Francois Kabore, a village militia chief in central Burkina Faso, grins as he watches five men ride up on a motorbike and tricycle and throw two criminal suspects in their clutches to the ground.
“The ‘widses’ (‘sparrowhawks’) are here,” Kabore says proudly of the vigilantes who have brought their captives to a patch of wasteland in Kokologho village, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the capital Ouagadougou.
Watched by the assembled villagers, the young suspects — a mechanic accused of theft and a youth who tried to intervene when the mechanic was arrested — are dragged through the red dust to a hut, where their backs are bared.
They are then tied to a tree to be flogged.
Both men seem to be in shock, staring up at the sky, resigned to the beating to come. One of the pair already has bright weals on his back.
Village elders armed with tree branches step forward and at the sound of a whistle the lashings begin. “Confess that you helped your friend to steal petrol!” one of the elders shouts.
When they do not answer, the whipping resumes.
– Environmental roots –
Such scenes have become common in the centre and east of the west African country, where self-defence groups known as Koglweogo (“environmental protection” in the local Mossi language) have set themselves up as judge and jury, cheered on by a population grown mistrustful of state institutions.
The first Koglweogo association emerged in the north of the country in the 1990s as an environmental protection force working to combat illegal logging, grazing violations and other environmental offences, said Boniface Some Desire, professor at the University of Ouagadougou’s sociology department.
But the movement’s self-claimed remit has grown over time, particularly in the two years since the uprising that ousted longtime president Blaise Compaore from power.
“The popular fervour of 2014 during the fall of Blaise Compaore motivated people to fight injustice, determine their own fate and ensure their own protection,” Some Desire explained.
Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkinabe Movement for Human and People’s Rights, linked the widespread support for the vigilantes to a “galloping increase in insecurity” since 2014.
“The state spends billions on protecting those in power but very little on protecting citizens,” he told AFP.
– ‘Setting an example’ –
In Kokologho village, Kabore translates as a confession is extracted from the mechanic’s accomplice.
“He was drugged, that’s why he fought our men,” Kabore relates.
Sentence is passed — 10,000 CFA francs (15 euros/$17) for the petrol used to transport him to the kangaroo court and compensate those he injured — and the man’s pockets are turned out, eliciting peals of laughter from the excited onlookers.
Then comes the turn of the mechanic, who had already been beaten earlier in the day. A militia member poured water on his back to reopen the cuts before he was flogged anew.
His penalty is heavier: 30,000 CFA francs.
“Say you will never steal again. Working for food is better than stealing!” the village elders say, chastising the pair.
The Koglweogo association in Kokologho has about 1,200 members, mostly traders and cattlemen, according to Kabore.
“Before, there used to be about 20 thefts every month. Today there are one or two,” he said, declaring that the public trials “set an example to others.”
– Flogged to death –
The rise of the Koglweogo have sparked a debate in the country of 19 million, with some witnesses accusing them of branding people as criminals merely to extort money from them.
Several criminal cases involving the Koglweogo have made headlines recently.
In February, a group of Koglweogo flogged a suspected thief to death in Sapouy, 100 kilometres from Ouagadougou, and refused to let the police arrest those responsible.
In March, 10 Koglweogo members were jailed for beating up a suspected thief in Fada in the east, prompting hundreds of supporters to block a major road leading to Niger, Benin and Togo with boulders and tree trunks for nearly two days.
On a visit to Paris earlier this month, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore admitted to AFP that vigilantism was flourishing in the face of “the mistrust that citizens have vis-a-vis the justice system” and the authorities’ inability to secure all of Burkina’s territory.
In future the militia would have to toe the state’s line, he said.
Kabore, the Koglweogo chief, insisted that his men did “try to work with the gendarmerie (paramilitary police) but complained that “when we hand over thieves, they don’t stay in jail and the victims are not compensated.”
But the muscle men of Burkina’s hinterland do appear to have taken the government’s warnings on board.
At a recent meeting, the Koglweogo reportedly agreed to give up public beatings and punish suspects instead by fitting them with a codpiece and parading them around their local market.