State-backed armed governance in the Sahel stirs ethnic conflicts

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch25 Feb 2020Laurence Aida Ammour

In January Burkina Faso’s Parliament approved a vote to back, fund and train local vigilantes in response to the growing violence of jihadist groups against communities. The decision takes place in a context where extremist groups are exploiting communal grievances and rivalries by pushing communities to turn against each other. The strategy of the extremists aims to undermine the legitimacy of local authorities and to exacerbate mistrust of the population towards the State and army. However, Sahelian states facing instability might be better served by opening dialogue with jihadist groups than arming their populations.

Historically, competition over land and resources between nomadic herders, semi-nomadic groups and farmers has always existed in the Sahel. Resolution of these conflicts was usually provided through the peaceful mediation of traditional leaders. With the influx of islamist groups and worsening pressures on land and resources due to a changing climate the situation has changed significantly. Today, clashes between livestock farmers, farmers, farmer-gold miners, and hunter-wildlife rangers intersect with jihadi armed conflict which has contributed to the emergence of new complex forms of violence. As a result, an inextricable tangle of inter-communal rivalries, jihadi attacks, local settings of scores, criminal activities and banditry now plagues the region.

The proliferation of self-defense groups

To deal with this development rural communities organize self-defense militias to protect their villages, families and livestock. As a consequence, these villagers have entered a spiral of violence: inter-communal attacks respond to massacres by jihadist groups, fighting between rival self-defense militias regularly takes place and in some cases attacks are perpetrated in response to operations by national security forces. 

One prominent self-defense group that now stands to benefit from the Parliamentary vote is the Popular Resistance Movement, created in October 2019. Its surveillance and territorial defense committees cover 30 provinces and are comprised of mixed groups that include Koglweogo (“guardians of the bush”), Dozo (traditional hunters), former soldiers and village youths who collaborate with state security forces.  

However, conferring legitimacy on vigilante groups such as the koglweogo has raised concerns from the UN as well as human rights activists who fear it could empower fighters accused of ethnically motivated killings in the past. The UN currently estimates the number of fighters at 40,000 across Burkina Faso, a significant increase since 2014 when instability started. Last year, ethnic and jihadist violence caused 2,000 deaths, while  500,000 people are displaced in Burkina Faso since 2018. 

Ethnic strife plays into the hands of jihadist groups

Over time massacres and attacks have been increasingly perpetrated along ethnic lines which benefits jihadist groups in the region. Muslim-dominant Fulani are for instance specifically targeted by farmers’ militias and military forces. Last year more than 150 Fulani were killed by Burkinabé security forces after being accused of supporting armed groups. Being accused of supporting jihadists by other ethnic groups, specifically the Dogon, now Fulani communities find themselves under pressure to accept and tolerate jihadi occupation to avoid retaliatory attacks by other communities. Additional benefits of jihadist protection include, the supply of food and goods, administration of justice as well as protection against cattle rustling and banditry. 

Because of this vicious cycle Fulani are stigmatized by Bambara and Dogon in Mali, and by Mossi in Burkina Faso as jihadists supporters. This plays into the hands of jihadist groups who seek to foster division in the fabric of society. The 23 January attack in the predominantly Dogon area of Diougnani (Mali) by Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), for instance recalls the mass killing of 160 Fulani in Ogossagou (Mali) in March 2019  by the Dogon Dan Na Ambassagou militia. JNIM likely sought to undermine the Dogon who benefit from a logistical and financial support from Bamako, and appeal to a fear among Fulani of reprisal attacks as a recruitment strategy.

Militarization of ethnic groups: a path towards civil war?

Tolerating, funding and/or supporting self-defense militias in the fight against armed groups has been a long-standing policy in Burkina Faso as well as Mali. Para-military groups are supported by these states, and used by the security forces to help counter the jihadist threat. This outsourcing of security responsibilities to vigilantes is a hazardous strategy however. It risks further abuses, proliferation of identity-based militias and threatens the national cohesion of both countries. This failure by the states to ensure the security of rural communities has promoted armed governance in many remote areas of Burkina Faso and Mali where the populations feel neglected and marginalized. 

This current path of «militianization» can therefore easily escalate the ethnic strife which risks sparking a civil war. Until now, national armies and foreign troops recorded little success in forcibly restoring peace and stability in the region. Perhaps the recently opened talks between the President of Mali and senior jihadist leaders presents an alternative solution? Defusing violence by a clear disarmament policy for identity-based self-defense militias in combination with a strong and deep national dialogue might better serve the needs of communities in this region than the warpath which states are currently on.