What should Christians do when their government cannot protect them from terrorism? As the world’s first post-coronavirus coup shakes Mali, nearby Burkina Faso is experimenting with a controversial lesson in self-defense.
Last month, a cohort of army officers deposed Mali’s president following widespread protests against economic and security conditions. While the coup has been condemned by regional leaders—placing the West African nation under sanctions—initial indications suggest Christians have been respected and consulted in the majority-Muslim nation’s transitional process.
Coup leaders have stated they will respect the fraying peace deal reached with local rebels in 2015, but will also continue to work with the multinational efforts dedicated to stamp out the terrorist threat.
Back in June, former colonial leader France formalized an agreement to unify forces under a single command with troops from Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Last week, the United States announced $150 million in humanitarian assistance for 4 of the 5 Sahel republics (excluding Chad) to address mass displacement and food insecurity caused by the conflict.
To gain perspective on Burkina Faso, CT interviewed Joanna Ilboudo, secretary-general for ACTS Burkina, a nonprofit Christian association dedicated to helping the nation’s widows and orphans without religious distinction. She in turn took the pulse of local Christian leaders and laity on behalf of CT.
Located in West Africa’s volatile Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, the Colorado-sized Francophone country of 20 million had been home to one of the continent’s model nations for peaceful coexistence. Around 60 ethnic groups divide the population religiously into 61-percent Muslim, 19-percent Catholic, 4-percent Protestant, and 15-percent indigenous beliefs.
Muslims are located primarily in the north, east, and west border areas, with Christians located in the south and central areas. But schools are mixed and intermarriage is common, while 80 percent of the population works in farming.
Jihadist groups began attacking Burkina Faso in 2015, following the popular removal of a president in power for 27 years. The transitional government ended his policy of allowing terrorists to harass neighboring Mali from across the border.
Three jihadist groups proliferate, one affiliated with al-Qaeda, and have targeted grain fields and the educational system. But according to reports, only the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)—which has wreaked havoc in Nigeria—has specifically targeted Christian communities.
Ranked outside Open Door’s 2019 World Watch List of the 50 places where it is hardest to be a Christian, Burkina Faso rose to No. 28 in the 2020 listing.
But Christians have been far from the only victims.
“The world doesn’t seem to have understood that our country runs the risk of disappearing,” said Catholic priest Pierre Belemsigri to Aid to the Church in Need.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project tallied 1,295 deaths in 2019, up from 173 the year before. Nearly 100 health centers and 1,800 schools have closed, denying medical care to 250,000 people and education to 320,000 students.
Over 1 million people have now been displaced by the violence.
President Roch Marc Kabore assumed office in 2015 after a clear but competitive election. But as militant attacks began weakening state power, self-defense groups called Koglweogo—“guardians of the bush” in the local language—began to proliferate.
The United Nations estimates their number at around 4,500, with 45,000 members. Armed primarily with hunting rifles, the groups have also engaged in retributive atrocities against ethnic groups suspected to have harbored terrorists.
Beset by crisis, in January the Burkina Faso parliament unanimously approved a new law to train, arm, and regulate civilian volunteer forces to stave off the terrorist threat. It is anticipated that Koglweogo groups will be drafted into the effort, but is also meant to provide self-defense for vulnerable villages across the nation.
Back in May, such villagers were among the 15 casualties killed while escorting a commercial convoy through a dangerous northern province. Reporting in July called them “no match” for jihadists, as volunteers in one village dropped from 500 to 200 over the summer.
Ilboudo’s ministry, whose French acronym translates to “Christian Action, All for Solidarity,” is another means to help the ever-increasing victims.
To gather Christian perspective on the government’s militia initiative, she interviewed a well-known theologian teaching in the largest theological college in Burkina Faso; a member of the national Assemblies of God executive board; a lawyer working with international diplomats; and a social worker in the field of education. She also conducted five focus group conversations, one specifically of women and another of youth this past spring.
The Burkina Faso government has approved a plan to arm civilians to fight terrorist groups. Please explain the basics.
Following the approval of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, the groups to be formed are called Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland. Their mission is to contribute, when necessary and requested by the army, to the defense and protection of populations in the villages.
The law specifies that individual volunteers must obtain the approval of the local population in general assembly. It requires their patriotism, loyalty, discipline, neutrality, integrity, and sacrifice, even unto death.
What are the hopes for results, and are they achievable?
Without volunteers, the people in the villages have been taken by surprise by terrorists and unable to defend themselves.
Now they are training to be like spies and detect terrorist infiltration. Most of these attacks began when an unknown individual would stay in the village for some time, determine the best paths of entry, and only later lead their colleagues to come and attack the innocent people.
In the case of an attack, weapons are provided so villagers can defend themselves. Since the program has been in place, many terrorists have been found and killed, and young kidnapped girls have been rescued and returned home.
What are the dangers, and how likely is it that things could go wrong?
The danger is that these groups might be used for other purposes unrelated to terrorism.
Most people I have spoken with express concern that if there is a political crisis in the country, the government might utilize them as a militia. If the volunteer groups will be trained by the army as they say, then praise the Lord!
But politics is politics, and we don’t know. If they start fighting with the government or each other, then it will be a disaster.
What impact is terrorism having on the church, and perhaps your own congregation?
I live far from the areas where terrorist attacks are taking place, so there has been no personal impact for us. But closer to where the attacks are taking place, many Christians have been displaced and even pastors have left.
In February, I heard that about 40 pastors from the SIM church had fled. It is difficult to give statistics because the number is growing each week. People have been cut off from their livelihoods, and food insecurity is rapidly worsening.
Is it biblical for individual Christians to join this effort? Please explain how pastors are counseling their congregations.
All the Christian leaders I have contacted compare volunteering in these groups to the role of someone in the army. They do not think there is a problem for a Christian to join in order to defend their village and country. The head of our army is a Christian in the Assemblies of God church. And early on, a Christian lieutenant died in service, killed by an enemy landmine.
Christian leaders even believe it is better to have believers among the volunteers, because their contribution can help keep the situation from going in a wrong direction. The theologian specifically called it a “just war,” situating it within that Christian tradition.
Has there has been any good news since these tragedies began multiplying?
I cannot say there has been a revival yet, but prayer in the country has intensified. Many groups of Christians are fasting and praying weekly, in addition to what the local churches are organizing. I belong to two groups, and each group has a time of prayer each week. We are pleading for God’s mercy and protection over the country.
Christians and Muslims are still living peacefully together, and all religious groups are trying to do what they can to preserve the peace that we have been known for.
But we do not know how long this struggle will last, because of the strong financial investment of Arab countries in our nation. Also, some Muslims think that because Islam is the largest religious group, the country should be Islamic. They are favorable to sharia law, not knowing the implications it may have in a country like Burkina Faso.
Help us understand the context of this crisis. How do people understand what is happening?
The problem is very complicated. Some people believe it is linked to politics. Others say that Western nations are playing a role in this war because it is a way to extract some of the natural resources of the country. The areas where terrorism is very active have a lot of mineral resources.
Other people believe that terrorism is a jihad sponsored by Arab countries which want to take control of Burkina Faso—a strategic point in West Africa—and from there extend their grip to other countries in the region.
What do you want US evangelicals to know or do about Burkina Faso?
Our country is seriously at war. Since we do not know the real intentions of those who are killing the innocent people, we would greatly appreciate the prayers of US evangelicals for this war to end.
With the great number of displaced Christians in various part of the country, the future of Christianity is at risk. And with these recurrent terrorist attacks, coupled with our limited financial resources, it is difficult to plan large evangelical campaigns like we used to.
We want to find the peace we used to have in this country—peace that allowed all ethnic and religious groups to live together without conflict.