The latest case of 12 extrajudicial killings of Fulani men in Tanwalbougou, northeastern Burkina Faso, has gripped the public after gruesome details emerged following their detention by gendarmes in the area, adding to the overall crisis in the Sahel. Human rights groups are calling for an independent investigation into their murders.
Although the military has issued a statement admitting that 12 of the Fulani (also called Peul) men, arrested on suspicion of terrorism, died in military cells, a number of the facts are in dispute.
Twenty-five men, aged between 20 and 70, were detained by Burkinabé security forces on 11 May in the afternoon, according to the Burkinabé Movement of Human Rights and People (MBDHP). Beaten and humiliated, they were piled into 4x4s and taken to the gendarme barracks at Tanwalbougou.
In his statement on 13 May, Judicael Kadeba, the prosecutor of Faso in Gnagna province in the eastern region, said the men were arrested and detained during the night of 11 May. They were found dead in the cells the next morning.
However, Aziz Diallo, the deputy mayor of Dori, a town in the northeast, went on Radio Liberté to dispute the prosecutor's statement. His cousin was among the 12 who died.
Diallo said that after the families lobbied to retrieve their loved one's bodies, they were given the 12 corpses on 13 May, wrapped in plastic, with bullet wounds in their heads, evident signs of torture, in a state of decomposition.
Human rights groups including Burkinabé groups, the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC) and MBDHP as well as US-based Human Rights Watch, are calling for an independent investigation into the Burkina Faso gendarmes. CISC has also called for the commander at Tanwalbougou to be removed from his post.
Trained military, but political issues
France strengthened its military relationship with troops in the Sahel including the Niger, Mali and Burkinabé militaries, especially with the creation of the G5 Sahel Joint Task Force February 2104.
But abuses carried out against civilians allegedly carried out by soldiers have not lessened, even with training, says Andrew Lebovich, Sahel scholar and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
"Some of it indicates lack of training, but it really has to do with political needs in the ways that security forces try and often fail to govern in rural areas, places that face a persistent security threat," he says.
"Another part of it is a lack of effective control over security forces, and either a lack of means to effectively punish the people who perpetrate these attacks, or the lack of political will, either from military leadership or civilian governments to police these military," he adds.
Arming militias adds to the mix. In January, Burkinabé parliamentarians voted to provide funding and training to local vigilantes, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland, as a way to counter growing jihadist groups operating in the area. Human rights activists expressed their concern at the time that it would encourage more extrajudicial killings.
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Discrimination against Fulani
Part of the issue stems from the overall perception that the Fulani communities in the Sahel, including northern Burkina Faso, have traditionally been a much-maligned community, and therefore jihadist groups in the area have exploited these prejudices, recruiting a number of people in the community, especially after alleged military massacres.
Only a small minority of Fulani have taken up arms, and members of other ethnic communities are within the extremists' ranks, according to Modibo Ghally Cissé, anthropology researcher at the University of Leiden.
In the Tanwalbougou incident, Lebovich says that soldiers being stressed or scared does not justify alleged extra-judicial killings targeting detainees.
"They were already detained, they were already clearly tortured and executed-- this would seem to be much more of a deliberate decision rather than what had happened in some other cases, where there's an attack on a military detachment and then soldiers go out shoot into a marketplace," says Lebovich."That's not what appears to have happened here."
The killings were a more organized form of abuse, targeting people without proper investigations or proper justice mechanisms to establish whether they were involved with terrorism or not, according to Lebovich.
Summary execution, allegedly by the military, reflects the same tactics used by jihadists. The total disregard of human rights creates more tension in an already strained environment.
Complicating the overall human rights dimension
These killings are adding to the deterioration of the region overall. Last week, the United Nations sounded the alarm on compounded crises wreaking havoc in the Sahel - extrajudicial killings adding to the toxic mix of ongoing attacks, insecurity, food shortages, gender-based violence, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UN issued a statement along with other non-governmental organisations operating in the region, who are having a hard time gaining access to vulnerable populations.
"Continued violence and military operations are not likely to halt despite the Covid-19 pandemic and will continue to pose significant challenges in terms of access and a principled humanitarian response," said Maureen Magee, Regional Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council.