Burkina Faso - Rights Groups Slam Conscription of Critics

10 November 2023

The Burkinabe junta has requisitioned critics, activists and journalists for its anti-jihadist fight, but rights groups say the "general mobilization" is a strategy to silence dissenting voices.

Burkina Faso's military junta is under fire from media organizations and rights groups over its plans to conscript journalists, activists, and opposition party members to take part in government security operations.

Human Rights Watch accused the West African country's junta of abusing an emergency law to deploy perceived dissidents and critics to join a deadly fight against armed jihadists.

The rights group said in a statement that between November 4 and 5, Burkinabe security forces notified at least a dozen journalists, civil society activists and opposition party members about their impending conscription.

'Silenting dissenting voices'

"Unsurprisingly, it was on the night of Saturday to Sunday November 5 that I learned that I was part of a list of people requisitioned for the military front," said Ladji Bama, who is opposed to the forced enlistments.

According to a statement from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), two prominent journalists are required to serve three months in the Burkinabe army to fight against terrorism in line with the conscription policy. The reporters are known for their criticism of Burkina Faso's military government.

RSF condemned what it called "this new way to silence reporters critical of the government."

Sadibou Marong, director of RSF's sub-Saharan Africa bureau, said the junta must rescind the summons.

"Forcibly enlisting two journalists critical of the government to fight in the army constitutes a new attack on press freedom in Burkina Faso," Marong said in a statement. "We condemn these grossly unjust conscription orders and call on the Burkinabe authorities to rescind them at once."

How can the junta justify its crackdown on dissent?

Burkina Faso, which witnessed two coups last year, become the epicenter of the security crisis last year in Africa's Sahel region.

The more recent coup, in September, put Ibrahim Traore in charge of the junta. He claimed the military takeover was necessary to counter the country's jihadist insurgency, which has killed more than 10,000 people over the past seven years, and displaced 2 million people.

In April, Traore announced that he aimed to recapture 40% of the country's territory.

The government in February said it had a plan to recruit 5,000 additional soldiers.

As part of that plan, the junta declared a "general mobilization" policy to give the state "all necessary means" to combat a string of terrorist attacks since the start of this year.

The aim was to give a "legal framework for all the actions to be taken" against the insurgents, said a statement from the presidency at the time.

The transitional military authorities have defended their recent conscription of civilians into the army with the "general mobilization" decree.

'Punishing critics'

But Issiaka Lingani, a journalist in Burkina Faso said the policy is being rendered unpopular because of recent abuses.

"What is really regrettable is that the authorities consider that sanctioning people means sending them to the front," Lingani said. "That really belittles the noble meaning of war. Fighting today for your country should not not be a sanction, but be voluntary."

Bama said that the policy is being abused especially in his case.

"For my part, very clearly and without detour, I mark a firm opposition to this way of doing things and to this perversion of the decree."

Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the junta is abusing the policy to silent dissent.

"The Burkina Faso junta is using its emergency legislation to silence peaceful dissent and punish its critics," he said.

"The government should not respond to the abusive Islamist armed groups with further human rights abuses but should instead strengthen efforts to protect civilians and uphold basic rights to freedom of expression and speech."

Why target activists and journalists?

Bram Posthumous, an analyst of the Francophone Africa region, told DW that journalists are being targeted for conscription because of their work debunking the junta's narrative about the prevaling war against the insurgents.

He said the "war psychosis" narrative seems to be keeping the military junta in power and they don't intend losing control.

"The junta is far from secure," Posthumous told DW. "Captain Traore came through a coup and the person he removed was a putschist who had come to power coup of his own. And there is absolutely guarantee that Traore is not being targeted by sections of the army which we know to be divided."

Posthumous added that journalists are also consistently exposing acts of corruption in the military government and that seems to be infuriating the leadership of the junta.

"There are obviously corrupt practices happening and any exposure of these corrupt is frowned upon and so they don't like being exposed," Posthumous explained.

Is the junta losing control?

Posthumous said the army doesn't seem to be winning the fight and that puts it in a very bad light and triggers desperation.

"They certainly don't like being told that the success on the battlefield is less than stellar," he said. "There is no progress at the moment with regards to the war against the terrorists."

Posthumous said that sparks intolerance when journalists report about these happenings and prevailing situation.

Kader Ouattara, secretary general of the National Union of Musical Artists of Burkina Faso told DW that "there is a problem when in a country we tell people: Don't contest anymore, don't speak anymore, don't demonstrate anymore."

"All those who want to speak must praise the head of state," Ouattara said, denouncing such posturing in favor of the junta.

"For everything that concerns individual and collective freedoms, people fought," he added.

"And it is with sweat and blood that our people dearly acquired areas of freedom. It is not for us to come and call these freedoms into question today."

Edited by: Keith Walker


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