Ouagadougou — Recent fighting between herders and farmers in Burkina Faso's central-eastern Sangou area which left seven people dead is a warning that recurrent violence between the two groups could get out of hand unless urgent action is taken.
"We are used to having frequent clashes between herders and farmers in this part of the country, but they have never been this bad," said Allahidi Diallo, governor of the Central-East region, one of the country's most fertile.
On 31 December clashes broke out again between Fulani herdsmen and Bissa farmers after a herder's cattle grazed on a farm. "A lot of property, including houses, granaries and cattle was destroyed," said Diallo adding that a temporary curfew was imposed in Sangou village and the surrounding areas. He said fighting had spread to areas as far as 100km away.
"We think that some people are deliberately attacking others because of their ethnicity. We must put an end to these practices where communities are attacked when one of their members has committed an offence. There is no collective responsibility under Burkina Faso law," Interior Minister Jerome Bougouma told reporters.
He said the violence was mainly due to lack of faith in the judiciary, and the reliance on traditional laws and collective punishment. He pledged that a security forces' unit would be established in the troubled region.
"There is a lack of confidence in the judiciary and the administration. We will work to rebuild confidence and the rule of law so that people can understand that they need to abide by the state laws and not traditional laws which encourage collective punishment."
Deadly clashes between farmers and herders are frequent in Burkina Faso. In 2012, the government held workshops in the country's 13 regions to seek ways to ease tensions among different communities. According to government statistics, 55 people have been killed in clashes in the past four years and on average there are 600 such conflicts every year.
The peace initiative focused on land regulation, the importance of protecting nomadic paths and seeking ways in which farmers and herders can sustainably use natural resources. In Burkina Faso, livestock are an economic mainstay for many families, with 80 percent of rural families keeping at least one or two animals to fall back on when times are hard.
"During sensitization campaigns, we failed to reach a huge part of the population. How many of those who clashed in the Centre-East region have taken part in our meetings?" asked Hassan Barry, head of Tapital Puulaku, a Fulani cultural organization promoting understanding between pastoralists and farmers. "This is not something that will end immediately."
Barry urged that local administration officials be trained to increase understanding between farmers and herders and "sensitize them before the beginning of rainy seasons in order to have zero deaths".
"In December, farmers lost their donkeys after an attack ... but later the perpetrators were released by the security forces," said Halidou Barry, a Fulani herder. "Justice must prevail when there are attacks from either side."
Around 600 people, mainly women and children, have been displaced by the latest fighting, Diallo told IRIN. Some have sought refuge in villages outside Sangou while others crossed the border into neighbouring Ghana. A local resident told IRIN the men were hiding in the bush with their cattle.
"We lost two children, one aged three months and another aged four years ... because they were sick and we could not take them to hospital. It is cold, we lack food and water," said Zaman Diao, one of those who fled after the attack.
Burkina Faso's Ministry of Social Welfare has sent food and tents to the displaced, but Diallo said more was needed. "The emergency aid sent was done on the basis of first estimates which are now outdated...
"On security, the situation is under control. But there is an emergency. The imperative now is the management of humanitarian issues because there are huge concentrations of displaced persons in certain areas," Diallo added. "There is no attack and no clashes. Security forces are patrolling."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]