People-Centred Security: Leaning into the context of Burkina Faso

by Abdoul Karim Saidou · May 25th, 2023.

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

In Burkina Faso, security sector reform (SSR) has faced numerous challenges in building a security system that fully protects citizens from the growing threat of crime, terrorism, and the weakening of social cohesion. The rise in insecurity due to violent extremism, transnational organized crime, and local conflicts has plunged certain areas into a worrying humanitarian situation, reinforcing and hindering social cohesion policies that aim to promote equitable access to resources, respect for human rights, and reduce inequalities.

The current security challenges have shown that the security sector does not have the means to face these threats, and their image is not always bright among certain populations in regions that are most affected by attacks. One of the main problems facing the security sector is the lack of joint efforts between the various security actors, including formal and informal actors, hindering more effective involvement of communities in the fight against insecurity.

The concept of people security is not foreign to Burkina Faso. The development of a National Security Policy (NSP) is one of the most important recommendations of the October 2017 Security Forum. The emergence of the concept of national security, within the framework of the NSP, reflected the public authorities’ political will to consider a holistic approach to security. The preliminary draft of the NSP showed a paradigm shift, both politically and strategically, with regard to security governance in Burkina Faso. In his remarks announcing the beginning of the work of the commission for the elaboration of the NSP, the Head of State also invited the members of the commission "to open up to popular consultations extended to all our regions, to best meet the expectations of women, men and young people". The vision of the NSP is as follows: "To make Burkina Faso, by 2030, a peaceful, stable, united and prosperous nation that guarantees optimal protection of its fundamental interests, ensures the security of its institutions and promotes the human security of its citizens."

Beyond the NSP, the importance of human security is reflected in multiple strategic governance documents such as the Community Police Decree, the Local Security Committee Decree, the Internal Security Act of 2003 and the Internal Security Strategy. The decree on Community Policing, provides that "The participation of populations in the implementation of community policing is done through local community security and coordination structures." Local security structures are defined as legally recognised associations with the vocation of participating in the fight against insecurity and they position themselves as privileged interlocutors of local authorities in the field of security while acting in compliance with the laws and regulations in force, morals, social cohesion, and human rights. They are placed under the supervision of the prefet or the mayor.” The committees perform the below tasks:

  • Provide advice that can guide the activities of the security services
  • Identify the expectations and needs of local populations in terms of security
  • Create a communication link between the security services and the local population
  • Organise cooperation between the security services and local populations in the prevention of insecurity

The defence landscape in Burkina Faso is equally hybrid. Self defence groups, such as the Koglweogo, Dozo and Wendpanga have been validated through national legal texts. Despite the existing regulation, tensions are visible between the community and the formal actors; the formal and in the informal actors, as well as between the community and the informal actors. These tensions, aggravated by a degrading security situation and a breakdown of trust between the capital and the regions, the state and its community members have all contributed to hampering the speed of the SSR process.

Today, personal safety and security is still the number one concern for people living in Burkina Faso, overtaking health, water and food security. However, a comprehensive view of the human security situation reveals a complex situation and many security challenges. Community insecurities can be summed up in several points according to the National Survey on Security Needs conducted by the Centre for Democratic Governance (CDG) and included in the 2017 Synthesis Report of the National Security Forum. The most recurrent insecurities according to the CDG study are among others: theft of animals or livestock, theft from the home (burglary), road safety offences, theft in a public place, theft in the fields, attacks and assaults with armed hands, road insecurity, terrorism, community and socio-political conflicts, etc.

From the above, one can imagine a synthetic view of the key needs of the population in terms of people-centred security in Burkina Faso as follows:

  • The prevention of extremism that derives from illiteracy and social and economic precariousness. It appears here that education is essential to fight against obscurantisms; starting already with the education of children.
  • The strengthening of the authority of the State to fight against the decay of certain social values and incivism. This within the framework of respect for the Rule of Law and democratic values.
  • Improving the quality of public service delivery, particularly at the level of formal security and justice actors. This is in order to bring the State and local societies closer together.
  • Improving the organisation and functioning of state security structures: greater territorial network, better collaboration between the SDF, effectiveness of road checks, etc.
  • Improving hybridity management: creating more harmony and collaboration between formal and informal security actors.
  • The fight against corruption at the level of the SDF in order to restore their image among the populations and to bring them closer to local societies.
  • The involvement of civil society and communities through consultations in the implementation of security policies at the local level.
  • The implementation of inclusive policies for management, redistribution, and access to resources (water, land, pastoral areas, gold, etc.) in rural areas.
  • The fight against community stigmatisation through the establishment of frameworks for dialogue between individuals and communities in the areas most affected by the security crisis.

Access to security and justice services is a problem to be solved at the community level and this problem also reflects the distance that exists between communities and the State. Very often the populations, especially in rural areas, prefer endogenous mechanisms for the resolution of disputes and conflicts, both at the individual and collective levels. This is explained by the fact that systems of representation at the community level often perceive the mechanisms of "modern justice" as out of step with their endogenous values and reluctant to conciliate. This phase shift would be due to the fact that the benchmarks of community members in terms of dispute settlement are located in perspectives sometimes different from the mechanisms of modern justice based on positive law. Where traditional benchmarks of justice will promote, for example, consensus through mediation, consultation, forgiveness, etc.; modern justice often favours punishment and correction.

A former member of the College of Elders evokes this problem: "Mediation is something other than law. Whoever mediates must take blows. In each of our traditions, there is the mediator. (...) I summarise it this way: they say that we must dialogue before killing each other”. Mediation plays an important role within communities in the justice process, as it places paramount importance on dialogue and negotiation in the search for solutions between protagonists of a conflict or dispute. It is therefore relevant to create coherence between modern justice mechanisms and traditional dispute management benchmarks, if only in a transitional manner.

In addition, modern security and justice bodies are often located in regional capitals, not always accessible to villages, in certain seasons these instances can arouse aversion for individuals (OHADA Teachers' Club du Burkina Faso, 2008). The weak recourse to (modern) justice would be due to “a certain state of mind of the African-Burkinabe litigant”, who when he is brought to “face a trial considers that he is affected in his dignity and honour". To this is added "a great ignorance of the standards on the part of the litigant" and the costs of proceedings which could constitute "an insurmountable obstacle to access to justice, especially in view of the average per capita income of the Burkinabé citizen who is among the weakest in Africa”.

As a result, at the community level, very often people prefer to go to the level of local leaders [customary chiefs, religious notables, Village Development Committees (VDC)]; and increasingly to self-defence organisations; to settle disputes. The use of traditional/non-formal bodies or places of endogenous power is also significant of the impact of traditional systems of governance on collective representations. Bado (2015) analysing the weight of these traditional systems of governance states that: “Chiefs are the guarantors of the cultural tradition of peoples. Even in urban areas, the cultural life of societies is often organised around chiefdoms. (…). Customary laws are very important in the management of human relations. (…). Considered the legitimate spokespersons of the local populations, the chiefs serve as intermediaries between their local communities and the central government.” (Bado, 2015: 19-30). However, recourse to informal actors (at the community level) to dispense justice and settle disputes does not completely eliminate recourse to the authorities of the modern State (Police, gendarmerie, justice), when disputes and conflicts have exceeded a certain severity threshold, as in the case of blood crime.

It is also necessary to highlight the disparities that exist between men and women in terms of access to security and justice services. Women face enormous difficulties in accessing these services, particularly when it comes to cases of rape or domestic violence. Victims of male domination, they experience these constraints related to public security and justice more acutely. The case of women accused of witchcraft and expelled from their villages is an illustration of this. Dozens of them were interned in Ouagadougou in a Delwendé de Tanguin center managed by the Community of White Sisters. This situation of injustice only concerns older women and indicates the inability of the public authorities to ensure security and justice for all citizens. It should be noted that in recent years, with the increase in female personnel in the national police, the gendarmerie, the army and the judiciary, improvements have been recorded concerning the specific case of women.

By and large, managing hybridity in Burkina Faso is not looking great. For a good management of hybridity, it is generally necessary to think of a lasting partnership model between informal actors and formal actors in the security service offer. The role of formal actors is to raise awareness amongst informal actors on the need to respect human rights, the procedures of the Rule of Law, and the requirements for meeting the security offer within the modern state. Informal actors might thus be more willing to rethink their practices. It is also necessary to ensure that informal security actors have the same level of information as formal actors regarding the SSR process.

Ultimately, there are many reasons why SSR has not had such an impact on people's lives thus far in Burkina Faso. But the most relevant seem to be the resistance of key security actors vis-à-vis the total de-politicisation of the army and the lack of means (political, technical, material) of the external control bodies of the army. The continued deterioration of the security situation has hampered the speed of the SSR process, so that we are witnessing a sort of step backwards in terms of the opaque management of military issues, but also a regression of legislation on defence and security actions.

Thus, it is evident that traditional SSR has faced numerous challenges in the country, and in building a security system that fully protects citizens from the growing threat of crime, terrorism, and the weakening of social cohesion. A people-centred approach to security could have potential positive effects by involving citizens in the security process, strengthening the capacity of the security sector, and ensuring the respect for human rights in the operations of the security sector. This approach could contribute to the strengthening of the legitimacy of state institutions, avoiding desires for unconstitutional changes, and consolidating democracy. By promoting local ownership and the management of hybridity, a people-centred approach could lead to more effective and sustainable security provision that is tailored to the needs of the local population.

Abdoul Karim Saidou is a Professor and Researcher at Thomas Sankara University in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

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