The Burkina Faso authorities are tackling the threat posed by the self-defence militia groups referred to as ‘Koglweogo’. These militias who mainly operate in the rural areas, are overstepping the limits of the law.
The name ‘Koglweogo’, which comes from the combination of two words of the Moré language, can be translated as ‘The Guardians of the Bush’. The group claims to be restoring order in areas threatened by banditry where security forces are absent and says that their intervention will end as soon as people have their own security guaranteed. Their uniform consists of a tunic and sand-coloured trousers. Although they are not supposed to they carry weapons, usually caliber 12 hunting rifles.
According to the President of the Burkinabé Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (MBDHP), Chryzogone Zougmoré, the Koglweogo groups which emerged 10 years ago, were employed in the beginning, just as police informants and when they captured somebody they used to hand him over to the authorities. But in recent times, the militias have bypassed authorities and have taken things into their own hands. They arrest, sentence, after extorting confessions by torture and beating, operate private prisons, and punish. They even set up road blocks, which they manage autonomously, in rural areas. The Koglweogo groups use a ‘codified’ list of the amounts of the fines to be imposed on thieves who are caught. For example, those who steal one egg are fined 15,000 CFA francs (about 24 Euros); 55,000 CFA francs (about 84 Euros) for the theft of a mobile phone and 155,000 CFA francs (about 236 Euros) for that of a goat. These sums are officially used to pay expenses such as fuel for the vigilantes’ vehicles or ammunition but, as a matter of fact, some of the members of the Koglweogo groups quit their job and make a living from the profits deriving from these fines.
Saidou Zongo, the leader of the Koglweogo group in Sapouy (a town about 100 kilometers south of the capital Ouagadougou), recently explained why self-defence militias were established. He said he was once a farmer whose cattle had been stolen. He explained that the police and the Burkinabé judicial system do nothing to prevent these crimes or to punish those responsible for them. He, therefore, along with other people, established some self-defence groups in order to prevent thefts and punish thieves. Becoming a member of the Koglweogo groups is easy: one just has to give his phone number, a photocopy of his identity card and pay a fee of 1,000 CFA francs (about 1.50 euro). Weapon training or any kind of juridical culture formation are not provided. The militia members are both Muslims and Christians. The number of the Koglweogo militias has increased remarkably and although the different groups are connected with each other, they are not hierarchically structured, and do not have a single leader. However, it occurred, in some cases, that when a group was investigated by the police for overstepping the limits of the law and committing abuses, some groups from other areas came to support their ‘colleagues’ and used force against the police. On 17 March 2016, some clashes, between police and some demonstrators took place in Fada N’Gourma; the protesters demanded the release of nine members belonging to a Koglweogo militia, who had been arrested on abduction and kidnapping charge. Some vigilantes, in the past, committed crimes such as fraud or arms trafficking. Tensions sometimes occur between different militia groups themselves over the control of a territory.
In some areas, shopkeepers were forced to affiliate themselves with the militias in order to get protection. In Leo, in the Sissili province, a religious who had refused to pay the affiliation fee to the local Koglweogo militia, was kidnapped for several hours and forced to pay a 100,000 CFA franc (about 150 Euros) fine. The Koglweogo took advantage of the weakness of the State apparatus and have become a reality to come to grips with. According to some estimates, security forces are absent in more than a quarter of the territory of Burkina Faso. In many areas of the country the number of policemen is much lower than that of the militia men. This situation forced the authorities to come to terms with the militias. The Minister of Internal Security, Simon Compaore, after taking office in early 2016, travelled to different areas of Burkina Faso to talk with the local militia leaders. But, since the abuses by Koglweogo continued, Compaore has seemingly changed attitude and on 13 June he imposed restrictions on the militias’ activity, by banning the self-defence groups from carrying arms without government permission. The Koglweogo were also banned from operating private prisons and imposing fines on locals accused of a crime. In fact, only the security forces are now in charge of questioning and putting the suspects under arrest. It is still uncertain, however, whether and to what extent these orders will be respected. In fact, since several times until recently, the institutions have been forced to come to terms with the vigilantes’ demands, it is rather difficult to believe that the State will be able, at least in the short term, to impose its laws.
The militias undoubtedly fill a gap, which was created over the years by several factors: such as, the apparent minimal commitment of the security forces during the rule of Blaise Campaorè, who was President of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014 (when protests forced him out), as well as the tense situation of the rural areas, due to the difficult economic conditions, and the increasing mistrust in the institutions. According to Chryzogone Zougmoré, if Burkina Faso’s authorities do not solve these problems first, they won’t be able to face the Koglweogo’s threat.