Arming civilians in Burkina Faso – Lessons from Nigeria and Mexico

by Margaux Boffi · April 9th, 2020.

Since its independence, the political landscape of Burkina Faso has been marked by a series of coups and institutional instability. In recent years, the country has been increasingly exposed to the threats and attacks of violent armed groups, targeting the civilian population, as well as symbols and representatives of the State, including the defence and security forces, local leaders and political figures. These attacks were previously concentrated in the northern Burkinabe Sahel region and mainly conducted by groups based in Mali, using the porous border areas to escape the authorities. However, the absence of public services and the unequal distribution of security forces across the country have made it possible for these groups to operate relatively freely, increasing their capacity and presence in the country. Burkina Faso’s security forces, inadequately equipped and lacking operational capacity, have been unsuccessful in restoring security. To support them, the government recently adopted a new “ Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland ” bill to allow local volunteers to join the fight against jihadist armed groups.

The creation of this new mechanism comes with a series of organisational and structural challenges and poses serious threats to human rights and the legitimate use of force in the country. This note aims to highlight the potential impact of this new measure on the ongoing Security Sector Reform (SSR) process and presents contextual learning from similar experiences in Nigeria and Mexico.

The Defence Volunteers: New Name, Old concept

Burkina Faso’s new “Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland” bill offers the possibility to “any citizen of good character” to voluntarily commit themselves as an auxiliary for the defence of their village, contributing, if necessary by force of arms, to people and property protection. As pre-deployment training, the Volunteers benefit from a 14-day training course; at the end of which, they receive a military kit including light weapons, riffles and means of communication and observation, such as binoculars and radios. The idea of enrolling civilians in support to the security forces is not new. Self-defence militias have existed in the region for a long time and have maintained varying degrees of organised relations with the State authorities. In Burkina Faso, several groups were created in recent years, including the very influential Koglweogo groups. Formed by farmers in early 2015 in response to rising insecurity in the northern regions, they have since then evolved into organised armed groups implementing their own sets of rules and passing sentences.

Other similar cases in the region include the Civilian Joint Taskforce (CJTF) in Nigeria. Formed in 2013 to protect communities in north-east Nigeria and to support the country’s security forces in the fight against Boko Haram, the CJTF is an interesting case to study. Like the Defence Volunteers in Burkina Faso, they have received the support of the central government and have benefited from a certain degree of formalisation. When the situation deteriorated in north-eastern Nigeria, the partnership between the CJTF and the public security forces was instrumental in regaining control over the city of Maiduguri and other areas of Borno State.

Self-defence militias are not specific to the Sahel however, and experiences involving the formalisation of armed-groups and their integration to the local security architecture have taken place in other regions of the world, such as Mexico. The country has long suffered from endemic violence resulting from the activities of organised criminal groups and from the so-called “war on drugs” launched by the government of Felipe Calderon in 2006. Growing insecurity and widespread corruption coupled with the limited capacity and accountability of the security forces, have deeply damaged the image of the security sector, as well as, their ability to respond to the threats faced by the local populations. Communal militias have long existed in the country but have gained in notoriety since early 2013, when armed civilians in the Tierra Caliente region of the Mexican State of Michoacán joined to confront the Knight Templar cartel. Those groups of civilians are well integrated in their communities and familiar with the mountainous and rural landscape. The government, struggling to regain control over some areas, saw in them an opportunity to increase its territorial coverage. In 2014, a decree was issued to prohibit the activities of self-defence militias but offering their members the possibility to join a structure called the State Rural Police where they would receive some initial training, a uniform and weapons. This initiative is very similar to Burkina Faso’s Defence Volunteers.

Potential Opportunities for the Burkinabe SSR Processes

According to the last Afrobarometer, the vast majority of Burkinabe are in favour of these civilian defence initiatives. More than three-quarters (77%) of citizens consider that local security associations created by the population are a positive thing for the country’s security. In recent years, the government has launched several initiatives to strengthen the dialogue with the Koglweogo groups and has adopted a decree formally allowing them to participate in the fight against insecurity alongside the State forces. The creation of the Defence Volunteers is therefore part of a general tendency by the Burkinabe Government to encourage the multiplication of semi-formal security providers.

The 2017 National Security Forum marked the official start of the government’s SSR efforts, but the deteriorating security situation has brought the process to a standstill. Mechanisms like the Defence Volunteers are likely to impact the future of the SSR process and some lessons can be drawn from countries with similar experiences:

  • Strong monitoring and accountability mechanisms are required to prevent a slide towards intercommunal violence.

In a context of high intercommunal polarization, allowing civilian volunteers to take up arms without setting proper oversight and accountability mechanisms could lead to legally empowering one faction against another, under the banner of fighting terrorism. Incidents of intercommunal violence and mass killings have already been registered in the country. One recent example took place on the 8th of March 2020, when at least 43 civilians were killed during an attack led by defence groups on two villages in the northern Yatenga province. The villagers were members of the Fulani community, accused by some of the defence groups to be supporters of the jihadists in the region. Similar trends were observed in Mali and Nigeria.

In anticipation of such risks, the Burkina Faso National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has a significant role to play. Although its efficiency and visibility in the promotion of human rights has improved since its creation, the Commission remains inadequately funded and has been subjected to government influence. The role of the Commission as a human rights monitoring tool and independent investigative body should therefore be strengthened and the Defence Volunteers should be included in its mandate. The role of Parliamentary committees and other oversight mechanisms should also be explored.

  • Communal armed groups should be included in a clear chain of command.

Coordination and management of civilian armed groups is a key challenge, in particular for countries where the oversight and accountability of regular security forces remain far from fully operational. Non-state security providers threaten the unity of the legitimate use of force and lead to a multiplication of security actors and structures. The formalisation of such groups also raise the question of the State’s ability to manage and oversee them. While very often self-defence groups are created and sometimes legally recognised by States in order to address a specific security challenge, there is often the risk that these groups outlive their initial raison d’être and gain power and influence, feeding the national and regional instability. In Mexico, efforts by local governments to exert more control, or disband armed groups after allowing them to operate in semi-formalised manners, have had very little success. The groups are still very active in the country and operate outside the control of the State. To avoid similar shortcomings, it is important for the SSR process in Burkina Faso to engage with the Defence Volunteers mechanism from a long-term reform perspective and strengthen their oversight, and accountability mechanisms, as well as, prepare for their eventual disarmament and demobilisation.

Programming entry-points

Self-defence groups have often responded to a lack or discriminatory access to security services by vulnerable communities influenced by perceptions of exclusion and insecurity. It seems therefore unlikely that such militias will disappear from the security landscape in the foreseeable future. However, even when being encouraged by the State, their relations are often blurred and remain, at best, circumstantial.

SSR processes should understand the positive effects of involving communities in the activities of the security sector. In some cases, those groups have played a key role in supporting the State regain control over lost territories. In Nigeria, the CJTF was instrumental in bringing the city of Maiduguri back under governmental fold, which in turn enabled to State to slowly reassert its presence in the area. In Mexico, the community policing groups have helped improve, if only for a time, the safety conditions for thousands of people who were victims of organised crime groups operating in the Tierra Caliente region.

The challenge today for Burkina Faso is to foster the potential positive effects of the Defence Volunteers on human security, while mitigating longer-term reform risks and negative impact on erosion of State functions and institutions. The below programming entry-points could provide insight to the international community reflecting today on how to engage with non-state security actors.

  • Build confidence in the State and its people-centred services

In Burkina Faso, the Government recognizes the importance of improving governance, including for the internal security and defence sectors. Governance and accountability malfunctions have been identified as key factors of the former regime’s failures. The SSR process, launched in 2017, was aimed at addressing corruption as a priority issue, fuelling instability in the country. Through the elaboration of a National Security Policy (NSP), a national security and sectoral framework, the government’s intention was to consolidate the governance of the security sector and improving the population’s trust in public institutions. However, the slow progress in the implementation of the SSR framework documents was further compounded by the deteriorating security situation. Today, the imperatives of transparency and good governance are not the highest priorities for the defence and security institutions. In order to build the eroded trust between the State and the population, it is important to bring those aspects back to the political and strategic agendas.

  • Ensure respect of Human Rights Standards and the Rule of Law.

In Burkina Faso, a fully state-led solution is unlikely to take hold due to the long-dated absence of the State from some regions and centuries-old social norms still in order. The international community needs to find ways to work with local populations and traditional leaders. This might involve, among other measures, working with local and community-based militias and fostering hybrid security arrangements.

In this context, the Defence Volunteers could play an important role in building bridges between the local population and the state security forces. However, as lessons from other contexts have shown, it is important to include those mechanisms in a clear legal framework, designing context-specific measures ensuring their proper management, monitoring and accountability. While engaging with such groups can represent a risk for international partners, this engagement is key to ensure respect of human rights standards and promoting the rule of law. In Nigeria for example, the UNICEF and its partners have engaged with the CJTF to prevent child recruitment and UNDP has provided those groups with training on human rights and leadership. Ignoring or antagonizing these groups, as Mexico showcases, would increase violence, encourage merger with organised crime or dissident armed groups and enable recruiting children in their ranks.

  • Ensure efficiency of security and defence institutions

The unclear delineation of roles and deployment of the different security forces in Burkina Faso has led to inefficient use of human resources, incapability of ensuring consistent coverage of all the territory, in addition to unequal distribution of services to the entire population. An assessment conducted by ISSAT in 2018 showed that security forces were absent in 36% of the “communes”.

The creation of the new Defence Volunteers in Burkina Faso should be used as an opportunity to review the security deployment grid and conduct a proper analysis of the needs and available resources. Experience has shown that fostering a better use of human resources could increase the provision of security services without increasing the cost for the central State. This could serve as a preventive measure in areas not yet overly affected by instability and insecurity. In Benin for example, the recent merger of the Police and Gendarmerie into a single united Republican Police has led to an improvement in security coverage by rationalizing the distribution of security forces throughout the country. While the police-to-population ratio remains the same, the provision of security services has improved: nearly 85% of the territory is now covered compared to 55% before the merger. In the case of Burkina Faso, such an exercise might require the integration of the Defence Volunteers into the analysis.

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