How a preacher sent gunmen into Burkina Faso's schools
A LOCAL CHANNELA lean, bespectacled Fulani from the north, Malam Dicko broadcast a message of equality and modesty. He reportedly died of an illness in late 2017, but his sermons channeled deep grievances in Burkina Faso’s north where impoverished people have long been frustrated by corrupt officials. The province of northern Burkina Faso where Dicko lived scores 2.7 on the United Nations Human Development Index, compared with 6 for the area around the capital, Ouagadougou. About 40% of its children are stunted by malnutrition, against only 6% in the capital, according to U.S. AID. From Ouagadougou to Djibo is a four-hour drive on a road which peters out into a sandy track. Sparse villages dot a landscape of sand and withered trees. Goats devour scrappy patches of grass. Residents complain that their few interactions with the state tend to be predatory: Bureaucrats demand money to issue title deeds for houses, then never provide the papers; gendarmes charge up to $40 to take down a complaint; there are mysterious taxes and extortion at police roadblocks. Lieutenant Colonel Kanou Coulibaly, a military police squadron commander and head of training for Burkina Faso’s armed forces, acknowledged that northerners “feel marginalized and abandoned by the central government.”
“WHITES AND COLONISERS”For some years Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, had managed to keep good relations with Mali’s Islamists. But in 2014, he tried to change the constitution to extend his 27-year-rule. Residents of the capital drove him from office. Without Compaore, Burkina Faso became a target. Barely two weeks into a new presidency, in January 2016, an attack on the Splendid Hotel and a restaurant in Ouagadougou killed 30 people. It was claimed by al Qaeda-linked militants based in northern Mali. Dicko became even more radical after that: He fell out with associates including his No. 2, Boly. Ibrahim, the Sufi preacher, said Boly came to his house in Belhoro village in November 2016, agitated because Dicko had ordered him to raise cash to pay for AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers from Mali. Boly refused. Dicko threatened him, Ibrahim said. Boly was either with him, “or with the whites and the colonisers.” Two weeks later, gunmen assassinated Boly outside his Djibo home. Ibrahim said he fled his own village the next day. The teacher Kone, whose house was down the street, said he heard the gunshots that day. A wave of killings followed. The militants assassinated civil servants, blew up security posts, executed school teachers. One day in May 2017, Kone was running late for school when he got a phone call from a colleague. Armed men from Dicko’s movement had come and asked after him. He shuttered the school and sped to Ouagadougou.
BOOBY TRAPSNow headed by Dicko’s brother Jafar, Ansarul Islam was sanctioned by the United States in February 2018. None of its leaders could be reached. It still controls much of Burkina Faso’s northern border areas but two other groups have also built a presence on the country’s borders, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara dominates along the eastern frontier with Niger. And Koufa’s Macina Liberation Front, which is closely aligned to al Qaeda, is active on the western border with Mali. These spheres of influence can be loose: Fighters for all three are believed to cooperate with each other and with bandit groups. Their attacks - including the kidnap and killing of a Canadian citizen in January claimed by Islamic State - are becoming more brutal. In one instance in March, a Burkinabe security official told Reuters, militants stitched a bomb inside a corpse and dressed it up in an army uniform, killing two medics - a technique used by Malian fighters. Recent attacks on churches have killed about 20 people, and a priest was kidnapped in March. The European Union and member states have committed 8 billion euros ($9 billion) over six years to tackling poverty in the region but so far, responses from Ouagadougou and the West have been predominantly military. The United Nations has spent a billion dollars a year since 2014 on a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali. Almost 200 members have been killed - its deadliest mission ever. France has 4,500 troops stationed across the region. The United States has set up drone bases, held annual training exercises and sent 800 troops to the deserts of Niger. Led by France, Western powers have provided funding and training to a regional counter-terrorism force known as G5 Sahel made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania. Despite all this, Islamist violence has spread to places previously untouched by it, as tensions like those that first kindled support for Dicko intensify. “You have a solution that is absolutely militarised to a problem that is absolutely political,” said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. “The security response is not addressing these problems.”
CYCLE OF ABUSEThe fact that a large number of recruits are Fulani has triggered a backlash by other ethnic groups, and those who have fled northern Burkina Faso say they had scant protection. One woman said gunmen on motorbikes attacked her village, Biguelel, last December. The gunmen accused her family of colluding with “terrorists” simply because they were Fulani. They torched her home and shot her husband and dozens of others dead, but she escaped. The next day the woman, Mariam Dicko, and about 40 others went to a military police post in the nearby town of Yirgou. “They said it was over now, so they couldn’t help us,” said Dicko - a common surname in the country. Kanou, the military police commander, acknowledged that troops were sometimes not present when needed. “But when patrols are being attacked, it’s more difficult,” he added. “We have to take measures to protect ourselves.” As Western forces rely increasingly on their Sahel partners, rights groups and residents say they sometimes overlook abuses by locals. Four witnesses described to Reuters summary executions of suspected insurgents during search operations. These included an incident in the village of Belhoro on Feb. 3, in which security forces ordered nine men out of their homes and shot them dead, according to two women who saw the killings. New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 19 such incidents in a report in March, during which it says 116 men and boys were captured and killed by security forces. The government said the army is committed to human rights and is investigating the allegations. “In our struggle there will necessarily be innocent victims, not because we want to, but because we are in a tough zone,” Kanou said. U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young said America takes up any “mistakes” with the government. In November 2018, Burkinabe forces raided the village home of a lab technician at a clinic in Djibo, accusing his 60-year-old father of being a terrorist, two friends of his told Reuters. They killed the father in front of his son. The following week, the technician, Jibril Dicko, didn’t show up for work. His phone went dead. Neighbours said he had gone to join the jihad.
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