People converge on market day in Djibo, in the Soum Province of Burkina Faso’s Sahel administrative region. The majority of attacks by armed Islamist groups active in Burkina Faso have been on villages in the Soum Province. 

© 2010 Irene Abdou / Alamy Stock Photo

Armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have executed suspected government collaborators, intimidated teachers, and spread fear among civilians throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In response, Burkinabè security forces conducted counterterrorism operations in 2017 and 2018 that resulted in extrajudicial killings, abuse of suspects in custody, and arbitrary arrests. The Burkinabè government has promised to investigate these allegations.

The 60-page report, “‘By Day We Fear the Army, By Night the Jihadists’: Abuses by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso,” documents the killings and harassment of villagers in the Sahel region caught between Islamists’ threats to execute those who collaborated with the government, and the security forces, who expected them to provide intelligence about the presence of armed groups, and meted out collective punishment when they didn’t. The report also addresses the brutal 2016 and 2017 armed Islamist attacks in Ouagadougou and documents detention-related abuses of suspects by the security forces.

“The growing insecurity in Burkina Faso has led to terrible crimes by both armed Islamists and state security forces,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should follow through on its important commitment to investigate alleged abuses by state forces, and the armed Islamists should stop attacking and threatening civilians.”

Beginning in 2016, armed Islamist groups, including Ansaroul Islam, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have attacked army bases, police, and gendarme posts, and purely civilian targets in Burkina Faso’s north, and in the capital, Ouagadougou. The violence has killed scores of people and driven more than 12,000 from their homes.

In February and March 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 67 people including victims and witnesses; justice, defense, and education ministry officials; teachers; health workers; local government officials; diplomats and aid workers; security analysts; and religious and community leaders. The abuses documented took place in the northern Sahel administrative region, and in Ouagadougou, between 2016 and early 2018.

Human Rights Watch documented the alleged execution-style killings of 19 men from 12 villages by armed Islamist groups. The Islamists accused the victims, including village chiefs and local officials, of providing information to the security forces

One witness said that armed Islamists carried off two elderly men near Djibo in February. They were found several days later with their throats slit. Another described the April 2018 killing of the mayor of Koutougou Commune, which was later claimed by ISGS. One terrified witness said he “was being hunted” by the armed Islamists, who had killed several of his relatives. “I heard the sound of motorcycles which are forbidden at night, so I knew it was them,” he said. “I heard gunshots and later saw the people they killed.”

Armed Islamists also murdered 47 civilians in two attacks in Ouagadougou in 2016 and 2017. A waiter who survived the 2016 attack said: “Each time I come to work, I see the dead…I live that day again and again and again.”

Education workers described threats and attacks against schools and teachers, including the abduction of a teacher and killing of a school director. “The message is clear,” one teacher said. “‘Don’t teach in French and if you insist, we’ll kill you.’” The threats led to the closure of more than 200 schools and have left 20,000 students out of class.

Witnesses also implicated Burkina Faso security forces in at least 14 alleged summary executions and said that four other men died of alleged severe mistreatment in custody. The forces implicated include soldiers, gendarmes, and, to a lesser extent, members of the police force.

Many witnesses described seeing bodies – often blindfolded and with their hands bound – along local roads and footpaths in northern Burkina Faso. The majority of victims were last seen in the custody of government security forces.

Among the cases were eight men, including two brothers, detained by the army during an operation in late December 2017 who were shot the next day. In September 2017, gendarmes based in Djibo summoned a local government official. His body was found the next day. In March 2018, soldiers arrested a local trader at the Nassoumbou market. “We heard gunshots and found his body, the next day…face down, with his eyes bound,” a witness said.

Community leaders said that security forces appeared to randomly detain men who happened to be in the vicinity of attacks by armed Islamist groups. Most were released after preliminary investigations, but numerous men were severely mistreated and four died in custody. Witnesses said that two men, one with a mental disability, died in early February when police and soldiers near Baraboulé detained and beat them.  Health workers said they have treated men for cuts, hematomas and gashes sustained in detention.

Islamist armed groups and government forces should halt abuses and threats against civilians and detainees, Human Rights Watch said. The government should investigate and prosecute members of the security forces implicated in serious rights violations. And Burkina Faso’s international partners should privately and publicly call for prompt and credible investigations.   

On May 9, Human Rights Watch sent the Burkinabè government a letter detailing the report’s major findings and recommendations. On May 15, Defense Minister Jean-Claude Bouda, responded in a letter which noted his government’s commitment to respect human rights and said it would carry out the key Human Rights Watch recommendations.

“The government undertakes to conduct inquiries into all the cases of abuse cited which had not previously been brought to its attention,” his letter said. He noted that the government is aware of some allegations of abuses against civilians committed during the course of ongoing counterterrorism operations in northern Burkina Faso, and that these allegations have given rise to “immediate action.”

The government’s commitments are encouraging, and the authorities should faithfully follow through on them in a comprehensive and transparent manner, Human Rights Watch said.

“The logic of killing and mistreating suspects in the name of security will only fuel and deepen insecurity in Burkina Faso,” Dufka said. “The Burkinabe governments should make good on their promise to investigate allegations of abuse and take concrete measures to prevent any further ones.”