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Claude Borna, director of the Sèmè City Development Agency (Yanick Folly/AFP)
Claude Borna, director of the Sèmè City Development Agency (Yanick Folly/AFP)

Benin is set to open Sèmè One, a tech start-up incubator that is part of the larger Sèmè City, envisioned to be a high-tech regional innovation center. Located near the Nigerian border in the commune of Sèmè-Kpodji, this “smart city” was announced two years ago by President Patrice Talon as part of the Revealing Benin development program. The Beninese government aims to turn the country into a West African hub for advanced technology, akin to Paul Kagame’s efforts in Rwanda to transform the capital Kigali into the “Singapore of Africa.”

Planned to be fully operational by 2030, Sèmè City will welcome students and entrepreneurs from across West Africa, who will have access to research centers and laboratories.

Responding to COVID-19, twenty-nine-year-old Donald Tchaou and five friends approached the Sèmè City Development Agency with an idea to develop a mobile app to enforce social distancing and help with contact tracing. Not only were they given access to Sèmè City’s resources, but they also benefited from personalized coaching throughout the development process.

Sèmè City’s director is Claude Borna, a Beninese native who obtained degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and McGill University, and worked for Deloitte and Amazon, among other corporate groups, before returning to Benin in 2016.

 

Beninese president Patrice Talon has become increasingly autocratic since his election in 2016. (Yanick Folly/AFP)
Beninese president Patrice Talon (Yanick Folly/AFP)

Online news media in Benin have been subjected to a vague federal decree since the beginning of July that demands all “online media must suspend all publication under penalty of being subjected to the force of law.” The media release was published by the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC), one of seven ostensibly independent institutions formed under the 1990 constitution.

During a media conference, a spokesperson for HAAC claimed to have noted “an all-out creation of online media without prior authorization,” but there was no more clarity on the scope of the new ban.

Since President Patrice Talon was elected in 2016, the Media Foundation for West Africa has recorded fourteen violations of press freedoms and freedom of expression. Several of these instances involved HAAC suspending outlets, sometimes for an indefinite period, as punishment for publishing material deemed to be an attack on the president or for publishing “false information” in the form of articles commenting on the declining state of the economy.

 

“Beninese media are now paying for bureaucratic sluggishness”

 

In an effort to avoid running afoul of the law, some Beninese news sites, such as Banouto, have complied with the HAAC’s decree and are thus now stuck in limbo as they await the HAAC’s next step. In the process, they are missing out on potential stories and reneging on commitments.

Communications expert Léon Anjorin Koboubé told Agence France-Presse that online Beninese media are now “paying for bureaucratic sluggishness” and that this latest ban is “a way to kill local initiatives.”

Press freedom organizations in Benin argue that the HAAC is simply carrying out a continual pattern of press intimidation, based on a law passed in 2018 that criminalized online misdemeanors, including the spreading of “false information.” It is one of the reasons Reporters Without Borders ranked Benin at 113 on its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, down from 96 the year before.

 

Patrice Talon, the President of Benin during a conference co-organized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on sustainable development and debt at the Abdou Diouf de Diamniadio conference centre in Diamniadio, on December 2, 2019.  SEYLLOU / AFP
Beninese president Patrice Talon, photographed during a conference on sustainable development and debt in Diamniadio, Senegal, on December 2, 2019. (Seyllou/AFP)

About fifteen members of the Beninese military were arrested during the night of June 25–26 on suspicion of attempting a coup d’état, Jeune Afrique reports. The details of the incident have not been made public yet, but the suspects were arrested and brought before the Court for the Suppression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism. Among the accused is the cabinet director for the Ministry of Defense, Colonel Montan Kérékou, who previously served as the bodyguard of former president Mathieu Kérékou’s son.

This would be the second mass arrest made this year in connection with a destabilization effort. In mid-February, twenty people, including ten soldiers, were arrested in Cotonou as part of an investigation into an alleged attempt to destabilize the country.

 

These are the first significant arrests made by the newly created National Guard

 

President Patrice Talon characterized the alleged coup attempt as an effort by various political forces to frustrate his efforts to “modernize, “clean up,” and “reform the totality of the state body.” But it can also be seen as an expression of discontent with the current government—in the April 2019 legislative elections, opposition parties were banned from taking part. Only two blocs, both loyal to Talon, participated in the elections, which has given him total control of the assembly.

What makes this latest action remarkable is that it is the first significant arrests made by the newly created National Guard, proposed in January 2020 and approved by the Beninese legislature on June 23. The National Guard functions as the fourth branch of the Beninese military alongside the army, air force, and navy.

 

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French soldiers confiscate a motorcycle found in a forest in northern Burkina Faso where jihadists have established themselves on November 9, 2019, during Operation Bourgou IV. The soldiers are deployed to Operation Barkhane in support of the G5 Sahel countries’ fight against armed jihadist groups. (AFP)

Last month, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire jointly conducted Operation Comoé along their borders. They captured thirty-eight suspected terrorists, killed eight, and dismantled training camps. The operation reflects growing concern in these and other West African coastal states about a spillover of violent extremism and the need to prevent attacks from being staged in their territories.

But the spread of attacks isn’t the only problem terrorism brings, and these operations shouldn’t be the only way countries address it. They need to also focus on the factors that allow these groups to function. Extremists are increasingly tapping into a terrorist economy, using Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo as sources or transit zones of funding and logistics.

 

Motorcycles are valuable to extremists because of their robustness and mobility through difficult terrain

 

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research shows that livestock stolen in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger is sold in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana at below-market prices. The profits are ploughed back through the networks of accomplice dealers. Various accounts point to terrorists being among the armed groups funded by this illicit trade. They use the income to buy arms, fuel, motorcycles, and food.

Motorcycles are valuable to extremists because of their robustness and mobility through difficult terrain. They are also easy to maintain, light on fuel, and can carry more than one person for combat and combat support operations.

 

Sahel Terrorists Draw Supplies from across West Africa
The terrorist economy affects West Africa’s coastal states.

 

Many motorcycles found in Niger’s Tillabéry region are trafficked from Nigeria through the Togolese border town of Cinkassé and Burkina Faso’s Boucle du Mouhoun Region. Some are also trafficked from Togo to Burkina Faso, and a few are trafficked further to Niger.

Both Tillabéry and Boucle du Mouhoun are hot spots for violent extremism. Although groups may not be directly involved in trafficking, they gain access to goods through vendors or criminal entrepreneurs who organize their procurement.

Evidence is also emerging of extremists sourcing materials to make explosives from Ghana. Ghanaian officials say fertilizer, a key ingredient for improvised explosive devices, is smuggled in sizable quantities to Burkina Faso. Police frequently arrest smugglers and seize consignments in northern border towns such as Hamile, Kulungugu, and Namori.

In July 2019, Upper West Region minister Dr. Hafiz Bin Salih said Ghana had lost US$12 million to fertilizer smuggling from Ghana to neighboring countries the previous year. Although terrorist groups may not be directly involved in the smuggling, an apparent rise in availability of the material in Burkina Faso means increased access and affordability.

Also, a 2018 counter-terrorism operation in Ouagadougou’s Rayongo neighborhood led to the seizure of an electric cord for making improvised explosive devices which was traced to northern Ghana. This suggests the involvement of trafficking networks from Ghana’s north where artisanal and small-scale mining is a long-standing economic activity.

Interviewees told the ISS that the northern Ghanaian town of Dollar Power has many West African illegal miners, including Ivorian former rebels and Burkinabe nationals, and is known for armed robbery. In eastern Burkina Faso, gold from some mining sites controlled by violent extremist groups is purchased by buyers from Benin and Togo. This may be providing valuable funding to terror groups, although the scale is unclear.

Leaders of coastal states are preoccupied with preventing a southward spread of attacks. This informed the February 2017 meeting of the presidents of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo in Accra. They had called for an extraordinary Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit on terrorism, and launched the Accra Initiative in September that year.

Attacks in southern Burkina Faso, close to the borders with Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo, have deepened concerns among counter-terrorism officials. At an ECOWAS extraordinary session held on September 14, 2019, in Ouagadougou, leaders also decried the spread of terrorism in the region, although there was no specific reference to coastal states.

 

Extremists use Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo as sources or transit zones for funding and logistics

 

Burkinabe officials have often alerted their coastal counterparts to suspected extremists crossing into their northern territories to avoid arrest. Such alerts followed the March 2019 Otapuana operation in southern Burkina Faso. In Ghana, extremists hide or rest in the north, counter-terrorism officials told the ISS, a situation that elicits complaints from Burkina Faso about the country’s commitment to countering terrorism.

Coastal states acknowledge the importance of addressing the root causes of violent extremism, including governance and developmental deficits. Extremists could exploit the lack of basic services, such as roads, health and education facilities, and socio-economic opportunities, to penetrate and implant themselves in communities. The 2020–2024 ECOWAS Priority Action Plan outlines steps to tackle these shortcomings.

But capacity to address the vulnerabilities that enable terror groups to source and move funds and logistics remains limited. These vulnerabilities include weak border surveillance and security; porous borders; and strong communal, family, and socio-economic ties. The content of cross-border trade transactions is largely untracked, as border officials do not have sufficient capacity and the necessary technology.

To prevent violent extremism, the various dimensions of the problem must be understood, particularly terrorists’ covert dealings. This will enable officials to strike a much-needed balance between counter-terrorism operations and breaking the funding and logistics supply chains used by violent extremists.

 

Border officials lack the capacity and technology to track cross-border trade transactions

 

West Africa’s coastal states must also address the weaknesses that allow these groups to operate. Capacity is needed to track trade consignments between countries, beef up border control and surveillance, enhance intelligence gathering and analysis, and garner the support of people living in border areas. This could help identify extremists who may be exploiting cross-border ties.

The disruption of supply chains could set the stage for more terrorist attacks. Violence could be used to protect hideouts, secure supply routes, or attack border posts that extremists believe are impediments to their supply of materials. This means that, to avoid generating community resentment, strategies aimed at disruption must be balanced with preserving the livelihoods of individuals and communities who rely on cross-border trade.

 

Sampson Kwarkye is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ regional office for West Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin.

This article was originally published by ISS Today.

 

River in the Pendjari National Park in the dry-season
A river in Pendjari National Park, Benin, in the dry season. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Beninese government has taken great strides in its goal of expanding access to drinking water to about 4.5 million people living in rural areas. The authorities recently created the National Rural Drinking Water Supply Agency, and on May 20 the cabinet approved the signing of agreements between the agency and the country’s seventy-seven municipalities.

The federal government has set the goal for itself of achieving universal access to clean water by 2021, nine years before the deadline set by the United Nations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Among others, the authorities say six projects are in progress in rural areas, including the sinking of about 200 boreholes, that are expected to benefit more than 220,000 people.

 

Benin has demonstrated some of the more effective water management programs in West Africa

 

Despite regional disparities in terms of access to potable water and a noticeable urban-rural divide, Benin has demonstrated some of the more effective water management programs in West Africa. A 2011 country status overview report from the African Ministers’ Council on Water found that Benin would reach 73 percent total coverage by 2015 (which it ultimately exceeded back in 2012), a marked improvement from 51 percent at the end of 2008.

Whereas access to drinking water has greatly improved, Benin still lags behind in ensuring sanitation services for all its people, which will require greater financial investment from the government and international donors to reach the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

 

 

Students walk towards the General Education College (CEG) in Godomey, as school resumes on May 11, 2020. Schools in Benin reopened on Monday, with strict instructions on distance, hygiene and distribution of masks, after several weeks of closure to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Students walk toward the General Education College (CEG) in Godomey, as school resumes on May 11, 2020. Schools in Benin reopened on Monday, with strict instructions on distance, hygiene and distribution of masks, after several weeks of closure to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

 

Benin’s decision to reopen schools after six weeks of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made the small West African country the only one on the African continent to do so. Except for nursery schools and universities, all educational establishments have reopened, and the government has said they would be providing hand sanitizers, masks, and viral screenings for learners.

 

The demonstration led to the death of one protestor.

 

In March, students at the University of Abomey-Calavi demanded the closure of the university during the pandemic. Police arrested three students trying to empty lecture theaters, and there was a confrontation following a demonstration to demand their release that led to the death of one protestor.

Parents remain cautious about the reopening, and many want to verify that proactive measures have been taken. Despite government promises of providing personal protective equipment like masks for free, several students reported having to procure their own for the first day of resumed classes, and some didn’t have a mask.

 

European Learners are Also Returning to School

Benin joins countries like Denmark, Germany, Israel, and the Netherlands in resuming schooling for some of its learners. There is limited research, but a recent survey of the literature couldn’t find an example of a child under ten passing the SARS-CoV-2 virus on to others, and studies show children are less likely than adults to get infected. Skeptics have argued that the data available are not statistically significant, and urge governments to be cautious about allowing young children to gather in crowds until more research has been conducted.

Despite these warnings, a handful of other African countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Guinea, are expected to open up schools over the next few weeks.

 

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