OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Two-thousand civilian deaths. Countless “forced disappearances.” More than 1.7 million people displaced. The citizens of Burkina Faso have paid a price for the violent jihadist campaign leading up to Jan. 23, when the military seized power, suspended the Constitution and ousted the democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.
During this crisis and many years before it, one voice has spoken out for civilians: Daouda Diallo, a human-rights advocate who has struggled to document abuses endured by the citizens of this small, landlocked West African nation, now an epicenter of jihadist violence in the Sahel region.
In an interview in February, Diallo told PassBlue that he has been followed and threatened on the phone, and that a photo of him is circulating in the chat groups of armed militias, along with claims he is getting in the way of the fight against extremists.
One of three winners of this year’s Martin Ennals Award, a kind of international Nobel Prize for human rights, Diallo spoke to PassBlue in Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital, where he works as pharmacist and lives with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Three years ago, Diallo helped organize a coalition known as the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization, or CISC, which provides humanitarian assistance and documents rights abuses and extrajudicial killings throughout the country.
Diallo, 39, was born in Côte d’Ivoire, grew up in eastern Burkina Faso and attended the University of Ouagadougou. In the following Q&A, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, he describes an ongoing fight to preserve and promote human rights in the midst of a deadly conflict and a dedication he traces back to his childhood. — CLAIR MACDOUGALL
PassBlue: Tell us about your organization, the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Community (CISC).
Diallo: It’s a group of at least 30 civil society and humanitarian organizations born just after the massacre that took place in Yirgou, Burkina Faso, in early January 2019. During this massacre we documented the killing of at least 216 people in 20 villages within a 50-kilometer radius, targeting members of a specific ethnic group, mainly men. [The massacre was allegedly committed by Koglweogo, the name of local armed militias against members of the Peul ethnic group, as a reprisal for a jihadist attack]
The birth of the CISC brought the Burkinabè people together to prevent a civil war while allowing the victims or relatives of the victims to hope that there will be justice. We release statements and alerts when there are human-rights violations, including gender-based violence and torture. We have documented more than 1,000 cases of extrajudicial killings in the North — in the Central North, Sahel, East and western Boucle du Mouhoun regions. Our advocacy aims to influence decision-makers to change the situation. We also gather donations, aid and support for victims of violence and vulnerable people on the ground and offer legal and psychological assistance for victims of violence so they can rebuild their lives. We try to accompany people when they file complaints, and we try to find them lawyers [so they can file complaints].
PassBlue: As a pharmacist, how did you become involved in human-rights advocacy?
Diallo: As a child, I learned to be of service to others. I was lucky enough to go to school, and throughout school and university, I was designated as a student leader. I led the largest student union in Burkina Faso. So I have dedicated more than 20 years of my life to human rights.
PassBlue: How is the CISC structured?
Diallo: We are organized at the national level. We have representatives in each region of Burkina Faso, and we have focal points in the provinces and different communes. We take advantage of the networking of partner organizations that are members of CISC and already structured at the national level. So, if there is an incident or a case of a human-rights violation, we share the information very quickly, using communication channels like WhatsApp and Signal.
PassBlue: What have been the main achievements of your organization?
Diallo: We have helped find more than 100 people who were victims of forced disappearances. These people were arrested during military operations in the north, east and other regions. We are often given information and quickly get in touch with the governors, the prosecutor and others; we manage to find the victims and put them in contact with their families. In the case of the Yirgou massacre, almost 300 households were affected. We helped the victims who were in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps to be heard by justice institutions. Other mass crimes, in Tanwalbougou and Barga [a town in the East and a province in the West], affected dozens of people and we helped them seek justice. The process is difficult. In the case of the Yirgou massacre, we have not been able to hear all the witnesses and victims because security has deteriorated, causing them and the executioners and suspects to disperse. The accomplices have hidden, and they have political and military protection, which means no prosecutions [of the 180 suspects] have been made. Only 16 were arrested. Among them, one died in a cell and three others were later released, so today there are 11 who are still in prison. I testified as a witness in the case. The investigating judge still has the file and is still working on the case, and it is moving forward, even with shortcomings. While this process continues, I should add that we have several hundred cases that we have been able to push and are in the Burkinabè courts, often at the level of military justice or the traditional courts. [Unfortunately] we know when an investigation is opened but we never know when it closes.
PassBlue: Do you think there will be justice in the Yirgou case?
Diallo: We are optimistic but it is a long-term fight. There are already files related to blood crimes that we know about: There is the Thomas Sankara file, which is more than 30 years old, and also the Norbert Zongo case, which has been on the table since 1998. (Zongo, a journalist, was assassinated.) We have repeatedly asked the Burkinabè state to accelerate the process so that this never happens again.
PassBlue: How do you see the state of Burkina Faso today?
Diallo: Burkina is a failed state because the country is under attack, threatened and powerless in the face of attacks by armed terrorist groups and growing banditry. Second, Burkina Faso is a country where private justice has become more powerful because Burkinabè citizens no longer turn to the courts to solve their problems but take justice into their own hands. Third, as you can see, from a humanitarian point of view, almost 10 percent of the population is displaced, and this is very worrying. More than 13 percent of the schools have closed, and today one child out of five no longer has access to school. The number of displaced persons here represents 83 percent of the total number of displaced persons in the Sahel countries.
PassBlue: What are your thoughts about the military coup d’état in January?
Diallo: I believe this coup is the consequence of bad governance and widespread corruption in the country. It is something that was foreseeable, but we didn’t know how it would happen. It was predictable, given the political management of the Burkinabè state. I am worried because at first glance the coup d’état [did not reflect] a democratic principle. I hope that the new authorities will urgently take into account security issues, but also humanitarian issues, and see how to rebuild the social fabric of Burkina Faso, because today the Burkinabè are divided, which further weakens the state.
PassBlue: What advice would you give to the new president, Lieut. Col. Damiba, the head of the Movement for the Restoration and Safeguard (MPSR) of Burkina Faso, the group of soldiers who overthrew the democratically elected government?
Diallo: I would simply tell him that the Burkinabè expect a lot from him and that he cannot make mistakes. The president of the MPSR must act urgently to make each citizen understand that in a nation, the negation of the other has no place. He must also act urgently for the protection of human rights because the tree of peace is watered with the water of justice.
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.