Burkina Faso: between militias and jihadists

Laeticia Doncieux a été stagiaire au laboratoire de recherche sur la défense de l’Ifri d’août 2018 à janvier 2019. Elle est titulaire d’un « Bachelor War Studies » délivré par le King’s College de Londres, qu’elle poursuit par un mastère en « sécurité internationale » à Science – Po avec une spécialisation sur l’Afrique. Elle nous livre ici ses impressions (en anglais) sur l’effondrement de l’appareil sécuritaire au Burkina-Faso et ses conséquences sur la lutte actuelle contre la menace terroriste dans toute la région.

Laeticia Doncieux was an intern at Ifri’s Security Studies Center from august (24th) 2018 to January (25th) 2019. She holds a “war studies” bachelor from King’s College London. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Sciences Po in “international security”, with a specialization in Africa.

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country serving as a hub in the region, is undergoing a profound political transformation since the fall of the former president Blaise Compaoré in 2014. After remaining for twenty-seven years in power, Compaoré was overthrown by a popular uprising as he attempted to amend the Constitution to extend his rule. Following these events, a failed coup by General Diendéré in 2015 induced further destabilization in the country, and in particular, of its security apparatus. These events led to the disband of the security regiment of Compaoré’s regime, the autonomous Presidential Security Regiment (RSP). The system’s downfall, thus, created a security vacuum as a new political scene emerged in the country. The weakened security apparatus enabled the rise of both self-defense militias and jihadism.

The proliferation of self-defense militias: the Koglweogo

The existence of self-defense militias is not a new phenomenon in the Sahel, a largely desert region often characterized by its lack of governance. However, the rapid rise, in the aftermath of Compaoré’s downfall, of groups called “Koglweogo” has been particularly striking. As insecurity in the country was growing in 2015, especially due to banditry, local citizens decided to take the matter into their own hands. Thus, in certain regions particularly abandoned by the state, free of police or gendarmerie forces, self-defense militias appeared and proliferated.

Koglweogo is a name which combines two different words of the Moré language, ‘kogl’ (“preserve”) and ‘weogo’ (“the bush”), and can be translated as ‘Guardians of the bush’. These groups are composed of both Muslims and Christians (respectively 60% and 25 percent of the population), a majority of whom are farmers or small business owners. They want to defend their possessions and are especially present in rural and suburban areas. Their main objective is to arrest, sentence and punish thieves. Since their creation, the Koglweogo have claimed some victories. For example, the crime rate reached a historic low in the eastern region between 2015 and 2017.

Groupe Koglweogo (c) lefaso.net

However, their methods have been widely criticized, as they can include torture, humiliating treatments or even death caused by sequestrations. They also impose arbitrary fines and do not ensure fair and impartial trials, if any. Human rights defenders such as the Burkinabe Movement on Human and People’s rights have denounced these actions and underlined the issue posed by the state’s monopoly of violence being assumed by non-state actors. Moreover, if they are popular in some areas because of their perceived efficiency and their ability to give citizens the feeling that some form of justice is delivered to them, it is not the case everywhere. For instance, in May 2017, a koglweogo group and the population of Tialgo confronted each other for a couple of days, resulting in the death of six people, as the inhabitants refused to submit to the militia’s authority.

The Koglweogo groups also have an ambiguous relationship with the state apparatus. In the past few years, the government has been trying to work with them and to make them comply with human rights. However, the authorities also recognize the need for self-defense militias considering their own failure to provide regular security services to large parts of the country. In 2016, the former minister of interior Simon Compaoré stressed their necessity as it is impossible for the state to establish police stations or security forces in each village, due to the government’s limited resources. Furthermore, even though they claim to be “apolitical”, the koglweogo groups have been extending their discourses and their demands to more than security concerns, by asking for clean water, for instance. Thus, the relationship between the militias and the political scene is yet to be determined as it could evolve, especially as the 2020 presidential election approaches.[1]

The rise of jihadism

The downfall of Blaise Compaoré’s regime was accompanied by the rise of another phenomenon: jihadism. While in power, it seems that Compaoré might have brokered some tacit arrangement with international terrorist jihadist groups active in the region (especially in Mali) in order to avoid attacks in Burkina Faso. Not unlike similar agreements in Mali prior 2012 or even some may suggest in Mauritania prior 2007, jihadi militants would use the country as an operating and recruitment ground, but refrain from launching any attacks. However, this changed after 2015, as the country – which had entered the G5 Sahel security and development cooperation structure – suddenly became a recurring target. In the northern and, since 2018 eastern regions, the jihadists take advantage of the state’s absence to establish themselves and recruit inhabitants.[2] The attacks, which have caused over 229 deaths since 2015, according to government numbers given out in September 2018, underline the structural weaknesses of the country’s security apparatus.

            The northern region has been suffering attacks since 2015. The Al-Qaeda affiliated group Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Mulsimin (JNIM) has perpetrated some, including the one against the French embassy and the Burkinabe forces’ headquarters in the capital, Ouagadougou. But the most active group is the first Burkinabe-rooted one, Ansaroul Islam. It was created in 2016 by a former preacher radio host, Ibrahim Dicko, whose men were already fighting in neighboring Mali, and is now led by Dicko’s brother Jafar since Ibrahim’s death in 2017. The group is tied to JNIM and became labeled a terrorist organization in February 2017 by the US State department. Although Ansaroul Islam is a native Burkinabe jihadist organization, it largely finds its roots in Mali, as Dicko was close to the former leader of Mali-based Katiba Macina, Amadou Kouffa, who was recently killed in an operation led by French forces. Ansaroul Islam aims at creating a local insurgency dynamic by exploiting the population’s social grievances, the corruption of the security forces and ethnic or communal strife, particularly between Fulani and Rimaibe communities. However, unlike Katiba Macina for example, Ansaroul Islam is not an ethnic-based group and recruits from different communities of the country, including the Dogon, Bellah or Songhai minorities. Moreover, it has acted as more than a jihadist group, by protecting communities from whom it enjoys support.[3]

However, while the Burkinabe army has just started to register some degree of success in reducing the prejudicing capacities of Ansaroul Islam’s militants in the past few months, a new front has emerged in the east of the country since February 2018. The attacks seem to be perpetrated by an active terrorist group, but almost no claims have been made, which makes the situation even more complicated for the government. Although JNIM did claim a complex ambush and an IED attack in the region in December 2018, most attacks remain unclaimed yet. They have mostly targeted police and security forces, as well as schools – a now classic jihadist pattern, already witnessed in Central Mali and Northern Burkina Faso. As a result, many schools were forced to close, leaving an institutional void where education was often the only non-security related public service available to the local population. The W National Park where the jihadist are suspected to be hiding borders Ghana, Benin and Niger, and is a forest region well known for being a bastion of banditry. The jihadists can exploit the situation there, taking advantage of the lack of state presence, the absence of road networks, and the dense forests making it almost inaccessible for security forces.[4] Observers fear an irreversible worsening of the situation there, especially if the state remains absent. In fact, it seems that some inhabitants are already turning against the government. Indeed, for the past twenty years, the classification of some parts of the forest as natural reserves has caused many conflicts between the villagers and the state, as many of the former have been expropriated. Therefore, the jihadists have been using the population’s resentment, offering a series of measures, such as the return to the villages they were expelled from, the authorization of poaching or the reopening of gold mines.

This declining security situation has led Burkina Faso to become, along with Mali, one of the weak links in the G5 Sahel’s fight against jihadist groups. The French government is concerned by this new front in the east and the weakness of the authorities’ response. As the French ministers of Armed Forces and Foreign Affairs each visited Burkina Faso in October, they both asserted France’s readiness to help secure the country. For the first time in October, French troops under the flag of operation Barkhane carried out some operations in the east at the Burkinabe authorities’ request.


The security situation in Burkina Faso remains worrying and the attacks, as well as the security forces’ responses have caused massive population movements in these areas, leading to a rise of internally displaced people. Moreover, the government’s forces have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings in their antiterrorist operations.[5] Therefore, how will the central state be able to deal with these issues and to fill the security vacuum left since 2015?

The situation in the east might also become even more complicated. Indeed, this region, as it was known for being the bastion of banditry, is a place where the koglweogo groups have become the main security agents. The interactions between the jihadist groups and the militias will be a dynamic to follow, and that could evolve over time. For now, it appears the militias do not usually dare to combat the terrorists.[6] We could even question the extent to which the jihadists and the koglweogo could be or could become the same people in certain situations, as it is the case with some Fulani militias in Mali, who are often identified as also being part of jihadist groups. Moreover, these perceived links of jihadist groups with a particular community, usually the Fulani, could spark inter-ethnic violence in the country, as it is the case in Mali.  In fact, on January 1st, the killing of several people in a village named Yirgou by armed men led to reprisals against the Fulani community, causing around 40 deaths. Furthermore, the rapid deterioration of the situation in Burkina Faso could augur similar issues in bordering countries such as Togo or Benin if it begins to spread.



[1] H. Nsaibia and C. Weiss, op. cit.

[2] S. Douce, op. cit.

[3] H. Boko, “Au Burkina Faso, la menace terroriste se déplace vers l’est”, France 24, 06 September 2018.

[4] S. Douce, “Nous assistons à l’émergence d’une nouvelle cellule terroriste au Burkina Faso”, Le Monde, 05 September 2018.

[5] H. Nsaibia and C. Weiss, “Ansaroul Islam and the growing terrorist insurgency in Burkina Faso”, CTC Sentinel, March 2018.

[6] R. Da Cunha Dupuy and T. Quidelleur, “Mouvement d’autodéfense au Burkina Faso : diffusion et structuration des groupes koglweogo”, NORIA, December 2018.

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Une réponse à Burkina Faso: between militias and jihadists

  1. Millet Y. dit :

    The social cohesion and muslims/christians mixt that made the singularity of burkinabe people is being lost under the undermining work of the jihadists and the poor communication (propaganda) of results against them by the government armed forces. The G5 Sahel coalition force is still under construction. Early 2019 the president change the Defense Ministry and the army chief of staff and suddenly after the troop suffered dozen of deadly attacks without replica during 2018, they announce that they have neutralized 147 fighters at once is one and without loss. Probably most of them as shepherds rather than fighters. Just like the nomads fulany of Yirgou who suffered a real pogrom from the population after an exaction by jihadists unidentified but assimilated to fulany. The figure of 200 victims would be more real than the 40 officially annouced.


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