Benin, a small coastal country in West Africa, is relatively unharmed from a security crisis that has wreaked havoc in its northern neighbors across the Sahel region over the past decade.
However, fears are mounting about an overflow of violence within its borders as armed groups in the Sahel’s bordered by the country insist on expansion to coastal states.
Last month, President Patrice Talon promised that his government would be “more determined and more vigilant” in the face of growing threats. This came after Beninise military officials said two soldiers were killed and several others wounded when fighters attacked a military post in the northern Atacora region, near the border with Burkina Faso.
The al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimin (JNIM) armed group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a message shared across social platforms that it had killed four soldiers. Two other attacks have been reported in recent months in the same border area where JNIM was active, although this has not been confirmed.
Michael Matongbada, a Beninese researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said the rare hit-and-run on Atacora was the first attack claimed by an armed group in the country.
“The expansion of groups outside their initial areas of work and influence in the Sahel region is a reality to be recognized,” Matongbada told Al Jazeera.
However, such an expansion did not only affect Benin. A number of other West African coastal states have faced a growing number of border attacks, raising fears about the expansion of armed groups affiliated with ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the region.
In a rare public appearance last year, France’s foreign intelligence chief Bernard Emie said al-Qaeda-linked fighters were working on plans to expand their attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.
Seven members of Côte d’Ivoire’s security forces were killed in five separate attacks in the north of the country last year. And the year before that, the country was hit by a cross-border attack that killed 14 security personnel in the same region. Although there were no claims of responsibility, the assault was a shocking reminder to Côte d’Ivoire that it remains a major target, although it has imposed additional security measures following an al-Qaeda-claimed beach resort attack in 2016 that killed 19 people.
Neighboring Togo was also on high alert against the possible invasion of armed groups. Security forces in Togo said they had repulsed an attack last November by unidentified gunmen crossing its northern border with Burkina Faso. It was the first time Togo has ever encountered fighters since deploying hundreds of troops across its northern borders with Burkina Faso and Benin in 2018.
Experts say the infiltration of coastal countries offers important benefits to the armed groups in Burkina Faso and Mali, such as the creation of new supply lines for food and equipment and the unlocking of new sources of income from bandits.
“West African coastal countries serve as supply or transit zones, especially for motorcycles, spare parts and fertilizers. They are also sources of financing such as the sale of stolen livestock for consumption, ”said researcher Matongbada.
Kars de Bruijne, a senior research fellow at Clingendael Institute, said gaining the upper hand in the Sahel battlefields could be another reason for the armed groups’ expansion of operations further south.
“The militant groups seek to prevent the concentration of military force from West African states and their Western partners. It is best considered as a semi-guerrilla strategy that thinly distributes your opponent’s powers. “Therefore, attacks everywhere justify protection and prevent large-scale military operations,” de Bruijne told Al Jazeera.
In large parts of the Sahel region, the armed groups exploited local discontent, lack of governance and security shortages to seize territory, enforce their rule and control economic activities. Analysts say similar vulnerabilities are also present in parts of the coastal countries, thus posing a greater risk of increased violence.
“Across the northern provinces of Benin, there are serious farmer-herder tensions that are not being adequately addressed,” de Bruijne said. “There are also problems around land ownership with overlapping land systems that lead to competition between local authorities and lead to winners and losers, as well as tensions over the management of the natural parks.”
In Ivory Coast, a regional power station that is still bandaging its wounds from a brutal civil war a decade ago, there are grievances that could grip the fighters, observers have warned.
“We must take seriously the dissatisfaction of certain former fighters of the Ivorian civil war who could not get the expected benefits from the integration process,” Marc-Andre Boisvert, a researcher on Sahelian security at FrancoPaix Research Center, told Al. Jazeera.
“The north of the Ivory Coast is also witnessing sporadic conflicts between farming and herding communities,” which increases frustration with management and “creates a growing sense of marginalization,” he said.
In 2017, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo launched the Accra initiative and agreed to strengthen regional security cooperation in an effort to prevent flooding and cross-border attacks.
Burkina Faso said in November last year that its army had carried out a five-day joint military operation with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo that led to the arrest of more than 300 suspects and the seizure of weapons, ammunition, vehicles and drugs.
Nevertheless, Boisvert believes, the coastal states remain vulnerable as long as they continue to see armed groups only as a security issue, and do not address long-term governance or political issues.
“The focus is on ‘hard security’, while little effort has been made to prevent or find political solutions to what is now a regional problem,” he said. “Countries that see the attacks only as an ‘external problem’ make it easier to simply focus on security and ignore these issues that can be exploited by militants.”