Conflict and Fragility


The jihadis are stalking Benin

05 Jul 2024 - 09:53
Bron: Chadian soldiers drive to the front line in the war against insurgent group Boko Haram in Gambaru / Reuters

This article by Kars de Bruijne was originally published by African Arguments on July 4 2024.

Bandits from the Northern Nigerian hotspots of Zamfara and Katsina states are crossing over into northern Benin, buying up property and recruiting young men. Is this the moment that the Lake Chad Basin crisis merges with the wider Sahelian one?

For over a decade there have been overhyped fears of a collaboration between violent extremists in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel. The stakes for such warnings are obvious: collaboration would offer a major propaganda opportunity for Al Qaida and Islamic State affiliates and in the long-term make West Africa a serious competitor for the title of ‘epicentrum’ of global Jihad.

A recent report Dangerous Liaisons (2024) warns that a collaboration now appears in the making. Cross-border key informant interviews with community members and security officials in Nigeria and Benin and a year of weekly data collection on political violence lead to a troubling conclusion: there is mounting evidence that conflicts in the Lake Chad and the Central Sahel increasingly connect in complex and unpredictable ways along the border between Nigeria and Benin.

This development should be a wake-up call for West African states and their international partners to enhance cross-border cooperation. Violent extremists continue to outperform security responses as they defy regional relations and flout programming logic. West Africa needs to unite and develop a joint response.

Violent Extremism in Benin and Nigeria

Benin has been affected by the Sahel conflict since 2021, when JNIM (an Al Qaida affiliate) staged its first attacks. Progressively, JNIM took control of Parc W and Pendjari (2022) in the country’s north, expanding into surrounding communes and seeking a bridgehead towards Nigeria. Along the border with Niger, there is some presence of the Islamic State’s Sahel Province (ISSP).

In Nigeria, at least three extremist groups operate: the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), Ansaru (an al-Qaeda affiliate linked to JNIM), and JAS (not affiliated with any global movement). While ISWAP and JAS principally operate in the country’s North-East around Lake Chad, all three groups have begun to operate to differing degrees in North West and Central Nigeria in recent years. In the North West, bandit groups dominate.

This dispersion of Nigeria’s extremists is less the result of “expansion” but rather the relocation of groups and cells due to military pressure, factional infighting, as well as opportunities present in the northwest like overstretched security forces and fragmentation among bandit gangs that provides cover to conceal violent extremist activities.

Dangerous liaisons

Three interrelated developments push the Lake Chad conflict and the Sahel conflict closer together. As a result, dangerous liaisons emerge between Sahelian and Nigerian extremists, with bandit groups potentially serving as a bridge.

First, is the diffusion of banditry from North West Nigeria to the border with Benin and increasingly within Benin. Northwestern Nigeria is the terrain of powerful bandit warlords who alternatively clash and collaborate with violent extremists. Nigerian bandit groups from the historical hotspots of  Zamfara and Katsina states have increasingly moved to (the border with) Benin since 2021. Monitoring picks up bandit activity in Nigeria’s Kebbi and Niger states as well as bandit-like activity (particularly kidnapping) on the border (e.g. the towns of Dole-Kaina and Segbana). In Benin, many border communities point at Nigerian bandits who have built houses in Kandi, Malanville, Kalale and Sokotindji – all communities with a history of cross-border trade and pastoralism. Surprisingly, bandit activity deeper within Benin is remerging in areas where JNIM is now operating (Materi, Cobli, Touncountoun, Karimama, Malanville, Kandi communes). Information from Benin suggests several of these bandit incidents involve Nigerians.

Second, is extremist movement from North East into North West Nigeria (happening for several years now). Some extremists in Nigeria have managed to reach a modus vivendi with bandit gangs, such as one outfit known interchangeably as Sadiku’s faction or “Darul Salam (the group is fragmented and lieutenants reportedly operate also autonomous from Sadiku).” While Sadiku’s group is reportedly loyal to JAS leader Bakura in the North-East, sources in Kainji Lake Forest (Nigeria) and Borgou (Benin) report ties between Sadiku and/or Darul Salam and extremists from Benin as evidenced by the reported relocation of some fighters from Nasarawa state to Benin since 2020, the cross-border movement of larger number of fighters towards Kainji Lake from Benin (March, November 2023) and the reported marriage of Sadiku’s son to a Beninois family among others.

ISWAP, meanwhile, coopted an indigenous extremists movement further south in Nigeria’s Kogi state. This network was responsible for high-profile attacks in 2022 as well as a failed prison break near Kainji Lake late that year that the Nigerian military foiled. While less active since 2023, this network’s geographic position is concerning given its proximity to both the Nigerian capital Abuja and the Beninese border. An ISWAP commander reportedly visited Benin (Kalale) multiple times during 2023 and engaged in recruitment.

Third, within Benin there is armed movement in the Borgou, a department bordering Nigeria. Quantitative data collection shows presence in Forêt de Trois Rivières – a classified forest between Pendjari Parc and Kainji Lake – as well as dozens of incidents in which armed people were seen in surrounding communes and movement from Parc W. Someone from Bessasi (Benin) stated: “What bothers us [is that] the young people are meeting a lot of armed people inside the forest. […] We don’t know if they’re up to something.” In Zambara (Benin) someone said: “Armed men are seen passing by […] on their way to Nigeria.” Their exact operations within Nigeria are not presently clear, but it is reasonable to fear they are liaising with sympathetic extremists or bandits in Kainji Lake.

While these signals are extremely concerning, it remains hard to make predictions.

On the one hand, there are strong socio-economic vulnerabilities in the Benin-Nigeria border area that facilitate recruitment and further expansion. On the other hand, some of the conditions that have precluded stronger connections between Sahelian and Nigerian extremists over the years remain. In Nigeria, factional fighting and military pressure in the North-East pose a challenge to territorial consolidation, as do the fluidity of extremists’ networks in the north-west and tensions with bandit groups. In Benin, JNIM’s strategic concerns remain their operations in the Sahel and blocking any ISSP presence in Benin, meaning territorial expansion to Nigeria may not presently be a priority.

But these are no excuse for complacency.

Compared to five years ago – when extremist presence in Benin was minimal and Nigeria’s violent extremists confined to the Lake Chad region – the situation is troubling. As political conditions in the broader Sahel are less conducive to regional counterterrorism, cooperation after the Nigerien coup in 2023, Benin and Nigeria should at least consider ways to strengthen bi-lateral cross-border cooperation to counter this threat.

And despite the recent withdrawal of three junta-led Sahelian states from ECOWAS, there might be a rare window for ECOWAS to support efforts along this border. If not, in another five years, the picture along the Benin-Niger-Nigeria border zones may look even more concerning than it does today.