Burkina Faso to arm civilians to help ‘understaffed’ military fight extremist groups

Conrad Duncan
A soldier from Burkina Faso participates in a simulated raid during the US sponsored Flintlock exercises: REUTERS

Burkina Faso has voted to allow its military to arm civilian volunteers to fight extremists groups outnumber soldiers in the West African country.

In a sign of the threat posed by rising attacks across the country, Burkina Faso’s parliament has approved legislation that will see civilians undergo minimal training before being given weapons.

Cheriff Sy, the country’s defence minister, has said all recruits will be given two weeks of training, on topics such as how to use weapons and matters of discipline.

However, the tactic is likely to raise concerns about allegations of human rights abuses in the country’s crackdown on Islamist extremism.

Burkina Faso’s military has been criticised for killings carried out during the crackdown and the United Nations has voiced concerns about a lack of oversight on vigilante groups.

“It is not a question of making cannon fodder,” Mr Sy said of the proposal.

“We want to prevent these volunteers from becoming militias.”

Volunteers must be 18 years old and will undergo a “moral investigation” as part of their training, the defence minister added.

Demobilisation bonuses will be provided in an effort to reintegrate volunteers in the future, when they are no longer needed for military service.

Health benefits will also be paid to those who are wounded while on duty, Mr Sy said.

Despite training and assistance from France and the US, Burkina Faso’s military has struggled to contain the spread of extremism.

On Wednesday, its government declared two days of national mourning after an attack on two villages killed at least 36 civilians.

Deaths from attacks have risen dramatically in the last few years, from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 in 2019, after a “devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets”, according to the UN.

Mr Sy said the use of civilian volunteers was an acknowledgement that the country’s military was “understaffed”.

Burkina Faso’s armed forces have been criticised for committing abuses in their fight against extremist groups.

Last year, Human Rights Watch said more than 150 men, mostly ethnic Peuhl herdsmen, had been killed by Burkinabe security forces after being accused of supporting or harbouring extremists.

A UN committee of experts on torture also warned in November that vigilante groups called koglweogo, which have worked informally with state security forces, were not being sufficiently monitored.

The committee voiced concerns that the groups had been implicated in a massacre of dozens of herders in January 2019.

Such killings by security forces have only increased the ranks of the jihadists, according to activists.

Additional reporting by agencies

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