Burkina Faso’s government is struggling to overcome the insurgency of Islamic fundamentalist rebels, who have beset the Sahel region so the government is arming civilians to help in the fight.
The country’s parliament approved a bill in late January that permits the military to employ the services of civilian volunteers.
Burkina Faso’s government has justified the measure citing problems of understaffing in the military. Recruited civilians are expected to undergo just two weeks of training.
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Requirements before enrolment include what defense minister Cherif Sy calls a “moral investigation” to determine the prejudices and patriotism of the 18-year-olds and above.
The Sahel is one of the most volatile regions whose marauding Islamist groups and separatist groups have given headaches to governments for part of the last decade.
NATO allies – the United States and France – have combined forces of more than 10,000 on the ground complementing some 13,000 UN peacekeepers in Mali.
But what Burkina Faso’s desperate actions reveal, in spite of the numbers and weight of international support, is an overwhelming challenge that might have been previously underestimated.
The rebels have been described as “terrorists” by the governments of the region.
When the violence began in 2015, initial assumptions concluded that the governments had to deal with Islamist militants, including the Al-Qaeda-backed Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin or (JNIM).
What we now know is that other armed groups in countries such as Chad, Niger and Mali have also taken advantage of tensions and security weaknesses.
The Sahel, one of the poorest places in the world, is also suffering the worst of the climate crisis with droughts ever more common even as deforestation worsens.
A full-blown humanitarian crisis is what has ensued.
According to the UN, about 4,000 people were killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in 2019. In January 2020, 36 more were killed in Burkina Faso when an unidentified group stormed a northern village and burnt their central market.
The workability of Burkina Faso’s plan to commit civilian volunteers to fight lawless insurgents has been decried by some in the international community.
Writing for TheNational.ae, Stephen Rakowski summarized the dangers:
“The arming of poorly trained civilians will almost certainly lead to more human rights breaches, such as settling scores between rival ethnic groups. It could also spark friendly-fire incidents, as separating civilian vigilantes and militants during the fog of conflict will be difficult. The consequences will be dire, contributing to further deterioration of the country’s social fabric. Militants seeking to exploit fissures with a view to recruiting disaffected youths to their cause will look upon the situation with glee.”
Littered across the last four decades of geopolitical history are abundant examples of how ad hoc militarization of scared civilian population can go wrong.
But President Marc Christian Kabore faces an election later this year and he knows what will be on the ballot. Arming civilians is an obvious last resort that would face scrutiny, but he and his allies would have to defend.
For now, the problems of the Sahel have set all other relatively stable countries in West, North and Central Africa on edge. They would pray the likes of Burkina Faso can win by any means necessary.