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Gulf of Guinea: Can the Sahel Trap Be Avoided?

Gulf of Guinea: Can the Sahel Trap Be Avoided?
 Jonathan Guiffard
Senior Fellow - Defense and Africa

Find all our analyses on the Sahel crisis and ramifications for the region as a whole in our series "Sahel: An Expanding Crisis".

The jihadist insurgency toward the Gulf of Guinea

On Thursday, January 12, 2023, Benin's Constitutional Court confirmed President Patrice Talon's sweeping victory in the legislative elections. Though denounced by the opposition, this election is important because it gives Benin's new president free reign to respond to a major challenge: jihadist attacks and the attempted integration of these groups into the country's social fabric. Indeed, in Benin, jihad has already been declared (in French).

Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea and, to a lesser extent, Senegal, are all facing a similar challenge. The coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea are experiencing regular jihadist attacks on their military posts on the northern border, as well as the first raids on remote villages with the aim of imposing silence and Islamic law there. With bases in the far south of Mali and Burkina Faso, groups affiliated with the Sahelian branch of al-Qaeda (known as JNIM), have declared jihad in these new countries and are ramping up their deadly attacks.

The French president’s visit to Cotonou on July 27, 2022, the announcements made by ECOWAS in December 2022 to create a "joint intervention force against terrorism" and the Accra Initiative all relate to this context. The recent announcement of a new French military strategy, to be unveiled in the coming months, begs the question: how can we help these coastal countries face a threat that is new and particularly dangerous, but which they often underestimate?

A military and security response may not be avoidable in the short term, but there is a significant risk that the mistakes that have fueled jihadism in the Sahel will be reproduced by the coastal countries and Europeans alike. What is needed is an ambitious and holistic response, with a strong focus on the political, economic and social fractures that are likely to constitute a fertile breeding ground for al-Qaeda or the Islamic State and their recruitment of new members.

Why are jihadists targeting these coastal countries?

In the first decades of the establishment and expansion of Sahelian jihadist groups, the Gulf of Guinea countries represented opportunities to conduct heavily symbolic terrorist operations. The 2016 Grand Bassam attacks in Ivory Coast - for which a trial recently took place - and the kidnapping of two French tourists in Burkina Faso on March 1, 2019, are the most telling examples. However, these countries have long remained beyond the reach of the jihadist strategy, which has initially focused on Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria. As a result, the policymakers of the coastal countries have not become acutely aware of the looming medium-term threat.

Launching jihad in these different countries has several objectives:

  • A dual political objective aimed at confirming the jihadists' role as the protective vanguard of oppressed Muslims and at expanding the territorial base of their intended caliphate.
  • A strategic objective aimed at amplifying their threatening image, thus forcing their opponents to overreact.
  • Tactical objectives to set up bases (markaz) in the forests in the border regions, increase their mobility and secure a very important corridor between Burkina Faso and Nigeria, where there are both al-Qaeda and Islamic State supporters.

These objectives are part of their strategic frame of reference. Moreover, these new countries offer further opportunities to kidnap Westerners (over sixty since the early 2000s) and to target symbolic objectives; the weight of these factors must not be underestimated. Several tens of thousands of French people live in this region and a number of foreign companies are located there.

Jihadist groups know that Muslim populations in these countries are marginalized.

Jihadist groups know that Muslim populations in these countries are marginalized. As in the Sahel, there is conflict over resources, with strong tensions between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders. The latter is often, but not always, linked to Fulani populations (see this previous analysis by the same author).

In addition to these socio-economic and inter-community divides, there is a religious factor: unlike the Sahel, the Gulf of Guinea countries count large Christian populations and elites that are sometimes inclined to marginalize Muslims.

Aware of their limitations, the jihadists are cautious in launching this war. Thus, while they have decided to attack Benin and Togo, they are slowing down their attacks in Ivory Coast and have not yet struck Ghana or Guinea. Other efforts are also underway: while raids are proven military techniques, they are less effective and sustainable than training and the resettlement of local recruits.

Benin and Togo, two new jihad frontlines

Benin and Togo are small countries. More importantly, they are "geographically long" countries, which facilitates a relative disconnect between the coastal capitals and the harder-to-control northern borders. Since 2021, for example, JNIM jihadists have been operating in the forested areas of southern Burkina Faso, conducting regular and deadly raids. The porous borders and the region's topography allow small groups of jihadists to travel back and forth to the Burkina Faso side of the border to carry out their attacks. The Arli, Pendjari and W national parks serve as points of departure and retreat. In addition, conflicts over resources and governance between the political authorities and the populations that live in these parks create a divide that is exploited by the jihadists.

The armies of these two countries, supported by cooperation with France, the United States, the European Union and African allies (Rwanda), are setting up military patrols in the north and intelligence operations in villages targeted by jihadists. These efforts buy time, but they are not enough. Restructuring efforts are underway in Togo, signaling President Faure Gnassingbé's awareness of the issue, which presents itself against a backdrop of political tension. Dialogue exists, but there is still significant progress to be made in terms of talks and coordination between Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso. It is worth noting that the latter's army is overwhelmed by the ongoing fragmentation of the country.

Togo and Benin are also targeted, in part, because they are vulnerable in ways that can be exploited by jihadist propaganda. Social and political fractures are strong. The political opposition is isolated and "Islamist" trials are used to repress certain figures "in the spirit of" democratic competition (cf. the bulletin (in french) by the FrancoPaix Center at the University of Quebec, highly worth a read). These tensions risk being instrumentalized by jihadists, who will easily be able to recruit if the authorities do not allow for peaceful and inclusive political pluralism.

Togo and Benin are also targeted, in part, because they are vulnerable in ways that can be exploited by jihadist propaganda.

As mentioned above, there is a religious factor at play. In both countries, as well as in Ghana, Muslims represent less than 20% of the predominantly Christian population. Latent religious divides, already exploited by jihadists in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, could be a new focus area for JNIM propaganda and preaching in this region.

Finally, there is friction within Islam in both Togo and Benin, which is quite similar to other nations in the region. The traditional organizations, often Sufi in nature and more or less close to the government are themselves challenged by youth that is more receptive to fundamentalist and revolutionary expressions of Islam. This tension is very easy to exploit for jihadists, as they represent an attractive vanguard for this youth. In order to avoid validating jihadist propaganda, this reality should be noted as a point of vigilance to be considered from a perspective that goes beyond the security lens.

Ghana, Ivory Coast and Guinea: the next targets?

Ghana, which gained independence from Britain, is the English-speaking exception in this region. It is more highly developed than its neighbors but is currently hit by a major economic crisis: the country has declared itself bankrupt. This precarious position is compounded by an explosion of tensions in the north. This is partly due to the jihadists, though this threat is not yet very palpable to the population. The more destabilizing factor has been the arrival of many Burkinabe refugees on Ghanaian territory. The feverishness is causing sparks to fly between the farming and pastoral communities, with repression of Fulani herders and a temptation to take justice into one’s own hands.

Ivory Coast is ahead of its neighbors in its apprehension of al-Qaeda (AQIM) and its Sahelian branch JNIM, for at least three reasons:

  • Abidjan has already been targeted by several AQIM schemes to launch a terrorist attack, at least one of which was successful: the 2016 Grand Bassam massacre.
  • The authorities in Abidjan have hosted several prominent figures, such as former Burkinabe president Blaise Compaoré and his advisor Moustapha Liman Chaffi, who have extensive knowledge of jihadist actors and strategies.
  • The Ivorian military has already conducted military operations in the Comoé National Park in May 2020, alongside the Burkinabe army.

However, this head start could play tricks on them and lead to denial of a jihadist threat that has changed shape over the past decades. Jihadists based in southern Mali and Burkina Faso already conducted infiltrations in 2015 and a series of attacks in Kafolo, Tehini and Tougbo in 2021, before stopping for an unknown reason. Attacks in Doropo in late December 2022 could signal a return of the attacks, although local insecurity makes it difficult to attribute these attacks to jihadists.

It is not sufficient for political and military authorities to be aware of the threat. They must now accelerate the professionalization of their military capabilities.

It is not sufficient for political and military authorities to be aware of the threat. They must now accelerate the professionalization of their military capabilities, without falling into the militia trap. They must act with restraint with regard to local populations, who have already received visits from jihadists implying that they should close schools, separate men and women and avoid collaboration with the authorities. Finally, while Ivory Coast faces the same socio-economic fractures as its neighbors, it must also deal with a unique factor: simmering xenophobia, an "old demon" created by old debates on "Ivorian-ness". 

Guinea is in a somewhat different situation. The coup d'état by Mamadi Doumbouya in September 2021 paved the way for a significant political divide and a form of governance that alternates between the populist models of Mali and Burkina Faso. The government is also particularly cautious, which spares international partners that could help confront a jihadist threat that is currently taking hold on the country's northern border. The JNIM has imposed itself in the rural areas around Bamako and has recently carried out recurring attacks there. The jihadists could easily be establishing themselves in the remote rural areas of northern Guinea, where the only "north-south" transportation infrastructure is a poorly maintained road. Here again, inter-communal discord exists but is significantly more structured politically. Celou Diallo, a respected voice for the large and politically well-integrated Fulani community, was the official and historic opponent first of Alpha Condé and then of Mamady Doumbouya, both from the Malinke community. Inter-community wounds remain raw, but it is still difficult to assess their potential for exploitation by jihadists.

While these realities related to ethnicity cannot and should not be applied as the sole analytical framework, it should not be forgotten that jihadists themselves instrumentalize weak or underlying tensions around identity. Combined with the instrumentalization of socio-economic marginalization, this is a recipe for sustained jihadist penetration of the social fabric. For this reason, the political authorities in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Guinea must take a leap of faith, come together and prevent a situation that has not yet gone out of control.

What can African and Western nations do to support these coastal countries?

The decision-makers in the coastal countries are first and foremost asking for military assistance. While the deployment of a foreign military force on the ground appears to be ruled out, there is strong demand for equipment and training. Westerners must respond to these requests in the best way possible, while also analyzing what went wrong in Mali. The European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) is highly criticized, and the real and substantial build-up of the Malian army's capacity by the French has not prevented multiple failures in the face of jihadists and human rights violations resulting from a form of "dirty war" promoted by structurally violent armies. If we are not vigilant, the training of coastal armies by Europeans could lead to the same mistakes.

Similarly, it is clear that equipment alone is not sufficient to ensure an effective military and political response. For example, the promises surrounding the Turkish TB2 drone must be dispelled. As explained here, these drones offer new and useful capabilities, but they are by no means the end-all-be-all of the military response. This is also true of possible European equipment that will certainly be necessary but that cannot replace the vital need for training and upgrading the national armies.

It is clear that equipment alone is not sufficient to ensure an effective military and political response.

These observations call for a rigorous definition of the missions and means assigned to various entities, as well as a healthy dose of self-criticism with regard to these missions and means. Think of the International Counter-Terrorism Academy, training-oriented French forces already deployed elsewhere (EFS in Senegal and EFG in Gabon), the Accra Initiative or the new military force proposed by ECOWAS. The risk is that we reproduce an institutional ecosystem that is not very clearly defined and not very operational while missing the sole objective: to enable the security forces to respond to the jihadist threat. The aim is for them to do so by moving away from the dangerous and counterproductive counterinsurgency approach or the blind repression of the opposition. This is a major challenge.

This cooperative effort presents difficult challenges. The pitfalls of the Sahel must be avoided while ensuring that state institutions can withstand the jihadist shock. The major risk is that a military approach is prioritized over a comprehensive plan that focuses primarily on the different fractures that jihadists can exploit. Prevention and resilience require a strong political will to include marginalized populations in both the political process and development efforts.

This issue is anything but a figment of the imagination. The majority of national and international budgets should be used, in priority, to strengthen national cohesion by focusing on inclusion. The jihadist shock can only be contained if citizens prefer to turn to the state for protection rather than to the jihadists. Policymakers need to be convinced of this and start identifying solutions to sources of tension now, whether it is regulating pastoralism, developing public infrastructure, bolstering the agricultural sector, sharing local and national governance, allocating resources to education and employment, managing national parks inclusively, reinforcing the justice system… The effects of these policies may appear out of step with the urgency of today's reality, but these actions must already be implemented in order to immunize the national population against the temptations of joining the jihadist movement, which is particularly persuasive and on the move. It is imperative not to underestimate this adversary.



Copyright image: Yanick Folly / AFP

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