West Africa’s coastal states are at risk of Islamist violence spilling over from the Sahel. The Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM/Katiba Macina), and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have announced their intentions to move into the Gulf of Guinea.[1] In 2018, JNIMs Kouffa, for example, attempted to mobilise Fulani across the West Africa region.[2] Recently, Bernard Émié, the French head of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) stated that Benin and Côte d’Ivoire have been explicitly singled out as targets by JNIM.[3]

Since 2016, there have been incidents in border communities that are tied to the presence of violent extremists. But apart from open violence, regular reports coming from Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo and north-west Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Ghana, point to roaming preachers, recruitment among youth, development projects such as water-wells, the transit of Sahelian fighters and trade with violent extremists.[4] These are signs that West Africa’s coastal areas are possibly on the brink of a crisis.

Analysts point out that contagion of violence by violent extremist organisations (VEOs) in the Sahel has been driven by local factors.[5] VEOs have mastered the art of exploiting local vulnerabilities around land use, resource management, social exclusion and ethnic tensions. For example, in the Sahel, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) exploited economic hardship and ethnic tensions in Gao and Mopti (Mali).[6] Katiba Macina used the promise of security, law and order, and fair conflict resolution of local disputes to legitimise its operations.[7] Ansaroul Islam obtained a foothold by preaching against the abuse of power by Burkinabe elites against disadvantaged groups.[8] Cash payments to young people facilitated the expansion of Boko Haram into Diffa (Niger).[9]

Yet the fear of violent contagion to coastal West Africa is often based on just repeating a handful of incidents: the 2020 Kafolo attack and the 2016 Grand Bassam attack (both in Côte d’Ivoire); the 2019 Pendjari attack in Benin; sightings of VEOs and roaming preachers; and the alleged presence of extremist cells in Nigerien, Burkinabe or Malian border areas.[10]

This means there is a disconnect between what we know about the expansion of VEOs and the fear of spillover from the Sahel into West Africa’s littoral (border) states. However, except in relation to north-west Nigeria – where the Boko Haram splinter group Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Ansarul) is successfully exploiting ethnic tensions between and economic relationships with local gangs – there is a serious lack of information on whether – and how – VEOs seek to exploit local tensions in littoral West African communities, and how successful they may have been so far.[11]

This lack of information is a problem. Policy makers from several countries (e.g. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States), from multilateral organisations (European Union and the United Nations) and from major implementers have spent over $120 million on Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) programming in the last five years alone in the coastal states. But without knowing which areas are at risk and how spillover takes shapes in the coastal states, there is a risk that donor money will not be spent on the right priorities. Worse, it may be counterproductive.

This report fills this gap by exploring local problems in one country possibly at risk: Benin, specifically the regions of Alibori, Borgou and Atacora.

These northern Beninese regions share an unfortunate geographic proximity to three theatres of violent extremist activity (see figure 1): a) Burkina Faso’s Est region where JNIM and ISGS cells operate; b) Niger’s Tillabery and Dosso regions where ISGS operates; and c) North-west Nigeria and Nigeria’s Middle Belt where gangs and a diverse array of VEOs are present. For this reason, it is crucial to gain an understanding of community tensions in Alibori, Atacora and Borgou and how far VEOs have gone in exploiting them.

To this end, this report presents new data on communal violence in the north of Benin from an undisclosed local organisation and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) project. These data range from 2017 to the present and should lead to a major reconsideration of priorities; there are various open communal conflicts in Benin’s north that have become intense and lethal. The Talon government appears to deliberately conceal these problems from the public (while, admittedly, working hard behind the scenes to address them).[12]

The analysis finds that northern Benin faces serious risks of exploitation by VEOs but that there are as yet no clear alignments between local community tensions and VEOs. That means there is still space for policy-makers and implementers. For example, new data show that sustained communal conflicts between farmers-herders and over land constitute entry points for VEOs. At the same time, development efforts have supported the intensification of agricultural production and land titling, and there are indications that these efforts have not been conflict sensitive and may thus have contributed to the current risks. In short, this report provides better information and insight into drivers of communal conflict to enable development policy makers, P/CVE programming and military officials to make targeted interventions.

This report is built around five chapters. The first chapters present data on political violence in northern Benin, highlighting the types of violence, the locations, the actors involved and the overall trends. The third chapter presents the three main reasons for violence in Alibori, Atacora and Borgou: herder-farmer tensions, problems around land ownership, and problems around the management of Pendjari Park and Park W. The fourth chapter explores signs that point to VEO spillover, the conditions that facilitate local collaboration and a brief assessment of the extent of collaboration. The final section ends with policy recommendations.

Figure 1
Location map of Benin
Location map of Benin
L’Opinion, 2019. Bénin, Togo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire... les cellules terroristes cherchent à s’implanter dans l’Afrique de l’ouest côtière. link; Tisseron, A., 2019. Jihadist threat. The Gulf of Guinea States up against the wall. Thomas More Institute. link; Courrier International, 2019. Afrique de l’Ouest.Le Bénin, la prochaine cible des terroristes? link.
New video message from Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām Wa-l-Muslimīn: ‘Go Forth, Whether Light or Heavy’. link.
Jeune Afrique, 2021. Al-Qaïda veut viser la Côte d’Ivoire et le Bénin, selon le patron du renseignement français. link.
Crisis Group Africa, 2019. ‘The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa’. Briefing N°149. link.
Chauzal, G. and Van Damme, T., 2015. The roots of Mali’s conflict. Moving beyond the 2012 crisis. The Clingendael Institute.
Crisis Group, 2017. The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North. Report n°254. link.
Crisis Group Africa, 2019. ‘The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa’. Briefing N°149. link.
For an example see: Foreign policy, 2021. West Africa Is Increasingly Vulnerable to Terrorist Groups. link.
Confidential interviews July 2020-February 2021.