The two groups thrashed out their differences as Burkinabé often do – sitting under the shade of a tree, exchanging plates of goat meat, yoghurt, and traditional foamy tea.
But this was no ordinary reconciliation meeting: One group was composed of some of the heavily armed al-Qaeda-linked fighters who are waging war across Burkina Faso; the other of unarmed local residents who count among the militants’ many victims.
“We think that it is important to talk [to jihadists] in order to deal with [the crisis] at the local level, and to preserve human lives,” said a community leader from Nassoumbou, a commune in northern Burkina Faso that arranged the recent meeting.
Thousands of people have died and more than 1.4 million have been displaced in recent years as militant groups have spread across the once-peaceful country – part of a wider push across West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region.
As violence intensifies and patience wanes with the government – which failed to sustain a ceasefire it negotiated with jihadists ahead of elections late last year – some community leaders have taken a radical step: talking to the militants themselves.
The Nassoumbou meeting – attended by Jafar Dicko, Burkina Faso’s top jihadist leader – is one of several ongoing, grassroots dialogues that The New Humanitarian has established have been taking place across the country since mid-2020.
Providing some of their first accounts of these dialogues to the media, half a dozen community leaders said the talks were triggered by a desire to understand what jihadists want, what it would take for them to stop killing people, and whether they might let displaced people return home.
Similar grassroots reconciliation efforts are also springing up in neighbouring Mali, where local communities are equally fed up with the inability of their government and its foreign partners to combat the jihadists militarily.
The Burkina Faso dialogues – often held under trees or at empty stalls in markets – are bearing some fruit. In Nassoumbou, Dicko agreed to allow residents to return back to certain villages in the commune, while jihadists have lifted blockades on other communities, allowing people to circulate more freely.
Still, local leaders and analysts say the communities are negotiating on the back foot and have little to offer powerful jihadists, who extend small security concessions in exchange for local populations abiding by strict Islamic codes.
“It is not voluntary,” said Koudbi Kaboré, a historian and researcher at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University in the capital, Ouagadougou. “It is because the population doesn’t have a choice that they accept to sign these pacts.”
Those involved in the dialogues say they are risking their lives by speaking with jihadists. Many especially fear reprisals from the government, which has not publicly sanctioned talks and could accuse community leaders of complicity with the militants.
The lack of active state support for negotiations means the dialogues are also likely to remain localised, according to analysts, creating only temporary spaces of stability as violence rages in other towns and communes.
“Without a dramatic change in the balance of power or [national] peace talks, we are in for a long war,” said Alexandre Liebeskind, Africa regional director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which works in Burkina Faso.
The New Humanitarian sent repeated messages to Burkina Faso’s government asking for its position on local and national level talks with jihadists, but received no response prior to publication.
In October, the minister of defence, Aimé Barthélémy Simporé, conceded that military operations won’t be enough to defeat the jihadists, though he stopped short of calling for negotiations – conscious perhaps that the country’s foreign donors oppose such talks. Other officials have previously said they would take back local jihadists who were indoctrinated and recruited, but won’t talk with foreign ones.
A temporary truce and a local ceasefire
Jihadist violence began spreading in Burkina Faso in 2015, after spilling over from Mali. The main groups include the al-Qaeda-linked Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Amid soaring violence, the government has opened lines of communication with some jihadists. Last year, members of the national security service negotiated an opportunistic truce with JNIM fighters to stave off attacks during presidential elections in November 2020.
But the ceasefire – first reported by The New Humanitarian earlier this year – was brokered in secret and never intended to last, according to an aid worker involved in local mediation and a military official, neither of whom were authorised to speak to the media. The sources said the deal was negotiated for a few months and then extended for a few more because both sides found it beneficial to have a pause in the fighting.
Mamadou Drabo, a civil society activist, said the talks should not have ended: “When [the president] signed an agreement with terrorists for the election… he should have kept negotiating,” he said. “The president must take responsibility for the failure of his policy and resign.”
Violence has surged since the election ceasefire broke down. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which analyses conflict information, 403 civilians were killed between May and November 2021, compared to 162 in the seven months prior.
“Our conversations with them became deeper and they were more helpful and forgiving.”
Last month, more than 50 gendarmes were killed by jihadists in an ambush on their military post in northern Burkina Faso – the deadliest loss the army has suffered during six years of conflict – triggering sustained anti-government protests across the country.
With no clear strategy from the government, local leaders committed to helping their communities have tried to change the dynamic themselves, asking jihadists to stop the killings and allow people to return home.
Negotiations have also been led by groups of volunteer fighters – civilians recruited by the central government since last year to fight alongside its overwhelmed and under-equipped army.
The dialogues have taken place in three of the country’s hardest-hit regions: North, East, and Sahel. Meetings often took months to arrange, with the jihadists changing location at the last minute, fearing the military might show up.
Security improved in some places after the dialogues, said a community leader from a northern commune close to the border with Mali, where several meetings were held with jihadists from mid-2020 onwards.
The commune – which the leader asked not to be named – had been badly affected by violence as villages came under jihadist control from 2019 onwards. Local government officials were killed and people fled into the commune’s main, better-guarded town.
The first of several meetings involved 12 community leaders and 15 jihadists decked out in black clothes and carrying ammunition belts around their necks – a scene that looked like "you were watching a movie", the community leader said.
During the talks, a local deal was thrashed out that helped farmers return to their fields. Further dialogues were also held in subsequent months as residents sought a ceasefire that lasted longer than what the government managed during the elections.
“Our conversations with them became deeper [and] they were more helpful and forgiving,” said the community leader. “The conversations focused on the conflict, not on personal things: They were making sure there will be no violence between us.”
Hard bargaining and an absent state
Other local leaders said jihadists have changed their behaviour in small but valued ways since the dialogues: harassing communities less at checkpoints, and leaving their weapons outside towns and mosques when entering.
Yet despite these gains, community leaders say they are accepting terms that they do not necessarily agree with because they are on the back foot – conscious that the jihadists are stronger than the military, and that the state isn’t providing support.
At the talks, the leaders agreed to abide by strict sharia law, which means men have to cut their trousers and grow out their beards, while women have to wear a veil, among various other restrictions.
The pact in Nassoumbou, meanwhile, resulted in communities being allowed to return to some villages in their commune but not to the main town, where militants accuse local residents of providing fighters for an anti-jihadist volunteer militia.
“We didn’t get everything we requested,” said the community leader from Nassoumbou, though they added: “After speaking with [the jihadists], at least we understood that they won’t kill us.”
The pact in the commune near Mali has been hard to maintain too. Jihadists forced some residents out of their villages last year, while further attacks occurred a few weeks ago for reasons that are hard to establish but which underscore the fragility of the deal.
Without state support and a cohesive national plan for negotiations, community leaders and analysts described the local efforts as a patchy solution that is simply buying time and temporary relief for both parties.
“The people best placed to carry out these negotiations should be religious and community leaders under the direction of the government,” said the Nassoumbou leader.
The leader, and several others, said their work would be more impactful if the government would provide them with mediation expertise, logistical and financial support, and guarantees they would not be accused of complicity with the jihadists.
The lack of state guidance means communities also have nothing substantial to offer jihadists who might express a willingness to return during local negotiations, said Constantin Gouvy, a Burkina Faso researcher who works for the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute.
“There is no clear offer from the government in terms of what you can give [somebody] who might be interested in demobilising,” he said. “What do you tell some guy in the bush fighting in terms of trying to draw him back to his community? If there’s nothing, then why would he come back?”
Gouvy added that local level ceasefires risk being used strategically by militants to rest and resupply. “If that’s all that the negotiations do – just lead to temporary ceasefires – then in two months from now they might just start fighting again,” he said.
Lessons learnt and a jihadist’s threat
If the government does choose to pursue national negotiations in the future – or at least help support local ones – the community leaders said they have learnt some valuable lessons about the jihadists and how to approach them.
In the northern commune close to Mali, the local leader said residents weren’t sure who to even talk to at first because they thought the jihadists attacking them were foreigners. “In the beginning, we had a misconception of the problems,” said the leader.
It was only when local youth started disappearing and calling their parents to say they were in the bush that residents realised they knew who the perpetrators were, the leader added.
Prior to the talks, community leaders said they did plenty of preparatory work, gathering residents to discuss who to send to the meetings and what to say. Negotiations tended to succeed when friends and relatives of jihadists attended; when participants focused on a specific problem rather than tackling everything at once; and when a clear agenda was provided to the jihadists in advance.
“It is useless to negotiate for just a few months, because after that people will start killing each other again.”
Still, the community leaders said they wished they hadn’t had to learn these lessons on their own, and that the government had capitalised on the initial talks held during the elections late last year.
“It is useless to negotiate for just a few months, because after that people will start killing each other again,” said the leader from the northern commune in reference to the government’s ceasefire. “It is better to negotiate in order to finish with this whole crisis.”
Despite imposing tough conditions on communities, the leader from Nassoumbou said he has learnt that Dicko – the top jihadist leader – and his fighters have “values such as hospitality and consideration”.
The leader added that those values may indicate a willingness to speak to national negotiators in the future. “Jafar [Dicko] can change one day,” he said. “If some people with negotiation skills would continuously talk to him, [he] could change.”
Kaboré, of Joseph Ki-Zerbo University, said he has also spoken to several young men who were forced to join the jihadists in recent years and who are now hoping the government might be open to negotiating with them.
During one recent conversation, he recalled a jihadist telling him: “‘If [the president] says we have understood you, we can talk. But if he says we won’t negotiate, we will continue killing’.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld