Jihadist Violence Grows in Benin
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 3
On January 8, voters in Benin went to the polls to select the new Parliament. The overall turnout was not particularly high at 38.66 percent, but it was still higher than the last parliamentary election held in 2019, where only 23 percent of the country voted. This number was low in part due to opposition parties boycotting the election. Four out of the seven parties that ran for this most recent election failed to clear the national 10 percent threshold. The two parties linked to President Patrice Talon, the Progressive Union for Renewal (Union Progressiste pour le Renouveau, or UPR) and the Republican Bloc (Bloc Républicain, or BR) obtained 37 percent and 29 percent of the vote, respectively. The main opposition party, the Democrats (Les Démocrates), whose current honorary president is Thomas Boni Yayi—Benin’s president from 2006 to 2016—entered the parliament with 24 percent of the vote. Out of 109 seats, the movement behind the incumbent president obtained 81 seats, in contrast with the opposition’s 28 (ORTB, January 12).
A significant element of these elections has been the absence of the violence that characterized previous votes. In 2019, violence engulfed Benin following the opposition-boycotted parliamentary election. At the time, this outburst of violence was considered surprising, as Benin was seen as a bastion of stability. Violence, however, continued for months and intensified before the re-election of Talon (Jeune Afrique, May 2, 2019; ORTB, October 30, 2019; Banouto, October 8, 2022; La Nation, December 2, 2022).
However, over the past few years, Benin has seen the rise of a newer type of violence: that of jihadist groups. At the time of the 2019 violence, riots erupted in the capital amid rumors concerning the possible arrest of former President Yayi (Les Observateurs [France 24], May 3, 2019). Yayi is particularly popular in the north of the country, where violence linked to the election mixed with long-standing local grievances against the central government (CRU Report [Clingendael], June 2021). These areas in north are also the areas in which jihadist groups have been able to exploit local resentments—mostly of the Fulani population—in order to find ways to increase their operational presence. This pattern mirrors developments in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Benin on the Brink
Since 2020, Benin has experienced a significant growth in the number of accidents and attacks attributable to jihadist forces operating in the Sahel region. In May 2020, two French tourists were kidnapped near Pendjari National Park by a group from Burkina Faso. The two were later released after the intervention of the French army, but their Beninese guide was killed. Since the end of 2021, there has been a rise in the quantity and intensity of such instances of terrorism (Jeune Afrique, January 13, 2022).
The first attack in Benin was recorded at the end of November 2021, when a group of armed individuals conducted two attacks on Beninese security forces patrolling the border area around the towns of Banikoara and Porga (La Nation, December 2, 2021). Since then, around 30 instances of violence have been recorded in Benin, all of which are attributable to various regional jihadist forces. These include the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and its allied Burkinabé group Ansaroul Islam, as well as the rival local Islamic State (IS) supporters, in particular Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS).
The most affected areas in Benin are in the north, including the districts of Atakora, Alibori, and Borgou. These spaces have much in common geographically and ethnically with neighboring states. Over the last few years, various jihadist groups have taken advantage of the Beninese forests to find refuge and escape pressure from regional counter-terrorism efforts. A key area in question is the so-called W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) complex, which is a cross-border UNESCO world natural heritage site split between Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger, measuring approximately 12,000 square miles (Jeune Afrique, February 12, 2022).
Along with these attacks, there has been a growing influx of more radical Islamic preachers, who have facilitated jihadists’ gaining of a foothold in local communities; this is done both through their preaching and by their infiltration of local Islamic schools. As has been the case in neighboring countries, the jihadist groups are exploiting the resentment of Fulani communities, which are increasingly stigmatized amid tensions over the exploitation of land and resources, as well as the problems of climate change and population growth (Le Monde, January 27, 2023). Among the communities present in the border regions in the north of Benin, there is also widespread discontent with the central authorities. The authorities and official institutions of Benin are often seen as incapable of providing solutions to local problems, and are derided as opaque, discriminatory (towards the Fulani), and corrupt.
To address the ongoing threats, President Talon insists on the need to strengthen the human, logistical, and technological capabilities of Benin’s defense forces. He also underlines the need for cooperation with regional and extra-regional countries to face this threat. The ongoing improving of Benin’s relations with Rwanda and Niger should thus be seen as an attempt by Beninese authorities to rely on countries with greater military capacities (Rwanda) and expertise in fighting jihadism (Niger) to assist their efforts. Benin does this in the hopes that they will avoid entering into a spiral of violence that could risk destabilizing the entire country (Africa Radio, September 9, 2022; APA News, June 13, 2022).
Although the situation in Benin is not as severe as it is in Burkina Faso or Mali, the marked increase in the quantity and intensity of jihadist attacks over the last year and a half demonstrates the existence of a mounting threat; likewise, it shows that the Beninese leadership lack the capacity to decisively halt this rising trend. Benin’s leaders have tried to contain the media impact of this violence, both for domestic reasons and to avoid an adverse effect on investments and attractivity to business in Benin. However, the attempt to mitigate the damage in the eyes of foreign countries and investors has not been particularly successful. The rapidity with which Burkina Faso turned from a haven of stability into the epicenter of insecurity in the Sahel should demonstrate to Benin’s leaders that, without timely and resolute actions, the risks of following the same pattern is entirely possible.