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As coalition forces are putting the squeeze on al-Qaida and Islamic State terrorist networks in the Middle East, the extremist groups are moving to Africa to make their mark.
In Niger in Western Africa, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush Oct. 4 as they were helping search for a senior member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
In neighboring Burkina Faso, armed militants launched a series of attacks that left dozens dead in 2016 and 2017, including a shooting at a restaurant in the capital Ouagadougou that killed 18.
Local security forces are stretched thin dealing with the terrorist threats along with neighborhood crimes. The Burkina Faso town of Saaba — just east of Ouagadougou — has 20 police officers and 10 gendarmes, or armed police, to protect 80,000 residents and counting. With more people moving into Saaba from the nearby capital city, petty crime is on the rise, and informal “self-defense” groups are cropping up to handle the thefts and break-ins with their own brand of justice.
The self-defense groups, known as “Koglweogo” or “guardians of the bush,” are composed of members of the community, and residents sometimes feel more comfortable coming to them rather than formal security personnel.
However, the Koglweogo’s aggressive tactics are causing problems, including their practices of beating up suspects before handing them over to police and setting up roadblocks on rural roads. The Koglweogo say their strong-arm methods are necessary to keep order in places that lack an adequate police presence and that they will step back once the police do their job.
“At first, the government didn’t know what to do with the Koglweogo,” but now it’s working on developing a plan to integrate them into security frameworks, said Sandrine Nama, the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Burkina Faso country officer.
In order to get the different groups to trust each other and work together, Nama helped the grassroots political advocacy group Balai Citoyen (which means “the citizen’s broom”) establish dialogues with community members in Saaba. Balai Citoyen got its start in 2013 by organizing protests against former President Blaise Compaore when he tried to extend his 27-year presidency by amending the constitution. Compaore resigned under public pressure, but the country’s political struggles continue today, leaving a void for the extremists.
A six-part documentary, called “Saaba” by Meridian Hill Pictures and Big Mouth Productions, tells the stories of the townspeople and their effort at dialogue. You can watch the series via the WORLD Channel’s DOC World in early 2018.
The first goal of the dialogues was to reduce the confrontations between the security forces and self-defense groups, and then improve their communications and cooperation, said Nama. Members of Koglweogo, the police, religious leaders, farmers and others in the community meet regularly to talk about where violence occurs and brainstorm about the best ways to handle it while staying within the rule of law.
Idrissa Barry, co-founder of the Balai Citoyen movement, recently visited Washington, D.C., to present the documentary, “Saaba,” which tells the stories of the townspeople and their effort at resolving conflict. Barry said that the dialogue participants intend to ensure that the town’s security doesn’t slide back to the way it was. The local government is funding the community network to keep it going, he said through a translator. “It’s not only about money but support (and buy-in from the community) that they need for this action to continue.”
Police officer Gomogo Saidou, who is featured in the documentary, said the police can’t be everywhere at all times, so people must feel comfortable coming to them with disputes. “If the population avoids the police, we will have truly failed.”
View more stories about people working to make a difference in our Agents for Change series.
Larisa Epatko produced multimedia web features and broadcast reports with a focus on foreign affairs for the PBS NewsHour. She has reported in places such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Haiti, Sudan, Western Sahara, Guantanamo Bay, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Germany and Ireland.
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