The conditions of the offensive have not yet been formally established, but, according to several sources, armed men attacked a Beninese army post located on the outskirts of the Pendjari Park. An initial report showed two dead and two injured among the security forces. An attack – the first around Pendjari in four months – which illustrates the threat hovering over northern Benin.

Since 2021, after several offensives carried out by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM, JNIM in Arabic), a jihadist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the northern part of the country, following an arc of a circle going from the departments of Atacora to Borgou via Alibori, is classified as a “military zone”. Neither tourists nor journalists can go there. But, exceptionally, from August 23 to 30, Le Monde and several other media were able to follow the Beninese armed forces in Operation Mirador.

Deployed to secure the borders, it has 3,000 soldiers. Soldiers who must no longer, today, protect their country against incursions by armed terrorist groups, but also deal with the junta which took power in Niamey on July 26. Nigerien officers accuse Benin of preparing to participate in a possible military offensive by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on its northeast border. Enough to complicate the response to terrorist movements.

A very present threat

Several advanced posts of the Beninese army are located along the Burkinabe border, including the Pendjari Lodge, located inside the park. “The border strip with Burkina Faso constitutes an area where the threat from armed groups is very present,” explains Captain Dieudonné Salifou, commander of the Pendjari combined arms subgroup, closed to tourists in 2022. The lodge is permanently occupied by a detachment. This is one of the strategic sectors of our action. »

In the park, the largest protected ecosystem in West Africa, rangers from African Parks, a South African NGO managing the site since 2020, and the Beninese military are now patrolling day and night. It is in this territory the size of Belgium that two French tourists were kidnapped in May 2019 before being released during a French military operation during which two soldiers from the Hubert commando were killed. Fiacre Gbédji, the tourist guide, was murdered.

At the end of 2021, the GSIM, present on a wide strip of around twenty kilometers beyond the Pendjari River, the natural border between Benin and Burkina Faso, increased the number of incursions into Beninese territory, seeking to extend its influence towards the Gulf of Guinea, as in Togo and Ivory Coast. According to the Beninese authorities, around twenty attacks have been recorded since. They caused the deaths of 43 civilians and 25 soldiers.

By helicopter, it takes around twenty minutes to reach the Arly outpost, in the far north, from Lodge Pendjari. The river, which can be seen through the tall grass, is a few hundred meters away. It is here that, on the night of December 2, 2021, around twenty attackers from Burkina Faso crossed the river and opened fire. The facade of the building, which still bears the impacts of Kalashnikovs and shots from 12.7 mm heavy machine guns, attests to the violence of the fighting.

Since then, this “gateway” to the nature reserve has been strengthened. At all costs, we must now maintain this position even if, in the heart of the bush, in an area infested with mosquitoes and snakes, the conditions are harsh.

“As we are in the rainy season, supplies of food and medicine can only be done by helicopter,” explains Colonel Raoufou Assouma, commander of the joint tactical group in the western zone of Operation Mirador. Sentinels stay here for weeks, cut off from their families. We have dug trenches around the post so that we can move around if there is shooting. But our mission is not to wait for the threat to arrive, we must go and flush it out and neutralize it where it is. This is why we carry out patrols and set up ambushes in all directions from here… There have been no skirmishes recently, but our presence is essential in order not to leave any square meter of the territory to the ‘enemy. »

Further west, in the Dassari region where the September 15 attack occurred, a sector was in the hands of the jihadists. GSIM fighters occupied the “neutral zone,” located between Benin and Burkina Faso, which is less than three kilometers from the Beninese town of Porga, in the Atacora department. Nestled in a bend in the river, this 68 km² pocket is the subject of a border dispute between the two countries.

Gradually, the GSIM took over the area

In May 2009, Benin and Burkina Faso turned to the International Court of Justice (ICC) to resolve their dispute. While awaiting the verdict, they signed the Pama agreements so that the village of Koualou (so called on the Burkinabé side) or Kourou (Benin side) is considered neutral: no flag can be erected there and security patrols must be carried out. jointly.

However, “to deal with terrorist attacks in their country, the Burkina defense forces have disengaged their troops near this border,” explains Colonel Faïzou Gomina, deputy chief of staff of the Beninese army. Terrorists and traffickers took advantage of this to occupy it. Most of the attacks we had on our territory came from this pocket. »

Armed bands that everyone calls “bandits” are also present in Kourou-Koualou. “The city is located on an important axis used by fuel trafficking with Nigeria, where gasoline can be bought much cheaper than in neighboring countries,” analyzes Global Initiative, an NGO that works on international organized crime, in a report entitled “A Reserve of Resources – Armed Groups and Conflicts in the National Parks of Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger”, published in May 2023. Investigations into a major fuel smuggling ring revealed that the Fuel was transported from Nigeria to Benin then stored in the village of Koualou. »

Gradually, the GSIM took over the area. “They forced the villagers to attend their meetings during which they imposed their rule,” remembers Kouagou Moro, farmer and village chief of Kourou-Koualou. In addition to closing the school, they banned the breeding of pigs, the consumption of alcohol… On the night of December 1 to 2, 2021, the military post in the Beninese town of Porga was attacked: two soldiers were killed and around ten others injured.

Even though the border dispute is not resolved, a diplomatic solution has been found. On February 16 in Ouagadougou, as part of an official visit, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, head of the Burkinabé junta, and Patrice Talon, President of Benin, accepted that Benin establishes a base in Kourou-Koualou. A few days later, the pocket came under the control of the Beninese armed forces. But the incursions from Burkina Faso have not stopped. The September 15 attack tends to prove that the area remains unstable.

“As we speak, things are getting better, but we must remain cautious,” declared Pierre Wandja Yani, a resident, at the end of August. “Since the soldiers have been there, the few people who had fled the area have returned,” assured Kouagou Moro. We have cultivated a little this year, but we can no longer go too far from our homes because of the mines that have been laid. They have already killed three times. I hope the school can reopen soon. »