Will Benin have to rethink part of the strategy for securing its northern border, contiguous with Burkina Faso, provided in part by the rangers of the South African conservation NGO African Parks Network (APN)? On Tuesday 8 February, nine people were killed, including five forest rangers and “their French instructor”, according to a press release from the Beninese presidency. A massacre which confirms the thrust of the jihadist threat from the Sahel and which now overflows into the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea.
According to APN, “a team of rangers was ambushed in W National Park in Benin, while patrolling the northern edge of the park”. The Beninese presidency does not speak of an ambush. It asserts, in a press release published after an extraordinary meeting of the Council of Ministers chaired by the Head of State, Patrice Talon, that the patrol « flush out poachers (…) came across an improvised explosive device (IED) as well as a second patrol, in the same circumstances”. On Thursday, another reconnaissance crew “suffered the same fate” specifies this source.
Whatever the modus operandi, the human toll was heavy: nine dead (the French instructor, two APN civilian agents, five forest rangers, an element of the Beninese armed forces) and twelve wounded. Either the chain of terrorist acts the deadliest that Benin has known.
A 50-year-old former French soldier, under APN contract as an instructor, also died in the first explosion. In Paris, the national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation for “assassination in connection with a terrorist enterprise”. The investigations were entrusted to the General Directorate of Internal Security (DGSI).
Beninese authorities have acknowledged that “the portion of land called “Triple Point”, border area between Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger (…) has recently been considered critical due to the terrorist actions observed”. The first violence dates back to 1er May 2019 with the kidnapping of two French tourists – and the death of their guide – close to the border with Burkina Faso, in the Pendjari National Park, neighboring the W, also managed by the South Africans of APN. Since that date, an army post was attacked in Porga on December 2, 2021. Several military vehicles were also targeted by IEDs.
None of these attacks have been claimed. Connoisseurs of the region do not doubt for a moment that their authors are to be sought in the ranks of jihadists. And more precisely in those of the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM or Support Group for Islam and Muslims), linked to Al-Qaida. “This cross-border space, called WAPO, named after the W, Arly, Pendjari and Oti parks, which cross the borders of Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo, constitutes the second stronghold of JNIM in the Sahel after the interior delta of the Niger [situé au Mali] », even says Mathieu Pellerin, a specialist in these armed groups, in a note published at the beginning of February by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
This WAPO covers some 32,000 km2 – a little more than Belgium –, largely deserted by the States concerned. In 2017, the South Africans of APN thus obtained the management of Pendjari, then of the Beninese part of the W, with the aim of making it “a center of excellence for the coordination of regional security”. “The problem is that they have alienated some of the local populations because of their brutal way of management”, says a person familiar with the matter. In particular, APN would have deployed “a hundred armed rangers equipped with small helicopters in Pendjari”, says this source.
However, the issues to be managed go well beyond the scope of environmental protection. Here, the expansion of jihadist groups is fueled by a complex array of reasons, sometimes very localized, some of which are comparable to the dynamics underway in Burkina Faso or in central Mali. Causes that combine the modification of transhumance routes – following the violence in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali or the creation of protected ecological spaces –, land reforms, conflicts between farmers and herders, a feeling of marginalization of populations of the North compared to those of the South and an inadequate military presence.
“For the coastal countries of West Africa, there is still time to prevent a deterioration of the security situation”, writes Mathieu Pellerin, who nevertheless fears that “Benin does not become a space of transit between the Sahara and the north-west of Nigeria, where the revival of Ansaru [groupe nigérian également lié à Al-Qaida] cause concern”.