While he was on the campaign trail last November, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore had a mantra — “We shall not negotiate” — when talking about Burkina Faso’s jihadist insurgency.
The policy set Kabore apart from former president Blaise Compaore, whose view was that dialogue with jihadists from neighbouring Mali had discouraged attacks on Burkina Faso itself.
Kabore’s declared refusal has been strongly backed by France, whose military campaign against jihadism in the Sahel is now in its ninth year.
But sources say contacts have taken place with jihadists at the local level in part of northern Burkina Faso.
The initiative is limited in scope, they say, and among jihadist groups, the so-called Islamic State remains beyond the pale.
In February, Prime Minister Christophe Dabire broached the delicate question of dialogue by saying “all major wars come to an end around a table.”
A Sahel diplomat in Burkina described those words as “setting the cat amongst the pigeons.”
“This amounts to recognition that the official break with the Compaore regime is only a facade and that the will to dialogue is still there,” the source said.
The Burkinabe investigative fortnightly, L’Evenement, then reported that 29 jihadists were released as part of negotiations in 2020.
The minister of territorial administration, Clement Sawadogo, told AFP “I have never heard of released terrorists — I can neither confirm nor deny that.”
But, he contended, “there is not a leader in the world who prefers war over peace.”
“If there are claims where we see issues on which we can negotiate, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it.”
The war in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012 before spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger three years later.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an international NGO specialised in data collection, reported 2,293 fatalities in Burkina in 2020, the deadliest year yet.