Burkina Faso’s parliament voted to provide funding and training to local vigilantes in response to the growing firepower of jihadist groups threatening to overrun government forces across large swathes of the West African country.
The move, expected to apply to vigilante groups called koglweogo – “guardians of the bush” in the Moore language – has drawn concerns from the UN and human rights activists, who fear it could empower fighters accused of ethnic killings.
The vigilantes grew significantly as a response to instability following the 2014 revolution that overthrew long-time President Blaise Compaore. There are an estimated 40 000 groups across Burkina Faso, according to the UN.
“This law was voted unanimously by the parliament,” Defence Minister Moumina Cheriff Sy told reporters after the vote. “It shows beyond our differences of opinion we can be one when it comes to defending the homeland.”
Security deteriorated dramatically across Burkina Faso and its neighbours in the Sahel last year, as Islamist militants with ties to Islamic State and al Qaeda stepped up attacks.
On Monday, militants killed 36 people at a market in a village in northern Burkina Faso.
Collaboration between state security forces and vigilantes was previously informal. Government said the new law would help defeat the “terrorist Hydra”.
The law, which now goes to President Roch Marc Kabore for signature, calls for volunteers to receive brief military training, unspecified equipment, healthcare and bonus payments. Recruitment will be managed by village leaders.
A UN committee of experts on torture voiced concerns in November about a lack of oversight of the koglweogo, saying the groups were implicated in a massacre Fulani herders in January 2019.
Jihadist violence in the Sahel also fuelled ethnic conflict, particularly between rival hunting and farming communities, with ethnic self-defence militias targeting civilians in reprisal for militant attacks.
In neighbouring Mali, a vigilante group is believed responsible for an attack that killed about 160 Fulani civilians last March, the deadliest such incident in recent times.