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Burkina Faso to support local talks with jihadists: A Q&A with the minister of reconciliation

‘Everybody wants peace again.’

Women who fled jihadist attacks in northern Burkina Faso are pictured at a camp for displaced people in Ouagadougou. Nearly two million people have been uprooted since 2015. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Women who fled jihadist attacks in northern Burkina Faso are pictured at a camp for displaced people in Ouagadougou. Nearly two million people have been uprooted since 2015.

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Burkina Faso will provide support to local communities engaged in reconciliation talks with jihadists and offer livelihood opportunities for militants willing to disarm, a government official told The New Humanitarian, amid growing calls for non-military approaches to a conflict that has displaced nearly two million people.

In an interview last week, Yéro Boly, the minister for social cohesion and national reconciliation, said the shift in strategy will see logistical support and formal mandates given to community leaders engaged in talks with jihadists, which The New Humanitarian has reported on extensively.

“The government continues to work against terrorism, but if there are these types of initiatives between [jihadists] who want to discuss with their community in order to come back [home], we have no reason to refuse,” said Boly in his first interview with international media since assuming the post in March.

Militants linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State began spreading since Burkina Faso in 2015 – part of a wider push that has uprooted 2.3 million across West Africa’s Sahel region. Communities turned to dialogue as they lost faith in the government’s ability to manage the crisis militarily.

Boly said he wasn’t aware of any plans to kickstart national talks with jihadists. That idea has been opposed by previous administrations, though officials did broker a secret ceasefire with militants to facilitate elections in late 2020. France and other foreign powers with troops in the Sahel have also opposed national talks.

Burkina Faso’s stance on dialogue has softened, however, since soldiers launched a coup in January. Junta leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba has called for a new strategy that blends military operations with dialogue, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Leaders of other Sahelian states are following a similar path. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has initiated discussions with jihadist leaders and released several militants from custody in recent months. Malian authorities have greenlighted some local talks too, though the junta there is currently sticking with a military-first approach.

Damiba believes that the majority of jihadists in Burkina Faso are homegrown and can be reasoned with, said Ousmane Amirou Dicko, the emir of Liptako, a border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Dicko said Damiba outlined this position to him in a March meeting with a dozen other community leaders.

Local dialogues have been held across the country since mid-2020, though recent talks have centred on the northern town of Djibo – a conflict hotspot that had been besieged by jihadists for several months. The blockade was lifted last week following discussions between Djibo community leaders and jihadist chief Jafar Dicko.

Communities involved in dialogues previously told The New Humanitarian they were risking their lives by speaking with jihadists. Many worried they would be accused of complicity with the militants and called for the government to publicly sanction local talks – which Boly’s comments in this interview now confirm it has.

Boly described plans to set up a committee involving different ministries that will track dialogue efforts. He said government buy-in will give the talks a better chance of succeeding. Jihadists who are willing to drop their weapons and return home will also be given assistance to reinsert themselves into civilian life, Boly added.

The minister’s full comments follow below. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A French version of the interview will be published shortly.

The New Humanitarian: Tell us about this new coordination group your ministry is establishing to support dialogues?

Boly: [The government] realised that armed groups wanted to communicate with the traditional chiefs. [They] can be customary chiefs… imams [or] they can be representatives of influential families. We realised that [communication] was taking place between them, in the sense of bringing peace…. so we decided to put in place a coordination at the level of my ministry… to follow up on this dialogue and ensure that if there are gains… they are consolidated. 

The New Humanitarian: What else are you able to offer communities negotiating with jihadists?

Boly: The only thing that the [community leaders] have asked us, is to acknowledge them; that the government knows what they are doing and, subsequently, that they have a mandate to continue the work. And that’s why I said that we are going to make a law – rather than letting them organise themselves randomly – and put in place official committees with an official mandate.

The New Humanitarian: What is the government willing to offer jihadists who want to disarm?

Boly: If there are combatants who… leave their weapons and come back, we will suggest that we can provide [non-financial] means in agriculture, the means in carpentry; every field in which they can reinsert themselves to resume a normal active life.

To make sure it’s a success, the children who come back from those conflicts have to be taken care of immediately because we know that unemployment is one of the main reasons for them joining armed groups. We want to allow them to immediately find employment, to make themselves useful to society, and to not want to return to the other side. 

They [don’t] even have to stay in their village of origin. [We can tell them]: “Here, you can have two cows, you can have two sheep, to get back to an active life. If you don’t want to stay over there, we can suggest other regions where you can go to start a life again.”

The New Humanitarian: Will communities accept returning jihadists?

Boly: They will be tolerant, at least in Soum [the province where the Djibo talks are being held]. The population is tired… everybody wants peace again. That is the reason why [the jihadists] asked for community leaders and not authorities, because they trust their leaders but not the authorities, because authorities change… A governor is here today [and] gone tomorrow, but the chief, the imam… they are always there.

The New Humanitarian: Does the government have the resources to invest in dialogues and reintegrating militants?

Boly: As we haven’t yet counted the [jihadists] who [who might return], we can’t tell you yet that we have such and such an amount. But we have the minimum to ensure that this does not fail.

If there is really a desire [by the jihadists] to speak [to communities], if it is serious and credible, we will ask the local authorities to find means to facilitate logistics.

We are going to do the minimum, but as we go, we are going to make estimates and ask for support from external partners to accompany us and to help. We are ready to receive all external expertise to help us so that we at the government level are ready, and I will encourage local actors to accept [this].

The New Humanitarian: How do you assess the previous government’s approach to dialogue?

Boly: There were two things that didn’t work under the previous government. First there was the Thiou affair… Thiou [a northern commune where dialogues took place] worked at one point. Then they started shooting each other because the government wasn’t interested in it. We don’t want that. We thought that when armed groups… want to talk to their relatives, or bring back peace, we can’t stay indifferent. We are going to encourage it. 

Thiou did not work because there was no guarantee, no support…. On the contrary, [community leaders] were being insulted in the newspapers, which were saying we don’t negotiate with terrorists…Some negotiators were killed.

[Second, the government] negotiated [and] gave lots of money to hold elections. Everybody knows this. We gave a lot of money. [But] it was just the elections, the 48 hours of peace, that interested them – then the fighting resumed. It wasn’t their problem anymore.

The New Humanitarian: How is the current dialogue in Djibo progressing?

Boly: If [you] go to Djibo this morning, [you] will see that the situation is beginning to change…The chief of Djibo was in Ouagadougou [and] the jihadists asked to see him. He left with a 22-person delegation. The chief of Djibo was the head of the delegation of those who went… and Jafar [Dicko] was the chief of the jihadists. So, it was at a high level. It went well, with a good atmosphere. But [both sides] told a lot of truths. It was tense.

[Community leaders] asked us to help them get to Djibo, for those who were in Ouagadougou. The army dropped them in Djibo by helicopter. It’s the first time that the people from Djibo asked us for help. Since Djibo is inaccessible and there are leaders who were in Ouagadougou who had fled, [they wanted] help. 

The New Humanitarian: We’ve heard suggestions that high-level talks between jihadists and the government might take place in addition to local dialogues. What can you tell us about that?

Boly: Honestly, I am not aware of this. Damiba put me in charge of following these [local] negotiations and to do everything to ensure that they do not fail.

The government continues to work against terrorism, but if there are these types of initiatives between [jihadists] who want to discuss with their community in order to come back [home], we have no reason to refuse.

The New Humanitarian: What is your message to youth that joined the jihadists?

Boly: Come back. Allow people to resume their lives in the village, and if unemployment is the problem, we will help you find jobs.

We are telling them that they are at a dead-end. Since they started to kill, to massacre, it’s their brothers they are massacring, their relatives. Since they started massacring, those who left the village to go to Djibo [or] Ouagadougou to beg in the streets, it’s their brothers, their sisters. The regions where there are no more schools, no more health, no more economic life, it’s their villages. They have put their villages in difficult situations and have brought them back 10 years. 

The New Humanitarian: What is your biggest concern about these talks? What keeps you up at night?

Boly: I think mostly about the calming situation that will allow the population, the internally displaced, to go back to their villages… to the [clinic] to heal their children and themselves; to restart economic activity – to cultivate, to eat at the sweat of their brow, and not with bags of rice and handouts. That is my deepest desire. 

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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