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Podcast / October 11 2022

Negotiating with insurgents in Burkina Faso

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Military officers in Burkina Faso seized power in early October 2022, the country’s second military coup in a year. In both cases, military officers cited the previous government’s failure to curb violence from factions linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. This insurgency has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced about 10% of the population.

Journalist Sam Mednick, who covered these community-led negotiations in Burkina Faso for The New Humanitarian, joins us this week to tell the story of one community leader in Burkina Faso who set out to negotiate with the insurgents so that members of his community could return to their homes. His story might be familiar to people who follow conflicts in other areas, like Afghanistan, where, in the absence of a broader peace process, people at the local level engage in their own small-scale diplomacy.

Full Transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.




From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. 


Today, we have a remarkable story about one person in Burkina Faso who tried to negotiate with Islamist insurgents to make his community safe again. 


For those who are not familiar, Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa with more than 20 million people. It’s also a former French colony. For some years now, a number of groups with ties to al-Qaida and the Islamic State have waged a violent insurgency in the country, killing thousands of people and displacing about 10 percent of the population. As the insurgency spreads, the country has become increasingly destabilized. Just last month, military officers staged a coup against the regime.



For the second time this year, a military coup has occurred in the African nation of Burkina Faso.



Army officers in Burkina Faso have announced the overthrow of military leader Paul-Henri Damiba. Captain Ibrahim Traoré has been declared the new head of the West African country.



Then and now, the justification was a failure to tackle violence perpetrated by militant groups linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State.


JENN: Some experts say the authorities in Burkina Faso now control just 60 percent of the country’s territory. So the situation is pretty bad. 


Sam Mednick has been reporting on the conflict there, and covers conflicts in a bunch of other places, too. We approached Sam to report this episode with us—before the coup—because of a piece that she wrote for The New Humanitarian. It was about community-led negotiations with local militants. We asked Sam to interview one of the negotiators she profiled in that article. This person was from a community that had been displaced by the insurgents. We’re calling this negotiator “Adama”—he didn’t want us to use his real name for obvious reasons. Sam recorded the interview remotely; Adama was sitting in a restaurant in the capital of Burkina Faso with Sam’s interpreter, Yacouba. So you’ll hear some sounds from that backdrop from time to time.



I thought I could approach him and then give him some pieces of advice.


JENN: And that’s the English voiceover you’ll hear. Adama’s story says a lot about the state of the conflict and about ways to approach peacemaking. But before we get to all of that, I wanted to know a little more about Sam Mednick.



Well, I had been reporting in South Sudan for, for nearly three years, and then I was kicked out of South Sudan for—I was suspended for six months. And at that point, I was looking to go somewhere else. And I, I gravitate towards covering conflicts and humanitarian crises in places that are underreported. And at that time, Burkina Faso was—this was the end of 2019, and Burkina Faso had gotten really bad. And so I, I went there to report. And then, and then it started—there was sort of a lull in fighting around—the situation got really bad, but there’s a lull in fighting around these 2020 presidential elections. And I started just asking questions: Why is there less fighting? What’s happening? And that’s sort of what led me to uncover this ceasefire, the secret deal at the time. And I did reporting on that and then managed to speak to some jihadists who had laid down their guns in the course of that ceasefire. But while I was reporting on that, it became very apparent that there was—in addition to, at the time, these high-level talks that were going on with levels of national security, with the government and high level jihadists—there were also local-level talks that had been going on even before this. Community leaders talking to jihadists; jihadists approaching, you know, some militias and saying, “Hey, can we talk? Can we sort something out?” And so with, you know, my editors at The New Humanitarian—who were also doing reporting on similar local-level negotiations that were happening in Mali—we decided to dive more into this. You know, we thought it was important to look at other ways that people were sort of trying to approach this conflict other than fighting. And it would be really interesting to find out: who are these negotiators? Who are these guys who are risking their lives and having these conversations with the jihadists? And so that’s what led me to kind of dig in. And I just started asking around, saying, “Do you know of any of these people?” And through contacts through contacts, I was led to a few negotiators, including to Adama. Adama is—he’s had experience in—I won’t be as specific as I would be, just to protect his identity.


JENN: Of course.


SAM: But he had some experience in, you know, some local—local government affairs before.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): I am a farmer but also a breeder, because we are doing both. I am 59 years old. I was born in 1960, and I have 14 children, but I didn’t finish having children yet, so more children will come.


JENN: So he’s a respected man, a village-elder-type figure, kind of, is the picture I’m getting. Is that right?


SAM: For sure. He is—he’s very respected. And as the situation with the jihadists and the attacks was getting worse, and before he started having these more formal negotiations, he had spoken to them before on the phone. You know, there had been an attack, and he had, he had called them and said, “Can you stop this?” or “Can the village go home?” So he, he was known as someone who was able to talk to them, to get things done and was—I think was highly regarded in that respect.


JENN: Are we talking a specific village, right? It was a village or town that he’s from, or is it—is that the right word to use?


SAM: So we can call it, like, a commune, which is sort of like a grouping of many villages. And this was in—this was in the Sahel region.


JENN: Was there a specific spate of a kind of attack or specific attacks that were happening on this one area, this one commune area, that the locals were trying to stop? Was there something that brought this to a head, like, “OK, we need to do something about this”?


SAM: Yes. And I—that’s something that I asked him as well, kind of wondering when did it, you know, “What was the turning point for you, that you said, ‘OK, we need to have these discussions?’” And he said that, you know, towards the end of 2019, the situation was just getting a lot worse.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): At that time, there were killings everywhere. And then there were also kidnappings. There was a lot of suffering going on in the community, because all the people had displaced to, to the cities. But those people displaced, they are mainly farmers, and they are mainly, like, animal breeders. So since they left their villages where they could, you know, farm, where they could breed the animals, and then went to cities, they were suffering a lot. And the humanitarian support that they were receiving were not enough. So that’s why I was really moved and then touched. I say, “Why not reach him out and then try to see if he may agree to let them go back to—to the villages?”


SAM: Jihadists were basically chasing everyone out of, of their villages. People had left, meaning they couldn’t farm, they couldn’t—they couldn’t cultivate. They were displaced. The people who were living in those areas had to abide by the jihadist version of Sharia law. They had to cut their pants. Women had to be veiled. And he said that it was just getting really bad.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): Apart from that, there were also schools that were being closed, because they were like, “We don’t like modern school. People need to teach other thing like Arabic.” So that’s—that’s a main other reason why I decided to reach him out.


SAM: And it was at that point where him and the community members said, “OK, let’s reach out to them. Let’s at least identify them, talk to them and open some type of dialogue.”


JENN: Got it. And when you say “cut their pants,” I’m guessing you’re referring to, like, the Salafi jihadist style of, like, the short pants that are cut off, like pedal pushers. Is that—is that what you mean when you said “cut their pants”?


SAM: Right, yes.


JENN: Right. So they’re making them stick to these, kind of—these really specific rules about their version of Islamic dress code, et cetera, et cetera, for men and women. OK. You mentioned that he had, like, talked to some of these jihadists beforehand. So does he just, like, have them in his, in his phone? Does he just, like [CHUCKLES]—do you just, like, call up the guy or, like—how does he get in touch with them?


SAM: These guys, they know each other. They all—they grew up together. So Adama knew—everyone knew who the main, the head guy was. They just—he was well-known, they knew his name. And he knew him. He is older than him. His name is Amadou Badini. And he, he grew up with him. He was friends with his parents, with his family. He watched this guy grow up.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): And I used to go to my uncle’s home, my uncle’s village, which is his village—I mean, Badini’s village—and I used to meet him, I used to talk with him. And we were basically talking about, you know, breeding animals, and also farming. I thought I could impact him. I could have him change his mind, because when he was still young and when he was not radicalized yet, I used to advise him, and there was a trust between us. He trusted me. And I also—I trusted him. So that’s why I thought I could approach him and then give him some pieces of advice.


SAM: He said he watched him become radicalized; that he—Badini had gone to study in Mali. He came back, and he sort of saw this evolution of him becoming more—like, less tolerant of people who weren’t abiding by his version of Islam.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So what shocked me in Badini’s life when he came back from Mali was that he started, like, being isolated, and instead of, like, going and visiting his relatives or visiting his parents and then attending, like, the baptism ceremony or some other feast in the villages, he started saying, “No, this is for pagans.” And then he started even qualifying all his family members and the other villagers as, like, pagans. And he was saying that they have to change their religion, they had to change the way they are doing, the way they are practicing, you know, religion. I was—when I see him changing, I was, like, very sad, but also angry at the same time. Because I am—I’m, I’m like—I like democracy. I like modern school. I like everything that is helping with the development. And seeing him changing and being against all these things made me so sad. Of course, I did not have any choice. Though I was angry and sad, I had to talk to him, since I knew that our salvation is somehow in their hands. So I did not have any choice, anyway.


SAM: So Amadou Badini had become the leader of an al-Qaida-aligned group based on the border with Mali. Adama didn’t have his phone number, but he knew—they knew where the base was, essentially. They knew where the—you know, they congregated and where they slept.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So in 2020, I decided to go and meet Badini, because there was, like, a pressure by the community leaders and then the population that were like, “Well, we need to negotiate. We need to do something so that peace may come back.” So that’s why the community leaders had a gathering, and during the gathering they said, “OK, who shall we send to go and meet him?” And then I proposed myself. I said, “I can go.” That’s how—it was a Sunday I decided to go. I took my motorcycle.


SAM: And so what he ended up doing was just getting on his bike and going by himself, into the bush, to where he knew this base was. And kind of took a chance and said, “I’m just going to go and speed things up.” And went to the base and said, “I want to speak to Badini.”


JENN: So when we say “the bush,” right, like, we’re talking—like, this is pretty, pretty jungly forest that they’re—where their base is, right?


SAM: He’s in the Sahel, so it’s more desert-y then jungly bush. It’s, it’s arid desert where you probably have some sparse trees here and there… 




SAM: …but I mean, it’s very remote, and it’s very hot. And you don’t—there’s not a lot there. And he—yes, he got on his motorbike, and basically went up to their—went to their base. And he said he saw the commanders at the base and said, “I’d like to speak to Badini.” And they said, “OK, sleep here for the night. We’ll contact him on”—they use walkie-talkies in some cases. And so they contacted Badini and then he met him the next morning.


JENN: What happened? What goes next?


SAM: So they have an initial meeting, the two of them.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So when I finish speaking to Badini, he took the floor and then said, “Well, I, of course, know that if you did not talk—if you did not have the agreement of the army and the authorities, you wouldn’t have come to meet me. You would have been, maybe, afraid. But anyway, you know, we can—we don’t have any problem letting you go back to, to your villages. But there are some rules, actually, to respect. And among those rules, you have to know that when you come back, the judgment, like the justice, will be implemented by us, in the villages. And second, you should cut—as men, you should cut your pants and then leave your beard. Women should veil. So these are a few rules that you should respect when you come back.” So, yeah.


SAM: The first meeting was short, but sort of, like, “We’ll, we’ll reconvene; both sides will bring more people.” And then a few weeks later, that’s what happened.


JENN: That big meeting, after the break. 




JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m Jenn Williams. Before the break, you heard about Adama’s first meeting with Amadou Badini, a guy he grew up with and who is now affiliated with al-Qaida. Adama is trying to negotiate the return of his neighbors to this group of villages. And now there’s going to be a bigger meeting between Badini’s people and Adama’s people.


SAM: There was a location they agreed to meet at. It was about 40 kilometers outside of Djibo. Djibo is the main town in, in Soum Province in the Sahel. And both sides had to agree to that.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So for the second meeting, we were 23 people who left Djibo. It was in May, and then we went to that place that they designated ahead and then said, “That is where you should come and then meet us.” So we were even the—the people who came first. When we came, we waited for them. Later on, we heard the noise of the motorcycles. So they came. There were 30 of them, and when they came, they had some mattress with them. They had some tea. They had some—their luggage and everything. They even, you know, cooked some tea for us.


JENN: So, yeah, I’m just trying to picture this, right, because you have, presumably, a heavily armed contingent in the jihadists. I’m guessing they brought their guns.


SAM: I’ve seen videos of some of these meetings. They are fully armed. And the other side doesn’t, doesn’t have any. I mean, not Adama, but another, another negotiator described it as, essentially, like a movie—describing some of these fighters who look really young, and some of them are weak and dirty. And, you know, they say that some of them look like they can’t even hold these guns, like, they’re too heavy for them. But they are heavily armed. And, you know, faces covered in many cases.


JENN: OK. And then you have the other side of, like, the local villagers.


SAM: It’s a group of village elders. And from what I understand—from what, you know, they told me—they spend a lot of time deciding who would go. And a lot of the communities try and send a mix of people. So you have, you know, like religious leaders, community leaders. You also have, in some cases, these volunteer fighters. These are—these are vol—these are civilians-turned-fighters who have been helping the army, who the jihadists really have been targeting and don’t like. But some of these groups include these volunteer fighters in these groups to make it very inclusive and to, you know, to say, “Look, these are all the people that we are trying to negotiate with you and trying to have—put some calm to the situation.”


JENN: And yeah, I’m just, you know, trying to picture, like—Adama with his group of guys are all sitting around. I imagine it’s really tense. They’re drinking tea. Like, what did Adama tell you? Like, did he talk to you about how he felt during these negotiations?


SAM: He told me that the first time driving up—when he was on his motorbike going to the base—initially, he was nervous.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): When I was on my motorcycle, riding to go and meet him, many things were going on in my mind. The first thing was that I’m going to meet some people that I’m afraid of. And the second thing was, like, I’m also afraid of the army. Of course, there was a kind of ceasefire between the army and the terrorist group, but I was still afraid. But there was something that was, like, motivating me. I was mandated by people, and that was very important to me. That’s why I decided to go and meet him.


JENN: OK. So let’s get back to this big second meeting.


SAM: They sat for…this was a long meeting. They sat, I think, for near—four hours, approximately.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): OK. So when they arrived, they said, “Well, there we go, what, what are you coming for?” And then I took the floor and then said, “Well, we have come because we want you to help us. We have our commune, which is empty, 24 villages. No one is there. And then we are asking you to help us so that these villages may come back.” 


And then the reply, they said, “Well, we will see if it is something doable or not. Well, as you know, we have an agreement with the army and based on this agreement, the army is not supposed to attack us. And we, also, we are supposed not to attack the army. But as for these villages returning in the commune, there is no problem. All the villages can return to the commune, and all the people from this commune can go back, you know, to, to their different villages. But we will be against anyone who will be against us.” So that’s what they said. 


So they also said, “For the time being, we don’t have the permission from our commanders to let the villages—or the people from the villages—to go in the central of the commune and settle there. But the people can settle around the commune, but not in the, the—in the middle of the commune.”


SAM: They wouldn’t allow them to go back to the main village, which is something that other negotiators have said as well.


JENN: Meaning the jihadists wouldn’t let the people who had fled come back?


SAM: Yeah. So the jihadist—the jihadist, the main jihadist, said that the, that the villagers, the ones who had been displaced, couldn’t return to the main village of the commune, like, the center one. But he said that they could return to, sort of, the smaller villages, the surrounding villages.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So we reply to them and then we said, “Well, we completely agree, abiding by your rules. There is no problem in that. But the second, I mean, the second rule that you mentioned—which is that we should leave, we should settle around the commune and we should not settle in the middle of the commune—we don’t agree with that, because it won’t help us. We have our hospitals that are closed there. We have schools that are closed there. And if we were able to get into the middle of the city, then our doctors would come back, the teacher would come back, and then we would continue also opening our mosques that are closed for, for many months. So for that, we don’t agree.” 


So Badini said the reason why they don’t want us to go and live in the middle of the commune is that they don’t want to have more problems with the army, because they know that if the population go back to the, to the middle of the city, the army will come back. The authorities, the local authorities, will come back while they are having problem with the army. And they don’t want to keep on having problem with the army. To prevent this to happen, they are requesting us not to live in the middle of the city. 


So the conclusion of that meeting was, “Go back and live, settle around the commune, and then abide by those rules that we listed.” And we said, “Well, we will go back, and then we will report to the community because we are all messengers.” And then when we went back, we had a very large gathering where there were even some authorities, and then we share with them. There were some people who, who were saying, “Well, it is not difficult, as such, to implement what they are asking.” And there were also some people who were like, “It is very hard. We cannot.” So that’s how we ended the meeting. And later on, I talked to him—Badini—requesting him if, I mean, asking him if they had, like, an agreement from their commanders to let us go and live in the middle of the city. And he said, “No, so far we didn’t get.” So that’s how we ended the meeting.


SAM: It sounds—from him, and also, you know, other negotiators, they—what I came away with from speaking to them was that they really came away with these mixed emotions.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So some other thoughts that were going on in my mind was that, “Well, we have come to meet them expecting to get some result, but we have just got, like, a half result, not the whole result. And we don’t know what will come next. And we are just, like, half satisfied.” And I am, like, today, if the army would just give—or the authority would give, like, permission for us to start again, you know, negotiating with them, that would be fine.


SAM: In Adama’s case, they didn’t get what they wanted, fully, at all. They’re sort of negotiating, you know—really with, like, their hands tied behind their back, in a way. They don’t have a lot to offer, they don’t have government support at this point saying, “This is what you can give them.” In many cases, they’re not even telling the government that they’re talking to them, because they’re concerned the government is going to think that they’re part of the jihadists. And so they’re not—they’re coming away with sort of half of what they, they really want. Like, these guys weren’t able to go back to the main village, which is what they really wanted, because that’s where the hospitals and the services are. And so he, he kind of walked away feeling like, “OK, I feel like they’re open to discussing, and I feel like this is the start of more conversations. But we didn’t get everything that we wanted out of this conversation.”


JENN: I guess that makes sense, right? Because I’m trying to think, you know, if I’m, if I’m the jihadist, why would I give in to any of these demands? Like, what are they offering me?


SAM: The villagers weren’t offering—they weren’t offering anything. But they had to—but the jihadists were basically saying, “We’re willing to do this, but you do need to abide by our version of Sharia law. And, you, you know, you can’t live in the main town.” It is potentially in their interest to—I don’t know “win over,” but to be on decent relations with the community. Also because they say that’s not who they’re targeting, that they’re targeting government, the military, security forces. So that’s, that’s potentially what—yeah, what’s in it for the jihadists.


JENN: So after they have this big meeting, right, they don’t get everything—the villagers, they don’t get everything they want, but they get some things. What about schooling? You mentioned something about, like, “Why can’t we teach French in our schools?” Were there other things they came to some sort of an arrangement on?


SAM: No, the schooling thing was not negotiable, according to Adama. That was off the table. They could teach in Arabic, but they couldn’t teach French in schools or, you know, what they said was Western education. They couldn’t—they couldn’t teach that. And they said that the, the fighting, I mean, subsided a little bit.




YACOUBA (TRANSLATING): So since that second meeting, the security situation has improved positively a lot, because before that meeting, everyone was, like, afraid. Even people leaving from Djibo were afraid, like, to be kidnapped at nighttime and then be taken to be killed. But since we got that meeting with them, we are just sleeping every night. We are sleeping a lot. We are no longer afraid, because we know that they are not bad. They will not kill us.


SAM: The biggest thing, I think, you know, from speaking to Adama is that it opened the lines of communication. He had a direct line with them and could call them, and they had more conversations after this. At one point he needed to get medicine to some people taking care of his cattle, and so he was able to call and to go to that area and give them some medicine. So it, it just kind of made things more fluid between the groups.


JENN: And I think that’s just such a fascinating model, right? When we think about negotiating and the ways to end conflict, like—this isn’t ending anything. These jihadist groups haven’t decided to lay down arms and go be best friends with these villagers. You know, the army, the government is still going to do their thing. But, like, it’s enabling people to at least live their lives in some capacity in a way that’s—you know, it’s not ideal, but it’s better than it was before, right? Did you get the sense from the community that on balance, they thought that, like, “Yeah, we didn’t solve the war, you know, but things are better”?


SAM: They were really happy to have this reprieve, this—this space, this respite from the constant attacks. And a lot—some of these communities that did have these periods of peace have now started fighting again. And, and that calm has dissipated. And that is a concern from a lot of these negotiators who say that our efforts are good, and we do believe that this needs to be locally led; however, there needs to be a national government strategy at the top level, and that is not happening. At least outwardly, at least overtly, at least that’s not being communicated if it is. And that’s where a lot of them see, like, the weakest link right now.


JENN: That was Sam Mednick, a freelance journalist who covered community-led negotiations with local militants in Burkina Faso for The New Humanitarian


The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show. And special thanks this week to Yacouba Lido, who was the interpreter for Adama’s interview, and to Fanny Noaro-Kabré, who recorded the interview. 


Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe at Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at 


On the next episode, we hear from the chief US negotiator of the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.



There was some criticism in Moscow, apparently, because the Americans selected a woman to be the chief negotiator, and the Russians are famous misogynists. So there were critiques that came out, even into the press, saying, you know, “Oh, a woman negotiator,” and “Antonov has to stand up to a woman negotiator,” et cetera, et cetera.


JENN: That episode, coming up on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.