Extremist Groups Gain Foothold in West African Coastal Regions

by Lucas Garcia
Extremism in West Africa

The coastal regions of West Africa, traditionally known for their relative stability, are now facing the growing presence of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. One individual, Zackari, has become a symbol of resistance against these insurgents, refusing to join their ranks and subsequently becoming a target for their retaliation.

For over a year now, Zackari has been on the run from these jihadist fighters who relentlessly pursue him. They make ominous calls to the 33-year-old, reminding him, “We haven’t forgotten about you.”

This surge in extremism is a concerning development, as these militant organizations have been expanding their influence from the arid Sahel region, south of the Sahara Desert, into the wealthier coastal nations of West Africa, including Benin. While initial concerns revolved around the possibility of these groups using coastal territories as bases for attacks on Sahel governments, the reality is that militancy is taking root in these coastal states.

Benin, in particular, has been severely affected by this phenomenon. In the current year, it witnessed more than ten times the number of violent incidents involving jihadists compared to neighboring Togo. Attacks against civilians in Benin have nearly tripled from the previous year, reaching approximately 80 incidents. Overall, incidents involving jihadi groups have increased by over 70%.

Kars de Bruijne, a senior research fellow and head of the Sahel program at the Clingendael Institute, notes that these extremist organizations are actively expanding their presence in Benin. They are establishing cells, recruiting followers, and exerting their influence. Their activities are concentrated in the northern regions of the country, where they seek to recruit informants and sow discord within local communities.

Residents of towns like Materi, situated in the affected northern areas, are living in constant fear due to the jihadi threat. These fighters plant explosives and carry out abductions, creating a climate of terror and undermining the legitimacy of the state. In response, the government has imposed curfews and banned gatherings, further restricting the freedom of the local population.

Kidnappings by jihadists in Benin have surged from zero in 2021 to 33 this year, while explosions have become more frequent, disrupting daily life and economic activities. The growing violence has led to the displacement of thousands of people from their homes, raising concerns of a humanitarian crisis. Farmers are also being forced off their lands, potentially leading to food insecurity on a significant scale.

To address this escalating crisis, the Beninese government is bolstering its military presence along the borders and recruiting additional soldiers. However, residents in the northern regions complain that the army is underequipped and often responds too slowly to attacks, an assertion the government denies.

Unlike its neighboring countries of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, which have seen violent insurgencies and anti-French sentiment leading to military coups and the expulsion of French troops, Benin remains open to assistance from its former colonial power, France. While France does not maintain a permanent base in Benin, its troops can participate in training programs with Beninese soldiers.

Nevertheless, Benin’s government is also facing criticism for downplaying the extent of the crisis to protect its image. It has cracked down on freedom of speech and arrested journalists reporting on insecurity. Local officials assert that the problem is confined to the border with Burkina Faso, a claim disputed by residents in the north.

Benin, an agricultural nation of 13 million people, has invested heavily in culture, tourism, and industrial development. Despite these efforts, there is an information gap, leaving many people in other parts of the country unaware of the security issues in the north. This lack of awareness, coupled with government restrictions on information, is pushing some individuals toward the extremist groups.

The international community is attempting to address the situation by sensitizing people to the dangers of joining jihadist groups and organizing community dialogues with officials to build trust. Diplomats and aid groups are also increasing their investments in the region. For instance, the World Bank has initiated a five-year project with a $450 million budget aimed at bolstering local institutions and economic opportunities in border communities across northern Benin and neighboring countries.

In the face of these challenges, the extremist groups seem to be gaining ground not only in terms of territorial control but also in the realm of public perception. They promise to bring much-needed infrastructure to impoverished villages, luring frustrated individuals who see little improvement from the government. As the situation continues to evolve, Benin and its neighbors face the daunting task of countering extremism while addressing the underlying socio-economic issues that contribute to its appeal.

For more Africa coverage, please visit Big Big News Africa.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Extremism in West Africa

Q: What is the main cause of rising extremism in coastal West Africa?

A: The main cause is the expansion of extremist groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State from the Sahel region into wealthier coastal states, such as Benin.

Q: How has Benin been affected by this surge in extremism?

A: Benin has witnessed a significant increase in violent incidents involving jihadis, with attacks against civilians nearly tripling in one year. The northern regions of the country are particularly affected, with residents living in constant fear due to abductions, bombings, and displacement.

Q: What measures is the Beninese government taking to address the crisis?

A: The government is reinforcing its military presence along the borders and recruiting additional soldiers. However, there are complaints of the army being underequipped and slow to respond to attacks. The government also seeks assistance from France, which can participate in training programs with Beninese soldiers.

Q: How is the international community responding to the situation?

A: The international community is focusing on sensitizing people against joining extremist groups and organizing community dialogues to build trust. Additionally, organizations like the World Bank are investing in projects to strengthen local institutions and economic opportunities in the affected border communities.

Q: What impact does this extremism have on the daily lives of residents in affected areas?

A: Residents face disruptions to daily life, including restrictions on movement, fear, and a surge in kidnappings and explosions. The violence has led to displacement, food insecurity, and an erosion of state legitimacy.

Q: How is the Beninese government handling information about the crisis?

A: The government has faced criticism for downplaying the extent of the crisis and cracking down on freedom of speech. Some residents argue that the government’s actions are pushing people toward extremist groups.

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NewsNerd88 November 11, 2023 - 1:17 pm

this article says lots, makes me worry ’bout d folks there. Jihadis causin chaos, need help now!

Reader123 November 11, 2023 - 1:32 pm

wow! scary stuff happenin in west africa with them jihadis. benin in trouble. gov needs 2 do more, ppl sufferin.

InfoSeeker42 November 11, 2023 - 10:01 pm

world bank helpin but slow? ppl can’t wait! need faster action 2 stop extremist’s promise.

CuriousCat November 12, 2023 - 12:43 am

how come benin gvmt not tellin the truth? coverin up big issues ain’t good. we need facts!


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