In the north-east of Benin, a border under tension

Around the “triple point”, an area of ​​savannah and forests located at the convergence of the borders of Nigeria, Niger and Benin, tension has risen further

In the north-east of Benin, a border under tension

Around the “triple point”, an area of ​​savannah and forests located at the convergence of the borders of Nigeria, Niger and Benin, tension has risen further. In addition to the threats posed by armed bands controlling trafficking and those imposed by terrorist groups, there is the threat of an armed confrontation between Benin and Niger.

On Saturday September 9, Nigerien putschists, in power since July 26, accused France of “deploying its forces” in several West African countries with a view to preparing an intervention led by the Economic Community of African States West (Cedeao). Among the countries likely to participate in this offensive: Benin.

The Niamey putschists, who are holding President Mohamed Bazoum captive, have claimed since September 1 that “around forty armored vehicles” have been deployed “in Kandi and Malanville”, two towns in northern Benin. In the process, they unilaterally denounced a military cooperation agreement between the two countries. “Our partner is Niger. It’s not the junta,” replied Wilfried Houndbédji, Beninese government spokesperson.

These divisions between States in the sub-region, which put West Africa under tension, could undermine the coordination of the fight against terrorism and benefit the jihadist groups present in this area, primarily the Group of support for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the threat of which is already very strong.

“Securing our borders”

“We learned from our mistakes because, frankly, we were not prepared for this terrorist threat. Today, we are: our soldiers are seasoned and we have acquired a lot of equipment to secure our borders,” explains Colonel Faïzou Gomina, deputy chief of staff of the Beninese army, on the edge of the W park. , which owes its name to the meanders of the Niger River, and which extends over Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Twenty months ago, tourists came to discover elephants, giraffes and hippos but, for two years, the W has been closed. Only the military, who are trying to secure it from jihadist groups, can go there to patrol. From August 23 to 30, Le Monde was able to accompany the Beninese armed forces deployed as part of Operation Mirador in the north of the country, with 3,000 soldiers.

In this region, residents sometimes live in anxiety. There are recurring clashes between the army and jihadists, such as on March 29 in the village of Gougono where, during a patrol, fighting took place with members of Ansaru Al-Islam, a group which split with Boko Haram and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2022. Seven jihadists were killed. And sometimes there is terror, like on May 1, when two residents of Kaobagou were killed while handling the decapitated body of one of the village members: the remains had been trapped by a homemade bomb.

In the fields, hidden in the potholes of laterite tracks, explosive devices continue to claim victims. In February 2022, nine people were killed by improvised devices in W Park, including eight rangers employed by African Parks and a member of the Beninese armed forces. “People are stressed and live in fear,” explains André, a trader from Banikoara, on the edge of the W. The presence of the military reassures us but several villages around the park are threatened. »

Efforts that seem to be bearing fruit

“Insecurity weighs on us,” says a resident of Alfakoara, a town on the edge of the park. Before, we went inside to look for wood. As the park is closed, we have to go further and manage to find it elsewhere. » The ban on entering the reserve has also caused serious tensions between farmers and breeders, because certain transhumance corridors have been moved.

In a report published in 2021, the Dutch Clingendael Institute, which specializes in conflicts, criticized African Parks, a South African NGO which has managed the reserve since 2020, for its overly security-based approach likely to “result in serious discontent for the inside and outside the park" and to push residents to accept the terrorist organizations' offer of recruitment.

“We maintain dialogue so that terrorist groups do not exploit the frustration of these populations and enlist them,” assures Abdelaziz Bello, director of the W park. As they depend on natural resources, equitable distribution is necessary. We are making efforts to establish, for example, sustainable fishing and create permanent grazing areas so that no one feels forgotten. » Around the park, the authorities have also implemented civil-military actions, such as free medical consultations or the construction of wells.

All these efforts seem to be paying off. After a significant increase in attacks in 2022, the security situation appears to be improving in northeast Benin. “Since the military have been here, we have had peace,” says Oumarou Ilotchoka, king of Alfakoara, where the last attack occurred in February 2022. Today, we can go to the fields peacefully. »

French and American instructors

The authorities continue to strengthen the resources deployed. Today, 3,000 men are on the ground as part of Operation Mirador. Soon they will be joined by new recruits. Five thousand young people are currently in training, mainly to strengthen military surveillance in the north. On the equipment side, Benin has several helicopters, including a French-made Super Puma and a brand new H125 with thermal vision camera. The army has invested in detection equipment and night vision binoculars to spot bombers in the dark. The recruitment of deminers has also been accelerated.

Trained in Ouidah, in southern Benin, Corporal Noël Hounnou chose this specialty because he wanted to “do what no one dares to do”, after losing a friend in an explosion in 2022. In a few months, he has already defused around thirty explosive devices. “When faced with a mine, I pray before cutting the first wire. There I find myself alone, facing my destiny,” he explains.

From now on, Beninese forces are completing their training with the help of French and American instructors. On board the helicopters, we can already meet Colombian and Peruvian pilots and mechanics. “Their experience, acquired in particular in the fight against drug traffickers, is valuable,” explains General Abou Issa, Chief of Staff of the Army. As part of Operation Mirador, foreign forces provide logistical support and are involved in training. But it is only the Beninese soldiers who fight at the front. » Rwanda, already present in the Central African Republic and Mozambique, could also come to its aid: the country offered its services without specifying in which area it would operate.

“The Beninese army has made progress” in the fight against the jihadists, welcomes Colonel Gomina, deputy chief of staff of the Beninese army. Jihadist groups nevertheless reminded him that the task was arduous and long. On September 15, in Pendjari Park, located in the northwest of the country, two soldiers and a ranger were killed in an attack.