Benin: Has Talon’s government underestimated the jihadist risk?

By Matthieu Millecamps
Posted on Friday, 18 June 2021 19:08

Benin's President Patrice Talon at independence celebrations on 1 August 2016 © DR / Présidence Bénin

A report about a worrying increase in violence in the Benin has caused a stir in Cotonou. Its authors claim that jihadists are operating on Beninese territory and that the authorities are trying to minimise the threat. Unofficially, the latter deny its content and criticise its methodology. But at what point should Benin's authorities start paying attention?

This report presents a major blow to the Beninese government, as President Patrice Talon begins his second term in office. It states that political violence has increased since the head of state came to power, that clashes between farmers and herders are tending to turn into ethnic conflicts and that jihadists from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger are increasingly taking hold in the north of the country.

The authors further argue that “the Talon government seems to be deliberately hiding these problems from the public (while working behind the scenes to address them)”. When contacted by Jeune Afrique, the presidency and the government did not wish to respond. On the other hand, several sources close to the president have strongly criticised the document on condition of anonymity.

Published by Clingendael, a Dutch think tank, the survey relies in particular on the work of the NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) to deliver a disturbing analysis of the security situation in the northern regions of Benin. Kars de Bruijne, the lead author of the text, furthermore points out that ACLED worked with an unnamed local organisation from March 2020 to obtain data.

Parks at the centre of the violence

Data collected by ACLED showed a ‘slight increase‘ in political violence, linked to ‘riots and demonstrations over national policy issues, such as the exclusion of opposition parties from the 2019 legislative elections’. But those collected by ACLED’s anonymous partner put the number of violent incidents recorded between 2017 and 2019 up by 30%. And it is mainly the north of the country that is affected.

Several causes have been identified.

  • The first – and the main one, with 45% of violent events recorded – is linked to conflicts between herders and farmers. According to the authors of the report, the recurrent tensions surrounding the movement of livestock between Togo, Burkina, Benin and Niger have been accentuated by the closure of borders due to Covid-19 and the imposition of transport taxes.
  • The second cause is the conflicts over land ownership, especially due to competing traditional and state rights (10% of incidents).
  • The third, and more surprising, ‘involves the management of the W and Pendjari Parks’, which is entrusted to the African Parks Network (APN). In addition to protecting wildlife, the South African NGO also ensures the armed security of the natural areas entrusted to it.

“The W Park was abandoned, subject to all kinds of trafficking, poaching and insecurity linked to everything that was happening in neighbouring countries,” one of the ministers who took part in the negotiations with APN explained to us last October. “We needed real specialists. We identified APN because we saw that they were doing a good job elsewhere.”

In the Pendjari Park, APN has deployed 125 armed rangers, and more than 60 are already present in the W Park. But the fight against poaching and trafficking also causes problems with local populations.

We don’t pretend to say that there is no problem, but the latest incidents between communities are mainly due to the displacement of populations under the pressure of the situation in Burkina and Niger.

“Communities in and around the two parks depend on their resources: they sell timber, hunt, fish and farm,” the Clingendael report says, noting that “tensions have emerged as NPA operations have put the livelihoods of local people at risk”. Attacks on guards by unidentified individuals, conflicts over access to land… The tensions are multiple. “In early 2020, traditional hunters attacked the headquarters of the APN in Natitingou, in the Atacora region. In response, the rangers seized and destroyed the hunters’ equipment,” the report says.

The GSIM at work

But it is on the jihadist issue that the report has caused the most uproar in Cotonou. In 2019, the murder of a Beninese guide and the kidnapping of two French tourists – freed a few months later during a military operation in Burkina Faso – had sounded the first serious alarm.

In February, a statement by the head of French intelligence further reinforced their fears. “The leaders of Al-Qaeda have designed their expansion project towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. These countries are now also targets. In order to loosen the stranglehold in which they are caught and to expand southwards, the terrorists are already financing men who are spreading out in Côte d’Ivoire or Benin,” Bernard Émié, the head of the French Directorate General for External Security (DGSE), said in a rare public speech.

In its text, Clingendael insists that there is “no sign of permanent installation” of armed groups, but adds that some “regularly travel through the three provinces [of the north of the country, Alibori, Atacora and Borgou], have logistical means and have developed links with individuals in Benin.”  The Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans (GSIM) is under particular surveillance, it took control of part of the W Park on the Burkina Faso side of the border after driving out members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS).

The GSIM’s influence in Benin is “considerable”, according to the report’s authors: “In Benin, the GSIM is currently seeking supplies for its rear base in Pama” in Burkina. Buying and stealing fuel, food, and even, “since March 2021, increasing armed incidents between the group and APN”.

“We do not wish to react to this report,” replied one of the members of the Beninese government laconically when we asked them about this issue. Under cover of anonymity, however, some of them are extremely critical. “We don’t pretend to say that there is no problem, but the latest incidents between communities are mainly due to the displacement of populations under the pressure of the situation in Burkina and Niger,” says a very close adviser to Talon. “We are managing this delicate situation and are in control of it.”

Another security source close to the palace is even more trenchant. “Everything is wrong in this report,” he says. “We don’t have the resources of Barkhane, but we have good relations with those who run it. We have a perfect collaboration with foreign services, American and European. [In particular with] France, which accompanies us with discretion and respect for our strategic options”. And this security officer insists: “You will see that, despite the predictions, Benin itself will be surprised by its own resilience and the effectiveness of its strategy.”

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