by a presidium consisting of representatives of the four major member associations (CMBF, Sunni Movement, Tijanyyia and Ittihad), with a rotating annual presidency. A sign of its weakness is that the federation does not have local representation. The FAIB still has a long way to go before Muslims, especially young people, see it as a useful tool to defend their interests.[fn]A young Muslim used the term “empty shell”. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leader, young Muslim, Ouagadougou, January 2016. To compensate for the lack of local representation, Muslims in Bobo-Dioulasso formed the Coordination of Islamic Associations in the West. Crisis Group interview, Muslim leader, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Members of Muslim youth associations feel their representatives do not sufficiently defend their interests. They believe that the old guard that dominates the FAIB is irrelevant and incapable of making their voice heard, in addition to being corrupt and manipulated by political authorities. Therefore, in 2013, the CERFI and the AEEMB expressed their disapproval following the FAIB’s public statement in favour of creating a Senate.[fn]“Sénat: L’AEEMB et le CERFI se démarquent des propos de Souleymane Compaoré”, LeFaso.net, 16 September 2013. See footnote 49.Hide Footnote  This episode showed the widening gap between older Muslims, who still control most Muslim associations, and young people, who want to play a role in the decision-making process. The closeness of some Muslim leaders to the old regime has discredited them in the eyes of the youth.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim women representative, young Muslim, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulassso, January and April 2016.Hide Footnote

This gap could be dangerous because older Muslims are generally inclined to preserve tradition, including peaceful religious coexistence, while young Muslims may be tempted to question the status quo if they feel that their interests are not taken into account. Many Muslim leaders told Crisis Group that while their ancestors and they have accepted the underrepresentation of Muslims, young people are less patient.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, February 2015; Fada, April 2016; young Muslims, Ouagadougou, January 2016; researcher, minister, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This generational divide partly explains why Wahhabism is spreading and attracting young Muslims, especially in urban areas.

IV. Changes in Religious Behaviours?

Religious coexistence and the government’s management of religious diversity provide interesting examples for countries facing tension caused by religious radicalisation and the rise of violent extremism. Studying the relationship between the state and religion requires examining changes in individual religious behaviours, which can have an impact on social relations. The rise of fundamentalist Islam in several African countries has not spared Burkina and can sometimes disturb the balance between communities. The phenomenon of revivalist “born-again” Protestant Churches is not as widespread in Burkina as it is in other African countries, but Protestantism is booming.

A. The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism

In the debate on radicalisation and violent extremism, two often used but poorly defined concepts, it is important to distinguish the rise of fundamentalist Islam from the propensity to resort to violence – two very distinct phenomena. An increase in religiosity does not necessarily lead to violence. Quietist currents preach a return to strict Islamic practices but proscribe all forms of violence to achieve this end. The roots of violence are not necessarily to be found in the rise of religiosity: perpetrators may already be involved in crime, others may resort to violence to defend socio-economic and financial interests or because of local grievances.[fn]See Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote  However, even if they do not lead to violence, changes in religious behaviours can have an impact on relations between communities and disturb social cohesion.

In Burkina, there is a trend toward an increase in religiosity, with visible signs in the case of Muslims: change in clothing habits (more common use of the full-face veil for women; short trousers, skull caps and beards for men); change in eating habits; increase in the number of mosques, Quranic and Franco-Arab schools; creation of informal prayer and study rooms on university campus, etc. These changes seem particularly evident on the Ouagadougou university campus: a professor said that his lecture theatre empties in time for prayers at 4pm and that some Muslims do not want to attend the grins (informal discussion groups for young people) with non-Muslims – something that would have been unthinkable just ten years ago.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, teachers, members of student associations, Ouagadougou, April 2016. See also Augustin Loada, Peter Romaniuk, “Preventing violent extremism in Burkina Faso. Toward national resilience amid regional insecurity”, Global Center on Cooperative Security, June 2014. The 2016 update of this study concluded that the factors enabling resilience to violent extremism still exist but have been eroded. One of the concerns mentioned in the study is the perception of a “pro-Christian” state by some Burkinabè Muslims. Conference on the prevention of violent extremism, organised by the MATDSI and the Danish embassy, Ouagadougou, 9 June 2016.Hide Footnote

These trends are clearer in urban than in rural areas, where people are more conservative. In towns, young people are more open to ideas imported from abroad and less constrained by traditions, family and community rules.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, researcher, Ouagadougou; priest, Gourcy, April 2016.Hide Footnote  However, the rise of fundamentalist Islam, sometimes advanced by foreign preachers, can also challenge traditions in rural areas.[fn]An analyst explained that practices are changing even in traditionally animist Senoufo country (south-eastern Burkina, near the border with Côte d’Ivoire). Crisis Group interview, analyst, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The regions along the borders with Mali and Niger, in particular, cannot be entirely impermeable to changes in those countries.[fn]Some population groups in these areas (the north and west of Burkina) could be particularly vulnerable to penetration by certain ideas and movements, notably the Fulanis and the Tuareg Bella, because of the presence of many Fulanis and Tuaregs in groups active in Mali. Crisis Group interviews, deputies, Ouagadougou; priest, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Several studies examine the influence of Wahhabism and reformism in Burkina Faso.[fn]For definitions of these terms, see Maud Saint-Lary, “Du wahhabisme aux réformes génériques”, Cahiers d’études africaines, no. 206-207, vol. 2 (2012). For more on Wahhabism in Burkina, see “Implantation et influence du wahhabisme au Burkina Faso de 1963 à 2002”, op. cit. For lack of reliable statistics, it is difficult to estimate the number of Muslims who practice fundamentalist Islam, all the more so as there are a range of practices between Sufi and Wahhabi Islam. Depending on the interviewees and the locality, estimates vary between 10 and 30 per cent of Muslims. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslim, Ouagadougou; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; Muslim citizen, priest, Ouahigouya, Muslim leader, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The Sunni Movement, the association that represents this tendency, increasingly attracts Muslims for several reasons.[fn]The Sunni Movement does not claim to be either Wahhabi or Salafist. It believes that Islam is unique and there are no currents, hence the name “Sunni”. Crisis Group interview, Sunni Movement leaders, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  It is fairly well organised and structured, with a national office and regional and provincial representatives; it gives young people the place they deserve, often promoting young imams and preachers; and its intellectuals and scholars, who are fluent in Arabic, give it an aura of prestige.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, young Muslim, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Its declared aim of promoting a pure version of Islam and countering the deterioration in social morals and the corruption of the elites resonates with many Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ONAFAR member, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Confessional and social media, which have played an important role in urban areas during the October 2014 uprising, ensure the dissemination of this message. In addition, unemployment and job insecurity make promises of financial aid attractive. Several interviewees said that “the Sunnis” offer to help young people with their professional endeavours if they adopt their practices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministers, Protestant leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016; Muslim leader, Kaya, Muslim citizen, Fada N’Gourma, April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, the rise of fundamentalist Islam is only of concern if it changes social relations, particularly between Muslims and non-Muslims. And that may well be the case. New religious practices can have a big impact on the relations between neighbours. For example, some Muslims no longer share food with their Christian neighbours at Christmas or Easter and forbid mixed marriages, which are very common in Burkina. Some interviewees expressed concerns about a relative or neighbour who became a “Sunni” and distanced themselves from their family circles.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, minister, Ouagadougou; civil servants, Fada N’Gourma and Dori; customary chief, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

One of the main characteristics of Wahhabism and reformism in West Africa is the belief that “true Islam” requires the rejection of African traditions preserved by Sufism, such as funeral rites, animal sacrifices, the use of rosaries during prayers, the use of amulets and other talismans and the veneration of Sufi saints. Many of these traditions have been preserved by the followers of all religions and bring them closer together.

An intolerant discourse toward non-Muslims, though it appears marginal, does exist. Some fundamentalist versions of Islam distrust non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, whom they call “heathens”. This discourse goes hand-in-hand with anti-Western rhetoric, which makes perfect sense in a regional and international context marked by military interventions perceived as manifestations of the West’s desire to destroy Islam. This rhetoric appeals to some young Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interview, customary chief, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Christianity is presented as a Western religion and this carries the risk of creating divisions between Burkinabè citizens. If these intolerant sermons succeed in reaching and convincing more than a minority, they could eventually pose a threat to religious coexistence.[fn]For example, a Protestant told Crisis Group that he had heard a cassette played at a market inciting Muslims to expel Christians from their courtyards. Another interviewee told how on the day after the January 2016 terrorist attacks, an imam said that casualties at the Cappuccino café deserved to die if they were drinking alcohol. Crisis Group interviews, Protestants, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Several Muslim leaders have expressed concerns about these trends and their distrust of the Sunni Movement. However, the latter is not a homogeneous group. Interviewees in Ouahigouya and Bobo-Dioulasso deplored that the Sunni Movement hardly participates in interfaith dialogue and that some of its members preach ideas that are incompatible with tolerance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016; priest, Ouahigouya, April 2016. Sunni Movement members sometimes feel that they are being asked to renounce some of their practices in the name of interfaith dialogue. For example, it is forbidden for men to shake women’s hands, while handshaking is the most common greeting in West Africa. Crisis Group interviews, Sunni Movement members, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  But in Dori, the Sunni Movement participates in interfaith dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, customary chief, Dori, April 2016.Hide Footnote  It therefore seems that a minor radical tendency shuns contact with others, an attitude that is certainly not restricted to members of the Sunni Movement.[fn]Isolated cases confirm that Burkina is not immune to radical ideas. An imam who reportedly provided accommodation for individuals arriving from Mali was arrested in the west. This arrest is said to have provoked the October 2015 attack on the Samorogouan gendarmerie post. A Sunni Movement member in a western town close to the border with Mali was arrested and taken to Ouagadougou prison. An imam in Ouagadougou was arrested following the January 2016 terrorist attacks after arms were found in his home. Crisis Group interviews, young Muslim, civil society activist, Ouagadougou, Muslim intellectual, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote

Some Muslim leaders deplored foreign influence, especially that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Islamic NGO employee, Muslim leaders, Ouagadougou, January and April 2016.Hide Footnote  Although it is impossible to have a precise idea of the amount of money poured by Gulf countries, including through humanitarian aid, it is certainly happening and it leads to growing ideological and cultural influence of these countries. Burkinabè scholars and preachers trained in the Gulf sometimes return home promoting practices and ideas far removed from the realities of peaceful coexistence in Burkina. Once again, if these ideas find support, it could threaten the balance between religious communities.

For example, an NGO called Qatar Charity built 496 mosques, 60 wells, 21 multi-service complexes, five schools and eighteen health centres between 2009 and 2015.[fn]Document supplied to Crisis Group by Qatar Charity. Crisis Group interview, Qatar Charity employee, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  However, the view of Islamic NGOs as instruments for the dissemination of fundamentalist Islam from the Gulf countries needs qualifying. Building a school or a health centre does not necessarily result in the conversion of the children or patients, all the more so as these NGOs respond to a genuine social need that stems from the government’s inability to provide basic services to the entire population.[fn]For example, imams who officiate at the mosques built by Qatar Charity for the CERFI are selected by the latter and not by the NGO. Qatar Charity says that it builds mosques but does not intervene in their management. Crisis Group interviews, CERFI member, Ouagadougou, January 2016; Qatar Charity employee, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

These trends are all the more worrying given that the government has little control over religious discourse. Officially, no place of worship can be built without administrative authorisation, but individuals do create secret mosques, for example by converting their yard into a prayer room.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders, Bobo-Dioulasso, January 2016.Hide Footnote  Moreover, as in many other countries, it is difficult for the government to monitor the content of sermons or the ideas that circulate in mosques or in private. Religious discourse may therefore become radical without it being possible to notice it or assess the extent to which this is the case. The Sunni Movement says it exercises strict control over the sermons preached in its mosques, by asking all imams and preachers to specify their content in advance. That does not seem to be the case in the Tijanyya, which is much less organised.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sunni Movement representative and scholar, Ouagadougou; Muslim citizen, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, stigmatising an entire category of Muslims who choose a more fundamentalist religious practice should be avoided; it would be the best way to radicalise some and encourage violence. Some Muslims already feel stigmatised because of terrorism (see section II.C). Changes in religious behaviours and the increase in religiosity among Muslims are only dangerous if they cause a breakdown in social relations and encourage communities to withdraw into themselves.

B. Revivalist Churches: A Marginal Phenomenon

The increase in religiosity does not apply exclusively to Muslims; it is part of a general trend toward more dynamic religious practice that also involves Christians, particularly Protestants. In several African countries, new Protestant churches, the so-called “born-again” churches, are booming.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Cameroon: The Threat of Religious Radicalism, op. cit., pp. 11-12.Hide Footnote  In Burkina, where traditional Protes­tant churches are in the majority, this phenomenon remains marginal.

Protestantism is the religion with the least number of followers in Burkina Faso, but it is growing quickly. Between 1960 and 2006, the increase in the number of Protestants was five times more important than the increase in the number of Muslims and twice as high as for Catholics.[fn]Katrin Langewiesche, “Le dialogue interreligieux au service du développement”, Bulletin de l’APAD, no. 33 (2011). For statistics on Protestant Churches, see “Eglises et missions évangéliques du Burkina: Compassion internationale fait l’autopsie”, Sidwaya, 18 July 2013.Hide Footnote  The Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions (FEME), the main Protestant organisation in Burkina, has fourteen member churches, but there are around 120 others.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Protestant women representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The Church of Assemblies of God is the largest denomination and comprises 70 to 80 per cent of Burkina’s Protes­tants. It faces competition from new churches, such as the International Evangelisation Centre (CIE), led by charismatic minister Mamadou Philippe Karambiri.[fn]The CIE presents the typical profile of the new churches. It adopts a proselytising discourse that promises salvation, relies on the minister’s personality, has large financial resources and uses modern media (the CIE has its own television channel, Impact TV).Hide Footnote

New Protestant churches sometimes promote a discourse that is far removed from coexistence. In Burkina, such discourse seems to be marginal, but there are worrying signs. Protestantism is based on the idea that followers who join the path of God are given salvation. The discourse is sometimes Manichaean, offering a dual interpretation of the world as being divided into good and evil.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ONAFAR member, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Protestantism is completely opposed to African tradition, which is a cornerstone of social cohesion in Burkina (see section II.B). The prohibition of mixed marriages, although not always respected, can also prejudice social relations.[fn]A minister told Crisis Group that Protestantism does not tolerate mixed marriages but if two people truly love each other, there is no reason to stop them being together. Crisis Group interview, minister, Ouahigouya, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Conversions often lead to family quarrels, but these are generally settled with time.

Proselytism, often through humanitarian action, holds an important place in certain Protestant associations, because conversion leads to salvation. Proselytism sometimes provokes fear in other communities. According to a Catholic leader in Dédougou, Protestants approach children on their way to catechism classes and offer them money to come to their church.[fn]Crisis Group interview, catholic leader, Dédougou, April 2016. A young Protestant told Crisis Group that an NGO using church premises provides childcare for all but secretly aims to convert patients to Protestantism. Crisis Group interview, young Protestant, Dédougou, April 2016. A Muslim representative deplored how families quarrel when Muslim women and children, who are looked after by an NGO on a weekly basis, say they want to convert to Protestantism. Crisis Group interview, Muslim representative, Kaya, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Some interviewees deplored the fact that Protestants are sometimes reluctant to participate in interfaith dialogue. For example, in Dori, they refuse to formally join the Fraternal Union of Believers (UFC), founded in 1969 by Catholics and Muslims to promote humanitarian action and religious tolerance, even though they occasionally collaborate with the association.[fn]A minister told Crisis Group that Protestants refuse to join the UFC because its internal rules proscribe proselytism, which is the duty of all Protestants. Crisis Group interview, minister, Dori, April 2016. A student in Dédougou said that Muslims and Catholics often work together but Protes­tants are less involved. Crisis Group interview, student, Dédougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

In addition to a discourse that is traditionally unfavourable to Catholicism, some churches and individuals privately equate Islam with terrorism, fuelling distrust toward Muslims. This discourse is more present in the new churches, which often come from neighbouring countries, like the Winner’s Chapel of Nigeria. The more traditional Protestant denominations have deeper roots in Burkina’s religious landscape and more rarely foster such rhetoric.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catholic representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  A speech that promotes an inward-looking vision can disturb the balance between communities, even if it does not call for violence.

These alarming signs seem isolated for the moment. All interviewees said that the growth of radical Protestantism is much less pronounced in Burkina than in other African countries. It does not at present seem likely that this discourse will have more than a minimal impact.[fn]All interviewees confirmed that the phenomenon of revivalist churches is not as widespread in Burkina as it is in other countries, such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, etc. Crisis Group interviews, Protestants, young Protestants, Ouagadougou, April 2016; journalist, civil society activist, Ouagadougou, January 2016.Hide Footnote  However, vigilance is still required, all the more so because it is easy to create a new church (any individual can set up a church) and build new places of worship. The government and the FEME may find it difficult to keep the discourse under control.

V. Toward a Better Balance for Lasting Peaceful Coexistence

Burkina’s model of religious coexistence faces the challenge of adapting to a new regional environment and changes in relations between different communities. There is no immediate threat to this model: Burkina remains a good example of religious tolerance. It would be tempting to ignore the growing difficulties for fear that opening a discussion about the relationship between the state and religion might lead to the very outcome that it is hoping to avoid. Opening a public debate on religion, particularly about the government’s treatment of religions and representation of the different communities within the administration, and then offering solutions, could give religious identity more weight and even exacerbate differences. The risk of political hijacking or manipulation should not be underestimated.

The authorities and religious leaders could take several measures to correct the inadequacies that are beginning to erode the country’s model of religious tolerance so as to ensure its continued existence.

It is nevertheless more dangerous to continue to ignore problems that are becoming increasingly clear. Rather than turning a blind eye, it would be better to accept and anticipate the risk and take the initiative to avoid the situation deteriorating if circumstances were to change rapidly. The dangers of opening the debate should not be ignored, but if they are known and expected, they can be mitigated. If the issue is dealt with cautiously, in the spirit of seeking dialogue and balance, it may be possible to gradually identify solutions that would reduce emerging frustrations. Burkina’s political class has often shown remarkable capacity to reach compromise, even in the most difficult situations. The authorities and religious leaders could take several measures to correct the inadequacies that are beginning to erode the country’s model of religious tolerance so as to ensure its continued existence.

A. Improving Representation within the Elite

The underrepresentation of Muslims among the political and administrative elite is not due to deliberate discrimination; rather, it is the outcome of history and of the quality gap between Franco-Arab education and Christian and state schools. In order to respond to frustrations without creating new ones or stigmatising communities, the roots of the problem must be addressed. Quotas are by no means an appropriate fix. They rarely resolve the problem and could lead to dangerous developments in Burkina.

The government must pursue efforts to reform and modernise Franco-Arab schools, especially by requiring higher standards in the French language and introducing a national curriculum for all Franco-Arab schools. This clearly necessitates the cooperation of Muslim leaders and school directors, who must recognise that Islamic education is not incompatible with acquiring academic background and reconcile these objectives. The authorities must be more rigorous and close down schools that refuse to respect the criteria. Muslim leaders must also work with the administration to better communicate to the public on efforts to modernise Franco-Arab education. That would send a positive message to young Muslims and show them that the government is taking their interests into account.

To mitigate the feeling of social exclusion experienced by graduates educated in Arabic, the government should facilitate access to degree equivalence, including by ensuring that students are well informed about the procedures to follow; tackle the prejudiced perceptions within the administration about Arab education; create French language training centres for graduates educated in Arabic to add value to their degrees and enable them to find a highly qualified job or work for the civil service; and give Arabic proper recognition in secondary and higher education by making it an optional language and by reconsidering the creation of an Arabic language department at Ouagadougou University. All this would help Arabic-speaking graduates enter the labour market, increase their self-esteem and reduce negative perceptions of Arab education. Technical and financial partners could contribute to this process.

B. Ensuring Equitable Profile and Representation for Religions in Public Life

One of the main grievances of Muslim leaders concerns the representation of religious authorities when the government requests their contribution. Although Catholics and Protestants interviewed by Crisis Group maintained that the proportion of the population each religious community represents should not be the key factor in allocating representatives, most of them recognised that it would not be a problem to add a Muslim representative.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Catholic representative, minister, Ouagadougou; minister, Fada N’Gourma, April 2016.Hide Footnote  This would correct the imbalance and show Muslims that their interests are being taken into account, while avoiding the pitfall of creating new frustrations.

Other more symbolic grievances could easily be dealt with. For example, airtime on RTB could be allocated in a more equitable way. Muslim, Catholic and Protestant holidays could receive equitable public exposure. Greater efforts by the government to ensure Islam has equal status to Christianity would reduce frustrations felt by some Muslim constituencies.

C. Regulating Religious Discourse and Promoting Coexistence

The government should not take religious coexistence for granted and do more to regulate religious discourse. Burkina, like other countries, is undergoing constant change. As an interviewee summarised, “Burkina is not an island” and it would be naive to believe that the country will be able to remain an exception indefinitely.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Catholic representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Unlike other countries that have a dedicated ministry, Burkina’s religious affairs are administered by the Customary Affairs and Religion Section of the Department of Public Freedoms and Political Affairs in the local government, decentralisation and internal security ministry (MATDSI). The government should allocate more financial resources to this department to allow its staff to work effectively. If the resources are available, the government should also start mapping places of worship and the people in charge of them. This is a necessary precondition for better regulation of religious discourse. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, imams are listed on a register that contains their name, contact details and place of worship and they carry an electronic card comparable to an identity card.[fn]Crisis Group interview, imam, Bouaké, August 2015.Hide Footnote  Such mapping, covering leaders and places of worship of all faiths, could be a good example for Burkina to follow.

The revival of ONAFAR, decided on at the council of ministers after the January 2016 terrorist attacks, should be implemented. This institution should be allocated an operational budget, administrative staff and office equipment. It should then prepare a communications strategy to publicise its mission and activities. The president of one of the main Protestant youth associations had never heard of the ONAFAR, which underlines how little impact it has.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Protestant representative, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Opening local offices would also help increase its visibility. The existence of an institution dedicated to monitoring religious discourse and interfaith relations would increase the government’s capacity to anticipate risks and limit the spread of dangerous ideas. International partners could contribute to these efforts.

A bill on religious freedoms, which is currently being drafted, aims to fill the legal vacuum regarding how to implement secularism, guarantees of religious freedoms and church-state relations. It contains interesting provisions, especially regulations on the construction of places of worship and the creation of faith associations, and the definition and application of secularism.[fn]“Exposé des motifs de l’avant-projet de loi sur les libertés religieuses au Burkina Faso”, MATDSI document, undated, copy provided to Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Ouagadougou, April 2016.Hide Footnote  The government should include it on its agenda for debate at the council of ministers and then present it to parliament. Once approved, the authorities should make a concerted effort to publicise it.

Everybody must play their part in promoting religious tolerance and publicise examples of peaceful coexistence, particularly in the media.

Religious associations should work toward reducing the divisions between them and promoting greater participation by women and young people. Inter-generational divides risk pushing young people toward more radical and violent ways of expressing themselves than their elders. Women could also make a positive contribution to coexistence and their voices must be heard.

Finally, everybody must play their part in promoting religious tolerance and publicise examples of peaceful coexistence, particularly in the media. Many initiatives exist but they only have limited support and visibility. The government should become more involved and international partners could offer to contribute. A religious leader in Ouahigouya explained, for example, that a weekly radio broadcast to promote peaceful coexistence brings together a priest and an imam but that the latter sometimes finds it hard to cover the cost of the fuel to the radio station. What seem to be small contributions could have a significant impact. Special attention should be paid to initiatives taken by the youth or designed for their benefit and to border zones, especially the Sahel and the northern and western parts of the country.

VI. Conclusion

Burkina Faso’s model of religious coexistence, which draws on a history of civil peace, diversity and tradition, remains robust. Any visitor to Burkina Faso can see that coexistence is a reality and tolerance prevails. Those who highlight the dangers of opening a discussion about these questions and politicising religion have good reasons to do so. Addressing these issues carries risks.

But tensions are beginning to appear and to erode the model of tolerance. This is all the more worrying given the regional and international context and the fact that the government does not seem to be aware that imported ideologies could draw on local frustration. A minority of individuals is enough to cause trouble. In their quest to build a new Burkina after Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule, the authorities must acknowledge the difficulties related to interfaith relations and relations between the government and religious communities. At the same time, it must recognise that addressing these issues is a delicate and risky endeavour. Action is needed now to find a new balance and promote lasting religious coexistence.

Women hold a placard with an inscription "No to intercommunity violents " during a demonstration on 22 June 2019 in front of the Ouagadougou courthouse, Burkina Faso. AFP/Olympia de Maismont
Report 287 / Africa

Burkina Faso: Stopping the Spiral of Violence

La prolifération des groupes armés et l'implantation rapide des jihadistes a conduit, en 2019, à une intensification de la violence au Burkina Faso. Le gouvernement devrait adopter une approche intégrée de la sécurité et mettre fin aux crises du monde rural en résolvant notamment la question foncière.

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What’s new? In Burkina Faso, violence is intensifying as a result of a multifaceted rural crisis. Armed groups are proliferating, including bandits, jihadists and self-defence movements. In 2019, Burkina Faso suffered more jihadist attacks than any other Sahelian country.

Why does it matter? The country is locked in a perilous downward spiral. Jihadists are gaining ground by exploiting rural communities’ frustrations. In turn, the government’s largely military response often entails abuses by security forces and self-defence groups that fuel local, community-based violence that provides a fertile recruiting ground for diverse armed groups.

What should be done? The government should limit both its use of force and the role of self-defence groups in its counter-insurgency efforts, and develop a more integrated approach to security. In the longer term, resolving land disputes that often drive local conflicts is a priority in tackling the crisis in the Burkina countryside.

Executive Summary

In Burkina Faso, violence is escalating amid a governance crisis across rural areas. Jihadists returning from neighbouring Mali, most of whom are Burkinabè, gained a foothold in 2016 by exploiting the frustration and anger of rural communities. Self-defence groups that villagers began forming in 2014 have fuelled local community-based violence, especially since 2019 in the Centre-Nord and Soum regions. The state’s recent call for volunteers to fight militants could amplify this phenomenon. The government’s largely military response, including the use of self-defence groups over which it exercises limited control, has often led to abuses that pushes those targeted into jihadists’ arms. To stop the downward spiral, the authorities should limit the role of vigilantes in counter-insurgency efforts, introduce better checks to guard against abuses and develop an integrated approach to security. In the longer term, resolving land disputes that often underpin rural conflicts is a priority.

The Burkina countryside is undergoing a multifaceted crisis.

The Burkina countryside is undergoing a multifaceted crisis. Following former President Blaise Compaoré’s ouster in October 2014, the state’s already limited capacity to maintain order in rural areas has further weakened. Villagers increasingly distrust elites, both local and urban. The absence of any form of regulation across much of the countryside has led to a rise in banditry and land disputes, as well as the emergence of self-defence groups, notably the Koglweogo (“guardians of the bush” in the local Mossi language).

In this context, Islamist militants have expanded their footprint across rural areas. In 2019, Burkina Faso suffered more jihadist attacks than any other Sahelian country. Militants are a motley crowd of insurgents motivated by local concerns around a small core of ideologues. They include farmers and herders who are victims of land-related injustices or racketeering, bandits who bring experience in weaponry and fighting, gold miners seeking protection, and stigmatised populations. Militants extend their reach notably by exploiting local conflicts that are linked to the multifaceted rural crisis and often involve self-defence groups.

The state’s response thus far has fallen short and even contributed to the deteriorating security environment. The authorities have been too quick to blame the former ruling elites’ supposed manoeuvrings for the crisis and too slow to recognise its endogenous nature and sheer scale. Unprepared to deal with the challenge, they have largely resorted to military force, with some limited support from French troops. Counter-terrorism operations have often generated abuse against civilians and led to the killing rather than arrest of suspects. The authorities have reportedly thwarted several attacks since December 2019, but overall have not curbed the threat. Their response has pushed those who feel unjustly victimised by state violence, particularly within the Fulani ethnic group, to join jihadist groups.

To compensate for the security forces’ shortcomings, particularly in terms of territorial coverage, the Burkina authorities have encouraged the establishment of community-based self-defence groups and, more recently, announced they would recruit “homeland defence volunteers”. Such measures could prove counterproductive if the arming of civilians, which is always difficult to supervise, aggravates local divisions and gives rise to further violence.

The Burkinabè authorities should integrate military action into a more comprehensive approach aimed at addressing the political roots of the crisis.

The attempt to reconcile security and development through the Sahel Emergency Plan (Plan d’urgence Sahel, PUS), launched by the government in 2017 to boost economic and social development in the area, in itself is unlikely to be sufficient or address the political causes of Burkina Faso’s insurgencies. Yet thus far neither the government nor the country’s international partners have offered any alternatives.

The Burkinabè authorities should integrate military action into a more comprehensive approach aimed at addressing the political roots of the crisis. The state could safeguard social cohesion in the countryside, which currently risks being torn apart, by combating the stigmatisation of certain communities, promoting local conflict resolution – including community-based peace making and negotiation with some militants – and by demonstrating the value of its presence.

  • In the short term, the authorities should limit the use of force and the involvement of self-defence groups in counter-insurgency operations. They should ease prison overcrowding and revitalise the penal system. This would rebuild confidence among the security forces in the justice system’s ability to bring suspects to justice and reduce their tendency to kill rather than arrest alleged jihadists. Burkina Faso’s partners should encourage its security forces to strengthen and enforce internal control mechanisms to limit the abuses that play to jihadists’ advantage.
  • In the medium term, the authorities should set up a public body to design and implement a security strategy throughout the country that combines prevention, mitigation and post-crisis stabilisation, with precise measures tailored to each local context. Such a body would balance out the state’s crisis management approach by offering a range of non-military responses which it would coordinate with military action, which remains essential. The body could react quickly and overcome what are often inefficient responses by individual ministries. It should report directly to the president so as to benefit from strong political support. Its director should sit on the National Security Council and coordinate different aspects of the state’s response. International partners should support the creation of such a body.
  • In the longer term, the government should initiate structural reforms to heal rural divides. Notably, it should revise the 2009 Rural Land Law to better reconcile different populations’ interests and ease tensions between so-called indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. It should also review its policy on protected areas, so that it better benefits local communities. Finally, it should review the governance of nomadic areas, particularly with an eye to promoting Fulanis’ social and political inclusion.

Dakar/Brussels, 24 February 2020


Violence has engulfed Burkina Faso in the past four years. Since the first attack claimed by a jihadist group in the country’s western region in October 2015, various armed groups (either jihadist or not) have been responsible for a further 553 acts of violence against civilians and self-defence groups.[fn]“Burkina Faso: trois gendarmes tués lors d’une attaque près de la frontière malienne”, Jeune Afrique, 9 October 2015. The number of attacks on civilians and defence and security forces is escalating rapidly: one in 2015, 38 in 2016, 66 in 2017, 173 in 2018 and 349 in 2019. Data retrieved from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) website on 29 January 2020.Hide Footnote The situation is worsening despite the counter-insurgency efforts of the Burkinabè state and its partners: 66 per cent of the violent incidents took place in 2019.[fn]Data from ACLED’s website.Hide Footnote In October 2017, Crisis Group published its first report on the uprising in northern Burkina Faso, mainly in Soum, in connection with the Malian crisis.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°254, The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, 12 October 2017.Hide Footnote Over the following two years, violence has plagued the Sahel, East and Centre-North regions and is now spreading elsewhere, particularly in the North and the Boucle du Mouhoun regions.[fn]Burkina Faso is divided into thirteen regions, 45 provinces and 351 departments.Hide Footnote

The Burkinabè authorities have tended to underestimate the threat. For many years, they considered the problem to be rooted exclusively in Libya and then Mali. They also claimed that it was abetted by networks close to the country’s ousted president, Blaise Compaoré, who has been exiled in Côte d’Ivoire since 2014. The former ruling clique certainly did act as intermediaries with these jihadist groups, which protected it in return.[fn]Members of Compaoré’s inner circle admit to holding regular discussions with jihadist groups, at least up to the launch of Operation Serval, which killed many of their interlocutors. Crisis Group interview, former adviser to President Compaoré, December 2019. Ibrahim X, a former Al-Mourabitoun militant, also stated that Burkinabè authorities under Compaoré supported his movement. Record of the Malian police interview of Ibrahim X, June 2015, consulted by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote In that period, however, the small jihadist groups specialised in kidnappings, a far cry from today’s rebellions that are spreading across the sub-region. In August 2014, after Compaoré had committed Burkina Faso to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the jihadists began launching attacks on the Burkinabè peacekeeping contingent.[fn]“Deux morts et des blessés parmi les soldats burkinabè de la Minusma suite à une attaque suicide”, press release, army director of communications and public relations, 17 August 2014.Hide Footnote

Faced with outbreaks of violence across an unprecedentedly wide geographical area, the authorities have only just become aware that Burkinabè fighters form the nucleus of jihadist groups, which are therefore an endogenous rather than an external phenomenon.[fn]The state has twice distributed a “list of individuals under investigation for participating in a terrorist plot”. Judging by the places of birth and residence of those listed, most are Burkinabè. Documents consulted by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote The authorities continue to believe, however, that there has been meddling behind the scenes, particularly in the run-up to the 2020 presidential and legislative elections.[fn]The ruling party’s acting president stated in November 2019: “We know some of the names of those who attacked us today. We know that these people lived in our country, in local hotels, and have connections with certain officials. Some come from here but others aren’t from Burkina Faso”. Interview with Simon Compaoré on 3TV, 16 November 2019.Hide Footnote

The jihadist threat is more the consequence of the country’s problems than the cause. This report examines how the multifaceted crisis in Burkina Faso’s rural areas has contributed to the spread of armed conflict. It continues Crisis Group’s series of reports on Burkina Faso and the evolution of jihadist movements in the central Sahel region.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°238, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?, 6 July 2016; and Crisis Group Commentary, “Forced out of Towns in the Sahel, Africa’s Jihadists Go Rural”, 11 January 2017. This crisis was outlined in Crisis Group Report, The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, op. cit.Hide Footnote The analysis is based on interviews conducted between July and October 2019 with government officials, politicians, civil society representatives, members of the security forces and Koglweogo self-defence groups, experts, diplomats and Burkina Faso’s various international partners.

Post-insurgency Challenges for a Weakened State

The Burkinabé state’s authority is under extreme pressure, partly due to the gradual disintegration of the political system put in place by Compaoré (1987-2014). Following the popular uprising that ousted him from power in 2014, a section of the population is challenging – not for the first time – the legitimacy of the country’s elites and its institutions.[fn]Other instances of Burkina Faso’s population rejecting the rulers’ legitimacy include the 1966 uprising against President Maurice Yaméogo and the 1983 Sankarist Revolution.Hide Footnote Although it is perceived as an essentially urban phenomenon, this insurgency has also laid bare internal divisions in rural Burkina, helping jihadist groups gain a foothold in these areas. These groups initially appeared to pose a threat from across the border in Mali, but they have now found a new breeding ground in Burkina Faso.

The 2014 uprising may have brought an end to Compaoré’s rule, but the political class and its methods of governance remain largely unchanged.

The 2014 uprising remains incomplete, according to some.[fn]Bruno Jaffré, L’insurrection inachevée. Burkina Faso 2014 (Paris, 2019).Hide Footnote It may have brought an end to Compaoré’s rule, but the political class and its methods of governance remain largely unchanged. Most of today’s government officials already held their positions under Compaoré, whose semi-authoritarian power structure left little room for opposition. The uprising signalled a strong repudiation of the political elites in Burkina Faso, and those currently in government have failed to dispel this sentiment.[fn]After the journalist Norbert Zongo was killed in December 1998, there have been regular periods of social tension, especially in urban areas. The crisis that hit the country in 2010 and 2011 revealed the discontent among politicians, economic actors and security officials. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°205, Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty, 22 July 2013.Hide Footnote According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO that collects and analyses data about armed conflict, Burkina Faso has seen 442 protests and strikes since November 2015, compared to 244 such incidents between 2000 and 2013.[fn]Data from ACLED’s website.Hide Footnote Public-sector unions in urban areas are constantly active, putting the government under sustained pressure.[fn]Unions have always been politically influential in Burkina Faso, but the current intensity of civil protests and tensions is unprecedented. See Crisis Group Commentary, “Tackling Burkina Faso’s Insurgencies and Unrest”, 28 January 2019.Hide Footnote Although President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was elected with 53 per cent of the vote at the end of 2015, his honeymoon seems to be almost over.[fn]Zéphirin Diabré, the runner-up in the election, received just 29.65 per cent of the vote.Hide Footnote Citizens are increasingly frustrated with the government and official institutions.[fn]In June 2019, trust in government (30 per cent), the National Assembly (30 per cent) and political parties (18 per cent) had fallen compared to June 2018, according to a survey by the Centre for Democratic Governance (Centre pour la gouvernance démocratique, CGD). “Sondage ‘Présimètre’: Ce que les Burkinabè pensent de la gouvernance nationale”, Lefaso.net, 15 June 2019.Hide Footnote

The October 2014 insurgency also had a generational component. The young people who spearheaded the movement still identify themselves as guardians of “the spirit of the insurgency”. This association with the Sankarist tradition gives greater resonance to their protests.[fn]Sankarism revives the spirit of the “democratic and popular revolution” led in 1983 by Thomas Sankara. This movement sought to give power back to the people through participatory democracy. The youth organisations that joined the 2014 uprising include Balai citoyen, Front de résistance citoyenne and Organisation démocratique de la jeunesse. See Sten Hagberg, “Thousands of New Sankaras: Resistance and Struggle in Burkina Faso”, Africa Spectrum, vol. 50, no. 3 (2015).Hide Footnote Although these young people struggle to maintain unity, they no longer accept being excluded from decision-making and apply relentless pressure on the ruling class.

President Compaoré controlled the countryside through a web of personal alliances, enabling him to neutralise threats to his authority and to defuse underlying community-based tensions. Different sectors of the local elite – elected officials and members of the ruling party at the time, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), traditional chiefs, and economic actors – preserved the political status quo by alternately repressing and co-opting dissidents, in direct contact with the central authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures from various regions of the country, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote While it was accompanied by investments in rural infrastructure, this strategy maintained the illusion of social cohesion and rural stability. In March 2012, the exclusion of key government figures (suspected of overshadowing the president’s younger brother) weakened these networks and diminished the state’s capacity to ease tensions in outlying areas.[fn]Salif Diallo, Compaoré’s former minister and adviser, and subsequently president of the National Assembly (2016-2017), maintained a network of influential contacts across Burkina who could help defuse tensions when needed. See Alex Thurston, “Escalating Conflicts in Burkina Faso”, Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung, 25 September 2019. François Compaoré has enjoyed greater political and economic power in the shadow of his brother Blaise, leading to a dispute with Diallo. See “François Compaoré, le ‘petit président’ du Burkina Faso”, Le Monde, 4 December 2017.Hide Footnote

The 2014 uprising undermined this system and further fragmented the state’s presence in rural areas. In November 2014, special delegations replaced the municipal and regional councils that were instrumental in managing land-related issues. The insurgency brought to the surface festering rural discontent with the state and its local representatives (71 per cent of the country’s population live in rural areas). People openly accuse these government representatives and even some traditional and municipal authorities of exploiting their positions, and sometimes colluding in the buying and selling of land.[fn]See Nana Patiende Pascal, “Du groupe à l’individu : dynamique de la gestion foncière en pays gouin (sud-ouest du Burkina Faso)”, Belgeo, no. 2 (2018).Hide Footnote Increasingly sidelined, these important figures who used to control access to land and resolve land disputes at a local and state level are now less able to act as arbiters.[fn]“Enquête au Burkina”, Afrobaromètre, 2017. See also Mathieu Hilgers and Augustin Loada, “Tensions et protestations dans un régime semi-autoritaire : croissance des révoltes populaires et maintien du pouvoir au Burkina Faso”, Politique africaine, no. 131 (2013).Hide Footnote The emergence of the Koglweogo self-defence groups at the same time has further eroded their influence.[fn]See section III. B.Hide Footnote State authority in the countryside is dwindling just as tensions are becoming increasingly violent.[fn]Land disputes accounted for 76 per cent of the conflicts in Burkina Faso on the eve of the 2014 uprising. “Etat des lieux des conflits communautaires au Burkina Faso”, minister of justice, human rights and citizen participation, 2015.Hide Footnote

The government often chooses to ignore that the country’s problems are home-grown.

The government often chooses to ignore that the country’s problems are home-grown. It interprets them in light of the political crisis that boiled over in 2014 but continues to simmer despite the reconciliation process under way. Since 2016, the authorities have blamed the former ruling party, the CDP, for the unrest in the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures from various regions, security sources, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote They accuse previous members of government of sabotaging their efforts in a bid to return to power. The current government also worries about the CDP’s network of well-established elected representatives in the country’s most sensitive areas, including in the West region. It is therefore focusing on a potential political threat whereas the uprisings are mainly caused by seething conflicts in rural areas. The establishment of the National Observatory for Preventing and Resolving Conflicts in 2015 shows that the state is aware of the significance of the rural tensions, which take different forms depending on the region in question.[fn]Decree N°2015­1645 of 28 December 2015, setting up the National Observatory for Preventing and Resolving Conflicts.Hide Footnote

Conflicts in Rural Areas

Tensions were latent in Burkina Faso’s rural areas when the uprising began in 2014. Land disputes have evolved into full-scale conflicts that could escalate into community-based violence.[fn]Seventy per cent of those interviewed in 2015 acknowledged the existence of community-based conflicts in their areas. “Etat des lieux des conflits communautaires au Burkina Faso”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The Koglweogo and other civilian self-defence groups are progressively taking over the state’s law-and-order role outside the towns, upsetting local equilibriums and creating new problems.

Disputes over Access to Land

Competition over land and natural resources in Burkina Faso has escalated to unprecedented levels owing to several factors: population growth that is causing internal migration of farmers; a changing climate that is degrading soils in some parts of the country; in places, poorly planned land development using irrigation; and land speculation.

The privatisation of protected areas and hunting reserves met with resistance in eastern Burkina in the 1990s. There was also widespread opposition to the increasingly restricted access to these lands after the 1997 Forestry Law was passed.[fn]Alexis Kaboré, Brousse des uns, aire protégée des autres (Geneva, 2010). In this sense, community hunting lands (Zones villageoises d’intérêt cynégétiques) are exceptional in Burkina Faso.Hide Footnote This privatisation has sometimes led to the eviction of local communities, or else limited their access to these important spaces.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote This policy has been detrimental to the livelihoods of farmers, herders, fishermen and hunters alike; many hunters have become poachers, and some of all these people have turned to banditry.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society actors based in eastern Burkina, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Jihadist groups have taken advantage of this situation by promising to restore locals’ access to these lands.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

In Burkina’s Sahel, West and Centre-North regions, and to a lesser extent in the eastern part of the country, the increasing migration of farmers has intensified land pressures, especially among the Mossi (Burkina Faso’s main ethnic group) from the Yatenga province (North region) and from the Plateau-Central region. In the early twentieth century, indigenous communities needed labour and were willing to let migrants work their lands, but in recent decades this migration has caused spiralling tensions.[fn]Peter Hochet, La terre, l’étranger et le citoyen : les relations sociales et politiques à propos de la terre dans un village bwa (Paris, 2012).Hide Footnote Indigenous populations question previous agreements when they see land values rise.[fn]“Revue du secteur foncier – Burkina Faso”, World Bank, 2019.Hide Footnote The 2009 Rural Land Law has worsened this situation by undermining these populations’ property rights and by encouraging private land sales.[fn]The Rural Land Law 034-2009/AN was passed in June 2009. This legislation defines the applicable regime for private and state-owned rural land, and enshrines the principles of land security tenure for everyone involved in rural land issues. Crisis Group analyst’s interview in a former capacity, representative of the Confédération paysanne du Faso, Ouagadougou, May 2019.Hide Footnote For example, the law assigns land to migrant farmers who have occupied it continuously for 30 years, prompting some owners to recover their lands. In both rural and urban areas, municipal authorities commit abuses when handling land subdivisions, leading to expropriations that in turn stir up animosity.[fn]The parliamentary commission on urban land issues, established in 2016, has revealed various irregularities in land subdivisions. The government reacted by suspending any further subdivisions until March 2018. “Commission d’enquête parlementaire sur le foncier urbain au Burkina Faso”, executive summary, September 2016. “Revue du secteur foncier – Burkina Faso”, World Bank, 2019.Hide Footnote

Land disputes are creating intercommunal tensions. Indigenous groups complain about the financial and political clout of the new arrivals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures from Boucle du Mouhoun and Karankasso-Vigué, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote And indeed, other communities often give the Mossi privileged access to government and therefore important political leverage.[fn]Neither the Mossi community nor their traditional chefferie represent a homogenous group. Marriages between members of different Burkina communities are also commonplace. Crisis Group interviews, prominent Mossi figures, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote The increasing demographic weight of migrant Mossi communities offers them special influence over the election of mayors, municipal councillors and village chiefs, particularly in many districts of the Centre-North and West regions, where they are relative newcomers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, traditional Mossi chief and prominent figures from various regions, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote In areas where elective offices are instrumental in access to land, the growing influence of non-indigenous people is creating community-based tensions, which have nevertheless remained local for the time being.

Burkinabè pastoralists, meanwhile, are facing major difficulties. Security forces are extorting herders, who are struggling to assert their rights over pastoral lands.[fn]See “Pastoralism and Security in West Africa and the Sahel”, UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, August 2018.Hide Footnote They are particularly affected by the shrinking size of these lands due to agricultural developments and land speculation; by dwindling feed and water supplies; by obstruction of seasonal migration routes; and by the non-application of legislation, in particular the 2020 Pastoral Law.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Before the 2014 crisis, 49 per cent of the conflicts reported in Burkina Faso were between farmers and herders.[fn]“Etat des lieux des conflits communautaires au Burkina Faso”, op. cit.Hide Footnote This situation has spawned a number of self-defence groups. In 2012, the Rouga set up a union of “herder representatives” to protect herds in eastern Burkina.[fn]Crisis Group interview, secretary general of the Rouga’s National Union, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

A woman walks back home to Baraboule, northern Burkina Faso. CRISISGROUP /Sadou Sidibé

In some pastoral zones these conflicts have escalated to a community level since 2015, pitting Fulani herders against sedentary groups. As a result of these tensions, local authorities chased Gourmantché and Mossi farmers away from pastoral lands in Kounkounfouanou (Kabonga commune) in 2015.[fn]“Kounkounfouanou, un village rasé”, Lefaso.net, 6 July 2015.Hide Footnote Their steady return has fuelled resentment among Fulani herders.[fn]Crisis Group interview, representative of eastern herders, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote Similar disputes have arisen around Fada N’Gourma in eastern Burkina, and in Barani in the Boucle du Mouhoun region. They are widening social rifts, particularly in the Sahel, East and Boucle du Mouhoun regions.

Mining has also caused frequent clashes across Burkina Faso, often between miners and local residents.[fn]“Attaque d’une mine d’or turque au Burkina Faso: décryptage d’une cohabitation difficile”, France 24, 15 August 2019.Hide Footnote For many years, Compaoré’s associates controlled artisanal gold mining, which directly or indirectly provides a source of income for around two million people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, actors in the artisanal gold mining sector, Ouagadougou, May 2019.Hide Footnote This sector, which began to disintegrate after 2014, is now attracting new players, even state actors, who covet this resource and some of whom have armed groups at their disposal to seize control of the artisanal mining sites.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°282, Getting a Grip on Central Sahel’s Gold Rush, 13 November 2019.Hide Footnote The Koglweogo self-defence forces in particular are filling the security void left by the state.

The Koglweogo: New Lords of the Bush

Rural areas have become increasingly dangerous over the course of the 2000s throughout Burkina Faso, particularly in the East and Centre-North regions where many cattle rustling gangs and highway robbers are active. Banditry is now so widespread that certain main roads, notably in the eastern region, are no longer used. Some locals claim that they can look after their own security.

Communities responded to the state’s weakness by taking it upon themselves to fight crime by forming a self-defence group called Koglweogo.

The challenge of rural banditry has caught the state off guard. The security forces (the army and gendarmerie) are ill-equipped to deal with the problem, and rampant corruption in the security and judicial sectors has also reduced the effectiveness of law enforcement operations that previously were led by the Presidential Security Regiment (Régiment de la sécurité présidentielle, RSP).[fn]“Shortly after a bandit was arrested, he’d be seen walking free”, a soldier said. Crisis Group interview, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote The 2011 riots also weakened the state’s ability to fight crime.[fn]“Vers une réforme du système de sécurité burkinabé ?”, Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, September 2017.Hide Footnote Aware of these limitations, authorities have encouraged the implementation of community policing strategies since 2003, which evolved into local security initiatives in 2010, tasked with passing on information to police and the gendarmerie.[fn]Decree N°2010-315 of 17 June 2010 on the adoption of a national security strategy 2011-2020. Decree N°2016-1052 modified the types of citizen participation in the implementation of community policing, transforming local security initiatives into local community-based security structures. These exist within the framework set out by local security units established by the same decree.Hide Footnote Red tape, budgetary limitations, and the 2014 popular uprising combined to stall this project, however.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, authorities in charge of community policing prior to 2015, Ouagadougou, May 2017.Hide Footnote The people of Bogandé (East region) protested in March 2014, calling for re-establishment of local security committees as a liaison between the security forces and the population.[fn]In a follow-up to National Security Law N°032-2003 which puts the launch of the community police force on an official footing, Decree N°2005-245 of 12 May 2005 sets up and defines the scope and membership of the local security committees.Hide Footnote

Communities responded to the state’s weakness by taking it upon themselves to fight crime by forming a self-defence group called Koglweogo (“guardians of the bush” in the local Mossi language) in 2014.[fn]Prototypes of the Koglweogo appeared in the Yatenga (North) and Mané (Centre-North) regions in the mid-1990s.Hide Footnote In the villages, these vigilante groups do not constitute a unified movement but exist alongside local structures. The authority held by the national leader and founder of the first Koglweogo group in Kombissiri (Centre-South region) remains limited.[fn]The first Koglweogo was set up in Rassam Kandé (Kombissiri) by the village’s traditional leader. See Tanguy Quidelleur, “Sécurité, Etat et recompositions sociopolitiques en Afrique de l’Ouest : l’exemple des groupes d’autodéfense Koglweogo au Burkina Faso”, master’s thesis, Université de Paris Nanterre, 2017.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, close ties exist between these structures that are expanding through a system of patronage between neighbouring villages. They have now spread across the Centre, Plateau-Central, Centre-North, Centre-East and East regions, with the support of traditional local authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, journalist specialising in the Koglweogo, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote According to some estimates, Burkina Faso had 4,500 Koglweogo groups in 2018, with a total membership of around 45,000.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, police commissioner, Ougadougou, 2018; Koglweogo leader, Saaba, 2018.Hide Footnote The Koglweogo, who are generally armed with hunting rifles, have gained the support of most local people by restoring security.[fn]“Rapport d’enquête sur la sécurité pilotée par les communautés au Burkina Faso : les Koglweogo”, Action pour la sécurité humaine en Afrique, October 2018. Since April 2016, particularly in the East region, the Koglweogo have arrested several bandits. Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures from various regions and Koglweogo, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Their brutal punishments of suspected criminals often meet with indifference or even approval from a population keen to find effective forms of mob justice.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist and Koglweogo specialists, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

These former “guardians” have become “lords of the bush”.

Emboldened by this popular legitimacy, the Koglweogo are progressively assuming new prerogatives, even encroaching on the state’s traditional control of taxation, justice, policing and army operations. They preside over trials, levy taxes and impose fines. These former “guardians” have become “lords of the bush”. While some traditional authorities are happy to endorse and profit from them, others are forced to deal with them.

Depending on the location, the vigilantes’ relationship with the state fluctuates between collaboration and autonomy. Collaboration has been close in several regions, particularly in eastern Burkina, in order to shore up the 2014-2015 transition, including from an electoral perspective.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In Boulsa (Centre-North), the Koglweogo group’s autonomy perhaps explains the arrest of its leader in December 2019.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, civil society actor in Kaya, December 2019.Hide Footnote State authorities have also called on them to confront the Dozo – a brotherhood of some 5,000 hunters that plays a similar self-defence role, especially in western Burkina – suspected of maintaining ties with the former president, Compaoré.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, civil society actor in Kaya, December 2019.Hide Footnote

By indebting itself to the Koglweogo, the state is effectively giving these groups free rein. Authorities have not enforced a 2016 decree designed to regulate their activities due to lack of resources and resolve.[fn]Decree 2016-1052 of 5 October 2016 defines the types of civilian participation in the implementation of community policing.Hide Footnote The government struggles to oppose these groups directly since they enjoy widespread support in the ruling party’s electoral strongholds. The Koglweogo, with popular backing, has used violence on the rare occasions when arrests have affected its interests. In 2018, they surrounded the courthouse in Kaya to secure a member’s release.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local elected figure from Kaya, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Bandits and self-defence groups are two faces of the same security crisis in many rural parts of the country.

The “community” aspect of Koglweogo groups also stirs up tensions among communities suffering from the rural crisis. The Koglweogo mainly recruit members from the Mossi, the community that represents almost 50 per cent of the population.[fn]See “Sécurité, Etat et recompositions sociopolitiques en Afrique de l’Ouest : l’exemple des groupes d’autodéfense Koglweogo au Burkina Faso”, op. cit.Hide Footnote In the East region, their ranks are usually filled with Gourmantché, the majority group in that area of Burkina Faso.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures from various regions and Koglweogo, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Some communities, especially in the West region, see this development as the armed front of what they call “Mossi expansionism”.[fn]This formula refers less to an objective reality than a fairly widespread local feeling. It is important that certain kinds of injustice, whether they actually exist or not, are perceived to exist. Ibid.Hide Footnote In the Hauts-Bassins region, for example, the Mossi’s attempts since 2015 to set up Koglweogo groups have provoked fierce resistance from the Dozo, and occasional clashes such as in Solenzo and Karankasso-Vigué.[fn]Sten Hagberg, “Performing Tradition While Doing Politics: A Comparative Study of the Dozo and Koglweogo Self-defence in Burkina Faso”, African Studies Review, vol. 62, no. 1 (2019).Hide Footnote In the Sahel and Centre-North regions, the arrival of the Koglweogo phenomenon has exacerbated community-based violence.[fn]See Appendix D.Hide Footnote

Bandits and self-defence groups are two faces of the same security crisis in many rural parts of the country. Although the Koglweogo may fight crime effectively, they are also symptomatic of a fundamental lack of rule of law in rural Burkina Faso. Some Koglweogo members are even reformed bandits.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist and Koglweogo specialists, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Recently, jihadist groups have emerged as new “lords of the bush”.

Jihadism in Burkina: A Endogenous Phenomenon

Burkina Faso has become the main theatre for jihadist operations in the Sahel. Some members of government remain convinced that the former ruling elite has had a hand in creating this situation. But even were this claim to hold some truth, the principal cause of the crisis is to be found elsewhere. Jihadist groups have exploited the multifaceted crisis of rural Burkina in order to expand their presence. A fractured countryside has allowed them to recruit fighters from among the victims of land disputes and highway banditry.

Jihadist Groups in Burkina Faso

Long spared jihadist attacks, Burkina Faso now finds itself in the crosshairs, especially since October 2015.[fn]To understand why Burkina Faso was spared jihadist violence for so many years, see Crisis Group Report, The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, op. cit. Jihadism existed in Burkina Faso’s more distant past. As in other parts of the Sahel and West Africa, many jihadist attacks took place in the nineteenth century in Fulani and Marka communities. See H. Diallo and A. Degorce, “La notion de Jihad en contexte”, in A. Degorce, L. Kibora and K. Langewiesche, Rencontres religieuses et dynamiques sociales au Burkina Faso (Dakar, 2019).Hide Footnote Although most activities have been concentrated in Soum since the Nassoumbou attack, which killed twelve soldiers in December 2016, other areas have also been affected: the East, Boucle du Mouhoun, North and Centre-North regions, and the capital Ouagadougou, have all been hit.[fn]On the attack in Nassoumbou, see “Burkina : douze militaires tués dans une attaque dans le nord du pays”, Jeune Afrique, 16 December 2016.Hide Footnote Jihadists seem to be enlarging their networks, and the growing number of insurgencies has added to the sense that Burkina’s capital is under siege.

Three jihadist groups have been active in Burkinabè territory since 2015-2016: the local group, Ansarul Islam, and two groups from Mali, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, ISWAP) and the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM).

Originally founded as an autonomous Burkinabè movement in late 2016, Ansarul Islam later merged with JNIM, a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and mainly operating in central and northern Mali. Ansarul Islam is active in Soum and the western part of the Centre-North region (the Bam province and the western part of the Sanmatenga province). In 2017, the movement was weakened by the disappearance of the movement’s leader, Malam Dicko.[fn]Malam Dicko was killed during Operation Bayard, led jointly by the Burkinabè armed forces and the French forces composing Operation Barkhane in the north, in April 2017. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, notable Soum figures, public security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Malam’s brother Jafar Dicko took over control, but one wing of the movement objected to his autocratic leadership style.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, notable Soum figures, public security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote In October 2019, messages began to spread on social media networks claiming he had been killed, though many local sources still deny these reports.[fn]Crisis Group email interviews, civil society actors in Soum, October 2019 and January 2020.Hide Footnote The group seems to have become a “unit” (markaz) of the brigades (katiba) operating in central Mali: the Katiba Serma from 2017 to 2018, and mainly the Katiba Macina led by Hamadoun Kouffa.[fn]On this subject, see Crisis Group Report, The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, op. cit. The Katiba Serma group – a name used by some observers more than the group’s members themselves, called after a forest in the Malian Gourma – was led by an Imghad Touareg, Al-Mansour Ag Alkassim, who was killed in late 2018 by Barkhane forces. The group now appears weakened.Hide Footnote JNIM now claims responsibility for Ansarul Islam’s attacks.

JNIM has not only recruited Ansarul Islam fighters active in the Soum region, but it has also been operating in western Burkina since 2016. In 2018, the jihadists opened a second front in eastern Burkina,[fn]Before 2018, Malam Dicko’s emissaries were active in the East and the first cells identified in 2018 relayed Hamadoun Kouffa’s sermons. Crisis Group interview, civil society actor based in the East, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote where the group has claimed responsibility for several attacks, and until recently it seems to have been more active than ISWAP in that area. It is confirmed or highly probable that the groups currently comprising JNIM – Ansar Eddine, Al-Mourabitoun and AQIM – were responsible for the Samorogouan (October 2015), Ouagadougou (January 2016) and Nassoumbou (December 2016) attacks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote JNIM has influence in this area due to the presence of a group of Burkinabè fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and from Ansar Eddine in AQIM units in Mali since 2012.[fn]One of the main jihadist leaders operating in the east, Oumarou Diallo, fought for JNIM in Mali before 2018. Crisis Group interview, security source, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Along with the Ansarul Islam units based in Soum, they have been the driving force of the group’s expansion in eastern Burkina.

In Burkina and the wider Sahel region, JNIM and ISWAP are joining forces against France and its allies.

ISWAP is active over a larger geographical area of Burkina Faso than JNIM.[fn]Previously called Islamic State in the Grand Sahara, this local branch that rallied to the cause of the Islamic State has been acknowledged as an integral part of ISWAP since 2019 by the organisation’s central branch. It appears, however, that although the ISWAP branch located around the Lake Chad basin is closely connected to the one in central Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, western Niger), it has a separate chain of command.Hide Footnote Its base of operations was initially in the Oudalan province (in Burkina’s northern Sahel region), bordering the Ansongo cercle in Mali, an area already under the movement’s influence. This area was the site of its first attack in Burkina Faso, when, in September 2016, it targeted a customs post in Markoye.[fn]“L’organisation État islamique revendique sa première attaque en Afrique”, Alakhbar.info, 3 September 2016.Hide Footnote It has gradually expanded its activities in the eastern part of the Soum region and in two provinces of the Centre-North region, Namentenga, and eastern Sanmatenga. At the same time, in the Sahel region, it has also established a presence in the south of Oudalan, the north of the Seno province and the north east of the Yagha province. ISWAP fighters have also gained a foothold in eastern Burkina, forming sleeper cells in 2016 that mobilised two years later.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources based in the East, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote

In Burkina and the wider Sahel region, JNIM and ISWAP are joining forces against France (whose soldiers they dub “crusaders”) and its allies.[fn]JNIM and ISWAP began to team up in early 2017 when the G5 Sahel Joint Force was set up. Crisis Group interview, Malian security source, Bamako, June 2018.Hide Footnote In some areas where both groups have a presence, such as in eastern Soum and Burkina’s East region, they work together closely. For example, Ansarul Islam is thought to have provided logistical support for the Koutougou attack of 19 August, which was claimed by ISWAP.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, security sources, August 2019.Hide Footnote

The two organisations also differ in some ways, particularly with regard to civilians and religious minorities. All the attacks on Christian places of worship have taken place in areas under ISWAP’s control; Hamadoun Kouffa, by contrast, has never authorised such attacks.[fn]Crisis Group email interviews, Mopti humanitarian actors, July 2019.Hide Footnote With a few exceptions, ISWAP’s local branch has also been blamed for the jihadist attacks on Burkina Faso’s civilian population, which began to intensify in late 2019.[fn]See “Burkina Faso: Armed Islamist Atrocities Surge”, Human Rights Watch, 6 January 2020.Hide Footnote JNIM remains opposed to targeting civilians, apart from prominent figures who speak out against them and army informers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Soum humanitarian worker, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Rivalries also exist despite this cooperation, as shown by the defection of fighters from one group to the other. In early 2019, a band of about twenty Ansarul Islam fighters stated their allegiance to the Islamic State.[fn]More recently, a unit commander of Ansarul Islam and many of his relatives joined ISWAP after condemning the kidnapping of a prominent Fulani suspected of colluding with the Malian army in Boulikessi, Mali. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers in Soum, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Relations between the two groups could also sour due to the increasing tensions and occasional clashes between JNIM and ISWAP in Mali since late 2019.

Although the jihadist groups mainly recruit their fighters locally, they maintain close ties to parts of Mali that lay beyond the state’s reach.

Although the jihadist groups mainly recruit their fighters locally, they maintain close ties to parts of Mali that lay beyond the state’s reach.[fn]The Malian territory is also a safe zone for Burkinabè units that have taken hostages in Burkina Faso. Crisis Group interviews, Malian and Nigerien security sources, Niamey and Bamako, 2019.Hide Footnote Ansarul Islam has support bases in Mali’s Gourma region, while local ISWAP units depend on their main bases along the route between Soum and Mali’s Gourma region. The Katiba Macina and Katiba Serma groups support Ansarul Islam financially as well as operationally by providing manpower and logistical expertise, especially in the use of weapons. In 2019, Ansarul Islam reportedly sent several fighters to Mopti (Mali) for training exercises in a flooded area.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker based in Soum, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote ISWAP’s Burkinabè units appear less dependent on their parent organisation, which encourages autonomy.[fn]ISWAP therefore applies a more flexible form of Islamic law in the funding of the Katiba. Crisis Group interview, civil society actors based in Soum, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

A Breeding Ground for Jihadism

Religious fervour is not the motivation for most fighters and unit commanders, who are usually Burkinabè and have other priorities. Jihadist groups have used the state’s weakness to their advantage and exploited rural tensions to establish themselves in Burkina Faso. Most jihadist fighters and commanders are Burkinabè with a set of mainly local interests. A handful of local ideologues are influential; preachers from the areas in question (such as Malam and Jafar Dicko in Soum) often give sermons that launch new jihadist activities. But jihadist fighters and commanders in Burkina are local, and they generally lack religious instruction, as in the case of Adama Garibou, an ISWAP officer who probably was killed during an attack in August 2019.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, humanitarian worker in Soum, August 2019.Hide Footnote

For their recruitment drives, jihadists exploit injustices frequently linked to land disputes and coupled with political and community-based issues.

For their recruitment drives, jihadists exploit injustices frequently linked to land disputes and coupled with political and community-based issues. Certain situations are conducive to the enlistment of individuals or entire groups; new recruits have no “typical” profile but may be civilians struggling to assert their rights over land, gold miners facing restricted access to mines, or bandits seeking more powerful allies. In the village of Béléhédé (in the Soum commune of Tongomayel), the development of lands as part of a rice-growing project has been attracting Mossi and Fulsé migrants since 2013. Several dozen Fulanis have had their lands expropriated with no compensation. Financially powerful non-indigenous (mainly Fulsé) migrants have questioned the authority of Tongomayel’s Fulani emir and appointed their own village leaders instead.[fn]The Fulsé, also known as Kurumba, are an essentially agrarian Burkina community.Hide Footnote As early as 2016, jihadist groups have taken advantage of the Fulanis’ financial and socio-political grievances to start recruiting from within their communities and particularly by approaching expropriated individuals.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Béléhédé political actor, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Jihadists also recruit elsewhere. The supposed predominance of Fulani jihadists is less a reflection of this community’s support for global jihad than of the particular exposure of Fulani herders and landowners to injustices and their relative under-representation in state institutions, starting from their presence in public education. But Ansar Eddine’s Khalid Ben Walid Katiba, which led the first attack in Burkina, was led by Mossis and a Malinké. Ansarul Islam made its first incursions into the Centre-North region with Mossi support: in 2016, in Pissila (a province of Sanmatenga), the jihadist movement benefited from the support of a Mossi group involved in a land dispute with the authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Béléhédé political actor, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote In eastern Burkina, jihadist preachers have targeted their sermons at different communities (mainly Gourmantché and Fulani) deprived of access to water, gold deposits, pastures, hunting and fishing grounds.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader in the Centre-North region, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Jihadists also recruit from groups familiar with handling weapons. In Burkina Faso, a country that has seen no rebellions, these people include former soldiers, whether discharged or deserters, and highway robbers. Bandits are increasingly enlisting as jihadists in Burkina and, to various degrees, throughout the Sahel. Some join out of conviction, but many are simply seeking revenge on the state and self-defence groups.[fn]In the 2000s, the Burkinabè military’s operations to combat banditry led to abuses that have fuelled resentments. The Burkinabè Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (Mouvement burkinabè des droits de l’Homme et des peuples) expressed its outrage in a press release, issued in 2002 about the collateral damages of its operations on civil populations. “Polémique sur des exécutions extrajudiciaires”, RFI, 6 February 2002.Hide Footnote Jihadists are keen to tap into the know-how of these groups that were routed by the Koglweogo in 2015 and 2016. In Burkina Faso’s eastern region, many robbers from Bogandé – a hotbed of banditry – have been identified among the jihadist fighters, and one of them, a Gourmantché, was a unit commander.[fn]Crisis Group email interviews, security sources in the east, March 2019.Hide Footnote But cooperation between these two types of fighter is not always smooth; they do not have the same agenda or the same sense of discipline.[fn]Bandits are one of the jihadists’ four targets, along with infidels, apostates and rebels. M. T. Urvoy, “Guerre et paix”, in M.A. Amir-Moezzi (ed.), Dictionnaire du Coran (Paris, 2007), pp. 372-377.Hide Footnote

Jihadists: Linking Global and Local Agendas

In 2016, Malian jihadists made an incursion into Burkinabè territory to challenge the French military and to search for new fallback locations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security and humanitarian organisation sources, Ouagadougou and Bamako, 2017-2019.Hide Footnote Their ambitions have since grown: Burkina Faso has become a theatre of combat where the aim is to expel government forces from rural areas and to impose Islamic law.[fn]See the press release claiming responsibility for the Nassoumbou and Baraboulé attacks, JNIM, 16 September 2019.Hide Footnote This ambition is not necessarily shared by fighters and supporters, however, most of whom are more interested in local issues.

Jihadist leaders in Burkina Faso seek to articulate local grievances with reference to their movement’s global agenda – the imposition of their version of Islam as the sole source of law and governing authority. Jihadist sermons connect the protests against local injustices to religious precepts.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, op. cit.Hide Footnote Religious leaders from a given group maintain links between local cells and leaders, ensuring that they obey the movement’s rules (particularly with regard to their application of Islamic law and their attitude toward the civilian population). That said, they are willing to relax their discipline in order to accommodate those who join their ranks for more prosaic reasons.[fn]This pragmatism can also be observed in central Mali. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°276, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The autonomy enjoyed by Burkina Faso’s jihadist groups gives room for the fighters to satisfy their local (or even personal) interests.[fn]This general autonomy is enjoyed globally by both the JNIM and ISWAP, but it is particularly relevant in Burkina Faso where these groups have limited means of controlling their units’ activities.Hide Footnote These groups are free to pick their fights, provided that they do not directly contravene the jihad’s global principles. Ultimately, they remain under the command of leaders mainly based in Mali when needed for larger-scale operations. This autonomy seems more firmly ingrained in ISWAP than in JNIM. ISWAP’s unit commanders sometimes launch attacks for personal motives of revenge or profit, although these reasons overlap with the jihadist leaders’ aim of expanding their territory. For example, violence targeting Fulsé civilians and elected representatives in Arbinda followed the killing of Gaskindé’s Fulani leader, the nephew of ISWAP’s top commander in Burkina Faso. The desire for revenge complemented the organisation’s intention of expanding its operations in eastern Soum.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian and security sources from Soum, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

This same autonomy can also prove troublesome for certain jihadist groups since it can provoke violent clashes between communities. On one hand, by allowing their fighters to become involved in these conflicts, jihadists (from ISWAP in particular) satisfy the ambitions of a section of their membership – in this case mainly consisting of Fulanis – who are keen to protect and/or seek revenge on behalf of their community. On the other, by supporting a local group, jihadists are encouraging fitna (tribal divisions) and compromising their project of unifying the community of Muslim believers.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, specialist in jihadist groups, July 2019.Hide Footnote Internal disagreements exist over the right path to take. To date, JNIM has been reticent to exploit community-based tensions, unlike ISWAP.[fn]“Les violences armées au Sahara : du djihadisme aux insurrections ?”, Institut français des relations internationales, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Seen in this context, a primarily military response fails to address the root causes of the problem.

Jihadism could continue to spread in Burkina and create new trouble-spots in the country, perhaps even opening up a corridor to West Africa’s coastal nations.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°149, The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa, 20 December 2019.Hide Footnote The jihadists’ ability to establish a presence in Burkina can be explained by various factors that are common to different parts of the country: land disputes, competition over mining, rural banditry, and even the increasing stigmatisation of communities supposedly with close ties to the jihadists, like Fulani herders.[fn]The Fulani community is targeted in several regions around the country. For instance, the killing in the Centre-East region on 23 February 2019 of three Fulani civilians by the Koglweogo in Bittou (a Sawenga village) is likely to give rise to frustrations that could prepare the ground for jihadists to develop a presence there.Hide Footnote Armed groups are highly mobile and can, when required, withdraw to areas beyond the reach of the military.[fn]In the Centre-South, three security incidents in July and August 2019 (one targeting two park rangers in Ponasi, the other two involving attacks on the gendarmerie in Pô) show that poorly identified armed groups are active in this area.Hide Footnote Land and community conflicts in the country’s West region are particularly worrying. Clashes between the Fulani and Dozo threaten to intensify and to expose parts of the Boucle du Mouhoun region to outbreaks of community-based violence.[fn]These confrontations are not only imported from Mali, but they are also motivated by land disputes, particularly in the area around the Barani pastoral reserve.Hide Footnote More isolated incidents erupting elsewhere, particularly in the South-West region, point to the jihadists’ aim of expanding their presence beyond the country’s northern areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher specialising in the South-Ouest region, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Far from representing a global jihad guided by a religious agenda, jihadist groups in Burkina above all consist of Burkinabè insurgents, and the reason for the shift toward violence has local origins. Seen in this context, a primarily military response fails to address the root causes of the problem.

Insufficient and Counterproductive State Responses

Burkinabè authorities have thus far been unable to limit the spread of jihadist groups, despite some notable successes recorded since the end of 2019, including the repelled attacks in Arbinda on 24 December and in Inata on 3 January 2020.[fn]“Attaque au Burkina : 7 soldats, 35 civils, et 80 terroristes tués”, Le Figaro, 25 December 2019; “Une attaque repoussée à Inata”, Burkina 24, 3 January 2020.Hide Footnote While the responses are largely military, the armed forces are ill-prepared for an unprecedented asymmetric threat. Until August 2014, the Compaoré government appeared to be protected by its relations with jihadist groups, whose capacities were then much more limited.[fn]The former power played an intermediary role with these jihadist groups, which spared it in return. On several occasions, AQIM and JNIM have expressed nostalgia for the time of Compaoré. According to a press release from JNIM on 5 September: “Burkina Faso would have stayed away from and avoided this war had it not been for the government of the coup supported by France”. This alliance may well have faced challenges since 2013-2014, however. Burkina Faso made its commitment to MINUSMA under Compaoré, and the Burkinabè contingent was attacked for the first time in August 2014. “Two dead and more wounded among MINUSMA’s Burkinabè soldiers following a suicide attack”, press release from the armed forces communications and public relations director, 17 August 2014.Hide Footnote The upheavals experienced by the armed forces during the 2014-2015 transition have limited their ability to adapt. Faced with these difficulties, it is highly tempting to turn to non-state armed groups, whether the Koglweogo or other volunteers.

The Shortcomings of the Security Apparatus

The defence and security forces’ lack of human and material resources is an obstacle in the fight against insurgency. Examples include the lack of special units trained in asymmetric conflicts and the weakness of air assets. The security network is frail: Burkinabè forces are completely absent from 30 per cent of the territory and unevenly distributed over another third (with only the army or gendarmerie present); only 18 per cent of the forces are on the “front line” (exposed to combat situations).[fn]This data comes from a report funded by the Belgian Development Cooperation as part of a EU project for the benefit of the Ministry of Security. Crisis Group interview, European aid worker, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Jihadist groups were able to establish themselves quickly in the east of the country in particular, because this sparsely populated region had the lowest coverage rate by defence and security forces until 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security sources, Ouagadougou, March 2019.Hide Footnote

Burkinabè forces are also experiencing internal fractures and weaknesses with deep-rooted origins. Compaoré confined the army and the gendarmerie to secondary roles by limiting their equipment for the benefit of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP), a praetorian guard reporting to the presidency.[fn]“Burkina : RSP, garde à vous !”, Jeune Afrique, 18 June 2015.Hide Footnote This trend was accentuated after army and police mutinies in 2011. Heavy and sophisticated weapons were transported to the RSP headquarters, gunpowder magazines were emptied, and a large part of the army was deprived of ammunition and training from the second half of 2011.[fn]“Vers une réforme du système de sécurité burkinabé ?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The mutinies signalled a deep fracture between senior officers and the troops amid accusations of corruption and favouritism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty, op. cit. The national police had similar problems. In 2017, after policemen demonstrated denouncing the opacity of “paid private services” to companies, an internal investigation uncovered systemic corruption in the national police. “Services payés de la police nationale : un rapport accablant”, L’Economiste du Faso, 29 May 2017.Hide Footnote

The Former National Assembly, which was set on fire during the insurrections of October 2014. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The 2014 insurgency and its aftermath heightened distrust between politicians and men in uniform, further weakening the security apparatus. After the fall of Compaoré and the coup in September 2015, the government dissolved the RSP, which greatly reduced the country’s military capabilities.[fn]“Burkina Faso government disbands elite unit behind coup”, Reuters, 25 September 2015.Hide Footnote With its 1,300 men, this unit accounted for almost 10 per cent of the military; it constituted an elite body and above all the core of an extremely efficient intelligence service, relying not on an institution but on Compaoré’s right-hand man, Gilbert Diendéré.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote After the mutinies of 2011, senior officers had already been arrested or dismissed and 566 members of the security apparatus had been fired. Today, the Burkinabè army lacks both seasoned soldiers and officers who can occupy intermediate positions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, internal security attaché of a diplomatic office, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

For the new government, rebuilding an intelligence architecture on the rubble of the RSP constitutes a major challenge. The National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale du renseignement, ANR) was created in 2015 but faces several obstacles, including rivalries between services and longstanding antagonisms between the police and gendarmerie.[fn]The army is said to share little information with an agency headed by a gendarme. Ibid.Hide Footnote The apparatus under construction is struggling to gather intelligence.[fn]Several Burkinabè political and military officials have deplored the lack of intelligence support from partners, starting with France. Crisis Group interviews, political and military actors, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Human intelligence remains fallible, often reflecting the bias of local informers, and is actually declining as informants are executed by jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, actors from security and civil spheres, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Burkinabè forces also tend to consider any individual in contact with jihadists their accomplice, since they are unable to determine their level of involvement.[fn]For the authorities, a jihadist is any individual in contact (including by telephone) with an alleged jihadist, if only to sell him food, or anyone refusing to collaborate with the defence and security forces. Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Reconstructing a full network of reliable informants will take years, and to analyse intelligence, a young generation of experts will have to be trained for a new kind of threat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Burkinabè intelligence officer, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

The 2014-2015 transition sparked ongoing rivalries between the gendarmes and the military. The gendarmes occupy strategic positions around Kaboré; the commander of the Special Intervention Unit of the National Gendarmerie (USIGN) is said to have the president’s ear, and the ANR director is one of his childhood friends. Conversely, the president seems wary of an army that he wishes to “depoliticise”.[fn]“Le Burkina veut dépolitiser son armée”, AFP, 5 February 2016.Hide Footnote He proscribed the appointment of military personnel to the rank of minister, including for the defence portfolio.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ministry of Defence official, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote Since 2015, rumours of a coup have been circulating, leading to the arrest of the former minister of security and pillar of the transition, Colonel Auguste Denise Barry, a figure close to former Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, who was second in command of the RSP under Compaoré and is currently in exile in Canada.[fn]“Burkina Faso : qui est le colonel Barry, le bras droit de Zida ?”, Jeune Afrique, 9 December 2014.Hide Footnote The army’s discontent is all the stronger since gendarmerie units are the ones entrusted with fighting terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security officials, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

There appears to be a real risk of mutiny or even a coup.

In this context, there appears to be a real risk of mutiny or even a coup. Many soldiers deployed against jihadist groups reportedly challenge the way operations are conducted and denounce the lack of support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomatic sources, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Discouraged and deprived of resources, they claim that they are increasingly less mobile and reduced to a defensive position.[fn]Ibid. “C’est l’abattoir: face aux attaques terroristes, la colère monte chez les militaires burkinabés”, Le Monde, 2 October 2019.Hide Footnote The counter-terrorism strategy relies on recently created special units, mainly from the gendarmerie, deployed from Ouagadougou for special operations that rarely involve the conventional forces already present on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Burkinabè intelligence services are closely monitoring the rumours of unrest within the barracks, to the detriment of their other responsibilities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international NGO officials and former senior official, Ouagadougou, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Between December 2018 and February 2019, President Kaboré carried out a major reshuffle of the military hierarchy, in the hope of preserving calm within the units and generating new anti-terrorist momentum. He also replaced the ministers of defence and security.[fn]“Roch, acte II : un remaniement avec la présidentielle en ligne de mire”, Jeune Afrique, 6 February 2019.Hide Footnote But this reorganisation did not have the desired effect, and the shifts in mood have persisted. In August 2019, after the attack on Koutougou, the deadliest since 2016, the regiment in charge of the Koutougou detachment blocked access to Camp Guillaume, where the regiment that manages the Koutougou detachment is stationed.[fn]“La colère de certains militaires après l’attaque de Koutougou”, RFI, 24 August 2019. The attack on Koutougou resulted in the death of at least 24 soldiers.Hide Footnote A month later, soldiers from a Dédougou regiment succeeded in replacing their commanding officer, accusing him of “being in contact” with jihadists; it appears that an internal investigation has since cleared him.[fn]“23ème RIC : Les non-dits du limogeage du chef de corps”, L’évènement, 10 October 2019.Hide Footnote Such incidents may well escalate if defence and security forces continue to suffer major setbacks. Nevertheless, these grievances were quieted, at least temporarily, by the successes recorded by the forces since December 2019.[fn]Several recent attacks have been repelled, including in Arbinda, Inata, Pissila and Barani.Hide Footnote

A Disproportionate Use of Force

Since the end of 2018, a rise in insecurity has led authorities to intensify their military response. This impetus was the appointment in January 2019 of the new defence minister, Chérif Sy, a figure known for his intransigence.[fn]The son of General Baba Sy, Chérif Sy is a journalist by profession. He was president of the National Transitional Council in 2015 before becoming high representative of the head of state in 2017.Hide Footnote Special gendarmerie units and conventional military forces have carried out larger operations than before.[fn]The special gendarmerie units (mainly the USIGN and the mobile gendarmerie squadron) have been at the forefront of the anti-terrorist response since President Kaboré came to power. The mobile squadron, sometimes referred to as “death squad” due to its participation in operations which allegedly targeted civilians, remains an obscure unit. According to its critics, it has no legal existence since no decree was issued to create it. Crisis Group interviews, security sources, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote In parallel, the army – deemed a barracks-based army and not deployed in major operations since the brief war with Mali in December 1985 – conducted two large-scale operations in the East and Sahel regions (Operation Otapuanu and Operation Ndofu respectively) between March and May 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former soldier, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

These military interventions have produced few results. In the East region, Operation Otapuanu repelled and somewhat disrupted jihadist groups. Since September 2019, the long-term deployment of nearly 2,000 men has maintained order in a precarious balance.[fn]The army benefited from the return of a 850-man battalion deployed in Mali as part of MINUSMA. Crisis Group interview, secretary general of the Ministry of Defence, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote While the number of large-scale attacks decreased in the region after the end of the operation in April, targeted assassinations, kidnappings and harassment of the population have persisted: between May and November 2019, more than 80 criminal acts were recorded.[fn]Survey carried out by a humanitarian worker in Burkina Faso and consulted by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote On 6 November, the attack in Boungou on an escorted convoy belonging to Semafo, a Canadian mining company, demonstrated that jihadist groups are still able to carry out ambitious attacks in rural areas. Far from being an isolated incident, it reflects renewed jihadist activity in the region.[fn]Crisis Group email interviews, humanitarian worker and local elected officials based in the East region, November 2019.Hide Footnote

Elsewhere, particularly in the Sahel region, military operations have not reduced the threat and may even have aggravated the situation. In the first eight months of 2019, 416 violent incidents were recorded in the region, causing 927 deaths, compared to 330 violent events in which 287 were killed from 2016 to 2018.[fn]Data from the ACLED database.Hide Footnote Since early 2019, Burkinabè armed forces have allegedly carried out summary executions of individuals suspected of cooperating with jihadists in several localities, notably in Kain and Banh, Titao and Barani.[fn]For Kain, see “Que s’est-il passé à Kain-Ouro et environnants le 4 février 2019 ?”, Burkinabè Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (MBDHP), March 2019. For Titao, see “Memento sur les exécutions sommaires du 12 mai dans la province du Lorum, région du Nord”, Kisal, 15 May 2019. For Barani, Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures from the Boucle du Mouhoun, Ouagadougou, July 2019. “‘We found their bodies later that day’: Atrocities by armed islamists and security forces in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region”, Human Rights Watch, March 2019Hide Footnote Human rights organisations estimate that at least 200 people have been victims of such executions, and question their links with jihadist groups.[fn]Civil society organisations that investigated the above-mentioned cases, such as the MBDHP, the Collective against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities, Kisal and Human Rights Watch doubt the real involvement of civilians in jihadism. Crisis Group interviews, civil society leaders, 2019.Hide Footnote In March and April 2019, two other military operations at artisanal gold sites in Tchiembolo and Filio, near Inata, reportedly resulted in dozens of deaths.[fn]Estimates of the number of deaths vary between 40 and 200. Crisis Group interviews, inhabitants of Soum Province, Ouagadougou, July 2019. The authorities have not communicated on this matter and several Burkinabè officials say they are unaware of these events or have knowledge of them but cannot confirm them. Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè officials, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Other summary executions are said to have taken place in the East region, in the Boucle du Mouhoun or in the North, and, at the end of 2019, in several localities in Soum.[fn]“Dans le nord du Burkina Faso, les exactions de l’armée contrarient la lutte antiterroriste”, Le Monde, 12 May 2018. Crisis Group email interviews, humanitarian workers and civil society actors in Soum, 8 January 2020.Hide Footnote Western chanceries are concerned about this phenomenon.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Extrajudicial executions are doubly counterproductive. Authorities lose out on intelligence, feeding the resentment of their relatives.

Authorities recognise that civilians may have been collateral victims of military operations, but formally contest the extent of the abuses denounced by human rights organisations.[fn]In an interview, the defence minister criticised these organisations. “I question France’s motives”, Mail and Guardian, 4 June 2019. Several Burkinabè military officials met by Crisis Group reflect this view. The army chief of staff publicly acknowledged these blunders in the context of Operation Otapuanu. See “Opération Otapuanu : plusieurs présumés terroristes neutralisés, une centaine interpellée”, Sidwaya, 14 April 2019.Hide Footnote They specify that all operations stem from precise intelligence and respect the principle of “gradation of force”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military official, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote Behind the scenes, officials point out that the government, which is “at war with terrorism”, has no option but to use force to deter civilians from collaborating with the enemy and to reassure public opinion with quantifiable results.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Burkinabè politician, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote A significant section of public opinion in the capital also seems convinced that civilian casualties are inevitable.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opinion leaders, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Extrajudicial executions are doubly counterproductive.[fn]They also contravene the Geneva Conventions to which Burkina Faso is a signatory.Hide Footnote Authorities lose out on intelligence by executing suspects rather than interrogating them, which also feeds the resentment of their relatives, some of whom are then tempted to join the jihadists.[fn]The children of three prominent figures who were executed in villages in the Centre-North and Soum joined the jihadist groups. Similar stories abound. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers and civil society actors based in the Sahel and Centre-North regions, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Burkinabè forces often assess the degree an individual’s militancy based on his real or supposed connections with jihadists. Yet many villages under jihadist threat have no other option but to submit to their authority. This conflation works like a self-fulfilling prophecy: those close to the identified individuals end up going to jihadists for protection or revenge. Since the beginning of 2019, the scale of the violence perpetrated by the army against civilians (often Fulani) has prompted entire villages to side with the jihadists.[fn]At the start of Operation Ndofu, some villages in Soum province moved to Mali to seek jihadist groups’ protection.Hide Footnote A prominent figure from the Sahel region sums up the situation as follows: “Operation Ndofu (‘uprooting’ in Mossi) did not uproot jihadism, but sowed it instead”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prominent figure in the Sahel region, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote

The army’s abuses appear to be sustained by problems in the justice system, notably prison congestion and backlogs in courts responsible for trying suspects. Last March, over 700 individuals suspected of belonging to a terrorist group were being detained in prisons across the country.[fn]“Burkina Faso : environ 700 terroristes présumés détenus dans des prisons de haute sécurité (gouvernement)”, Xinhua, 15 March 2019.Hide Footnote The courts have tried no such detainee since 2015, while the counter-terrorism division, created in 2017 and in charge of most of these cases, is only now operational.[fn]This division is supported by the new Special Counter-Terrorism Investigation Brigade (BSIAT), the head of which was only appointed in March 2019. The twenty judicial police officers (from the gendarmerie and police force) who make up the brigade are in training. Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè judicial actors, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote With merely 24 people on its staff, it cannot absorb such a large number of cases. In this context, part of the security apparatus seems to consider it illusory to rely on the rule of law.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military officials, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote This state of mind opens the way for summary executions, which the authorities deem to be acts of war, in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The Danger of Relying on Self-defence Groups

On 7 November 2019, President Kaboré called for the mobilisation of “volunteers for the defence of Faso” to fight “terrorists”. This project sounded like an avowal by defence and security forces of their inability to secure the territory on their own.[fn]“Kaboré appelle à la mobilisation générale contre le terrorisme”, VOA Afrique, 8 November 2019.Hide Footnote The law adopted on 21 January 2020 provides that all volunteers hired as “back-up for the defence of their village or sector of residence” receive training lasting fourteen days, without specifying the nature of the weaponry they will have access to. It also stipulates that they must “obey military authority”.[fn]Law establishing the patriotic defence volunteer status, consulted by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote This appeal harks back to the citizen involvement during the Sankarist revolution, an important phase in Burkina Faso’s history.[fn]This recourse to volunteers will take place in a very different context from the 1980s: it will not be a question of flushing out the conservative and neocolonial forces within Burkinabè society, but of confronting heavily armed and determined insurgents.Hide Footnote It also responds to the desire of part of the population to fight terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society actors, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote

In Mali as in Niger, the use of non-state armed groups against jihadists has never been an effective tool in the fight against insurgency.

This strategy aims to rapidly strengthen the armed forces’ capacity, but it may prove counterproductive if volunteers are not fully supervised in accordance with the new law. The Burkinabè state has thus far been unable to manage the Koglweogo. We can therefore question the capacity of its already understaffed army to effectively supervise volunteers, especially since many of them will likely come from the Koglweogo. The experience of Burkina Faso’s neighbours should urge caution: in Mali as in Niger, the use of non-state armed groups against jihadists has never been an effective tool in the fight against insurgency; what is more, it has resulted in violence against civilians.[fn]“We Used to Be Brothers”, Human Rights Watch, 7 December 2018.Hide Footnote In Burkina Faso’s Centre-North region, the Koglweogo’s commitment to fighting terrorism has paradoxically been one of the main drivers of jihadist insurgencies since early 2019 (see Appendix D).

The Koglweogo, who recruit mainly from among the Fulse and Mossi, have upset the balance between communities in the Centre-North. By taking on police and security prerogatives, they either wilfully or unwittingly became accomplices in settling scores, often concerning land disputes and to the detriment of the Fulani community. In 2017, the Koglweogo of Boulsa (Centre-North) became engaged in fighting terrorism to the overt indifference of authorities. The Fulani community then became their primary targets and sought the protection of the Rouga, Fulani groups charged with protecting herds, who were in turn perceived by the Koglweogo as “jihadists in disguise”.[fn]See Appendix D. Crisis Group interviews, civil society actors and Koglweogo from Boulsa, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Thus, the counter-terrorism project merged with the settling of personal and, by extension, communal scores.

This climate of mutual distrust and strong stigmatisation of the Fulani set the scene for two massacres. On the night of 31 December 2018 to 1 January 2019, unidentified gunmen killed six people in Yirgou, including the Mossi village chief and his son. In retaliation, and supported by the largely Mossi population, the Koglweogo killed between one hundred and two hundred Fulani civilians.[fn]“Au moins 210 morts lors du massacre du 1er janvier”, VOA, 4 February 2019.Hide Footnote In March, a second massacre was perpetrated by Fulse individuals against the Fulani in Arbinda (Soum), bordering the Centre-North.[fn]“Au moins 62 personnes ont été tuées à Arbinda”, VOA, 4 April 2019.Hide Footnote

The massacres perpetrated by the Koglweogo with the support of some local communities produce the same effect as the atrocities committed by defence and security forces: the Fulani approach jihadists to exact revenge or seek protection. In some cases, the atrocities that the Fulani have suffered have finally brought them over to the jihadists’ line of thought. The latter have largely profited from the deteriorating situation in the Centre-Nord to extend their influence. Several dozen Koglweogo were also killed, and many others fled the fighting or the justice system.[fn]The arrest of Koglweogo involved in the Yirgou massacre in early August 2019 accelerated their demobilisation, since many feared that they, too, would be arrested.Hide Footnote

The call for “volunteers” raises fears that similar scenarios could occur in other regions of Burkina Faso. This call is resonating within existing local security initiatives, in particular the Koglweogo, who are overwhelmingly Mossi. By taking part in counter-terrorism operations for which they are not trained, the Koglweogo risk targeting simple civilians whom they conflate with jihadists, in particular those from the Fulani community. They are also at risk of becoming the victims of growing violence against civilians displayed by the local branch of ISIS. The leader of the political opposition has even evoked the risk of “civil war”.[fn]Meeting of the Consultation Framework of the Leader of the Opposition (known as the Chef de file de l’opposition politique, CFOP), held on 12 November 2019.Hide Footnote This prospect cannot be discounted when the Fulani community is the second largest in the country (8.4 per cent of the population) and when violence targeting civilians is on the rise.[fn]“Demographic and Health Survey 2010”, Institut national de la statistique et de la démographie, 2010.Hide Footnote In 2019, 934 civilians were killed by armed groups, compared to 157 from 2015 to 2018.[fn]Data consulted on the ACLED website.Hide Footnote

The president’s announcement – likely precipitated by the attack in Boungou – pre-empted the necessary efforts to define methods for supervising volunteers.

According to many observers, strengthening local security groups reflects electoral aims, in addition to security objectives.[fn]The CFOP press release of 12 November 2019 highlights fears that these “volunteers” will be politically exploited. Back in July, a meeting was held at the Ministry of Security to discuss the role of the Koglweogo in securing the 2020 election. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Burkinabè political observers, November 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, the president’s call seems to have validated what has existed inconspicuously since the summer of 2019: the arming, equipping and financing of the Koglweogo.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former soldier and diplomat, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote Some fear that the Koglweogo and/or the new “volunteers” will be exploited by the hardline wing of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP), in the run-up to the 2020 election.[fn]This hardline wing is embodied in the figure of Simon Compaoré. The former mayor of Ouagadougou and cabinet director for Blaise Compaoré (to whom he is not related) during the Sankara era, he supervises the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs). He is a notable figure within the MPP. The current that he embodies believes that the dignitaries of the old regime are fostering instability to sabotage the elections. The president’s speech of 7 November was also preceded by a press release from the MPP which called for a “patriotic surge with the support of populations and self-defence and security militias”. MPP press release, 7 November 2019. Concerning Simon Compaoré, see “Burkina Faso : Simon Compaoré, toujours prêt”, Jeune Afrique, 9 May 2018. Crisis Group telephone interviews, observers and political actors in Burkina Faso, November 2019.Hide Footnote In this context, the arrest, which lasted a few weeks in early 2020, of the Boulsa Koglweogo leader Boureima Nadbanka, for his supposed role in the Yirgou massacre, may have been partly motivated by the fact that he was not aligned with the authorities’ political objectives on several occasions.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, civil society actors based in the Centre-North, January 2020.Hide Footnote Should the hardliners in fact enlist vigilantes for their purposes, it would in turn encourage the opposition to seek the support of other local groups, in particular the Dozo, rivals of the Koglweogo in the West. With ongoing tensions between the government and supporters of former President Compaoré, militias in the service of politicians’ agendas could start to spread across the country.

The president’s announcement – likely precipitated by the attack in Boungou, which shocked the country – pre-empted the necessary efforts to define methods for supervising volunteers. In the following days, abuses of Fulani civilians started being reported in the North, Centre-North and East regions.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, civil society actors and analysts in different regions of the country, November 2019.Hide Footnote On 15 October, the former secretary general of the CDRs warned of the danger of self-defence groups lacking oversight.[fn]The CDRs, set up throughout the country during the Sankarist revolution in August 1983, were responsible for maintaining both security and the spirit of the revolution. As such, they became tools of political control. Concerning the volunteers, Pierre Ouédraogo insists on the need to “control armament, its use and ammunition, to make sure that there are no wayward trends and that the resources are used to defend the country and not to settle local conflicts, community disputes, or personal scores”. “Burkina : ‘Contre les jihadistes, la résistance populaire’ (Pierre Ouédraogo)”, RFI, 15 October 2019.Hide Footnote There is an urgent need to halt a potential escalation of violence from which nobody stands to gain.

The (Complex) Construction of the Security-Development Nexus

Both the government and its international partners present the “security-development nexus” as the cornerstone of their response to the crisis in Burkina Faso.[fn]This nexus is often summed up by the idea that there would be no development without security, and no security without development.Hide Footnote So far, this approach has struggled to produce concrete results and is based on a vision that reduces security to a military response, neglecting the political dimension of the crisis.

The Sahel Emergency Plan (Plan d’urgence pour le Sahel, PUS), adopted in July 2017, is the authorities’ main non-military response. The government designed it as a matter of urgency, basing it on a socio-economic pillar and a governance pillar that includes security issues. This plan essentially incorporates the guidelines of the National Program for Economic and Social Development (Plan national de développement économique et social, PNDES), designed in peacetime, applying them only to the Nord and Sahel regions.[fn]Adopted in 2016, the PNDES is a national plan to combat poverty, with a budget of €23.5 billion over five years (2016-2020).Hide Footnote A coordinating unit reporting to the Ministry of Finance ensures the coordination of PUS projects and programs (that often predate the PUS), but with simplified procurement procedures to speed up their implementation.

The PUS remains poorly adapted to an unstable security environment that requires flexibility and responsiveness. Its implementation is hampered by excessive bureaucracy, since the actions of nine ministries must be coordinated. It has also suffered from a deteriorating security situation: only 51 per cent of planned activities were carried out in 2018, and 49 per cent in 2017.[fn]PUS Annual Activity Reports for 2017 and 2018, Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Development, May 2018 and March 2019.Hide Footnote In addition, jihadists have destroyed infrastructure (schools and wells) built within the framework of the PUS, as they symbolise the state’s return, which they deem unacceptable. Its hasty launch led to communication problems with local authorities and beneficiaries.[fn]When the PUS’s achievements were presented at Dori in June 2018, mayors contested the results reported by the national authorities. This failing was nevertheless corrected by integrating community action plans into the PUS from 2018. Crisis Group interview, PUS coordinator, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote Authorities recognise that this action does not suffice, without knowing how to improve upon it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state officials, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote

The violence is part of more complex governance crises in rural areas, where local conflicts over access to resources are worsening.

According to PUS advocates, poverty and underdevelopment are the root cause of violence. This precept explains why priority is given to developing basic infrastructure.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In reality, however, the violence is part of more complex governance crises in rural areas, where local conflicts over access to resources are worsening. Building infrastructure is not only insufficient in the face of these challenges, but it may even prove counterproductive in some cases. Digging a well in an area disputed between farmers and herders can thus lead to conflicts over its use if no one consults the populations beforehand.[fn]The PUS’s second phase includes “social cohesion” actions, but these remain largely inadequate in view of the challenges facing the country. “Stratégie d’extension du programme d’urgence pour le Sahel 2019-2021”, June 2019.Hide Footnote

The authorities also have a narrow concept of security, essentially based on military tools. Operation Otapuanu, launched in March 2019, is a good example. As part of its civil-military component, military doctors treated civilians and state services issued several thousand identity documents to those who lacked them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè soldiers, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote But the operation did not give rise to dialogue between the army and the populations. Nor did it jump-start labour-intensive or income-generating projects, which could have helped restore confidence within local communities. Military authorities recognise that the operation was planned as a matter of urgency and without involving the technical ministries or partners who could have capitalised on its success.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military official, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote

It seems that some government officials are becoming aware of the limits of a military-focused approach, but the authorities are sending mixed signals. The national security policy being drafted under the Ministry of Security’s leadership must outline an approach that is centred on securing the population rather than just the state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burkinabè officials and drafting committee member, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote Such an approach to security involves preventing conflict and addressing the weaknesses that fuel violence as a priority. But authorities seem divided as to how to achieve this balancing act, all the more since the 2020 electoral agenda and the unstable situation are pushing the MPP’s hardline wing toward a military escalation. Rivalries between the Defence and Security Ministries also complicate the design and implementation of such an integrated approach.

Without a consensus between state actors, the dialogue option seems inconceivable in the short term.

This new approach could open the way to complementary solutions to the use of force, with options including community mediation, socio-political inclusion of systemically excluded populations, and even political dialogue with certain jihadists. Burkinabè authorities are informally exploring this path – much like in Mali and especially in Niger – but are hesitant to embark upon it.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists?, op. cit. See also Crisis Group Africa Report N°261, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, 12 June 2018. In 2017, a former Malian jihadist from the Mopti region approached Ansarul Islam, saying he was acting on behalf of Burkinabè authorities, but military operations by Barkhane and G5 forces on the border with Mali brutally interrupted this timid start to dialogue. Crisis Group interview, former MUJAO member, Bamako, 2017.Hide Footnote In 2017, they authorised NGOs specialising in mediation to establish contacts with the jihadists, but no concrete progress has yet been recorded.[fn]In July 2018, the ANR invited traditional leaders from the Sahel region to Ouagadougou to reflect on such an approach, but some believe that certain actors are discredited in the eyes of the jihadists and therefore cannot be helpful in initiating a dialogue. Crisis Group analyst’s interview in a previous capacity, traditional leader, Ouagadougou, July 2018.Hide Footnote With a deteriorating security situation, the state is struggling to identify potential intermediaries: many no longer seem to want to get involved or have even joined jihadist groups following events in the Centre-North and Soum since early 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, figures involved in these attempts at dialogue and representative of civil society in Soum, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote The army generally remains opposed to this solution, which dissuades many potential intermediaries from approaching jihadists for fear of being conflated with them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military officials and figures involved in the dialogue attempts, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Without a consensus between state actors, the dialogue option seems inconceivable in the short term.

Ending Violence

Faced with a multidimensional security, social and political crisis that threatens national stability and cohesion, the largely military response is proving ineffective and the threat is growing. While some senior state officials are considering a shift in strategy, others remain tempted by military escalation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior state officials, Ouagadougou, July and September 2019.Hide Footnote Considering that crucial electoral deadlines are barely one year away, this temptation is understandable, but it could jeopardise the country’s future. Faced with the unprecedented rise in violence perpetrated by jihadists and certain self-defence groups since the beginning of 2019, a change of course is necessary.

To contain the jihadist threat, they will have to prevent the local community-based violence that nourishes it.

With the support of international partners, Burkinabè authorities could plan a series of actions for the short, medium and long term. The security tool will remain a fundamental part of their response, but authorities should take care to minimise the counterproductive effects of military operations and the militarisation of local security initiatives. To contain the jihadist threat, they will have to prevent the local community-based violence that nourishes it. Finally, the state must respond to the structural challenges which largely explain the increase in violence in rural areas, and of which jihadism is only one expression.

Limiting and Overseeing Civilian Involvement in Counter-insurgency Operations

By calling on volunteers to take up arms against terrorism, the government is formally encouraging civilians to get involved in the fight against insurgency. It is thus responding to pressure from part of the population and to understaffed Burkinabè forces. The initiative has the merit of showing that Burkinabè authorities want to supervise – and encourage – a trend that already existed informally. While civilian involvement in counter-insurgency operations may prove to be useful, it also risks further exacerbating local community-based tensions. The role of civilians, volunteers and self-defence groups should therefore be limited to auxiliary security tasks (securing buildings for example) or to surveillance and intelligence gathering, and they should only be equipped with light weapons.[fn]When the law was passed in plenary session, the defence minister sought to reassure citizens by stating that volunteers would be armed only with light weapons. But the law does not specify the nature of the arms and the draft bill mentioned the possibility of equipping them with military-grade weapons. “L’armée burkinabè va former des civils volontaires pour défendre le pays”, RFI, 22 January 2020.Hide Footnote Those wishing to participate in offensive operations should join the regular army, especially since it is launching major recruitment drives between February and May 2020.[fn]Press release from the National Defence Ministry, 27 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The Ministry of Security should also better supervise the actions of the Koglweogo and Dozo, while clearly distinguishing them from the volunteers. The revised 2016 decree regulating these structures should take into account the risks of local community-based violence resulting from their actions. Authorities could set up local community control mechanisms to prevent abuse, including representatives of different sedentary and nomadic communities that share the same space. To limit the prerogatives of the Koglweogo (to a protection and intelligence role, for example), they could be placed under the authority of the national police, the body closest to them on the ground and the least engaged in counter-insurgency operations.[fn]Many among the national authorities and international partners believe that the 2016 decree carries risks. Placing these groups under the authority of mayors could give rise to local political militias. Crisis Group interviews, Security Ministry and Presidency of the Republic, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote The Koglweogo would thus be less involved in direct operations against insurgent groups, which would limit the risk of creating tensions with other communities. Ultimately, authorities will have to regain control over these local armed groups and stop tolerating the abuses they have perpetrated.

Civil society organisations that are concerned about violence against civilians should encourage traditional, religious and community leaders to speak out about the risk of community-based violence.[fn]The Democratic Youth Organisation, the Collective against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities and the MBDHP.Hide Footnote The moral authority represented by traditional and religious elites might help forestall large-scale conflict between communities. This effort should primarily target the Fulani ethnic group, whose members struggle to be heard by other communities, and many of whom feel stigmatised.[fn]An initiative already under way within the Fulani community must open the door to meetings with other communities, in particular the Mossi and Gourmantché, to participate in drafting this call for volunteers.Hide Footnote If respected figures from Fulani communities rise to the occasion, they will be able to make their voices heard by other traditional leaders, including the Mossi, who can influence the Koglweogo’s actions.

Political actors of all stripes should refrain from hiring men with guns, either directly or indirectly, in the run-up to and during the 2020 presidential election. The government and the opposition should open discussions on the subject, and both should pledge not to use such actors for electoral purposes.

A More Effective and Proportionate Military Response

In parallel, authorities should devise a more effective and more proportionate military response, consisting of the following: improving conditions for front-line troops; building a more reliable intelligence system to better distinguish civilians from insurgents; and investing in the judicial system to reduce summary executions.

A woman crosses the dam in Ouagadougou as she returns home on her motorbike, in October 2017. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The excessive use of force during counter-insurgency operations is not inevitable in the Sahel. It is largely linked to the conditions in which troops are fighting. The politicisation of the armed forces and the fear of a mutiny among their ranks dissuade the government from enhancing the resources of a service that has long suffered from insufficient training and equipment. Soldiers therefore operate in fear, which is conducive to abuses. Improving the living and operating conditions of troops at the front (with better equipment, shorter shifts, increased food rations and bonuses, psychosocial monitoring, provision of interpreters and medical evacuations) would limit the risk of abuses, as would improved training, an area in which the country’s partners could play a significant role. The deployment of European missions – now under discussion in the EU – within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) would be useful provided that lessons are learned from the limitations of such efforts in neighbouring Mali and Niger.[fn]For an analysis of these limitations, see the European Court of Auditors report, “Strengthening the capacity of the internal security forces in Niger and Mali: only limited and slow progress”, 2018.Hide Footnote

The propensity for abuse is also linked to the difficulty the military faces in distinguishing civilians from insurgents. A more reliable intelligence system would reduce the risk of error. The creation of the National Intelligence Council, provided for by Act 026/2018 on general intelligence regulation in Burkina Faso, is a first step toward improving communication between services and cross-checking data. Such cooperation requires overcoming rivalries between the police, army and gendarmerie. Burkinabè authorities would also like their better-equipped international partners to share information, starting with France and the U.S., which could indeed help address shortcomings in this area.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Burkinabè state representatives, Ouagadougou, September 2019.Hide Footnote This contribution would not, however, exempt Burkinabè authorities from improving their own intelligence measures.

To prevent summary executions from becoming an integral part of the counter-insurgency strategy, it is crucial to place the penal system at the heart of the state’s response. By bringing alleged terrorists to justice, the specialised anti-terrorism division also helps tackle prison overcrowding. Its means are clearly insufficient, given the large number of cases and the difficulty of investigating in high-risk zones. The government should considerably increase the resources of this division, both for investigating offices and the judicial police.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice system actor, Ouagadougou, July 2019.Hide Footnote International partners should come together in support of this new division and the country’s special anti-terrorism unit (Brigade spéciale des investigations antiterroristes, BSIAT), which plays an essential role in conducting investigations that allow for a fair trial. With a similar context and staffing figures, Niger was able to ease its prison overcrowding thanks to such backing.[fn]“Niger : un millier de membres présumés de Boko Haram jugés à huis clos”, Jeune Afrique, 10 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Authorities should finally increase control over deployed units, even if they must do so with tact and caution given recurring discontent among troops. By concretely improving conditions on the front, the government could gain leverage to demand exemplary behaviour from its soldiers. International partners could help in this area. Thus, the UN compliance framework – of which the G5 Sahel Joint Force is part and which is struggling to obtain the authorisation of Burkina Faso’s authorities for its implementation – supports this effort to strengthen transparency and accountability among deployed units.[fn]UN Resolution 2391 (2017) calls upon the G5 Sahel States to establish a “compliance framework” aimed at preventing and adequately dealing with all cases of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in relation to the Joint Force. In particular, it supports the establishment of an internal monitoring system based on the integration of provost marshals in the Joint Force battalions, an internal investigation mechanism, and a monitoring cell for incidents involving civilians and soldiers.Hide Footnote With the help of partners, these internal control mechanisms, which for the moment only benefit Joint Force battalions, could be applied to all troops engaged in counter-insurgency operations.[fn]For its part, the EU supports the systematic deployment of provost forces within the framework of Internal Security Forces operations.Hide Footnote Training paralegals and supporting early warning mechanisms in local communities could also limit the risk of abuse by defence and security forces.

In the Medium Term: Redeploying the State and Regaining the Confidence of Populations

Although essential, the use of force cannot be the only response to the crisis facing the country. Beyond the counterproductive effects of certain military operations, the Burkinabè forces’ limited human and material resources mean that other solutions must be considered. The security response would be much more effective as part of a more comprehensive and integrated approach, including prevention, mitigation and stabilisation efforts. The use of force should, for example, give way to mediation when dealing with primarily land- or community-based conflicts. More specifically, in order to re-establish good relations with communities in areas where the central authority is disputed, the state will have to demonstrate its usefulness.

The possibility of a dialogue with jihadist groups should at least be considered in the medium term.

The possibility of a dialogue with jihadist groups, which is barely acknowledged amid today’s rising violence, should at least be considered in the medium term. Authorities should explore opportunities for such a dialogue – following the elections scheduled for 2020, for example – as is already the case in Mali and Niger, without considering this option as precluding the use of force. Many Burkinabè “jihadists” are not terrorists but insurgents driven by local demands that the state could easily satisfy. At a minimum, the state could explore the possibility of negotiating the surrender of highway robbers or bandits before jihadist groups recruit them.

With or without such dialogue, the state must adapt its responses to the local contexts in which violence spreads. It also needs to make its prevention, mitigation and stabilisation policies more coherent in regions affected or threatened by violence. To this end, the state could set up an institution responsible for coordinating the government’s civil actions for violent crisis management. Better equipped than the ministries to act in a crisis situation, it could, for example, promote community reconciliation in the Centre-North, launch stabilisation and dialogue programs between security forces and communities in the East region, or initiate dialogue between communities in the West as a me