Since the end of 2018, an explosion of violence tied to the presence of jihadist groups has shaken Eastern Burkina Faso, an area of the country that had until then remained relatively spared such violence. These militias’ success in taking root locally is largely explained by their ability to latch onto the political and economic marginalization of Eastern Burkina Faso in order to build up an armed insurrection. Eastern Burkina Faso has endured a history of violence, and the area’s citizens feel abandoned by the central state, generating conflictual relations between them. The local population faces endemic criminality and ferocious competition for access to natural resources. The state is felt to be either absent or predatory, and its judicial system ineffective. Local armed groups benefit less from active adhesion to their jihadi ideology, than from these local conditions that enable them to settle. Eastern Burkina Faso therefore can be seen as a magnifying glass for the current dynamics of regionalization of violence in the Sahel.

This article is based on data from several field investigations led in 2017 and 2018 in Ouagadougou and Fada N’Gourma, the Eastern province’s capital. For security reasons, interviews have been anonymized. 

Transnational Jihad and Local Violence

Since the end of 2018, like much of the rest of Burkina Faso, the country’s East has witnessed a spectacular increase in the rate of violence committed by jihadist armed groups1. Such violence has become almost daily, involving the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and attacks on the regular army, kidnapping, and targeted assassinations. Despite several military operations against these armed groups in the region, Eastern Burkina Faso came to prominence in the media coverage of jihad in the Sahel only after Western hostages were freed there in May 20192, then in November 2019, in the wake of a fatal attack against a bus transporting the employees of a Canadian mining company3.

Eastern Burkina Faso is dubbed “the red zone” by the Burkinabé, given the high level of criminal activity in a region that has long witnessed diffuse violence. Its porous borders with neighboring countries have historically made the region a smuggling hub, where informal networks play a crucial role in the local economy and provide a livelihood for many of its inhabitants. Eastern Burkina Faso therefore serves as an interface between the Sahel and the coasts of Benin, Ghana and Togo. Cigarettes, fuel, ivory, weapons, drugs and simple everyday goods circulate outside of any state control.

The Burkinabé central state has long refused to recognize the endogenous dimension of the armed insurrection

The region is characterized by the socio-economic marginalization of some of its communities and of the younger generation. Such marginalization is especially fostered by increased competition for access to land and natural resources. Jihadists have exploited feelings of dispossession on the part of these cadets sociaux (“social little brothers”)4. Armed groups offer to help them by proferring advantages and protection—on condition that these cadets sociaux join them in opposing the central state that is deemed responsible for their marginalization.

The Burkinabé state has long refused to recognize the endogenous dimension of the armed insurrection in the East of the country, and pointed the finger at outside players for provoking it—whether those accused are certain players in the conflict in Mali, or mercenaries loyal to Blaise Compaoré, head of the former regime5. Such an approach appears to ignore the fact that jihadist armed groups in the region rely more on their ability to exploit local socio-political issues than they do on any outside help. Their ability to conduct guerrilla warfare with ease also largely relies on the prior success of their taking root in areas abandoned by the state and subjected to failed political management.

In this sense, the long-term settlement of jihadist groups in the region is less evidence of a political or religious “radicalization” of the local population—understood as growing recourse to violent practices based on their adhering to an ideological system—than it reveals jihadists’ ability to exploit tensions between the central state and populations in the East. Jihadists become embedded locally by exploiting a situation whereby the use of violence—or the threat of its exercise—is the primary political resource available to the local population in their relationship with the institutions that govern them.

From Pressure Over Land-Use to Competition for Natural Resources: A political economy that produces violence

Eastern Burkina Faso enjoys diverse and abundant natural resources: grazing, fertile land, cattle, lakes, etc. Nonetheless, its population has only very poor access to water and electricity. For the most part, locals remain very poor, and with very low levels of formal education. Only 10% of heads of families have received education beyond the primary-school level—and over 60% have never attended school, in a region where over half of households suffer from food insecurity6. The region also suffers from lack of public investment: its roads are in a disastrous state, and its few administrative buildings are dilapidated and underequipped.

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Burkina Faso inherited a Jacobin centralized-state tradition from the colonial period. Peripheral regions feel marginalized by the central state in Ouagadougou. Many of the East’s inhabitants associate the central state with the Mossi community that constitutes a majority in Burkina Faso, and is primarily found in the country’s central plateau. The other components of the population—Gourmantché and Peul—feel deprived of access to political and economic resources, and develop identity politics in opposition to the central state.

Pressure on land-use explains agricultural activity moving towards transhumance areas and provoking tensions between peasants and livestock farmers

Three primary dynamics govern transformation in relationships to land-use and developing economic inequality in Eastern Burkina Faso. The first of these relates to Law 0034, that came into effect in 2009. The law modified the rules governing land-property sales, by introducing capitalist frameworks—selling to the highest bidder—at the expense of practices of transmission through the family. This led to a process of concentration of landownership that was relatively new in the area. In a context of demographic growth7, often very aged landowners thereby deprive the younger generations of the possibility of using land for agriculture. As the mayor of a small town explained: “In my area there was an old man with around ten children. He sold nearly all his lands to a wealthy inhabitant of Ouagadougou. He’d never had any money—and suddenly he was offered millions of Francs. Obviously, he caved in. But what will his children live on now?”

The result of this process has been hostility from the younger generation towards the new landowners. These are often perceived as “foreigners” because they are not drawn from local family or community circles, and are accused of dispossessing the locals. This hostility sometimes extends to local traditional chieftains, who are denounced as complicit with this process. This generational divide deprives the younger generations of the ability to engage in agricultural activity, and encourages the emergence of a landowner class that is often deemed to be close to the central state. Pressure on land-use brought about by the restriction on available land then explains agricultural activity moving towards transhumance areas. In turn, this provokes tensions between peasants and livestock farmers, in a country where these two activities each play a key role. Agriculture and livestock-farming provide employment for over 80% of the working population.8

Since the 2000s especially, a second dynamic has transformed the relationship to land-use locally. This is tied to the central administration reinforcing protected natural areas and regulated hunting areas, thereby reducing the ability of locals to reach arable land and fishing and hunting areas. Social frustration is all the greater that, once again, these privatized zones are generally monopolized by groups and individuals who are labelled by locals as being “foreigners”. The central state, in the shape of Forestry and Water Commission officials, may also extort locals, as described by a representative of the livestock-farmers community: “Shepherds call us because state officials demand 100,000 Francs from them for a few branches cut down in a park. Can you imagine what such a sum represents for them?” These frustrations are also nurtured by the presence of foreign companies. Especially since 2017, in the Pendjari park on the border with Benin, private security guards, employed by the NGO African Parks, have pushed some locals out of protected zones. These land-use policies lead to reducing the food-producing areas available to the rural population, that fails to benefit from the reallocation of land.

Finally, like in the rest of the country, the foreign companies that exploit the gold mines have set up strict security perimeters around the areas where they are active. Locals (including security) cannot enter such areas. They feel they do not enjoy sufficient compensation for what they perceive as a process of land-confiscation to the benefit of gold-mining activities. This feeling is also intensified by the criminalization of traditional gold-panning activities.

The central state has to date provided only an exclusively security-based response to the development of the informal economy and the social mobilizations in the East

In the face of limited prospects for legal economic activity, the younger generations enter the informal sectors of the local economy: gold-panning, poaching and various kinds of smuggling. The State’s only response to date has been to criminalize these activities. Around 20 illegal gold-panning sites in Eastern Burkina Faso attract inactive youth—but these activities remain threatened by state officials, who can shut them down at any moment, or extort workers as they leave extraction sites. As for those who choose to occupy land in protected zones to cultivate it illegally, they are expelled—often violently—by state officials (police, military, Forestry and Water Commission officials), who destroy their huts and grain silos, and impose fines.

The conflicts generated by these rarefied economic prospects are all the more significant because they are generally poorly regulated by the state, whose judicial system is considered incompetent and corrupt. As a livestock-farmer explains: “If we go to court, it’s generally the wealthier party that wins.” Locals in the East perceive state officials in the region as threats to the social peace, and express their lack of confidence in the various judicial institutions (police, gendarmes, the courts)—as well as suspicions that security forces and criminals work hand-in-hand.

Local communities that resist state authority therefore attempt to invent local management methods to circumvent the power of state officials. Faced with unprecedented forms of mobilization in response to the economic marginalization of a growing part of the local population, the central state has to date provided only an exclusively security-based response, such as developing military “combing” operations that have often led to abuses being committed against locals. These policies nurture dynamics of social fragmentation, both within the region itself and down to the family level, prompting a multitude of individual and collective frustrations.

These developments in land-use practices have deeply shaken the local population’s relationship to the land, and increased their resentment. Property-rights and land-use not only condition the property relation between people and their land. They also determine the relations between individuals. Jihadi armed groups taking root in the region therefore acts as a revealing indicator of these issues, that are also found in other areas of Burkina Faso (including in the country’s West) as well as at the regional level.

Taking Up Arms

For around two decades, the transformation of means of access to land and natural resources in the region has been intertwined with the spread of various kinds of armed violence. In the 2000s, criminal groups specialized in cutting off roads and taxing the locals, exploiting the area’s dense forests, porous borders, and the absence of state control in part of its Western region. Since 2015, “Koglweogo” self-defense groups have dismantled many criminal networks, seeming to calm the situation somewhat9. Some criminals opted—willingly and otherwise—to integrate the self-defense groups, automatically lowering criminality rates. In 2017, a Koglweogo leader explained that “We managed to bring back our children who had left for the bush to kill, to steal and to rape. They are now back among us.”

The search for social peace in the region has favored an alliance of convenience between the absentee state and its Koglweogo partners. The reduction in criminal activity has, however, gone together with an explosion in abuses of power by the self-defense groups: arbitrary arrests and detention, extortion through imposing arbitrary fines, torture, etc. State security forces periodically take part in the self-defense groups’ activities, but this alliance has gradually eroded the central state’s legitimacy, both to deploy itself on the ground—and to use force.

The self-defense groups have not been able to face down competition from better-armed and better-trained groups

At first, collaboration between the state and the self-defense groups enabled creating a regulated space for the private use of violence, since the Koglweogo do not represent a direct threat to the state. They did not attack state institutions, and regularly cooperated with its security forces, despite some friction on the ground. But the security solution has struggled to paper over the consequences of an absentee state. As an elected official put it in 2017, “Before the Koglweogo, there was no security. Now security has improved—but out here, one can drive for hours without ever coming cross a police station (…) and look at the state of our roads! Nothing has changed, the state does nothing for us.” The state encourages the formation of this mosaic of vigilante groups, that swiftly acquire official or quasi-official status with respect to administering justice, securing property, etc.

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While the self-defense groups have somewhat contributed to stabilizing the area, they have not been able to face down competition from better-armed and better-trained groups settling there, in a context in which the state itself was unable to respond to the incursions of the jihadi groups. From 2018 on, attacks proliferated in the region, leaving the self-defense groups impotent. “Two of our members had their throats slit during a joint operation with the army. We can’t fight; our weapons aren’t suitable for warfare,” a Koglweogo official complains.

Such events have largely demobilized the Koglweogo in the area, or incited them to enter into local non-aggression agreements with the jihadists. The mayor of an Eastern town explains that “the jihadists came to see the Koglweogo and told them that they were doing the same work helping the local population, and had no quarrel with each other so long as they did not assist the state”. Former Koglweogo appear to have joined the jihadist groups, or to collaborate with them on a regular basis.

Whether through banditry or joining self-defense or jihadist groups, taking up arms has become widespread and banal in the region. Movement between these various groups relies on opportunism based on family networks, friendship relations, and new trading networks opening up. The porous boundaries between these groups demonstrate that, in a disastrous social and economic context, exercising and controlling violence is above all a political resource. In turn, those who join these groups acquire skills and a social network that take part in a restructuring of local society, in a context in which violence becomes the primary political resource. The upward social mobility of those who bear arms also makes any return to the previous status quo difficult.

An individual can perfectly well combine trafficking activities, agricultural work, and active participation in a jihadist group

The emergence of a generation that resorts to bearing weapons responds to a governance-through-violence of the region by a multitude of players. The state, castigated for its absenteeism and the corruption of its officials, is present only through its security forces, held responsible for many abuses against the civilian population. Armed groups, whether these are criminal, self-defense or jihadist, are lastingly settled institutions in the East. Their primary mode of interaction with the population, however, remains similar: coercion—or threat.

In a context of instability and insecurity, these carriers of violence become more important local players than are state officials. Lack of prospects for the younger generations in particular pushes many of them to combine bearing weapons with roles in a “hustling” economy. Many of them bear weapons as a “seasonal” job; an individual can perfectly well combine trafficking activities, agricultural work, and active participation in a jihadist group. Adding to this mix are youth who emigrated for economic reasons and found themselves in conflict areas in Mali and Niger. Some of them joined armed groups before returning to their birthplace. Against a background of weapons-proliferation and activities based on bearing those weapons, social mobility and fluid identities make grasping the emergence of jihadism in East Burkina Faso especially complex.

The novelty of the emergence of jihadism in the region is not its recourse to weapons. By directly taking on the state and its symbols, however, it offers a break with the prevalent social ordering of violence, that was previously limited to controlling criminal activities and the territory, sometimes in concert with state authorities. This convergence between the jihadist uses of violence and the demands of part of the local population that feels marginalized by the central state is what best enables grasping how jihadism has taken root in Burkina Faso.

Those who kill us are our sons and brothers”: How jihadist armed groups took root

Various military ”combing” operations led by the armies of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and France have pushed certain jihadi armed groups to leave the Sahel strip and take refuge in areas subjected to less military pressure. With its hard-to-access great forests, Eastern Burkina Faso is a strategic sanctuary for these fighters.

The armed groups concentrated on pushing out the symbols of state presence

From early 2018 on, the presence of insurgent groups went together with guerrilla operations to harass security forces, targeting patrols or isolated security posts. These tactics forced the military and police to barricade themselves, only rarely leaving their encampments. According to a local security official, “The military no longer dare to mount patrols in the bush or the forests: they are too afraid of stepping on mines. At night, one customs post is even staffed by Koglweogo because the military refuse to staff it”. From this initial period of their presence in the area, the armed groups have kept the habit of sustaining ambiguity around their identity, and do not lay claim to their own attacks.

Once they had made the security forces retreat far from the rural environment, the armed groups then concentrated on pushing out the symbols of state presence, by threatening Water and Forestry Commission officials, teachers and local municipalities. As an elected official describes it: “they come to the mosques at the end of prayer to give us orders; they threaten the schoolteachers; we see them doing rounds on motorbikes with their Kalashnikovs; people are afraid.” These strategies have prompted some local state officials to flee: administrators of local authorities, teachers and health personnel. They have also led many schools to close, increasing the local population’s feelings of being abandoned.

The jihadists’ takeover of opposition to the state, and their embedding themselves socially, have enabled them to recruit fighters locally. These groups thus include members from every community in the area (Peul, Gourmantche and Mossi), as well as some foreigners from neighboring countries. Thanks to these local recruitment practices—that include integrating some bandits and former Koglweogo, as well as pacts of mutual non-agression reached with the latter— these groups have also developed a fine-grained understanding of the local population within which they live. This is a crucial asset for conducting attacks on security forces and targeted assassinations against civilians opposed to their presence, or those suspected of colluding with the state. “Those who kill us are our sons and our brothers. Everyone is afraid. Those who collaborate with the state have their throats slit; they threaten us directly. I can’t even go back to my village,” says a mayor from the East who is now a refugee in Fada N’Gourma.

The makeup of these armed groups underscores how they have adapted to local conditions. In the Pama region on the border with Benin, for instance, one finds young Burkinabé immigrants, who returned from Mali or Niger bearing stringent religious practices close to Ansar ul Islam and the Macina Liberation Front10. Cattle breeders—transhumant communities who roam the northern Soum region—provide a second group of fighters. Their rapprochement with the jihadi groups has been eased by the reduction in pastureland, and their coming into conflict with state authorities and the sedentary communities.

The jihadists’ first moves were to reopen hunting and fishing areas to locals

In the Gayeri area, close to Niger, armed groups are purportedly affiliated to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), made up of locals and foreigners who also fought in Mali. This group has been the most offensive strategically, proselytizing in villages and burning public schools. It has also provided protection to Peul transhumant communities that are targeted by reprisals from Burkinabé security forces, who, in turn, accuse them of supporting the jihadists.

Local armed groups have thus skillfully grasped hold of local demands and specificities to settle themselves in the area. To gain the approval of local populations in the East, the jihadists’ first moves were to reopen hunting and fishing areas to locals. The armed groups offered protection to locals threatened by the state for their informal economic activities, whether gold-panning, poaching or trans-border trafficking. They latched on to the economic fabric and levied taxes enabling them to provide themselves with weapons, ammunition and food, by promising to keep state officials away (policemen, the army, customs officers and Forestry and Water Commission officials). Similarly, they protect local communities from the predatory practices of such officials, as in the case of conflicts between livestock-farmers and Forestry and Water Commission officials accused of abuses against them. These officials were among those targeted by the first waves of assassinations, that preceded more ambitious attacks.

In a gold-panning area, the mayor of a village close to the border with Benin recalls that the jihadists “made a deal with the gold-panners, who were in conflict with the gendarmes and the Forestry and Water Commission officials who had come to expel or extort them. Now, they control the gold-panning sites and levy taxes on production, and the authorities don’t dare to come close any more.” Control of gold-panning sites appears to have become an especially lucrative activity for these fighters, and this burgeoning production is easily sold on through the coastal countries (Benin, but especially Togo). The revenue of gold-panning taxes enable buying up weapons in the neighboring countries to the South, by exploiting preexisting smuggling networks.

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Joining an armed group is therefore perceived as a factor of upward mobility for undervalued youth. The prestige tied to bearing arms, the symbolic means of retribution that those bearing arms gain access to, and the ability to find a meaningful ideological framework: all become accessible resources to them in this context. As a local elected official concedes, “I see the idle youth in my village watching propaganda videos on their phones. They want something more out of life.” Since the armed groups pay their fighters, upward mobility is combined with enhanced material conditions.

Conclusion

The initial responses to local violence by the Burkinabé state failed to curb its spread and the activity of jihadist groups. Nor do they appear to have restored confidence among local populations, that fear the army’s abuses no less than they do those perpetrated by the jihadists. The competition in the exercise of violence demonstrates that a military response alone will be unable to bring about an even relative appeasement of local tensions. Nor can it check the dynamics whereby jihadi groups have become settled in the region, grafting themselves onto a critical socio-economic situation and a local history of violence. Faced with this developing insurrectional context, and within an alarming regional security dynamic, the Burkinabé state appears to have chosen a military-first solution in the East—if not a military-only one. While military “combing” operations have enabled “neutralizing” some fighters, they cannot provide a long-term solution.

The emergence of a religious political register linked to jihad therefore needs to be contextualized within the local dynamics that govern it. Armed groups have proved able to insert themselves within the economic and social fabric of the region, taking advantage of favorable circumstances and geography. The roots of armed opposition to the state, and of the attraction of these groups, are above all to be found in the abandonment, dispossession and marginalization felt by the local population. Locals are confronted with an economic struggle for natural resources in which they feel disadvantaged by foreign forces, embodied by the large mining companies, the private natural parks, state officials, and internal immigration.

Finally, the situation in Eastern Burkina Faso is symptomatic of Sahel-wide dynamics of state recomposition, where state institutions increasingly appear confined to urban and suburban zones. Faced with rising violence, state administration, local elected bodies, security forces and state services withdraw to capitals and medium-sized cities (in this case, Ouagadougou and Fada N’Gourma). Once past the security positions at the edge of these areas, rural areas have become inaccessible or governed through violence, whether this is exercised by groups the state can use as proxies—or by other groups fighting the state itself.

  1. According to the UN, such violence has killed over 700 since the beginning of 2015, and has produced around 500,000 internally displaced and refugees.
  2. Overnight on 9-10 May 2019, French Special Forces freed four hostages (two French citizens, a South Korean and an American) who had been kidnapped in Benin and detained in Burkina Faso. Two French soldiers were killed in the operation.
  3. On 6 November 2019, an ambush targeted the personnel of entrepreneurs and suppliers of the Boungou gold mine, operated by Semafo, a Canadian company. The attack left 37 dead and 60 injured.
  4. Cadets sociaux are those whose social characteristics (e.g. age or community) limit their access to institutionalized economic networks, often blocking their social mobility and excluding them from access to positions of power.
  5. Compaoré, the former President of Burkina Faso, has been in exile in Ivory Coast since 2014. He is regularly accused of destabilizing Burkina Faso by exploiting former soldiers loyal to him.
  6. Ministère de l’Agriculture et des Aménagements Hydro-agricoles, “Projet de sécurité alimentaire à l’Est du Burkina Faso”, 2019.
  7. Pressure over land-use is increased by rising demography. According to the UN, 45% of Burkinabes were under 15 in 2012. The National Institute for Statistics and Demography predicts that the region’s population will rise from 1.6 million in 2014 to 2.6 million in 2030.
  8. Ministère de l’Agriculture et des Aménagements Agricoles, “Établissement de la situation de référence du projet de sécurité alimentaire à l’Est du Burkina Faso”, 2012.
  9. See our article on the Koglweogo movement.
  10. Ansar ul Islam and the Macina Liberation Front are jihadist movements tied to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are active both in Mali and in Burkina Faso.