Attacks by violent extremists in Benin and Togo are rising. Since the first incidents in 2019 in Benin and 2021 in Togo, insurgents’ tactics have expanded from targeting defence forces to planting improvised explosive devices on roads, and assaulting civilians.
Attacks on 10 February in the villages of Tola and Gningou in Togo’s Savanes region claimed 31 civilian lives. On 1-4 May, 18 civilians were killed in Kaobagou and Guimbagou, in Benin’s Atacora and Alibori departments.
Over 32 000 Togolese have had to flee their homes, and in Benin, more than 900 people reportedly fled after the Kaobagou incident. These internally displaced people have joined refugees from Burkina Faso who are staying with host families in northern Benin and Togo. If the trend of civilian attacks continues, humanitarian needs will increase.
The insecurity has disrupted agriculture, fishing, markets and cross-border trade, which are vital for building communities’ resilience to violent extremism. It has also led to the closure of schools in Benin and health centres in Togo. Along with cattle rustling, other crimes are being reported, such as kidnappings of elected officials, their relatives and civilians suspected of collaborating with the defence and security forces.
Before the rise in attacks, Benin and Togo’s authorities adopted numerous measures to prevent violent extremism, some of which relied on community support, such as providing intelligence. But as the security situation deteriorates, this cooperative approach could become risky for civilians. These risks will need to be mitigated if people are to continue collaborating with the state.
In 2019, Togo created an Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Prevention and Fight against Violent Extremism (CIPLEV). It aims to reduce the spread of attacks, encourage civil-military dialogue, and strengthen collaboration between security forces and the population. CIPLEV has now stepped up its awareness-raising campaigns, particularly in the Savanes, Centrale and Kara regions.
The military’s Operation Koundjoaré deployed in 2018 in Savanes, Togo seeks to reinforce security and prevent infiltration by extremist groups in this border area with Burkina Faso. It also involves civil-military actions such as providing free medical consultations for people to encourage them to contribute to intelligence and early warning.
In Benin, authorities rely on the Agence Béninoise de Gestion Intégrée des Espaces Frontaliers, set up in 2012, to bring the government closer to civilians in border areas, notably by providing social services. With the backing of local authorities, the Ministry of Interior and Public Security has organised awareness-raising sessions, particularly in areas under attack. These initiatives hope to build community trust in the defence and security forces and dissuade locals from joining violent extremist groups.
Since 2018, Benin has also implemented community policing, and its armed forces have connected with civilians through, for example, offering healthcare to communities. This enables them to increase their visibility, get closer to populations and encourage them to collaborate through intelligence sharing.
These efforts are essential to strengthen the link between the state and the people, and to encourage civilians to support the fight against violent extremism. However, as attacks on civilians increase, the government will need to guarantee their protection if it wants their continued support.
Civilian sources told the Institute for Security Studies that extremists won’t attack them if they avoid collaborating with the state and its partners. The insurgents threaten reprisals if they do.
The effectiveness of Benin and Togo’s cooperative security approach will depend on a sound understanding of the obstacles that hinder cooperation between the state, its representatives and the population.
Against a backdrop of increasing attacks, fear and general mistrust, security forces must be uncompromising about protecting their sources. They should avoid abusive behaviour towards civilians such as racketeering, harassment on the roads, labelling and stigmatising communities, and human rights violations during operations. In the longer term, better security sector governance is also vital to ensure transparency, accountability and professionalism of the military and the police.
It is also important that civilians aren’t seen solely as sources of information. Responses should, above all, strengthen trust between the people and the government and create platforms for discussion that enable the state to respond efficiently to community expectations and needs.
In early 2022, Togolese authorities launched an emergency programme for the Savanes Region to strengthen the population’s resilience. The programme’s effectiveness will depend on its ability to reduce the socio-economic vulnerabilities that extremists exploit to recruit members and gather support. Chief among these are improving people’s living conditions and safety.
As the threat evolves, the impact of the various responses on civilians must be continually assessed so that necessary adjustments can be made. This will enable Benin and Togo’s authorities to be responsive to people’s needs and guarantee their safety – an essential recipe for long-term collaboration between the state and its people.
Jeannine Ella Abatan, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin
Image: © Gouvernement de la République du Bénin
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