One Friday earlier this month, just as Dr. Daouda Diallo stepped out of the passport office in the capital of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, four men grabbed him off the street, pushed him into a vehicle and drove off.
Dr. Diallo, a pharmacist-turned-rights-activist who had recently been awarded a prestigious prize for human rights work, has not been heard from since that day, Dec. 1.
But four days later, a picture of Dr. Diallo, 41, wearing a helmet and holding a Kalashnikov rifle, posted on social media, seemingly confirming the fears of his family and colleagues that he had been forcefully conscripted into the army. Dr. Diallo and a dozen other people active in public life had been notified by security forces in November that they would soon be drafted to assist the government in securing the country, according to international and local rights groups.
Then, on Christmas Eve, two men in civilian clothes rang the doorbell of Ablassé Ouedraogo, a former foreign affairs minister and an opposition leader. He was taken away and his whereabouts remain unknown, according to Faso Autrement, his political party.
Burkina Faso, a previously stable, landlocked nation of 20 million, has been torn apart in the past eight years by violence from extremist groups loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
In the ensuing chaos, the country went through two coups in just 10 months, the second last year by a military junta vowing to contain militant groups by any means.
Dr. Diallo and Mr. Ouedraogo have been among at least 15 people who have recently either disappeared or been forcibly conscripted, according to human rights groups and lawyers. The list includes journalists, civil society activists, an anesthesiologist and an imam, all of whom had criticized the junta for its failure to defeat the insurgents, and for abuses against the populations it is meant to protect.
The military government, led by 35-year old Captain Ibrahim Traoré, has failed to deliver on its pledge to restore stability. Violence has surged under his rule, said diplomats, aid workers and analysts. Burkina Faso has become a focus of the crisis in the Sahel region, an enormous swath of land south of the Sahara that has been shaken by extremist uprisings and military coups.
About half of the country’s territory is now outside of government control. Almost five million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations and aid agencies, and more than two million more have lost their homes and belongings. Local and international aid groups have accused both the extremists and the government-affiliated forces of massacring civilians.
“Burkina Faso is the epicenter of security challenges in West Africa,” Emanuela Del Re, the special representative of the European Union to the Sahel, said in an interview. “The situation is desperate, and the population is paying the price.”
Burkina Faso, a former French colony, had long relied on the support of French troops to fight the insurgency. But after the coup last year, Captain Traoré pledged to sever all ties with France, seen as a neocolonial power that failed to contain the extremists. Hundreds of French troops withdrew from the country earlier this year, and the government has instead sought to forge an alliance with Russia, leading to speculation that the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group could start operating in the country.
Confronted with a lack of resources, the military-led government issued a broad appeal for civilians to join volunteer defense forces, promising them a stipend and two weeks of military training. It also announced an emergency “general mobilization” law, which gave the president sweeping powers, including conscripting people, requisitioning goods and restraining civil liberties.
“Burkina Faso’s military junta is using its emergency law, which gives them the possibility to conscript and reposition people and goods, to silence and even punish its critics,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This practice violates fundamental human rights.”
The military government of Burkina Faso did not respond to interview requests, and declined to comment on the practice of forced conscription.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement on Dec. 12 that it was concerned about recent actions by Burkina Faso’s military government, “such as the growing use of targeted forced conscriptions, shrinking civic space, and restrictions on political parties.”
It added: “These actions have the cumulative effect of silencing individuals who are working on behalf of their country to promote democratic governance.”
While the emergency decree enables the government to conscript civilians over the age of 18, rights groups said that targeted application of the law breaches fundamental human rights.
Three of the people who received draft notices at the same time as Dr. Diallo sued the government. In early December a court in the capital, Ouagadougou, sided with them, stating that the orders were illegal. Despite the ruling, all three — two rights activists, Rasmané Zinaba and Bassirou Badjo, and Issaka Lingani, a journalist — remain in hiding, fearing for their lives.
“We saw it coming for Daouda,” said Binta Sidibe-Gascon, the president of Observatoire Kisal, a rights group, who comes from Burkina Faso but is now exiled in Paris, referring to Dr. Diallo, the pharmacist. “We told him: it is not safe for you to stay in the country. But he said that the people needed him there.”
Earlier this year, Arouna Louré, an anesthesiologist from Ouagadougou, was conscripted and sent to work as an army doctor in one of the most dangerous areas in the country after he criticized in a Facebook post the army’s response to a jihadist attack.
“It is not only illegal, but it is also cruel,” said Ms. Allegrozzi, of Human Rights Watch. “It’s like: You’ve criticized the army. Now you’ll see for yourself what it looks like, and what it feels like to be a soldier.”
Several residents of Burkina Faso, including activists, journalists and analysts, declined to be interviewed, citing fear for their lives. “Whoever speaks out against the junta, disappears,” said one of them.
Those who disappeared had mostly been making criticisms confirmed by data on how the government’s reliance on an exclusively military strategy to defeat insurgents has backfired, analysts and aid workers said.
“Violence in Burkina Faso has reached an all-time high,” said Heni Nsaibia, a senior analyst with Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks data on conflict in Africa. “The number of fatalities from the conflict has skyrocketed.”
In places like the town of Djibo in the north, which has swelled from 60,000 to 300,000 people and has been under an ongoing blockade for the past two years, residents have been relying solely on supplies brought in by U.N.-operated humanitarian flights.
Many people, exhausted with the never-ending cycle of violence, have welcomed Mr. Traore’s security pledge. The streets of Ouagadougou have been decorated with flags ofRussia. Banners display pictures of soldiers and patriotic messages. Roundabouts are being surveilled by unofficial militia, dubbed “Irissi, irissi,” or Russian in Moore, the local language of the main ethnic group, following rumors that they are being paid by Russia.
Fifty-thousand people heeded the government’s call to volunteer for the military, which pays a monthly stipend of about $107, which is above the minimum wage and highly desirable in a country where regular income is rare. Some said they were also eager to contribute to the war effort.
Ouattara Fadouba, a musician, said he signed up with the voluntary forces earlier this year, but has not been sent to the front yet. Instead, he is recording songs praising the government.
“The country has been attacked by terrorists, and I put myself at the disposition of the nation,” he said in a phone interview from Ouagadougou. “If I am called to the frontline, I will go.”
But those that criticize the government’s all-military strategy refuse to be silenced. Mr. Louré, the anesthesiologist, has been released from duty and returned home last week, after three months spent in military camps and on the frontline. The experience only bolstered his view that depending only on the military to fight insurgents is the worst option.
“The more the state perpetuates the violence, the more people are going to be frustrated, and might want to join the terrorist groups,” he said.