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How Burkina Faso's junta is conscripting critics to fight Islamist rebels

6 min

Arouna Loure, a vocal critic of Burkina Faso's ruling military junta, received a conscription order on Sept. 7 last year requesting that the anaesthesiologist start a month of military service four days later.

Burkina Faso's self-declared new leader Ibrahim Traore arrives at the national television standing in an armoured vehicle in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso October 2, 2022. Reuters/Vincent Bado

Arouna Loure, a vocal critic of Burkina Faso's ruling military junta, received a conscription order on Sept. 7 last year requesting that the anaesthesiologist start a month of military service four days later.

The order, seen by Reuters, did not specify a date or location for the doctor to report for duty. Days later, on Sept. 13, two armed men intercepted Loure between operating theatres at a hospital in the capital Ouagadougou, forced him into a 4x4, and drove to a military camp near the northern city of Kaya, he told Reuters.

Loure, 38, had denounced the violence linked to Burkina's almost decade-long fight against Islamist insurgents in the West African country.

His abduction made headlines in local media, adding to a flurry of articles and civil society statements over the past 15 months on the forced disappearance of dozens of activists, journalists, rights defenders, military officials and other critics of Burkina Faso's military government.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have accused Burkina's junta of kidnapping and conscripting some of its critics, citing victims and civil society groups. Reuters could not find any public response by authorities to the reports and the junta did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

Loure, who was released after three months of forced military service, said he was conscripted at the same time as eight other government critics and activists at the Kaya camp.

"They want to silence us," he told Reuters during a telephone interview in March. "These conscriptions are arbitrary and punitive."

Reuters directly verified 19 abductions since March 2023 through interviews with civil society groups, relatives, colleagues and released victims. It identified four more using public statements from family members, civil society groups and political parties.

Most of those abductees remain unaccounted for.

Four victims who spoke to Reuters after their release said they were snatched from their workplace or the street by armed police or military officials. Their kidnappers were either wearing Burkina Faso army uniforms or were men in civilian clothing who verbally identified themselves as police or military, they said.

The four victims described a violent system of intimidation that involved forced military service and torture.

Junta spokesman Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo, Interior Minister Emile Zerbo, State Minister Bassolma Bazie and army spokesman Isidore Noël did not respond to several requests for comment on the testimonies.

At the start of June, the national order of doctors in Burkina Faso issued a statement saying Loure had gone missing again. Two civil society sources confirmed the information. He has not reappeared since.

"AUTHORITARIAN DRIFT"

The abductions are part of junta leader Ibrahim Traore's efforts to silence critics since he seized power in a September 2022 coup - the second that year - with a promise to restore security, three analysts say.

"The regime's authoritarian drift is clear," said Mathieu Pellerin, a Sahel expert for the International Crisis Group. He said the government was hardening its stance towards internal critics as its position became more "fragile".

"It's the flip-side of its failure to restore security," he said.

Burkina Faso's army has only made incremental gains despite spending millions of dollars on the war and boosting its ranks with thousands of volunteer auxiliaries known as VDPs, three analysts and humanitarian groups say.

Frustrations about authorities' failure to shield civilians from the insurgency stoked the first military coup that ousted President Roch Kabore in January 2022, and then the toppling of Traore's predecessor eight months later.

In Burkina, more than 6,500 civilians have been killed since the start of 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED), a global source of data on political violence. More than half died under the current government.

Both sides are accused of attacking villages suspected of collaborating with the enemy and executing civilians, including women and children. Authorities have denied reports of soldiers killing civilians.

Earlier this year, the junta suspended several foreign media outlets for covering a HRW report accusing the army of extrajudicial killings.

CONSCRIPTING CRITICS

The conscription of junta critics began in March 2023 with Boukare Ouedraogo, the visually-impaired president of a civil society group in Kaya.

Ouedraogo, 32, had spoken at a press conference that month about feeling let down by Traore. He denounced insecurity and lack of drinking water since insurgents destroyed a water tower.

Five days later, Traore visited Kaya, summoned Ouedraogo and ordered his arrest, said Moussa Sawadogo, a colleague who attended the meeting.

After Ouedraogo's arrest, Traore said during a speech that he had ordered the conscription of a citizen for disclosing sensitive information that triggered a jihadist attack - without naming anyone. He said the same treatment would be given to "all those incapable of defending the homeland".

There was no sign of Ouedraogo for more than two weeks. Then a video appeared showing him in military uniform, rifle in hand, lauding the Burkinabe army.

"It marked the start of a trend," said Ousmane Lankoande of the Balai Citoyen, a prominent citizens movement that played a key role in 2014 protests that ousted president Blaise Compaore, who had ruled Burkina for nearly three decades.

"We used to feel so hopeful about the future," Lankoande said, describing the mood after the 2014 uprising restored civil liberties. "Today that freedom has been stolen."

Just after Ouedraogo's arrest, in April 2023, the junta issued an emergency decree that grants authorities the right to conscript citizens above the age of 18.

The junta has used the decree only in a targeted way, avoiding widespread conscription and relying instead on recruiting volunteers to help fight the insurgency even after it came into force.

Up to 60,000 volunteers were mobilised by the end of September 2023, according to an International Crisis Group report citing an interview with the commander in charge of the volunteer brigade. The report noted other unofficial estimates suggesting the figure was closer to 30,000.

After the decree was issued, photos and videos of well-known missing Traore critics, some in military fatigues, started circulating on social media.

They included prominent rights defender Daouda Diallo, ex-foreign minister and opposition politician Ablasse Ouedraogo, and Loure.

Reuters was able to verify their identities from their facial features but could not confirm the date or location in which the footage was taken.

Ouedraogo, 70, and Diallo, 41, were wearing what appeared to be Burkina Faso military uniforms. The images of Loure showed him holding a gun next to a police sign in a khaki outfit.

Diallo and Ouedraogo, both taken in December, were freed in March. Ouedraogo did not respond to a request for comment and Diallo declined.

TORTURE ALLEGATIONS

When Loure arrived at the military camp in Kaya in September, there were five other conscripted activists already there and three more were brought in during his five-week stay at the camp, he said.

Three of the activists spoke to Reuters after they were discharged from the military on condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution. One was a young militant and two were Kabore supporters in their 50s.

The three said that, before they arrived in Kaya, men in military uniform tortured them for days in an ex-ministerial villa in the Ouaga 2000 neighbourhood of Ouagadougou.

They saw other prisoners during their stay, some with severe injuries. Reuters was not able to confirm independently the details of their accounts.

An analyst and an ex-gendarme who did not wish to be named confirmed the villa's existence. The junta did not respond to questions about the villa.

Tearing up, the young activist said soldiers held his nose and mouth under an open faucet and tied plastic bags over his face.

The two older men, who were abducted together, described beatings that opened wounds on their backs into which their captors rubbed salt.

During torture sessions, all were accused of conspiracy against the state and plotting to overthrow the junta.

Once at the Kaya base, they slept on old mats on the floor of a dirty, mouse-infested storeroom, while other troops stayed in better quarters with beds and mosquito nets.

They were made to clean toilets, do laundry and wash dishes. Soldiers bullied and fired guns at some of them. They suffered daily humiliation and exhausting sports drills the older conscripts struggled to follow, they said.

"They treated us like animals," one of them said.

The head of the camp, Captain Emmanuel Gnoumou, oversaw lengthy whippings on arrival and other beating sessions, which he sometimes filmed, the said. Reuters was unable to contact Gnoumou for comment.

When asked about military training, all four said they were just taught basic firearm skills. The junta did not respond to requests for comment.

After a few weeks training, Loure and the young activist were sent to the frontline, they said. While Loure worked as a doctor, the activist joined a regiment of VDPs for a three-week deployment.

There were two attacks during this time, one on a nearby village and one directly on their camp, the activist said, though his unit suffered no casualties.

By Sofia Christensen

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