Benin’s militant problem may worsen after last month’s election

A vendor displays her wares along a road in Cotonou on April 14, as business resumes after incumbent Patrice Talon was declared the winner of Benin’s presidential election. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
A vendor displays her wares along a road in Cotonou on April 14, as business resumes after incumbent Patrice Talon was declared the winner of Benin’s presidential election. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 11, cotton magnate and incumbent President Patrice Talon won reelection to a second term in Benin. With more than 86 percent of the vote, Talon easily defeated his two lesser-known opponents, Alassane Soumanou and Corentin Kohoue.

Benin’s scattered opposition parties criticized Talon for rewriting election regulations and co-opting the country’s courts to stack the odds in his favor. Talon’s actions are likely to further reduce trust between the public and government officials at a time when cooperation between them is essential for addressing security threats at Benin’s borders.

Talon eliminated the competition

To many, the most remarkable aspect of last month’s election was how much Benin’s politics changed during a single presidential term. In 2016, many in Africa and abroad saw this small West African country of 12 million people as a democratic success story. A record 33 candidates freely entered the first round of 2016’s presidential elections, and the two rounds of voting concluded peacefully with the runner-up conceding to Talon.

That didn’t happen in 2021: The government effectively disqualified 17 of the 20 would-be presidential candidates. This led to violent protests and an opposition boycott of the election. Protesters blocked major roads to central and northern Benin, delaying the delivery of election materials to the north. On election day, a coalition of more than 1,400 Beninese election observers reported witnessing officials tampering with ballot boxes, obstruction of election observers and intimidation of voters.

So far, the international and regional reactions have been muted. The U.S. government expressed “concern” about competitiveness in Benin’s elections and the arrests of opposition political figures.

Benin faces militants near its borders

Benin’s contentious election coincides with rising threats from extremist and criminal groups in neighboring Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. North of Benin, groups linked to al-Qaeda and groups that pledged loyalty to the Islamic State stage attacks not far from the border with Burkina Faso. To Benin’s northeast, networks of bandits and kidnappers operate in northwestern Nigeria, where the expansion of Boko Haram remains a threat.

Talon’s response to regional security threats has centered on cross-border military cooperation. Benin participates in multilateral initiatives like the Multinational Joint Task Force with Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, and in joint initiatives with neighbors. But despite the years of fighting, regional counterterrorism operations leave the people of Benin — and particularly northern Benin — no less exposed.

Talon’s government created new domestic institutions for countering extremism, such as the High Level Committee for the Fight Against Terrorism and Insecurity at Borders. But Talon then used those institutions, including Benin’s Court for the Suppression of Economic Crimes and Terrorism, to target high-profile political opponents before the 2021 election. This undermines the court’s ability to do its job and threatens the legitimacy of Benin’s counterterrorism institutions more broadly.

Experts have advocated for greater investment in educating targeted communities about extremist recruitment tactics and extending governmental services to these communities. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, special representative and head of the U.N. Office for West Africa and the Sahel, told the U.N. Security Council in January that West African governments need to address the roots of exclusion for historically marginalized groups — a critical step to gain greater willingness in these communities to cooperate with the government against extremists.

Cooperation is especially important in Benin’s northern border regions, where government services are patchy. Like its neighbors, Benin’s government invests fewer resources in the less prosperous northern and central regions than it does near the coast.

Underinvestment combined with increasing anger toward the Talon administration around this election may increase the vulnerability of marginalized communities. In neighboring Burkina Faso, groups such as Ansaroul Islam exploit feelings of injustice and resentment toward the government to radicalize people.

Parts of the north and center of Benin are also considered strongholds of Talon’s rival, former president Thomas Boni Yayi. Talon’s decision to place Boni Yayi under house arrest for part of 2019 did not endear him to communities in these regions.

In nationwide surveys conducted by Afrobarometer in 2017 and 2020, responses about trust in Talon were fairly stable. These surveys showed 48 and 44.6 percent of respondents had only a bit of trust or no trust in the president in 2017 and 2020, respectively. Furthermore, survey data indicate that from 2005 to 2017, about half of Beninese citizens were satisfied with their democracy.

After the recent elections, trust in the government may be in shorter supply. Experts point out that misrule and loss of trust in government caused some frustrated citizens to support coups in Mali in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2014, presaging increased violence in both countries. In general, researchers find that when low-quality elections increase mistrust in government, the risk of civil conflict increases.

Benin’s security matters for the rest of West Africa

Regardless of whether extremist groups increase their recruitment in northern Benin, the country is already integrated economically with terrorist networks. Criminal organizations working across the Nigerian-Beninese border trade weapons and smuggle people, drugs and fuel, at times engaging with Islamist groups. Selling stolen livestock and gold in Benin provides income for extremists, and some smugglers have forged ties with al-Qaeda offshoots in the Sahel.

Talon’s progress on this issue has been slow. Clamping down on smugglers provokes violence and is politically costly given the number of government officials implicated.

The reverberations of Benin’s national politics through border regions no doubt are of concern to its West African neighbors. Senior officials from West Africa’s regional organization, the Economic Community of West African States, reportedly predicted that Benin would see more attacks in its northern towns as Islamist groups move south toward the coast.

Benin’s security forces and judicial institutions at the moment appear focused on prosecuting Talon’s opponents, diverting some attention from extremist groups. While many worry about the erosion of democracy, Talon’s authoritarian turn also creates new regional security concerns. As Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari recently said in a meeting with Talon, “The survival of your neighbor is also your own.”

Christina Cottiero is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California at San Diego and a Dissertation Fellow with the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

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