OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Burkina Faso’s parliament has approved legislation allowing the military to use civilian volunteers in the fight against Islamic extremism, a decision that underscores how outnumbered soldiers are amid rising attacks across the West African country.
The plan to put weapons in the hands of minimally trained civilians has been met with concern by human rights activists who already have raised questions about alleged abuses during Burkina Faso’s crackdown on suspected jihadists.
Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Thursday that the government has failed to investigate a pattern of alleged killings by its own security services. “This new plan to subcontract security operations to civilians threatens to lead to even more abuses.”
Defense Minister Cheriff Sy said this week that all recruits would undergo two weeks of training, with topics ranging from how to use weapons to matters of discipline.
“It is not a question of making cannon fodder,” he said. “We want to prevent these volunteers from becoming militias.”
Volunteers must be 18 years old and will undergo a “moral investigation” before being allowed to serve, he said. Demobilization bonuses will be provided to each volunteer in an effort to reintegrate them in the future. Health benefits will be paid to those who are wounded while on duty, he added.
Burkina Faso’s military, despite training and assistance from France and the United States, has struggled to contain the spread of extremism.
Sy said the use of civilian volunteers would allow the military to cast a wider net, acknowledging that “Yes, we are understaffed.”
For years, Burkina Faso was spared the kind of Islamic extremism that affected neighboring Niger and Mali, where it took a 2013 French-led military intervention to dislodge jihadists from power in several major towns.
Militants staged a January 2016 attack in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, that killed at least 30 people at a cafe popular with foreigners. The following year, 18 people were killed at a Turkish restaurant in the capital.
Deaths from attacks have risen dramatically in the last few years, from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2019, according to the United Nations.
Burkina Faso’s military has been criticized for committing abuses in the ensuing crackdown. Human Rights Watch said last year that more than 150 men — mostly ethnic Peuhl herdsmen — had been killed by Burkinabe security forces after being accused of supporting or harboring extremists.
Such killings by security forces have only increased the ranks of the jihadists, according to activists.
Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.