With military victory elusive, nations quietly back talks with Islamists
Two years after local emir Djibril Diallo fled his home in northern Burkina Faso following death threats from Islamist militants, he received an unexpected request: to return and take part in peace talks with the same people who wanted him dead.
Adama Ouedraogo, deputy mayor of Diallos hometown of Thiou, called him in January to help negotiate an end to years of attacks by jihadists against local militias and civilians that forced thousands of people to flee the area.
For a decade, West African armies and their international allies have fought against militant groups active in the Sahel region, some linked to the al Qaeda and Islamic State networks.
They have had limited success. Attacks on civilians still occur most weeks and large areas remain outside government control. Hundreds of soldiers have been killed since militants first seized control of swathes of Mali in 2012.
Now, in the worst-hit parts of Burkina Faso and neighbouring Mali, local leaders are pursuing unofficial talks with militants. The governments do not publicly acknowledge the discussions, but five sources involved in them told Reuters the authorities have been quietly supportive.
Military ally and former colonial power France, which has 5,100 troops in the region supporting local forces, says the militants will exploit truces to regroup, rearm and recruit.
President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his opposition to talks on Thursday, telling reporters that French troops would not conduct joint operations with countries that "decide to negotiate with groups that ... shoot at our children".
Data collected by the U.S-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) for the Nord, Sahel and Boucle de Mouhoun regions show significant reductions in conflict-related fatalities, although other factors, including recent military offensives, could have played a role.
In the Nord, the number of deaths from battles and violence against civilians dropped from 65 in the first quarter of 2020 to 26 in the first quarter of 2021. In the Sahel, they fell from 487 to 191 and in the Boucle de Mouhoun, from 66 to zero.
Mahamadou Sawadogo, a researcher on security issues and former Burkinabe gendarme, said such truces had led to an easing of violence, but cautioned that their scope was limited to specific localities.
A June 4-5 attack on Solhan village near the border with Niger, in which at least 132 people died, underlined how dangerous the region remains. The village was not known to have negotiated an agreement with jihadists.
In Thiou, located on an expanse of arid scrubland about 20 km from the Malian border, Diallo and others struck a truce in February with militants who say they are connected to al Qaedas regional JNIM affiliate.