Insight into political violence in the north of Benin is lacking. Incidents occurring away from road networks and smaller towns and villages are not often reported in national or local media in West Africa, and Benin is no exception. Moreover, the Talon regime’s crackdown on the media has limited the number of news outlets and led to a degree of self-censorship. To gain information on political violence in the north of Benin, ACLED initiated in March 2020 a structural collaboration with an organisation which had been collecting data on political violence since at least 2017, based on information from local observers. These data are vetted and then shared with ACLED and included in its database.
These new data have an impact on how to view the incidence and nature of political violence in Benin. Until 2016, ACLED recorded for Benin about one instance of political violence a month on average. In the data hitherto available, violence increased from 2017 to about four events a month – largely as a result of protests against changes to the constitution proposed by newly elected President Talon (2016). These data highlighted that Benin’s mildly rising levels of political violence were related to riots and protests over national political issues, such as the exclusion of opposition parties in the 2019 polls. There were also some incidents of communal violence (mostly mobs who attacked thieves) but vigilante violence was generally limited. Until now, it appeared from Beninese sources included in ACLED that the most active actors in Benin were rioters, protesters, police and military. Activity was clustered in the south of the country where the political centre is located (see figure 1).
The new data on Benin is changing the narrative of political violence in the country. For 2017-2019, the new information received adds nearly 30% more violent incidents to the publicly available data. Furthermore, since March 2020, when the partner began providing weekly information to ACLED, the number of reported instances of political violence and protests is in reality much higher: rather than the average of four reported events a month, the new information tripled the number of monthly incidents to, on average, 10 to 15 a month for Benin. Figure 2 shows trends in the levels of political violence since 2016.
Importantly, it is not only the magnitude but also the nature of this new information that is concerning.
The primary finding is that all newly discovered violence is in the north – Alibori, Atacora and Borgou. Moreover, this does not involve relatively ‘light’ incidents of protests and some riots involving material damage but rather involves clashes between groups of (armed) communities that have led to fatalities. Newly observed political violence in the north of Benin is deeply communal and is more lethal than much political violence hitherto observed in the country.
Perhaps most concerning of all is that the large amount of data collected since March 2020 coincides with the start of direct reporting from the area. This means it is likely that violence levels have been higher for a much longer period but were never reported. Spillover often takes place as VEOs seek existing fault lines, particularly if these have already seen violence. Thus, the active and lethal communal violence in three northern areas that has already been seen for years creates favourable conditions for spillover by VEOs.