Koglwéogo: More Aftershocks of 1/15? Or just another example of self-service law enforcement?

There has been a bunch of stories in the Burkinabè media in the last couple of weeks about something called “Koglwéogo”. These are local security associations. Their supporters, including the Minister of Security, make them seem like harmless neighborhood watch groups while my friends in the corner bar, members of the opposition, are sounding the alarm that they are nasty militias, maybe with partisan agendas.

Yesterday, there was a particularly unpleasant incident down in Sapouy, on the road to Ghana, where a Koglwéogo group arrested a number of suspected cattle thieves, brought them before the village chief for judging, and beat them, killing one. Apparently, the man killed was somebody who had been a thorn in the side of people in the village for some time, at least according to the villagers, organizing a group of young people and robbing people, committing vandalism, and generally making trouble. The villagers claim that they had complained to the authorities but nothing had been done, so they took things into their own hands. The official cops showed up after the accused was already dead, the villagers called in their friends, guns were brandished, and there was an armed standoff. At one point, villagers massed and threatened to attack the village police station. The army came down, brought some armored vehicles and helicopters, and activists from the city also came to support the villagers. Finally, the Commissioner of the National Police had to come down and negotiate with the village chief. A couple of individuals who carried out the actual killing were turned over to the cops and are now under arrest in the city. Everybody put away their guns and tensions seem to have diminished. This solution, however, leaves open the question of the chief’s own liability in the affair, and the role played by other community leaders in organizing the group and sanctioning the killing.

Here’s the scene in Sapouy as the crowd gathered.


(Image Credit: Omegabf.net)

And here are the Koglwéogo and their supporters, blocking the main road to the village before the arrival of the chief of police:


(Image Credit: Burkina24).

Note the traditional weapons: mostly single-shot breech-loading shotguns, but some look like muzzle-loaders. It’s a relief not to see AK’s and RPG’s.  Lowers the stakes a bit.

I told my friends the story of the chipping plant in Pine Grove Hollow, Virginia, stressing to them that this took place in the 1980’s and 1990’s, not so long ago, in America, no more than 200 kilometers from Washington DC. An outsider, married to a local woman, came into our little hollow in the Blue Ridge and got ahold of a substantial plot of woodland, almost 100 hectares. He got permission – perhaps corruptly – from the county government to build a small chipping plant on his property to grind up the trees and sell the chips to paper companies. He took this permission and ran with it, building a very large facility, and, after he finished with his own trees, started bringing in log trucks full of timber from other places in the region. The little road up to the hollow is not designed for heavy truck traffic. The turn from the road onto his gravel driveway is not easy for trucks to negotiate and they got in the habit of cutting across the lawn of his neighbor. The neighbor, already angry at the industrial facility that had gone in behind his house, reacted to having his lawn driven over by log trucks by planting re-bar in his lawn, covered by loose dirt, and the next log truck to come through got a number of flat tires. This resulted in a fist fight between the neighbors, which then led the chipping plant owner to make his next mistake: he called the cops – he was friends with a lot of folks in the local government – and had his opponent arrested for assault and battery. Whereupon a mysterious fire broke out in the chipping plant. The chipping plant guy didn’t get the idea, took his insurance money and rebuilt, so lo and behold another mysterious fire. This time, he got the idea and sold out and left. As my godfather Ivan Pettit said once to a visiting deputy sheriff, “We don’t need no law up here. We make our own law.” I suggested that the villagers of Sapouy were channeling dear old Mr. Pettit. My Virginia neighbors, of course, didn’t kill anybody. In fact, as far as I know, the last killing up there was in the 1860s, in the context of the Civil War. However, arson is a crime of violence and you have to at least take into account the possibility that there might be someone in the structure you are burning down. And arson is a very common form of self-service law enforcement in the mountain South.

One of my politically clued-in drinking companions (hi Salif!) argued, “what kind of state negotiates with armed people who defy its authority”, and I was able to cite the outcome of the standoff in Oregon, where precisely this happened: a group of armed opponents of the government seized a government facility, and the forces of order let them run around for quite a while, negotiating quietly, before finally arresting most of them peacefully (one guy insisted on being shot and killed) and then talking the last few holdouts into surrendering. In fact, I said, the business of talking criminals into surrendering was clearly a proper function of the police: they are responsible for protecting the lives of all citizens, even those suspected of crimes. However, in Oregon, plenty of people had the same reaction as my friend during the militia occupation. And the question remains if the outcome of the negotiations is that the local authorities who sanctioned the crimes are going to be allowed to go free.

My question was, are these Koglwéogo new organizations formed since the terrorist attacks? Is this a response to terrorism or are they left-overs from an older era when local authorities had enormous latitude to punish crimes and judge disputes according to traditional norms? I didn’t really get a clear answer to this question. On the one hand, one of my informants referred to the CDRs, the locally-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, established by President Sankara during the revolution here in the 1980s. CRDs apparently had wide latitude to punish local malefactors, though not with death, and to enforce revolutionary purity. It was an idea Sankara got from Fidel in Cuba – they did call Sankara Africa’s Che for a reason. The CRDs replaced the authority of the traditional chiefs, who had been pretty much autonomous under colonial rule, and even after independence, given the limited resources of the government. The parallel to Sankara’s time is that Simon Compaoré, the Minister of Internal Security, has suggested that Koglwéogo could or should be made official, given training and supervision, and act as adjuncts to the regular police. It is true that the Burkina National Police are enormously undermanned. There are less than 10,000 of them for a country of 20,000,000 – even if you figure a third of those people live in cities and are protected by the urban police forces, that still means each rural cop is responsible for about 1500 people. All by himself. On the other hand, the story has certainly appeared in the last couple of weeks, with stories such as the Sapouy case (though none before this resulting in death) featured in news stories several times. Maybe the fear of terrorism has strengthened a movement that already existed or has led journalists to pay attention to a phenomenon they had previously ignored.

So the question remains open: are Koglwéogo a result of public fears of terrorism? My friend suggested that if so, they should be mobilized and sent to the Malian border to patrol to stop terrorist incursions. One wonders how effective they would be, and what the impact would be on human rights. I thought of, but didn’t mention, the irregular patrols set up along the Mexican border by nativist militias in recent years, with persistent suggestions that they have mistreated or perhaps even killed unlawful migrants they have intercepted. Is the Minister trying to mobilize a pro-government militia in the countryside? Or is this just what it appears to be, a hold-over from an older time, in Africa as in rural America, when communities took care of their own law enforcement according to traditional norms, but now encountering a more international and bureaucratized norm of police, courts, and the rule of law? Let’s hope the latter, and let’s hope that this can be a positive development where the government actually helps people ensure their own security without overstepping the limits of the law and becoming vigilantes or bandits themselves.

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