The recent Islamist attacks that left 136 civilians dead in Silhon, Burkina Faso, have put the West African subregion on tenterhooks.
Neighbouring countries, like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Togo, are becoming increasingly concerned about the threat posed by Islamist terrorist groups from the Sahel. Attacks by terrorists and extremist groups continue to worsen in Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger and have been cascading across the border to otherwise-stable coastal states like Ivory Coast.
Countries in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin region, have witnessed incessant attacks from violent Islamic extremists for years, with Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso being at the centre of these attacks.
It is estimated that more than 2,671 people lost their lives as a result of the violence, with thousands of people displaced from their homes between 2012 and the first quarter of this year.
In recent months, insurgents from the Islamic State-linked groups have struck targets in northern Ivory Coast.
On June 8, it was reported that a soldier was killed following an ambush in the northeast of the country, near the border with Burkina Faso. The attack, which took place in the village of Tongbo, was the fourth such incident this year and followed warnings from security experts that governments had been warned that the jihadist insurgency risked spreading southwards to countries on the Gulf of Guinea.
Countries like Benin and Togo have suffered intermittent incursions from their northern neighbour for close to half a decade. Last year, men armed with rifles and machetes were said to have attacked a police station in Benin near the border with the troubled Burkina Faso.
One policeman was killed and another wounded in the incident which took place in the village of Mekrou-Djimdjim. Gunmen also set fire to the building.
Observers have expressed growing fears that Islamic extremist groups could be extending their reach further south, as has happened in Nigeria, where Fulani herdsmen, believed to be originally from the Sahel, have unleashed a wave of violence across the country.
Speaking at an Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) summit in Accra on June 15, Ghana's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, warned that despite strong actions by member states, the region continues to witness increasing terrorist activity: ‘From the Sahel region through to the Lake Chad Basin, attacks from terrorists and violent extremists have morphed with banditry, kidnapping, farmer-herder dynamics and transnational organised crime, to leave a trail of death, destruction, despair and fear among our population.’
Although Ghana is viewed as an oasis of peace in a troubled region, reports point to the fact that its national security managers must ensure extra vigilance to see off any form of activity that could breach the peace currently prevailing.
Last week, a SITREP from the Upper East Regional Police Command to the national headquarters in Accra warned of the potential threat of jihadist attacks in the region, a situation that has caused fear and panic among residents in the region.
At the summit of Ecowas heads of state in Accra on June 15, President Akufo-Addo of Ghana called on member states to fund the fight against terrorism in the region.
Beyond the jihadist insurgency in the Sahel, the subregion is also confronted with the emerging threat of piracy and maritime destabilisation in the Gulf of Guinea, which is impacting negatively on trade.
Addressing delegates, President Akufo-Addo said: ‘These developments should reinforce our collective commitment to pursue and implement, with renewed vigour, the decisions taken at our Extraordinary Summit on terrorism on 14th September 2019.
‘This concerted effort, which must be a major issue and priority objective for the community, is the best way for us to address the security challenge.’
While the violence may be largely confined to the Sahel, Nigeria and northern Ivory Coast at the moment, Festus Kojo Aubyn, of the West African Network for Peace and Development (WANEP), believes the entire subregion could be at risk unless the jihadists are contained.
‘Ghana, Togo and Benin in particular are at high risk of terrorists attacks,’ he said. ‘The issues spurring on these attacks in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast are not so different from the issues in the coastal countries.’
West Africa faces a number of social challenges, which the terrorists have exploited to their advantage, including youth unemployment, anger over government corruption, and religious and ethnic tensions.
The reason for the insurgency is still a mystery. Almost nothing is known about their motivations and objectives.
The little that is known about the insurgents is thanks to the testimonies of those who survived attacks or escaped capture.
A local think-tank called OMR interviewed around 23 people, who fled from the hands of the terrorists.
They described the insurgents as local young people, but said there were also foreigners, mostly from East Africa, among their ranks.
The United States has recently designated the Tanzanian national Abu Yasir Hassan as the leader of ISIS in Mozambique.
However, in Mozambique this name is not well known. Insurgents have never been interviewed nor publicly revealed their motives or what they are hoping to achieve.
When the violence began in October 2017, the insurgents started attacking government buildings and police stations.
Later on, attacks spread to villages and towns close to the coast, killing innocent civilians and burning down their houses.
The government has since played down the seriousness of the attacks, saying that the situation is under control, and that the army and police were fully capable of extinguishing the insurgency. But after four years, the conflict has resulted in many deaths and a humanitarian tragedy.
In 2019, the conflict gained an international dimension. On one hand, the government of Mozambique sought help from private militia companies.
A Russian military company called Wagner Group with links to the Moscow regime intervened on the conflict but left the country with a number of casualties.
The government then turned to the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African company, which provided air support and military training for the Mozambique Security Forces. Their contract expired in April 2021.
Meanwhile, the local insurgents established ties with the international terrorist organisation the Islamic State. In the first attack following their collaboration with the Islamic State, they managed to seize the town of Mocimboa da Praia, killing and displacing the entire population.
The most significant attack carried out by insurgents, though, took place on March 24 this year when they attacked the town of Palma, in the Afungi Peninsula.
Afungi is home to the Liquified Natural Gas Project run by the French multinational energy company Total.
After a coordinated attack, the insurgents held the town for almost 10 days, leading to the suspension of activities and the evacuation of all the staff. Nearly 60,000 people lived in Palma before the attack, but the majority of the citizens have fled the area.
The government again underestimated the significance of the attack.
The president of Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, failed to address the issue for more than a week, and downplayed the attack as ‘not the biggest’ that the security forces have ever faced during the conflict.
After the attack on Palma, calls for foreign military intervention have increased. So far, the government in Maputo has accepted limited support in terms of training from the United States and Portugal.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent a technical team to Mozambique in order to draw up a plan for a regional engagement in the conflict. But Mozambique doesn’t seem interested in having foreign boots on its soil.
President Nyusi said that Mozambique is open to international support, but only Mozambicans will defend their sovereignty.
This approach will only drag out the conflict. The violence has already seen more than 700,000 people driven from their homes, and more than 1,300 people have lost their lives, according to ACLED, a non-governmental organisation that monitors global conflict.
Military intervention might crush the insurgency in Mozambique, but it will ultimately prove fruitless unless the social factors that trigged the conflict are addressed.
Although Cabo Delgado has the greatest mineral wealth of any province in the country, it’s the poorest province in Mozambique, with lots of unemployment among young people and a lack of economic opportunities.
Poverty is driving many people to the extremists.
Win the war on that, and the government will win the war in Cabo Delgado.
Tomás Queface is a Mozambican research and analyst who holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Development from the University of Sussex in the UK.