West Africa Fails to Stem Growing Jihadist Insurgency

Quietly last week, the West African state of Togo extended a state of emergency for another six months. The country had declared a three-month state of emergency in the northern region in June after jihadists attacked a military outpost, killing soldiers. That attack was the first inside Togo since jihadists attacks began in the wider region in the mid-2010s. More have followed in the weeks since.

Togo is now the latest West African country to suffer a deadly terror attack. What started as an insurgency in the countries of the Sahel, a belt of nations below the Sahara desert, has now spread, slowly but inexorably, south to the coastal countries, with militants attacking Ivory Coast and Benin.

It is an insurgency that shows no sign of abating and one that countries appear to be powerless to stop. The nimbleness of the militants, combined with the vast, barely-governed spaces and porous borders beyond the main cities, mean that governments are constantly on the defensive, unable to maintain security and unable to predict where the next attack will come from.

The spread of jihadists across the region is causing, and is caused by, political instability. All the countries of the Sahel have suffered from a convergence of crises for years: political upheaval, a lack of governance, food crises and climate change. Each exacerbates the other. As it spreads, it becomes harder for political solutions to be found.

But crucially, this instability is now stretching and even breaking apart the very political structures and alliances that were meant to offer a solution.

Just last month, France finally withdrew all its forces from Mali. French troops had been in Mali for nearly 10 years as part of Operation Barkhane, but after a military coup two years ago, relations between the countries deteriorated.

The deterioration was political, of course, but there was popular feeling behind it. Nationalist sentiment in many countries of the Sahel is rising, with the public feeling that their own governments can’t end the violence and outside governments are merely interfering. Memories of historical western and French interference remain strong.

So far, Mali is the only country to have ordered French forces out – but anti-French protests have taken place in every country of the Sahel, particularly Chad and Niger, where the thousands of French troops are now concentrated. Given deteriorating public support in France, Mali will not be the last of the Sahel countries to ask the French to leave.

How happy these publics will be with their own governments remains to be seen. Part of why the public accepted the 2020 Mali coup was because the previous government was seen as weak and unable to stop the violence. The same rationale was behind the coup in January of this year in neighboring Burkina Faso. Yet the rule of military leaders – or, as in Togo, long-running states of emergency – doesn’t appear to be ameliorating or ending the violence.

In their place, countries are looking for new political alliances. Mali has already welcomed the presence of Russian mercenaries – although the government insists they are mere army trainers. Last week, Benin admitted it was in talks with Rwanda – a country more than 3,000 kilometers away – for aid to stop the jihadists.

Taken together, the nimbleness of the insurgency and the uncertainty of political alliances contributes to a sense of drift, a sense that the countries are trying anything, piecemeal, just to end the violence. What is needed is a joined-up strategy, but in a region as vast as West Africa, there are simply too many places to hide. The militants can source weapons and materials in one country, gather in another, and plot attacks in a third.

Yet the same factors that have allowed the insurgency to spread also make the spread of the insurgency dangerous. The borders are long and porous, and more than half of the population of West Africa lives rurally. The instability and widespread hunger – across at least six countries of the region, millions are in need of help – means population movements. As the attacks get closer to the populated areas of the coast – and especially Nigeria, with a vast population of more than 200 million – the possibility for destabilizing population movements increases.

Against that backdrop, extending a state of emergency is more of a political sticking plaster over a grievous wound. But with few options, the countries of the region are simply bracing themselves for more attacks.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai