Cotonou – It has been more than a year since jihadists first attacked the town of Igor Kassah in northern Benin, but the priest still lives in fear. His once peaceful life is now filled with threatening phone calls and Islamic extremist slurs taped to church doors asking people to leave. He is haunted by the bodies of those killed in the attack.
“We don’t have a normal life anymore,” the 41-year-old told The Associated Press via text message. “It’s hard to speak and act with confidence because you don’t know who’s in front of you anymore.”
For more than seven years, violence by extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group has devastated much of West Africa’s interior Sahel region. Now it is spreading to Benin’s worst-hit coastal country, experts say.
According to the Armed Conflict Locations and Events Data Project, jihadist attacks in Benin increased more than 10-fold between July and December — from two to 25 — compared with the same period last year. That’s more than any other coastal country in West Africa. If extremist violence continues to spread, it could have far-reaching consequences, analysts say.
“When you’re talking about the Sahel, the geopolitical interests are limited,” said Kars de Bruijne, a senior researcher at the Dutch research institute Clingendael.
“But the situation is different in coastal countries, which are much stronger and more important economically to the African Union and western countries such as the UK and the US,” he said. The fact that these Western powers may see their interests at stake is a key reason why they should be really concerned about the spread of extremist violence to Benin, he said. The more fronts the jihadists open up, the harder it will be to respond effectively, he said.
The violence in Benin, a country of 12 million people, is largely the result of events in neighboring Burkina Faso, where jihadist attacks have killed hundreds and displaced nearly 2 million people. Attacks were initially limited to the border between eastern Burkina Faso and Benin, in the W and Pendjari national parks in the Alibori and Atacora regions, but are now expanding. Incidents have increased in populated areas around the park since June, when jihadists linked to the al-Qaeda-linked group JNIM pushed Benin’s army from the border, creating a security vacuum and taking control of parts of the country , a recent report said Klingendahl.
Analysts say the jihadist insurgents appear to be establishing a swath of influence from Niger to Togo to keep supply lines open, recruit and procure supplies. Another goal could be to withstand pressure from the Accra Initiative, a military platform involving Burkina Faso and coastal states to prevent the further spread of extremism from the Sahel.
Benin’s government has stepped up its response since last year, investing nearly $130 million in new operating bases, President Patrice Talon said in a speech earlier this month , Strengthen the existing base and recruit nearly 4,000 security personnel.
But locals and human rights groups say the government’s heightened security measures have led to human rights abuses, such as the arbitrary arrest of people suspected of collaborating with jihadists, especially ethnic Fulani suspected of belonging to Islamic extremists.
“Human rights violations risk becoming systemic and festering, as has been the case in neighboring countries that have been fighting the same armed group for years,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s regional director for West Africa.
West African coastal states and the international community have yet to learn enough from the Sahel crisis to address insecurity, regional experts say.
“We’re seeing the same dynamic in Benin, and I fear we’re trying the same tactics that failed in the Sahel,” said Laura Sanders, founder of Cetus Global, a firm focused on Conflict Prevention Consulting Firm. in West Africa.
“Coastal states have an opportunity to choose a different approach to addressing crises, focusing on the drivers of violence and what pushes people into these armed groups, such as unresolved grievances, social marginalization and poor governance of natural resources,” she said. .
Aid groups say there is now an urgent need to expand investment in education, nutrition and health in areas bordering central Sahel countries to reduce humanitarian suffering as violence mounts.
Meanwhile, communities in Benin say they have been forced to accept a life they never imagined they would have to endure.
“We thought for a while, maybe out of a certain naivety … (we) can get away with the threat, (Benin) is being attacked almost every day,” said national security expert Arnaud Houenou. Professor, Abomey-Calavi University, Benin.
“Despite its proximity to Nigeria and Burkina Faso, Benin has survived the war on terror in the Sahel,” he said, “but reality has arrived.”
Mednick reports from Dakar, Senegal
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