Violence has wracked much of inland West Africa for more than seven years. Now it’s spreading into the coastal states. The country of Benin is the hardest hit. Experts say consequences of extremist violence could reach far beyond the African continent.
It’s been more than a year since jihadis (those who fight for Islam) first stormed Igor Kassah’s town in northern Benin. But the priest still lives in fear. His once-peaceful life is now marked by threatening phone calls and Islamic extremist rants tacked on church doors. He even saw people killed in attacks.
Attacks by extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in Benin have spiked more than tenfold. Compared to the same period last year, the attacks rose from 2 to 25—more than any other coastal state in West Africa.
Kars de Bruijne is a researcher with Clingendael, a Dutch-based organization. He says Western powers like England and the United States should be concerned about the spillover of extremist violence into Benin. That’s because their economic interests could be threatened by violence there. He believes that the more places jihadis operate, the harder it will be to respond to problems—and the farther the violence will spread.
The violence in Benin is largely a result of what’s happening in neighboring Burkina Faso. Jihadi attacks there killed hundreds and displaced nearly two million people. At first, attacks were only along the border between eastern Burkina Faso and Benin. Now they are expanding.
Incidents have increased in populated areas around Benin’s national parks. Jihadis connected to al-Qaida pushed Benin’s military from the border. They created a security vacuum and are taking control of part of the country, according to a recent report by Clingendael.
Analysts say jihadi rebels also appear to be working from Niger to Togo. The extremists are trying to keep supply lines open, recruit people, and withstand pressure from anyone who tries to prevent their spread.
Benin’s government has invested millions to create new bases, fortify old ones, and recruit security forces since last year. Sadly, the government’s increased security results in human rights abuses. These include random arrests of people suspected of working with jihadis.
Meanwhile, communities in Benin say residents are being forced to accept a life they never thought they’d have to endure.
“We thought for a moment, perhaps because of a certain [innocence] . . . that [we] could escape the situation of threats, of near-daily attacks,” says Arnaud Houenou, an expert in national security. “But reality has set in.”
As Igor Kassah explains, “We no longer have a normal life.”
It is hard to understand why God allows people to cause such terrible hurt. But the Bible tells us that God is in control and will one day make everything right. Pray for those suffering in Benin.
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. — Proverbs 16:4
(A police officer and a soldier stop a motorcyclist at a checkpoint outside Porga, Benin. AP/Marco Simoncelli)