Burkina Faso's volunteer fighters are no match for jihadists

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A group of local defense force fighters drive their motorbikes during an event to inaugurate a new chapter of the group in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Saturday, March 14, 2020. In an effort to combat rising jihadist violence, Burkina Fasos military has recruited volunteers to help it fight militants. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

KONGOUSSI – Armed only with a knife, Issa Tamboure was no match for gun-wielding jihadists who attacked his village in northern Burkina Faso in March.

So Tamboure, 63, rounded up his family — including his 13 children — and ran, eventually reaching a camp for people displaced by violence.

But Tamboure was not a typical civilian fleeing the extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization who have been dramatically escalating their attacks in the West African nation in recent years. He is among the volunteers who signed up with Burkina Faso’s military to help fight the militants.

But his plight shows the program's weakness: With little training, few weapons, and dwindling means amid an economic downturn fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, volunteers now say they are unable to adequately battle the well-armed extremists.

“When you don’t have enough to eat, you don’t have enough strength to use a rifle,” said Tamboure, running his fingers over the family's tattered tent in a makeshift displacement camp in Kongoussi, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) from his home. He said the number of volunteers who patrol a swath between his village and the camp at night has fallen in recent months to around 200 from 500.

For years, Burkina Faso was spared the kind of Islamic extremism that hit neighboring Niger and Mali, where a 2013 French-led military intervention dislodged jihadists from power in several major towns. But deaths from attacks in the country have risen from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2019, according to the United Nations. Burkina Faso’s military has struggled to contain the violence despite training and aid from the French and U.S. militaries.

In an attempt to bolster the army, the government passed a law to arm civilians in January. Many towns have no government or military presence, leaving only this corps of volunteers to protect their villages.

Armed with a few hunting rifles and knives, the fighters patrol the surrounding bush and escort displaced civilians back to their villages to plant crops or pick up belongings or to other areas to visit relatives. In Kongoussi last month, residents told The Associated Press they were grateful for the patrols.