Since 2016, the security situation in Burkina Faso has deteriorated significantly. Jihadist groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) group, are increasing attacks on schools, markets, and any representative state authority.
While the country has a total of 350 departments, only 194 have a police station, and 156 have no internal security force units. The lack of resources from which the defense and security forces often suffer has led to the creation of a national auxiliary force: the “Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland” (VDH).
2019, year of the creation of a civil self-defense force
On October 5, 2019, civil society actors from the movement for popular resistance (MPR) call for civil resistance in the face of jihadists. On the morning of November 6, 2019, five buses escorted by military personnel drove towards the Boungou gold mine in eastern Burkina Faso. Forty kilometers from the site operated by the Canadian company SEMAFO, the convoy was ambushed. A police vehicle hit a mine while the buses were machine-gunned. The attack left nearly 40 people dead, mainly Burkinabes workers. It was the deadliest attack since the start of jihadist violence in the country five years earlier. The call of the popular resistance movement was taken up by the president of Burkina Faso, who called for the creation of a civilian self-defense force. On January 21, 2020, a law was passed in the National Assembly. All 124 deputies of the Parliament of Burkina Faso vote in favor of the text. The “Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland” (VDH) were born. This text of the law provides a framework for recruitment and training. From then on, the law provides that Burkinabés over 18 years of age can join this auxiliary force “to voluntarily serve the security interests of their village or area of residence. People can join the VDH voluntarily, and after 14 days of training, they are equipped with communications equipment as well as weapons.
According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), which is an international non-profit NGO working on conflict prevention around the world, the law is designed to address the problem of the lack of security in the country. This law is mainly intended to address the shortcomings of the security forces, which are understaffed and ill-equipped and struggle to counter attacks by jihadist groups and to supervise self-defense groups.
Volunteers take up arms to fight jihadists
Volunteers sign a contract with the state. They are hired for one year, renewable for a maximum of five years. The VDH learns the handling of weapons and a code of conduct. At the end of this training, they are issued an AK-47 automatic rifle – a Kalashnikov. His mission, detailed in the law, will be to report information and defend his place of residence, while being allowed to fight until the arrival of the military.
Among the VDH are farmers, artisans all from territories hit by jihadist attacks. “We were tired of being killed like chickens,” says the 32-year-old farmer from Kongoussi (North). “We prefer to fight, hoping to at least save our families and villages,” rather than “watch death come. Their knowledge of the terrain as well as their attachment to their region of origin make them more than necessary for the defense of the country. As for salaries, “no volunteer can say that he is paid. Each group receives 200,000 CFA francs (€300) per month for operating costs – fuel and communications. The people also help out,” explains a volunteer from Kongoussi. In addition, merchants or travelers pay their escorts.
However, between the content of the law and the reality on the ground, it is night and day; the VDH have only their personal means to feed themselves. The 200,000 CFA francs are irregular and sometimes absent, and following training, not everyone receives a weapon and some are forced to sell their property and livestock to obtain weapons, ammunition and fuel.
The VDH, first target for terrorists
Since the VDH are a resistance force against the terrorists, they too become their first targets. On June 4, 2021, during the Solhan and Tadaryat massacres, jihadists attacked VDH barracks before targeting civilians. On June 11, 2021, six VDH fighters were killed in a jihadist ambush in Kogolbaraogo. In December 2021, an attack on a convoy of Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland and civilians in the vicinity of You, on the Ouahigouya-Titao road, cost the lives of 41 Burkinabes, including the famous leader Soumaïla GANAME, alias Ladji Yoro. A survivor of the fighting said, “The attackers were very numerous. We counted more than 500 people. They had heavy weapons, 12.7 mm and 14.5 mm machine guns, pickups, rockets, PKMS [Kalashnikov] and tear gas. When they see that the fighting is going on, they fire gas. This is where many fighters fell because some tried to retreat. The military then arrived as reinforcements. That helped to push back the offensive, and that’s why there weren’t more deaths among the population.”
The presence of the VDH is a reason for a certain part of the population to return to their lands after fleeing the terrorists. The objective today is the liberation of the national territory in order to allow the population to return home. “Our concern is the total liberation of Burkina,” insists MRP coordinator Aly Nana.
However, the state remains vigilant about the behavior of the VDH. Article 32 stipulates that an individual can lose his or her status as a volunteer for the defense if he or she displays “behavior that violates the rules of ethics and morality. On October 6, 2020, the “Collectif contre l’Impunité et la Stigmatisation des Communautés” (CISC) alerted on the situation: “in the regions of the North, the Centre-North, the East and the “Boucle du Mouhoun”, where Peul populations would be systematically disembarked from the vehicles, controlled on the basis of their faces, humiliated, tortured and sometimes killed because of their ethnicity by VDH.