This report has sought to explore the risk of violence spilling over into northern Benin from Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. It makes three observations. First, it shows that the incidence of political disorder and violence in northern Benin is much higher than hitherto seen. This violence is deadly and occurs in Alibori, Atacora and Borgou – the latter in particular sees high levels of (communal) violence.

Second, the report identified three main drivers for this high incidence of political violence and protest in the north. The most significant drivers are tensions between farmers and herders, and while some of the violence pertains to transhumance movement, the majority of incidents involve settled herders. Another driver is tension around land ownership that pitches original inhabitants against newcomers (be they settling pastoralists or (semi-) urban elites) and which is reinforced by clashing customary and formal systems. A final driver pertains to the challenging problem of African Park Network’s style of managing Pendjari Park and Park W; its security-like approach creates tensions with local communities.

Third, the report noted that there is a much stronger presence of violent extremist organisations in northern Benin that hitherto observed, albeit mostly transitory and temporary in nature. Atacora, Pendjari Park and Park W see frequent activity by Katiba Macina from Burkina Faso’s Est. Malanville and Karimama (Alibori) regularly see activity from an ISGS cell on the Nigerien border. Finally, the area around Kalale sees sustained activity from an unidentified VEO from Kandji Lake forest in Kara state in Nigeria. At present, there is not yet a convergence of the interests of local populations and VEOs but there are nascent dynamics in and around the parks as well as in the area around Malanville.

What can be done to limit the threat posed to northern Benin by VEOs?

I. Remove immediate risks

To remove immediate risks, military policy makers of the Beninese government, APN and international donors to APN (e.g. France, Belgium, United States and the European Union) should consider the following actions:

The Beninese government and international donors of APN should more critically assess the actions of African Park Network. The attempts of APN to expand its operations into Burkina Faso and Niger must end and APN needs to adopt a defensive posture. It is for the Burkinabe and Nigerien governments to address the root causes of VEO presence in their territories and not for a private actor to seek military solutions. Moreover, APN needs to demonstrate more clarity, transparency and openness regarding security incidents and community issues and resentments around Pendjari Park and Park W (e.g. through community surveys) and, crucially, how these could be addressed more effectively.

There are foreseeable future problems around transhumance movement in northern Benin. APN and the Beninese government need to be more transparent as to how large transhumant herds will be able to pass the very small route that has been designated in Alibori in the course of 2021. Stopping transhumant movement at the border or imposing artificial taxes to reduce movement and limit congestion will not be durable solutions and risk adding to resentments among pastoralist communities.

There urgently needs to be more coordination between neighbours to avoid waterbed effects, where pushing VEOs away from one country means that surface in another. For example, a key reason for the temporary presence of VEOs in Benin are military operations in Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria that push VEOs into new areas. The effect is that security in one state often has adverse effects on another. To make a start on better coordination, Benin must address its very sour relationships with all its neighbours (see III below on the ‘elephant in the room’). It also suggest that the work Accra Initiative – which seeks to share information between countries and improve military collaboration – can and should be improved.

II. Address and tackle root causes of communal violence

Apart from these direct threats, the main risk for northern Benin is that VEO activity will mix with the drivers of communal conflict. To this end, policy makers and implementers working on P/CVE and development programming more generally should consider the following three recommendations:

Address farmer-herder tensions and rethink present policy’s. The present strategy seeks pastoralist sedentarization to alleviate tensions, however this report highlights that this strategy lacks a clear evidence base. Communal violence in Benin is foremost between settled farming and herding communities. Instead, an integrated set of actions needs to be considered to address immediate socio-economic and cultural problems. These include: grazing land agreements; a revaluation of pastoralist and farming customary authorities and their ability to negotiate (although this must be conditioned on inclusive behaviour); improved access to justice and legal aid programmes; and programming aimed at bridging social divisions – particularly in Borgou.

In addition, a second set of actions should reconsider the new land policy. This should involve addressing the intended measure to limit the control of customary authorities, which will generate new grievances and perpetuate the lack of clarity on land ownership. Instead, a better accommodation between customary land titling systems and the formal system should be found, followed by a simplification of procedures to limit ‘forum shopping’ (which generally benefits those with power and connections).

Finally, international development donors and implementers must accept that development policies (particularly the bias in promoting sedentary agriculture and the push to ensure land titling to improve agricultural production) are partly responsible for community tensions in northern Benin. This should lead to a requirement to include conflict-sensitivity analysis in development programming that will focus not only on direct beneficiaries but on the whole population. Furthermore, donors must consider and track which communities are benefiting from their programming and should be explicit about why particular choices were made in the complex and conflict-prone environment of the north.[84] On this basis, adaptive programming should become central to the operations of development actors, meaning that programmes can be changed when undesired effects surface.

III. Acknowledge the elephant in the room and take risks

Whether it concerns the central place of APN, the subservient role of the army, fraud relations with Benin’s neighbours, the push for agricultural production or policies that work against customary authorities, the elephant in the room is the nature of the Talon regime.

APN’s central role is a product of the direct tie of APN management to President Talon that has bypassed and excluded various sections of the Benin government. Talon has problems with all neighbouring presidents (although relations with the new Nigerian president Bazoum seem to be better than they were with Issoufou). These problems are due, in part, to Talon not showing respect (e.g. towards Buhari) and also his habit of actively seeking confrontations (e.g. with neighbouring authoritarian ruler Gnassingbe). Policies that undercut the chieftaincy system (e.g. land management, ability of hunting organisations to operate, and limiting chiefs’ role in intelligence collection) are motivated by the perception that they have stronger ties with opposition figures such as Boni Yayi. As a result, there are two urgent actions to be undertaken:

Military policy makers must reconsider supporting the Beninese security sector (police and military) – despite the apparent appeal to support the sector. The subservient role of the military and its inability to act are not a product of state weakness but are a direct consequence of Beninese policy. Security sources within and outside the regime confirm the president’s fear of a coup. For example: in March and June 2020 coup preparations were foiled; and military deployment in Cotonou during the April 2021 elections was focused on guarding arms and preventing a coup. It is in this light that the relationship between the Talon regime and the police and military must be seen: he engages in substantial ‘coup proofing’. This is clear in the role of APN. Officially, the argument for APN’s strong role in counter-terrorism is that the Benin military has no combat experience. In reality, the strong role of APN ensures there is a limited role for the military and that control of arms rests with an outfit loyal to Talon. This is similarly evident in the government’s spending. The defence budget has been reduced since 2016, by as much as 20% in 2019/20, which does not square with the increasing threats to Benin. Army officers – particularly those overseeing parts of the north – do not receive procurements (while APN receives full support). A final example of coup proofing tactics is the way in which the Guard Republican has been reformed; since 2020 it now answers directly to Talon. In short, the logic is that an untrained and underequipped military poses a lesser threat, particularly when a threatening military force is outsourced to a private organisation which answers directly to Talon. In fact, the regime’s control over APN is strong, as illustrated by the deliberate concealment from donors of an attack on 25 March in Pendjari against JNIM – likely an attempt to not disturb Talon’s election campaign.

What this means for outside support to the Benin security sector (as is discussed in various circles, e.g. in relation to border control) is that major questions loom over the sector’s role after training. Support could inadvertently and indirectly support and sustain Talon’s authoritarian rule, as it might appease and buy off the security sector with better payments, material and training without these actually being used to stem the threat of violent extremism. Worse, with an ongoing purge of the security services, some of the training could be used against opponents of the regimes (e.g. police training has become much more focused on crowd control since 2020). Even worse, if the military is properly trained, and becomes battle ready and deployed to counter violent extremism, there is a real danger that the same military could indeed stage a coup d’état. The political context as evidenced by recent coup attempts in Mali, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire points to an increasing regional acceptance of coup attempts.

The second recommended action concerns those responsible for political relations with Benin (heads of states, ministers and ambassadors). International actors and donors concerned with spillover from the Sahel should reckon with the fact that the political economy of the Talon regime might be one of the main stumbling blocks to effectively addressing short- and long-term threats to peace and stability in the country. As argued above, various root causes are related to the ways in which Talon has structured his regime. For this reason, international actors should start pushing more explicitly and more forcefully for solid changes in the political economy of the Talon regime. As shown by the extradition of the Permanent Representative of the European Union to Benin in 2019 for being too critical of the authoritarian turn of Benin, international actors must be willing to take more risks. That might involve being more assertive behind closed doors (which is partly happening), supporting reform-minded powers in the country, and, foremost, tightening conditionality for various forms of development and military aid and act as a bloc to ensure that the regime is not playing one against another. The use of public pressure – as the United States recently engaged in after the April 2021 elections – might need to be considered, even if it leads to tense diplomatic ties.

As an aside, as urban elites have particularly benefitted from land titling and agricultural intensification, serious reflection is also needed on whether intensification of production and donor aid are not systematically biased against small-scale farmers, who might not have the same means or resources as ‘urban outsiders’.