Life used to be beautiful in Djibo, the town in the north of Burkina Faso where I have lived since the 1980s. There were no problems between communities, outsiders were welcome, and with only a little effort and work, you could have enough to live on.
Not anymore. For the past two years, Djibo’s 300,000 residents have faced a devastating siege by jihadist fighters. We cannot farm, we cannot raise our livestock, and we cannot trade. Education has become impossible, and all our daily habits have had to change.
The men in the bush are imposing the blockade because they think people in Djibo are acting against them. They also accuse soldiers in the town of arbitrarily killing suspected jihadists, and of preventing food being sent from Djibo to areas where the fighters live.
Five facts about Djibo and the conflict in Burkina Faso
- Djibo is located in northern Soum province, where Burkina Faso’s first homegrown jihadist group emerged. It has been a hotspot of violence ever since.
- Its population has grown from around 30,000 to 300,000 due to the arrival of displaced people fleeing surrounding areas.
- The famine monitor FEWS NET has warned of a risk of famine in the town due to the blockade.
- Military convoys and humanitarian helicopters reach the town periodically, but the humanitarian situation is still catastrophic.
- Across Burkina Faso, dozens of towns are under siege, and over two million people are displaced. Back-to-back coups in 2022 worsened the situation.
At one point, it was decided that prominent community leaders would go and talk with the jihadists. A team left for the negotiations, and it resulted in the blockade being temporarily lifted.
But a coup then brought a new government to power, and our ruling soldiers aren’t supporting negotiations any more. Some of those who participated in the dialogue have even been killed, while others were kidnapped and disappeared.
I write this to encourage the state to support those who engage in talks. If we don’t try to understand each other, how can we make peace? The government must protect local leaders working for the common good, offering them financial and material support.
To the fighters responsible for the blockade, I would also like to say this: Know that the government authorities you are battling are not necessarily the ones impacted by this blockade. It is the civilian population, the poor, who are suffering.
Finally, to aid agencies, I call for more support. Humanitarian helicopters are supplying our town periodically, but much more is needed. The vast majority of Djibo’s population is actually displaced from other areas, and they have absolutely nothing.
Tense days, sleepless nights
Dozens of towns across Burkina Faso are under siege by jihadists, who have been fighting the government since 2016. Djibo has become a symbol of civilian suffering because of the size of its population and the duration it has been blockaded.
Some people have been able to escape the town on military flights or on army convoys that do occasionally leave the city. But if you try to get away, you risk getting ambushed and shot.
The population living under blockade lacks food. Herders have no place to graze their flocks because everything is blocked. Farmers also cannot go out to cultivate. How can people continue to live if they cannot carry out these activities?
Basic commodities like sugar and oil have become as rare as gold. And at a certain point, if you saw a goat in Djibo, it was something strange! I even heard that a goat was purchased by somebody for 350,000 CFA francs (nearly $600).
People hear gunshots all night and there is permanent insecurity. Adults are suffering from insomnia and barely sleep. I have a grandson who slept next door to me at night, and who would often wake up very frightened and grab onto me.
At a market recently, I saw a group of talibé (young Koranic students who beg for money) rushing towards a car after spotting somebody inside who was handing them a bag of cakes.
When people at the market saw the running beggars, they all started to flee because they were afraid. In a few moments, the market emptied. Everywhere people were saying: “The terrorist men are there; they are over there!”
The same happens at schools. When someone unexpectedly knocks on a classroom door, the whole school might suddenly empty with children fleeing everywhere. Education is not possible in such a context.
Our daily lives are changing in more mundane ways too. For weddings and naming ceremonies, we no longer have animals to slaughter. And when we prepare our tea, we have to add tamarind fruit to change the taste and be able to drink it.
Self-help, and sharing
Military convoys do sometimes arrive in the city with commercial supplies, allowing people to buy food. NGOs also help us from time to time with humanitarian flights, though not all of Djibo’s inhabitants benefit from this food aid.
People help each other get by through acts of solidarity. If, for example, I was able to get something from an aid agency, I will share it with somebody that was not as fortunate.
And it’s not just aid that people share. If I was able to get water and you weren’t, I'll give you some. Or if I was able to obtain firewood and another person wasn’t, I will share with them.
If we are neighbours and I hear that you have something to eat, I will come and enjoy my meal with you. I have even seen people who had two pairs of shoes giving one set to their neighbour who didn't have any.
Other survival strategies have been developed too. Women often hide at night and leave the city to buy products in surrounding villages and then return to sell them in the town. If the men in the bush or soldiers see them, they are in danger.
Because people cannot farm in their main fields outside of town, they have also started gardening okra, corn, and other plants around their houses. This used to be prohibited by the local government but it is now allowed.
People also started digging wells near their homes after jihadists ransacked the water towers that NGOs had built for the population, and the installations belonging to the national water company.
Still, when you see some of the water that we drink, you know for a fact that it is not good. It is muddy and has a certain nauseating odour. But what can we do given the situation?
Why negotiations should be resumed
To end the siege we need to talk more about why the people in the bush are imposing it. But we residents are often afraid to discuss the true cause, because it is linked to the behaviour of the army.
I'll remind you of what the jihadists told our leaders who went to negotiate with them: They said that it is the army that arrests and kills civilians in Djibo without evidence, and that has prohibited food from going outside the town towards the villages.
Two blockades are therefore being imposed. While fighters prevent supplies getting into Djibo, the military stops us from buying stuff inside the town and then taking it to rural areas where the jihadists operate.
More generally, we all know that it is our security forces that commit more killings than the jihadists. If you cross a fighter in the bush around Djibo, they will let you pass. But this is not the case with the army, which treats everyone as a suspected fighter.
So the message I would like to send to the government and the defence and security forces is to promote tolerance in the country and to apologise for the violations they have committed.
I also think it is very important that negotiations are resumed. For a while now, community leaders have stopped holding these dialogues, because they have understood that the current authorities are not in favour of them.
The state should support local mediators and also commence its own dialogue, using us as intermediates. Community leaders could go to see the people in the bush on behalf of the state and request that the jihadists have a meeting with the authorities.
Currently, all the community leaders are doing is inviting people to pray for the situation on Fridays. They also have meetings where they call on people to stop hating each other, and to live together according to the values our ancestors bequeathed to us.
If we succeed, life in Djibo could become beautiful again. Different communities could once again live, eat, drink, and speak together without any problems. That is the Djibo that I know.