Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – For months, Belko Dialo’s* Djibo’s homeland in Burkina Faso’s resilient north was blocked by armed groups largely severed from its association with the capital, Ouagadougou.
But in recent weeks, there has been report that negotiations between the government and groups led to discord between the two sides and the surrender of about 50 fighters.
However, Dialo says this does not bring a new sense of peace to the approximately 60,000 residents of Djibo.
“I don’t know if there’s been any negotiation, because we can’t come to it yet [armed group-controlled] surrounding areas, ”the 61-year-old man told Al Jazeera over the phone.
“Today, if I tell you I can safely go 5km (3 miles) north of Djibo, I would be lying. Honestly, I don’t see how the negotiations can play out.
However, Dialo admits that some warriors from the surrounding area have surrendered and supplies are pouring into the town once again. He also said the fighters that were still actively fighting in the area around town were now entering the market without weapons. Dialo said, “Every Wednesday,” to buy food. They were allowed to leave, unobstructed by security forces.
Many Burkinabes in conflict zones share each other, even as statistics show the country’s half-decade-long war became significantly less deadly in the last year.
Since March 2020, the number of deaths in Burkina Faso’s conflict with the Islamic State in Greater Shara (ISGS), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and other armed groups has nearly decreased. 87% – from 413 in March 2020 to 41 in March 2021 – according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
The death toll related to conflict in provinces around Djibo has fallen to 439 in the past six months, from 901 in the previous six months.
This drastic decline raises many questions, especially because the number of attacks on civilians, battles between militants and other acts of violence remains the same.
If the attacks are still frequent, why are the deaths less?
While this trend seems to coincide with an outbreak of coronavirus last year, analysts and experts say COVID-19 is not a factor.
The reported talks appear to have played a role, with both ACLED analyst Heni Nsaibia and security analyst Mahamadou Sawadogo saying there are signs that such talks could be. takes place in regions of the country other than Djibo – although this has yet to be verified.
However, the government reluctantly admitted to negotiating with the militants. Military donors, including France, refused to do so and frowned at allies engaged as such.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera analysts speak to agree that international military efforts in the tri-border region – a violent hotspot where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger converge – also has the effect of reducing mortality.
Operation Barkhane, France’s military initiative in the region, has carried out a number of unsuccessful air attacks and ensured many tactical victories against armed groups in the region over the past year.
However, there was collateral damage. Last week, a UN report said a January air attack at a wedding party in central Mali killed 19 unarmed civilians and could turn into war crimes. . France rejected the finding, but incidents like these often spurred the recruitment of armed groups.
When asked about the decline in deaths, Lassane Sawadogo, executive secretary of the ruling People’s Movement for Progress (MPP) party in Burkina Faso, mentioned “national and international efforts to anti-terrorism, ”argues that the operational effectiveness of the Burkina Faso Defense and Security Forces (FDS) has improved” both in terms of operations and use of intelligence “.
“There is also the participation of citizens volunteering in the conflict, including Volunteer to Protect the Fatherland (VDP) and Koglweogo [a local vigilante group]”,” He said to Al Jazeera.
Formed in February 2020, the VDPs are a controversial addition to Burkina Faso’s strategy in the fight against armed groups.
Armed with government weapons, civilians including the VDPs were trained for two weeks before being sent out into the bushes to engage in combat. Human rights groups warned early that the creation of VDPs would increase violence against civilians, and since then there have been many unverified reports of VDPs committing atrocities against civilians.
However, Mahamadou Sawadogo, Burkinabe’s security analyst, said that “in some regions, the VDPs have played a role in reducing violence”.
He said: “When we count the number of attacks in the North Central region, there are 180 cases in 2019 – down to 96 cases by 2020.” This is mainly linked to the VDPs with the help from FDS. ”
Nsaibia added that the armed forces’ tactical change was also the cause of the decline.
“More camps are concentrated, military camps in larger towns and also less patrol, which is less maneuverable,” he said. “The result is, [the FDS] recorded less losses. “
Another factor cited by experts to account for the reduction in the death toll is the conflict that erupted last year between the JNIM and the ISGS, two main armed groups operating in Burkina Faso.
Nsaibia called the landing in open war between groups “an important driving force that undermined the uprising”.
“The war within the jihad was costly in terms of both resources and manpower and left the jihadists intensified in surveillance and airstrikes,” he said.
But Nsaibia also emphasized that a reduction in the death toll is not necessarily a sign of success in part of the military effort, but an acceptance of the status quo, where large areas of the country are cut off from status. Thai.
Due to need, the FDS is retreating from the more aggressive tactics of previous years, while armed groups do not need to use such violent measures to maintain control of their territory.
“The life and death situation between militias and security and defense forces has existed for a long time,” he said.
“In many areas under the control or influence of jihad, these groups seek to maintain compliance and correct social behavior through less violent means, including intimidation. threats, beatings and kidnapping ”.
* Name has been changed for fear of retaliation.