The past two months have actualized fears that any terror watcher has about rising insurgency and terrorism across Africa’s Sahel region. On May 10 and 11, eight Togolese soldiers were killed on Wednesday and 13 wounded in a “terrorist attack” in northern Togo near the border with Burkina Faso, the government said, using a term typically designating jihadists. A senior security source in Togo who asked to remain anonymous told AFP that the soldiers were attacked by a group of 60 gunmen who arrived on motorbikes. Previously in February, nine people including a Frenchman were killed in attacks in a national park in Benin’s remote north bordering troubled Niger and Burkina Faso. An African Parks patrol flushing out poachers and another patrol hit two improvised explosive devices, killing five park rangers, one park official, one soldier, and a French trainer who was with them. A third reconnaissance patrol also hit another explosive, killing another African Parks official.
One thing about geography that binds these countries together is not necessarily about how much of a border they share, but also their unenviable location in the Sahel which now houses hundreds of armed groups. Furthermore, the attacks on both countries are unique for the reason that it marks a shift in the pattern of attacks on the coastal states of West Africa. Before now, much of the activities of the terror groups have been largely restricted to landlocked states with Nigeria being the only coastal state affected (as Cameroon is located in Central Africa). Attacking Togo and Benin brings such incidents closer to the coasts, which have, for the past few years, seen the Gulf of Guinea troubled, ranking it as the most terrorized water body in the world, displacing the Horn of Africa which has had that unenviable position for decades.
Why is this happening?
Apart from the fact that all states affected share a border or two with each other, it comes down heavily to domestic issues. Togo has a population of just over 8.5 million. Its gross domestic product stood at US$7.5 billion in 2020. That of its immediate neighbour, Ghana, with a population of 32 million, was US$72.3 billion. Over 50% of Togo’s population live below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day. It is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world as measured by the Human Development Index which is based on indicators such as life expectancy, education, and per capita income. In 2019, Togo’s index score was about 0.15, positioning it 167th out of 189 countries. In 2021, the life expectancy at birth in Togo was 61.49 years and about 40% of its citizens were illiterate. These rates are similar to Burkina Faso, a country that struggles with violent extremism, where the life expectancy at birth was 61.6% and illiteracy was 58.8%. Benin, with 12.12 million people next door, does not fare any better. With a life expectancy of 61.7 years and a GDP of $15.65 billion and a poverty rate of 38.5, it has other issues such as political instability that makes terror expansion a very real possibility.
Benin has been a member of the Multinational Joint Task Force (comprising Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin) since its inception in 2014, but these attacks will have to spur a new level of involvement in the organization which has been left dormant due to infighting and lack of coordination from its members. Although when then Chadian leader Idris Deby pulled his troops out of the alliance, much of the blame for inaction on the part of the members as his reason for doing so rested on Nigeria, the fact remains that there was minimal cooperation offered by other member states.
These attacks which is the second of such in Togo (as Last November, soldiers foiled an attack in the northern village of Sanloaga, making May’s attack the first to have casualties) in some way affirms the fragility of the western Sahel. The region is fast running out of countries with no active jihadist presence or registered attacks. Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Togo are all francophone countries with some hosting France’s counterterrorism operations. The French military wound down Operation Barkhane in Mali in 2020 and refocused its energy on Niger and Burkina Faso but that has not stopped the increasing spate of attacks. As a matter of fact, it has backfired. The continued presence of French troops in these countries with a lack of the corresponding improvement in security is serving to undermine the desirability of such presence. Of the five countries mentioned, two (Mali and Niger) alongside Chad have all witnessed protests against continued French involvement in their affairs with Mali stepping up its anti-French campaign lately. In Chad, there were protests last week about France’s continued support for the transitional government led by Idris Deby’s son, Mohammed Kaka Deby. These incidents provide a difficult pathway for France to thrive. Paris’ stubbornness in sticking with France-Afrique politics may hinder its counter-terror operations in a region where human intelligence from a vastly disaffected population may prove difficult to come by.
In all of these, the loudest and most obvious takeaway is that the inability of foreign and local troops to decimate the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (the group said to be responsible for most of the attacks) is adding a boon to its efforts. In August last year, French forces killed the leader of the West African ISIS affiliate in a drone strike in southern Mali. French President Emmanuel Macron described Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi as “enemy No. 1” in the region. Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was once a separatist in Western Sahara, but he moved south to Mali and Niger, where he became aligned with al-Qaida. In 2015, Sahrawi pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And in 2017, he gained worldwide notoriety when he claimed responsibility for the Tongo-Tongo ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead. Looking at this within the prism of the global war on the Islamic State, it shows that the group may not hold territory but it is still a formidable problem for weak and fragile states in South Asia and Western Africa. The strategy of taking out senior commanders of ISIS and its affiliates has done very little in demoralizing the group which has built very loose structures that allow affiliates to operate with little or no supervision from the parent body. Taking out notable commanders has not yielded positive results for state governments because they have simply not done the hard work of cutting off the endless supply of recruits available to terror groups to pick from.
With Benin and Togo not exactly confidence-inspiring states who can hold their own against armed groups, the stakes become really high for the region where threats to its existence become real. The two countries now join the Ivory Coast and others in the growing numbers of terror infested states, and while the problem for now boils in the northern parts of every state mentioned in this piece, the individual and collective responses of states in the region would determine if the threat will remain there or head for the coasts in the medium to long term.