Since February 2018, there have been about 60 terror attacks in the eastern region of Burkina Faso. Although no group has claimed responsibility, the incidents were allegedly carried out by individuals linked to violent extremist groups in the Sahel, such as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Ansarul Islam or Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin. This raises concerns about a spread of extremism to neighbouring countries, especially Benin.
In assessing Benin's vulnerability, the focus has been on the country's military response. The army does have a role in countering terrorism, but it won't be enough to stave off violent extremism in Benin. Current and future efforts should aim to understand the threats better and involve local communities in preventing them.
In July 2018, Benin's Council of Ministers appointed a permanent secretary to coordinate the country's preventive measures. The government recognised the need to establish a National Commission for Countering Radicalisation, Violent Extremism and Terrorism. The commission will also help adapt the country's laws on preventing and combating violent extremism.
Benin's porous borders with Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria raise the terror threat
Between 26 November and 2 December 2018, the Benin Armed Forces conducted an anti-terrorism operation called Ma Kon-Hin in the northern town of Ségbana. The exercise tested the skills and tactics of about 1 050 officers from the army, navy and air force. It wrapped up with a number of military-led efforts to benefit the population, including building latrines and providing healthcare, among others.
In January this year, Benin hosted the fourth meeting of the Accra Initiative in Cotonou. The initiative enables participating countries - Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo - to discuss common security challenges and responses. Under the theme 'sharing information as a weapon', the meeting was attended by ministers and security and intelligence officials from these countries, as well as Mali and Niger.
Research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies in the Sahel reveals that violent extremist groups exploit individual, social and structural vulnerabilities to establish their presence in communities. They capitalise on poverty and unemployment, the absence of basic services, and local populations' feelings of neglect and marginalisation. They mostly settle in ungoverned spaces and border areas that are loosely administered and controlled, and where the link between the government and citizens is weak.
These vulnerabilities exist in Benin. Although the presence of risk factors doesn't always translate into acts of violence, the chance that such vulnerabilities could be exploited by violent extremist groups is real. The country's proximity with Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria - all of which are experiencing violent extremism - and the porosity of its borders, make Benin susceptible to terror threats.
Violent extremists mostly settle in ungoverned spaces and border areas that are loosely administered
The absence or poor presence of the state in Benin's border areas, the wildlife and forest reserves that provide a haven for these groups, and ongoing disputes between local populations and the government add to the country's risk.
Benin shares over 2 000 km of borders with four countries, three of which (Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria) are experiencing violent extremism. Communities living on both sides of these borders are generally of the same ethnic group and have family ties. Movement of people in and out of Benin, especially in the context of porous borders, heightens this vulnerability.
Since 2012, Benin's Agency for the Integrated Management of Border Spaces (ABeGIEF) has tried to not only reduce poverty in border areas, but instill a sense of citizenship among the locals. Efforts include building schools, empowering women through income-generating activities, securing borders and cross-border cooperation. Locals have called for the construction of bridges, roads and schools, as well as the provision of drinking water and electricity.
These communities, especially those with cross-border ethnic and family ties, consider the borders not as barriers but as a territorial continuum that presents opportunities for economic growth and development. This makes it difficult for the state to draw 'hard borders' and to secure them. This raises the potential for entry of individuals and groups from neighbouring countries that could pose a threat in Benin.
Extremist groups also take advantage of the vast wildlife and forest reserves of the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex shared by Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. These serve as fallback bases and places of food supply through poaching.
Actions to prevent extremist threats in Benin should take into account local conflicts
Finally, local disagreements between the border communities and their central governments could be exploited by these groups to establish themselves locally. Competition over access to land has created both inter-communal tensions, and conflict between communities and public authorities. Some decisions made by the courts or local authorities are disputed and lead to bloody clashes.
The government's 2017 decision to award the contract to manage national parks to African Parks Network, a South African company, has angered National Wildlife Management Centre workers who could lose their jobs. Hunting communities see the decision as a threat to their livelihoods because the centre allowed hunting, but the African Parks Network won't. The situation has led to demonstrations and clashes between foresters working for African Parks Network and hunters living near parks.
Actions to prevent extremist threats in Benin should consider these kinds of local conflicts, particularly those related to the management of land resources and national parks. Mediation or support to people who feel victimised should be offered, and community consultations carried out.
These remote areas need to be opened up, with an emphasis on providing drinking water and electricity using solar energy, for example, and building schools with canteens. Such efforts would help reduce the vulnerabilities that can be exploited by violent extremist groups in Benin.
Michaël Matongbada, Junior Researcher, ISS Dakar