Posted on 09 May 2023
Violent extremist groups have been expanding from their primary bases in Mali and Burkina Faso towards the southern and coastal states of West Africa. One of the main corridors for this expansion has been the stretch of protected land comprising the W, Arly and Pendjari national parks. This area of connected natural reserves, which also contains several smaller semi-protected areas and hunting concessions, is referred to as the WAP complex.
Its location along multiple national borders (it straddles the borders of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso and runs close to those of Nigeria and Togo), the cover offered by its forests and savannah vegetation, and its relative isolation, have made it a critical operational space for the non-state armed groups feeding political instability in the Sahel.
This has been underscored by a sharp rise in violent attacks in the areas skirting the WAP complex in Benin, and to a lesser extent Togo, since late 2021, as the protected areas have become a vehicle for the region’s two main armed groups to extend their influence towards the coastal states. The most significant of these is Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) – an amalgamation of violent extremist groups, mainly from Mali, and ideologically affiliated to al-Qaeda. Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) is also active in the WAP complex, albeit to a much lesser extent.
While the primary appeal of the complex to JNIM (and ISSP) is as a refuge, combatants have also presented themselves as an alternative system of governance to its residents. In doing so, they have adapted to – and taken advantage of – the fact that many of those living in the complex depend on the illicit economy. This is properly characterized as illicit rather than informal, since obtaining basic supplies often involves goods crossing borders undeclared and untaxed.
In the coastal states – Benin, which contains a large part of the WAP complex ; Togo, whose north-eastern edge is a short distance from Pendjari Park; and Nigeria, whose north-western border is also close to the complex – goods are significantly cheaper due to a combination of port infrastructure and subsidies on key commodities such as fuel. However, residents in this area (where formal markets scarcely exist) largely consider many of the banned economic activities (such as smuggling fuel, consumer goods and hunting) as legitimate, as they supply vital items that could not be purchased by the overwhelming majority of the population through the more expensive formal markets.
Such price differentials have fostered a mature smuggling ecosystem. The WAP complex serves as a relatively safe route for small bands of smugglers, usually on motorbikes, compared to the main roads across the southern border of Burkina Faso, where the chances of encountering a state checkpoint are much higher. Meanwhile, the formal sector has always been largely absent. The net result is that the communities around the parks have gravitated towards smuggling, not only as a supplier because it is a profitable activity, but also as consumers, since it is the only way to access goods in many parts of the zone.
Smuggling is just one aspect of the local political economy that armed groups have exploited to assume authority over residents. Another is the area’s land politics, and its history of contestation over natural resources. Much as with the smuggling economy, JNIM has incorporated local aspirations to take advantage of the parks’ natural resources into their governance practice. They have also navigated, and sometimes capitalized on, local conflicts over access to land.
This report will focus predominantly on natural resource exploitation and how armed groups leverage local resources for governance purposes, rather than on land conflict or tensions between farming and herding communities.
In the WAP complex, rather than turning a profit, the principal aim of armed groups in engaging with illicit economies is to further their governance agenda. Evidence gathered so far suggests JNIM has largely resisted directly taxing the smuggled goods coming from coastal states into the WAP complex. Instead, financial contributions from residents are levied predominantly through zakat (an Islamic alms distribution system) or sometimes on livestock grazing. Both can be framed as a payment in exchange for a service, albeit with varying credibility. More broadly, JNIM’s offer to the local population is to allow them to practice illicit activities undisturbed, in exchange for accepting the group as a governing force. Thus, JNIM is primarily a facilitator of illicit economies and a profiteer second.
This is not to suggest that JNIM is a benevolent actor in the WAP complex, and the group regularly employs violence to coerce civilians. JNIM combatants go to significant and destructive lengths to ensure there is no contact between the residents they seek to govern and the state or other opposing forces. Violence tends to be directed against those they suspect of opposing them, as a means of stoking intercommunal conflict, or simply to inspire fear among residents and ensure obedience.