Non-State Actors

Burkina Faso: Lawlessness & Vigilante Groups

June 15, 2020

Ana-Maria Baloi


Why does this matter


  • Self-defence groups (or vigilante groups) represent an important part of the Burkinabe society, as they fill the power vacuum left by inefficient governance.
  • Vigilante groups can fend off violence in weak and destabilised states, but they can also pose a great threat to the security of the state when they abuse power and monopolise the political spectrum.
  • Islamist militants launched violent attacks in northern and eastern Burkina Faso throughout 2019, targeting Christians and various ethnic groups. Clashes between self-defence groups, Islamist militants and national forces led around 600,000 Burkinabè to flee their homes.



What are Vigilante Groups?


The term vigilante stems from its Spanish equivalent, meaning private security agents. The vigilante groups are formed of civilians whose purpose is to provide justice and enforce the law where there is no state authority. Although the existence of this type of groups is documented since the biblical times, the term of “vigilante” became widely used in the Wild West, where the law was often non-existent, and the new settlers had to ensure their own security. Sometimes, however, vigilante groups form in places where authority does exist, but where the law is deemed weak, intimidated by criminal elements and corruption. In Africa, the vigilante groups form where governments are unable to protect civilians from security threats ranging from large-scale insurgency to political or ethnic violence, to low-level banditry.



Vigilantism in the African History


One of the most documented cases of vigilante groups in African history is that of the Bakassi Boys, originally from southeast Nigeria. Formed in 1998 as a youth organisation dedicated to fighting regional crime, the group emerged as one of Nigeria’s most popular paramilitary groups. Described as a highly structured group with a defined chain of command, the Bakassi Boys still operate in south-eastern Nigeria. Their purpose is to combat robberies, kidnappings, and ritual killings. Interestingly, the group is known for using dark magic (or Juju as it is called in Nigeria) to detect criminals. The Bakassi Boys often receive accusations of involvement in various murders of prominent persons in the state.


Another case is that of the Kamajors. During the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002), they became the most powerful fighting group. Evolving from bands of young men defending their villages, they came to be the core of a state-armed national militia fighting alongside both the regular army and foreign forces. The Kamajors (whose name means hunter in Mende, the predominant language and tribe in the south-eastern provinces) became a highly divisive entity. Many Sierra Leoneans still revere them for their bravery in defending first their home areas and later a democratically-elected government. However, they are also depicted as a brutal militia, which looted and killed suspected rebel collaborators and further destabilised the country.



The Perils of Vigilantism in Weak States


As weak African states face growing insurgencies, the governments subcontract security functions to vigilante groups, many of which had taken up arms to protect their communities. These forces can play a major role in fending off attacks and provide regular armed forces with critical local intelligence, thereby bolstering the effectiveness of counter-insurgency operations.


This approach is viewed as a necessity, but it also proved to be dangerous, particularly in weak states. The more fragile the state, the more it is dependent on vigilantes and less able to control them or prevent abuse of power. The more successful the vigilante group against insurgents, the harder it is to demobilise. Because of ethnic rivalries, community defence groups tend to become predatory, quasi-criminal organisations or enemies of the state.



The 2020 Burkinabe General Elections


Burkina Faso is engulfed in an Islamist insurgency led by various jihadist groups, with over 600,000 people killed in violent attacks and over half a million displaced. The country is also facing increased violent activity of community-based self-defence groups such as the Koglweogos, the Dozos and the Rougas. Despite a peak in unrest, general elections are scheduled to be held on 22 November 2020 to elect the President and the National Assembly.


In 2018, incumbent President Roch Marc Christian Kabore announced his decision to seek re-election. He assumed office in 2015, becoming Burkina Faso’s first elected president following the ousting of Blaise Compaore who was overthrown in protests after leading the country authoritatively for 27 years. His opponent is Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, who announced his candidacy in 2019.



The Self-Defence Groups in Burkina Faso


Historically, local security initiatives such as hunter associations or village militias have always been part of the Burkinabe landscape. The relationship between these groups and the state is often cordial or even supportive. In some areas of the country, these groups enjoy relative autonomy, governing and securing the zones where access is difficult. The Koglweogos, the Dozos, the Rougas and the new state-sanctioned “volunteers for the defence of the homeland” are locally described as the main perpetrators of communal violence.



The Koglweogos


The most prominent self-defence group in Burkina Faso is the Koglweogo. Many of them are of Mossi ethnicity. Some of its members are responsible for targeting members of the Fulani ethnic group, who they accuse of collaborating with the militants. The Koglweogo formed independently from the state, by claiming to be apolitical. It mainly operates in the eastern, central and northern provinces. They use penal procedures to gain authority, but often very violently: by using torture and sequestration. 


In municipalities where the Koglweogos took hold, another vigilante group known as the Rougas, and dominated by the Fulani ethnic group has emerged. They are located in eastern and northern Burkina Faso and their purpose is to counter Koglweogo activities by dealing specifically with cattle theft and extorsion.




The Dozo Hunters


The Dozo hunters prevail in western Burkina Faso. They are traditional hunters that perform self-defence duties and are present in several other West African countries, such as Mali. Members Koglweogo and Dozo members sometimes clash over territory. In central Mali, a Dozo group known as Da Na Ambassagou is responsible for a string of deadly massacres targeting the Fulani community, which it accuses of collaborating with the Katiba Macina jihadist group.



The Rougas


In 2012, the Rougas set up a union of “herder representatives” to protect herds in eastern Burkina. They defend the Fulani herders from the abusive actions of the Koglweogos. Citing the fight against banditry to justify their actions, the Koglweogos target the Fulani community. They arrest herders on the basis of accusations of cattle theft and damage caused by grazing herds. They also demand illegal taxes on livestock markets, making the Fulani herders feel discriminated.


In 2017, the Koglweogo of Boulsa (Centre-North) became engaged in fighting terrorism to the overt indifference of authorities. The Fulani community then became their primary targets and sought the protection of the Rougas, The Koglweogos accuse the Rouga of engaging with the jihadists and combat them using the country’s fight against terrorism prerogative. In 2019, the Koglweogos arrested nine Fulani and Rougas landowners and killed them for terrorism charges.



The Security Forces & the Civilian Volunteers


The Burkinabe security forces are accused of extrajudicial killings and torture, particularly against Fulani. In August 2019, the defence and security services reportedly executed 17 Fulani civilians, collaborating with the Koglwéogo to identify targets. Victims and civil society complain that authorities have failed to investigate human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces.


At the beginning of 2020, members of the Burkinabe national assembly unanimously voted in favour of arming civilians in a move they said would help combat the armed groups. Concerns were raised over the new measure, as it is likely to accentuate violence and instability. However, the government insists that arming civilians will stem the spread of attacks. Recruitment is still incipient, but local figures fear the jihadists will attack vulnerable communities where volunteers have assembled.


Based on local testimonies obtained by Amnesty International, on 8 March 2020, the Koglweogo were responsible for firing and indiscriminately killing people and burning homes and possessions in Yatenga province (northern Burkina Faso). The attack occurred in the context of the government’s promulgation of the “Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland Act” that mobilizes volunteers at the local level to assist the government’s military operations against the terrorists.



The Self-Defence Groups’ Involvement in the Burkinabe Politics


Vigilantism and party politics are intertwined in Burkina Faso. Although vigilantes pose as apolitical, their loyalty towards the political class fluctuates. Most leaders of these groups ally themselves with figures in the central government. Under Compaore’s rule, these groups were part of an informal network on which government relied to neutralise rivals and maintain relative peace and cohesion in rural areas.


After the collapse of the Compaore’s party, the Dozos switched their allegiance to Kaboré’s Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrès (MPP). This allowed them to obtain material benefits from the ruling administration and the private sector. In addition to securing the loyalty of the Dozos, the current ruling party has also allowed the expansion of Koglweogos as a way to counter the activities of the former.




Map: Noria Research (link)



Update 19:44 16-06-2020: Paragraph added on the Rougas

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