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Burkina Faso

Events of 2023

A television shows the cut signal of the France 24 channel hours after the junta in Burkina Faso suspended the channel on March 27, 2023, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

© 2023 Olympia de Maismont/AFP via Getty Images

Burkina Faso’s human rights situation deteriorated considerably in 2023, as deadly attacks by Islamist armed groups against civilians surged and military forces and pro-government militias committed abuses during counterinsurgency operations.

Conflict-related violence resulted in the deaths of nearly 7,600 people in over 2,000 incidents in 2023 alone. The conflict has also forced over 2 million people from their homes since it began in 2016.

In April, the military government, which came to power in an October 2022 coup, announced a “general mobilization” as part of a plan to recapture territory lost to the armed groups, which may control up to 50 percent of the country’s territory. The plan seeks to create a “legal framework for all actions” taken against insurgents.

Burkina Faso’s transitional military authorities also cracked down on the media and dissent, contributing to the shrinking of civic space.

In October 2022, the leader of the military junta, Ibrahim Traoré, promised to hold elections by July 2024, a deadline agreed on by former Burkinabè coup leader Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, on May 30, Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tambela said elections might be delayed given the persistent insecurity affecting the country.

In a September 27 statement, the spokesman for the military government, Rimtalba Jean Emmanuel Ouedraogo, said the Burkinabè intelligence services thwarted a coup attempt by some army officers and others. The military prosecutor said four army officers were arrested and two were on the run.

Burkinabè transitional authorities have cut relations with France—requesting in February that Paris withdraw its special forces from the country, marking the end of more than 20 years of the French military presence—and have established stronger ties with non-Western partners including Türkiye and Russia.

Abuses by Islamist Armed Groups

The Al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and, to a lesser extent, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) killed hundreds of civilians during attacks across the country. Some attacks targeted communities that had formed local civil defense groups. Islamist armed groups also besieged more than two dozen towns—an estimated 800,000 people—leading to severe food shortages and contributing to malnutrition.

Islamist armed groups led repeated and escalating attacks on the town of Dassa and its surroundings, Centre-Ouest region, from December 2022 to February 2023, culminating in killings that caused residents to flee the area. Dassa is in an area where the JNIM is known to operate and carry out attacks. On January 26, gunmen attacked Doh, a village about 4 kilometers from Dassa, allegedly killing 12 men and injuring 2. As a result of the attack, the population fled the area. On February 9, gunmen wearing sand-colored clothes and turbans attacked Dassa, killing two men.

Islamist armed groups carried out at least three attacks in villages in and around the town of Pissila, Centre-Nord region, in December 2022 through February 2023, killing civilians in an apparent attempt to expel its population. Pissila is in an area where JNIM operates and conducts attacks and raids. In January, about 40 gunmen on motorcycles, wearing military fatigues and turbans, entered the village of Dofinega, about 16 kilometers from Pissila, and killed 17 men. In mid-January, gunmen wearing military fatigues and turbans attacked Ouanobian, 15 kilometers north of Pissila, and burned at least one house. In February, about 100 gunmen rounded up a group of about 60 residents of Noaka village, about 12 kilometers from Pissila, and issued an ultimatum for them to leave the area.

Islamist armed groups allegedly linked to JNIM led at least three incursions into the village of Zincko, Centre-Nord region, in December 2022 and early January 2023, looting, shooting in the air, and demanding villagers tell them where they could find government security forces, residents said. They eventually issued two ultimatums for residents to leave the village. On January 4, gunmen wearing “cold-weather clothes,” carrying AK-47-style assault rifles, and riding on motorcycles returned and went around the town to give residents an ultimatum to leave within 48 hours. In late January, a confrontation between Islamist fighters and local militias led to the killing of two civilian men.

On January 12, armed men abducted over 60 people, foraging for food in the department of Arbinda, Sahel region, an area mainly controlled by JNIM but where fighters from ISGS have also carried out attacks. A week later, the Burkinabè information agency announced the captives—identified as 39 children and 27 women—had been found alive. Arbinda residents have been battling extreme hunger as a direct result of a siege by the Islamist armed groups.

JNIM forces have besieged the town of Djibo, Sahel region, since February. The Islamist armed group controls the access roads to Djibo, along which they have planted explosives. They have destroyed bridges, water, and communications infrastructure, as well as prevented deliveries of market supplies, isolating the town from the rest of the country. People cannot move freely and lack access to basic goods and services, including food, water, electricity, and health care. Prices have risen so much that many people are unable to buy food staples and other necessities. Attacks by Islamist armed groups and counterinsurgency operations by the Burkinabè armed forces around Djibo have led to mass displacement, with thousands of people seeking refuge in Djibo. As of early May, of the 300,000 people living in Djibo, almost 270,000 were displaced.

Abuses by State Security Forces and Pro-Government Militias

The military authorities have relied heavily on local militias to counter the attacks. In October 2022, they opened a campaign to bolster these militias by recruiting 50,000 civilian auxiliaries, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie, VDPs).

Pro-government forces, including soldiers and VDPs, unlawfully killed or forcibly disappeared hundreds of civilians during counterinsurgency operations.

On July 8, Burkinabè soldiers stopped a truck carrying 11 people, including 8 children, fleeing their village of Bekuy, western Burkina Faso, following an attack by Islamist armed groups the day before. They threatened to kill the driver and drove off with 11 people. The bodies of those 11 were found the same day a few kilometers away from Bekuy. All appeared to have been shot.

On April 3, a supply convoy heading to the town of Dori, Séno province, escorted by a large number of military vehicles, motorcycles, and armored cars, stopped in Gangaol village and dropped off soldiers around the market area. Soldiers questioned people, asking them to show their identity cards, then broke into a home and pulled out 10 men. Soldiers beat the men and later summarily executed six of them, according to witnesses.

On April 20, apparent Burkinabè military forces summarily executed at least 156 civilians, including 28 women and 45 children, burned homes, and looted property in the village of Karma and the vicinity, northern Yatenga province, in one of the worst massacres in Burkina Faso since 2015.

On March 29, soldiers killed a 47-year-old man and two children, ages 13 and 14, in Ouro Hesso, a neighborhood of Gangaol village, Séno province.

On February 15, scores of Burkinabè soldiers accompanied by militia in a counterinsurgency operation arrested 16 men in Ekeou village, Séno province, Sahel region, and then headed to Goulgountou, a nearby village, and arrested two additional men. The bodies of at least nine of those arrested, including one man with a visual disability, were found on May 26 near the VDP base in Falagountou. Soldiers also severely beat those arrested in Ekeou along with eight children between the ages of 6 and 16 in the same village. A man with a physical disability later died due to injuries he received during the military operation.

Two members of the security forces and two militia members arrested two ethnic Peul brothers on January 30 in Zoundwéogo province. One reportedly died in detention, and the other appears to have been tortured before being released.

On July 25, a group of about 30 VDPs stormed Ekeou village, killed two men, including one with a visual disability, and seriously injured two children. They also burned four homes and a barn. Witnesses said the VDPs were searching out the men of the village, whom they accused of being Islamist fighters or their accomplices.

On August 3, a Burkinabè military Bayraktar drone struck a crowded market in Bouro, Sahel region, killing at least 23 men and wounding many others. There was no evidence that the men were combatants, and the strike was far from any fighting.

On September 10, a group of VDPs stormed the grazing fields surrounding the village of Peteguersé, Sahel region, to loot livestock. During the attack, they killed 7 people, including 4 children, and looted over 100 cows and 24 goats.

On November 12, the European Union called for an investigation into a massacre in northern Burkina Faso, saying about 100 people were reportedly killed. According to the government, unidentified gunmen killed at least 70 people, mainly older people and children, in Zaongo village, Centre Nord region, on November 5, and the incident was being investigated.

On September 21, a military drone strike killed at least 20 civilian men and injured 10 others who had gathered for a funeral ceremony in Bidi, North region.

Crackdown on the Media and Dissent

On March 27, Burkinabè authorities suspended the French international television news network, France 24, for airing a 19-second clip of a March interview with Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamist armed group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

On March 29, the media regulatory body in Burkina Faso, the Superior Council for Communication regretted “the recurrence of threats against media outlets and media actors” and called on the authorities to “take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of the media and journalists in the course of their work.”

In March, Burkinabè military authorities expelled Agnès Faivre and Sophie Douce, two journalists working for the French newspapers Libération and Le Monde. Both journalists, who possessed valid visas and accreditation, had reported on human rights abuses by government forces. National intelligence officers summoned and questioned them on March 31 in Ouagadougou about their work and gave them 24 hours to leave the country without providing any reason for their expulsion.

On August 10, Burkinabè military authorities suspended independent radio station Radio Omega for broadcasting an interview with supporters of the ousted president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum. The journalist who conducted the interview, Abdoul Fhatave Tiemtoré, was summoned by State Security the next day and questioned for five hours. The radio started broadcasting again in September.

On September 25, military authorities ordered the suspension of Jeune Afrique media, accusing it of discrediting the military.

Burkina Faso’s military junta has used a sweeping emergency law against perceived dissidents. Between November 4 and 5, 2023, members of the security forces notified, in writing or by telephone, at least a dozen journalists, civil society activists, and opposition party members to inform them they will be conscripted to participate in government security operations across the country. The transitional military authorities assert that the conscription orders are authorized under the April 13 “general mobilization” plan that gives the president extensive powers to combat the Islamist insurgency, including requisitioning people and goods and restraining civil liberties.

Accountability for Abuses

On June 14, Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Burkinabè justice and defense ministers, sharing the organization’s research findings on the alleged abuses committed by members of the Burkina Faso armed forces between January and April 2023 in Séno and Zoundwéogo provinces and requesting responses to specific questions. The Burkinabè minister of justice and human rights responded on July 25.

The justice minister said all allegations of human rights abuses by members of the Burkinabè armed forces and security forces into systematically investigated. He provided information regarding the investigations opened into the alleged abuses in Karma and Gangaol villages and Zoundwéogo province. He said the inquiry into the massacre of 156 civilians in Karma has been finalized—with 54 people heard, including 9 military officers and sub-officers, three soldiers, and two VDPs—and transferred to the prosecutor of the high court in Ouahigouya. The justice minister also said the government is drafting a decree to compensate the victims of terrorist acts.

On February 16, the nation’s transitional parliament passed a bill to strengthen the role of provost marshals, who are responsible for discipline in the armed forces. The new law, if fully implemented, will better protect detainees’ rights during military operations and at military camps and contribute to accountability for human rights abuses.

Children’s Right to Education

Islamist armed groups allied with Al-Qaeda and the ISGS began attacking teachers and schools in Burkina Faso in 2017, citing their opposition to “French,” Western-style education and government institutions. The attacks have increased every year since. The groups have killed, beaten, abducted, and threatened education professionals; intimidated students; terrorized parents into keeping children out of school; and damaged, destroyed, and looted schools.

One-quarter of schools are closed in Burkina Faso because of the increased fighting between Islamist armed groups and government forces. As of July, 6,100 schools were closed, affecting close to 1 million students.

Most of the attacks on schools in the country have been attributed to JNIM fighters. On March 10, JNIM fighters burned a school in Sanguen village, Centre-Nord region.

Key International Actors

On September 16, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma charter, a security and defense agreement establishing the Alliance of Sahel States, binding the parties to assist one another in case of an attack on any one of them and to work to prevent or settle armed rebellions.

On September 15, Burkina Faso expelled the French military attaché for “subversive activities” and ordered the closure of the French military mission in Ouagadougou. France withdrew its troops from Burkina Faso after the October 2022 military coup.

On September 18, France’s foreign ministry announced that new visas for students coming from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger will no longer be issued “for security reasons.” On August 6, France also announced the suspension of development aid and budgetary assistance to Burkina Faso.

In April, the EU’s external service called for an impartial and thorough investigation into the massacre of civilians in the village of Karma, warning it could constitute war crimes.