An attack on police in the far north of Benin has spurred fears that a country struggling with political problems is now at threat from jihadism sweeping down from the Sahel.
The authorities have distanced the incident from the Islamist violence unfolding north of Benin, saying the attack appears to have been carried out by poachers.
Half a dozen armed men arrived on motorbikes and opened fire on a police post in the remote village of Keremou in the early hours of Sunday.
The attack — in which one officer was killed when a building was set alight — was the first to target security forces in Benin’s border region.
A police report seen by AFP said the assailants shouted the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) commonly used by Islamists.
Government spokesman Alain Orounla said on Wednesday the authorities “are confident… that this is an isolated incident that will not happen again and that has nothing to do with the threats coming from that other phenomenon plaguing the region.”
– Tourist kidnapping –
While officials were keen to draw a line under the attack, the threat of violence connected with the north has already reared its head in the frontier area.
In May 2019, two French tourists were abducted and their guide killed during a visit to the Pendjari national park.
They were eventually rescued by French special forces in the north of Burkina Faso after the kidnappers sold them on to jihadists.
The incident shone a spotlight on the fine line separating criminal gangs from Islamists in a neglected region where security is sketchy.
Security sources and analysts of the Sahel say that Benin and neighbouring Togo have become vulnerable to jihadist groups which have proliferated in countries to their north.
“For now we cannot say that the attack in Keremou was planned and executed by terrorists but this does not mean we should overlook the threat,” said Oswald Padonou, from the Benin Association for Strategic and Security Studies.
Padanou cautioned against being “alarmist” but said was concerned by the possibility of jihadist “incursions” into Benin and the development of extremist cells inside the country.
The authorities have sought to bolster their strength in the north and when the latest attack happened were already sending 130 troops to the patrol close to Pendjari.
– ‘Lapping against the edges’ –
Benin has traditionally been viewed as a haven of stability in West Africa but the country has been mired in political crisis since disputed elections last April.
Like much of the Sahel to the north the border region is deeply impoverished and often overlooked by the government based in the south of the country.
The hilly territory has long offered sanctuary for illegal activities like poaching or unsanctioned logging.
Analysts warned that Islamist groups were adept at playing on domestic tensions and working with criminal groups to spread their tentacles into new areas.
“Jihadist movements are lapping against the edges of the Sahel,” Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group, told AFP.
He said Islamists can look to merge with criminal gangs such as poachers already on the ground to take advantage of their local know-how and make inroads into the country.
“If there is no political offer to absorb discontent then that leaves the radical option that can attract youths who are marginalised and involved in criminality,” he said.