Political violence and protests in Benin’s north are seen mainly in three regions: Alibori, Atacora and Borgou. These regions share some structural conditions that generate political violence but also have unique ‘violence profiles’ (see figure 3). Generally there are three main differences.
First, there are different intensities of political disorder. Atacora, bordering Burkina Faso and Togo, and Alibori, bordering Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, experience roughly the same number of total incidents of disorder. However, Borgou, further south and bordering Nigeria, has four times more incidents of disorder than Atacora and Alibori. This is important, as Borgou has a lower population density then Atacora and Alibori.
Second, despite the similarities between Atacora and Alibori there are differences. There are significantly more armed clashes and fatalities in Alibori than in Atacora.
Third, there are differences in the clustering of incidents. Political disorder in Atacora clusters in the west of the region, clamped between the border with Togo and the Pendjari National Park. Violence in Alibori takes place in various communities bordering Niger and on the main road leading to it (from Kandi to Malanville). Political violence in Borgou, however, is widely spread the territory.
The Nature of Political Disorder in Northern Benin (January 2016 - February 2021)
Specific regional trends
Atacora came into the spotlight when on 1 May 2019, alleged VEOs killed a park ranger/tourist guide and abducted two French tourists near Porga (Materi) in the Pendjari National Park. Pendjari is part of the W-Arli-Pendjari (WAP) complex, a protected forest area spanning the border areas of Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin. Yet, this incident is unique: most political violence in Atacora is deeply communal and local. Violence in the region is chiefly characterised by conflict between farmers and pastoralists over grazing land, conflict between families over landownership and, importantly, mob violence over ritual sacrifices and sorcery. The groups involved are likewise communal; in ACLED data these are coded as unidentified groups (Unidentified Armed Group or Unidentified Communal Militias), in line with the methodology. Other important actors in the local data are those of a Fulani ethnicity who might clash with Bariba and Dendi, and to a lesser extent with Wamaa and Berba (Porga, Tanguieta and Cobly). It is not clear whether these groups have an organised structure or whether they rally for a particular cause.
Violence in Alibori is different from Atacora. The most notable difference is that the area has over the past two years seen open clashes between armed groups, particularly between farmers and herders, and between park rangers, poachers and Fulani gunmen (in Park W). This violence resulted in 15 fatalities during 2020 in armed clashes alone (compared to none in Atacora and three in Borgou). Violence in Alibori is also local in nature and pertains to land conflict and pastoralist-farmers tensions. However, unlike Atacora, violence in the area has more transnational components and involves cross-border dimensions. For example, the new data highlight the presence of Nigerien and Nigerian individuals. The main driver of this cross-border element is that the main transhumance (i.e. the movement of pastoralists between countries) routes in Benin end in Alibori. A specific problem for Alibori region are lethal incidents related to Park W – one of the parks in the WAP complex; all 15 fatalities since March 2020 took place near Park W.
Violence in Borgou is both more intense and more dispersed. The spread of incidents over the district and the large number of reported communal and ethnic militias highlight the fact that perpetrators are more established and better organised in Borgou than in Alibori and Atacora. Many of Benin’s chasseurs (hunters), like the Dabanga – best described as institutional communal self-defence forces, originate from the Borgou region. The reasons for political violence in Borgou are similar to Alibori and Atacora. Violence concerns farmer-pastoralist tensions – with pastoralists often being settled Fulani and Bariba – as well as various land conflicts. Until now, Borgou was known most for political violence in the south of the region (Parakou and Tchaourou), as some incidents of political violence in 2019 related to political competition in the capital between the Talon regime and the Forces cauris pour un Bénin émergent (FCBE) of former President Boni Yayi.
The politics of violence
Thus, amidst all the rumours about potential VEO spillover to the coastal areas, there has been violence for some time in the north of Benin but it has not been reported. New ACLED data should lead to a revised narrative on the dangers facing Benin’s north.
But it should also raise a key question: how it is possible that all of this violence has gone undetected?
It is not that the Talon regime is unaware of the problems in the north. In fact, the Talon regime has worked very hard to ensure that problems in the north remain isolated from the presence of VEOs in border areas and has even tried to address some of the root causes. For example, the government has set up a system to ‘report suspicious activities and strangers’ through local authorities; the Beninese agency for the integrated management of border areas (ABeGIEF) is actively developing relationships with civil society networks and supporting border communities that have peaceful relationships with their neighbours. A number of international donors and organisations provide support to the Beninese government, and applaud the openness of the government to collaborate, learn and address these issues.
Why then is there so little information on violence in the north of Benin? There may be cultural reasons. Like Burkina Faso and Mali before, the Beninese have a self-image of living in a peaceful country where violent extremism and violence are unlikely to get a foothold. But, more importantly, there may be political reasons. The Talon regime seems to have (possibly deliberately) kept incidents of violence out of the public eye. For example, during 2020, media outlets that reported on violence in the north were taken down and strongly controlled, and self-censoring media rarely report incidents in the north. Likewise, in the week before 11 April 2021 (election date), a major attack against JNIM took place in Pendjari (25 March) but was kept out of the public eye until after the elections. One reason for this silence might be Talon’s self-image as a businessman who could put the country back on track; high levels of violence (possibly predating his rule) would endanger that image in the run-up to his re-election in April 2021. Equally important is his investment in attracting tourists to Benin, and particularly to Pendjari Park and Park W. After the elections, an alleged violent encounter with JNIM in the week of April 25 2021 in the Park was also not reported (even to donors).
Understandable as this may be for a politician seeking to be re-elected and to maintain a positive image, the consequence is that there is no debate on the real drivers of violence in the north. As a result, the spillover policy of Benin remains security-oriented, focused on border control and the instrumentalization of communities as intelligence providers. New data by ACLED proves that the real problems and underlying drivers of violence are elsewhere. The remainder of this brief attempts to get them into better focus and move the public debate on spillover in Benin out of darkness into the light and on a firm empirical footing. It is the only way to address root causes efficiently, collaboratively and effectively.
The Guardian, 2019. Two French soldiers killed rescuing hostages in West Africa. link.
ACotonou, 2016. ‘Bénin : les affrontements entre agriculteurs et éleveurs font trois morts et deux blessés’. link; RFI, 2017. Conflits récurrents entre agriculteurs et éleveurs au Bénin. link;
BeninWeb, 2020. ‘Bénin: les auteurs d’assassinat de présumés sorciers à Pehunco dans le viseur du PG’. link.
La Nouvelle Tribune, 2018. ‘Bénin: Affrontement mortel entre un braconnier et des forestiers du parc W à Banikoara’. link.
Abou Moumouni, I., 2017. ‘Coproduction de la sécurité publique dans le Nord-Bénin’, Anthropologie & développement. For example, the Dambanga exist in almost all the communes of the departments of Borgou/Alibori, Atacora/Donga and Collines and their members number around 8,000.
Abou Moumouni, I., 2017. L’offre informelle de la sécurité publique au Bénin: l’instrumentalisation des groupes d’autodéfense par l’État. Déviance et Société.
Commission Nationale des Frontières – Agence béninoise de gestion intégrée des espaces frontaliers. Qui gère les frontières du Bénin? link; Action fiche of an EU-funded project entitled ‘Consolidation of peace in Benin through the prevention of violent extremism’: link; Confidential interview 5 (12 February 2021).