“We’re here to stay”: Vigilante policing spreading across Burkina Faso
In the absence of the state, local armed units have emerged to enforce law and order. They have been welcomed by many, but not all.
Fada Ngourma (or simply ‘Fada’) is a lot safer than it used to be. Until a couple of years ago, the largest town of eastern Burkina Faso and its vast surroundings had long been subject to waves of criminal activity. Seated on a rickety chair in front of his house, Moussa “Django” Thiombiano recounts this former state of affairs.
“We had roadside robberies here. We had thieves entering homes and shops. They were raping our women,” he says. “These were our own brothers who were torturing us with their presence.”
With the state failing to intervene, a group of locals eventually decided to take matters into their own hands. Men armed with home-made guns organised themselves into small motorised patrol units. They called themselves the koglwéogo (“Protectors of what’s around us”).
According to Django, now one of the group’s most high profile leaders, they have since arrested more than 400 people and now control the region from the town all the way to the borders with Niger and Benin.
“Everybody was fed up with these bandits, so we started restoring law and order,” he says.
Council of the Wise
The activities of the koglwéogo have been widely welcomed in Fada. But not everyone is enamoured with the idea of local law enforcement being entrusted to vigilantes who are themselves operating outside the law.
At a public forum on national security, Guy Hervé Kam, a lawyer and spokesperson for the grassroots Balai Citoyen movement, put the problem in stark terms. “I personally prefer to be maltreated or tortured by a member of the FDS [Burkina Faso’s army], because when that happens I will know where to get redress,” he said. “Who do I turn to when a member of the koglwéogo maltreats me?’
Fear of abuse is certainly a concern. Some presumed criminals have died after being captured by the group and Django concedes that there have been excesses in the past. However, he insists that they have put in place measures to avoid such occurrences in the future.
“We used to parade some of these bandits around town to show the people who they were and what they had done, but these days we work hand in glove with the police,” he says. “We have a rulebook, which describes what you can do and what you cannot do.”
This set of instructions forbids torture, extortion and any other cruel treatment. It says that suspects must be brought before a Council of the Wise, which decides whether or not they should be handed over to “the competent authorities”.
State success or failure?
When the koglwéogo emerged in 2015, some believed it was a temporary phenomenon. A year earlier, a popular uprising had removed President Blaise Compaoré from power after 27 years in office. Once a new government was safely in place, ran the argument, the local vigilantes would simply melt away.
But that didn’t happen, and Django does not abide any talk of dismantling his units anytime soon. “We’re not going anywhere,” he says. “We’re here to stay.”
Given the emergence of similar vigilante groups across Burkina Faso, some have speculated towards a grander design behind their rise. Some rumours have it that these units were established by the political party Mouvement de Peuple pour le Progrès (MPP), which is now in power. The conspiracy alleges that if the MPP’s candidate, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, was not elected president in the November 2015 elections, the armed groups would have stepped in to take power by force.
There is no evidence for this persistent rumour, but the fact remains that Security Minister Simon Compaoré is on very friendly terms with the koglwéogo. At the same forum at which Kam spoke, the minister suggested that vigilante groups could be deployed to gather intelligence in the country’s fight against Islamist militants.
These comments and Compaoré’s failure to address what amounts to private justice shocked Kam. “The existence of these groups is a sign that the State has utterly failed. And now I must be made to understand that this privatisation of the inability of the State to protect its citizens has the minister’s consent,” he said.
Burkina Faso’s headache
Kam’s reservations do not seem to be widely shared by the people of Fada. On a tour of the town with Django, countless residents sprang up to personally thank him for his service to the community. Spontaneity on such a scale could not have been stage-managed, and the outpourings seemed heartfelt. Many citizens claimed that before Django and his men came along, well-known criminals escaped justice because they were friends of the police.
Not all localities extend such a warm welcome, however. In Tialgo, a village near the central town of Koudougou, three koglwéogo and two village youths were killed in May 2017. They died in a violent clash over supposed non-payment of a CFA800,000 ($1,500) fine that the self-styled law and order group had imposed on the villagers for an alleged theft of livestock.
Further to the west, there is similar hostility. For instance, a prominent traditional ruler in the region around Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, has made it clear that he had no need for a koglwéogo presence in his area. He said that they already have the FDS, the police, and their own dozos – namely, traditional hunters, armed with home-made weapons, whose existence is based on ancient traditions.
But in the central and eastern regions of Burkina Faso, the koglwéogo have become regular features of the security landscape. This may be for better or worse, but according to analyst Roger Ouédraogo, something may have to give eventually. The status quo cannot last forever, he says.
“Locally, they are recognised for the good that they have done and they may be able to play a role as gatherers of human intelligence. They are part of the landscape and will continue to function. But it has to be within the law,” he says. “Sooner rather than later, these groups will have to be integrated in some kind of a lawful framework.”
The headache facing Burkina Faso’s government is that, for now, nobody quite knows how to bring this about.