Clingendael : The Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ is a think tank and diplomatic academy on international affairs. The Conflict Research Unit (CRU) is a specialized team within the Institute, conducting applied, policy-oriented research and developing practical tools that assist national and multilateral governmental and non-governmental organizations in their engagements in fragile and conflict-affected situations.
Peter Knoope is a career diplomat who was inter alia Head of Mission to Afghanistan and headed the Humanitarian Aid section at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently he is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, where he was the Director from its inception until August 2014.
Grégory Chauzal is a Senior Research Fellow at our Research department, where he specializes on security and terrorism issues, with a special emphasis on the Maghreb-Sahel and the Middle East.
Link to the full report here.
This report is based on a series of interview between the authors and key political, social, and religious leaders throughout Ghana and Benin that were conducted in the fall of 2015. While several countries in the WATHI zone have experienced political violence as a cause of radicalization, others have not. This report looks at two countries that have been relatively free and safe, identifies why those countries have so far been spared and what are the possible threats that might lead to violence.
We have selected this reading because there are very few field-based reports on religious trends, relations between religion, society and politics in countries like Benin and Ghana, which have been spared by conflicts and crises in West Africa. For WATHI, the question of the influence of religions on the evolution of society, politics and security in West Africa is one the crucial issue that individual countries and the region have to look at carefully if they want to secure a peaceful future.
As explained in this field-based report, violent extremism has not yet reached Benin but all of the ingredients required to create violent clashes at one point are already there. This report offers a number of recommendations, which appear both sensible and realistic. We identify particularly the following ones as deserving immediate attention from policy makers in Benin and other countries of the region, which are clearly exposed to risk of violent extremism:
- A Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) action plan should be developed at a national level. This CVE plan needs to include youth groups, key urban leaders, traditional, and religious leaders. The plan will lead to a deeper trust between state and non-state actors, allowing the government to be better informed about existing frustrations and from traditional groups to receive the value of being allied with the government.
- Societal actors need to be mobilized to create a space for the new generation to step into relevant leadership positions. Political parties and associations need to create space for new cohorts and to hold them accountable.
- Development of the peripheral regions and giving the state a more visible presence in remote areas. By creating new opportunities, state authorities would significantly reduce the attractiveness of organizations that try to win hearts and minds through alternative service delivery systems and the creation of parallel societies.
- Qualitative investment in border-control efforts and regional dialogues (at bilateral and multi-lateral levels) to improve intelligence-sharing on population flows.
Excerpts below are taken from the following pages: 2, 17, 19, 20-23, 25-28, 33-35.
Excerpts might have been modified by WATHI, footnotes have been deleted. Please refer to the original document for quotations and academic research.
Crises in the Sahel (from Mali to southern Tunisia and Libya) and the regionalization of Boko Haram’s activities as fas [sic] as the Lake Chad basin (Niger, Cameroon and Chad) are some of today’s worrying signals related to West African stability.
New religious “ideologies” (Christian evangelism and/or Sunni revivalism), mixed with economic frustrations, have deeply impacted the traditional balance and make long‑term stability a challenge for most of the countries in the region, from Mali to the Horn of Africa. The report explores the specific ways the Ghanaian and Beninese actors are dealing with politics, identity and societal stress. It also identifies the influence of external actors, from both the region and beyond, and potential spill over of nearby conflicts.
The report comes to the conclusion that several issues, like border porosity, absence of a regional strategic approach to counter terrorism, youth frustration towards the elder’s political and economic monopoly, rural and urban disparities and rampant illiteracy are some of the regional aggravating factors that are conducive to the spread of extremist ideology and dividing behaviours. This report can be considered as an early warning. What is urgently needed is early action.
Pre- and Post-Colonial Remnants
A small ruling class takes the political decisions and dominates the realities of governance. By extension, this elite also controls the distributive circuits and the most lucrative economic sectors. Many members of this ruling elite were educated in European educational institutions, especially in France, and share the same background. They have developed a close proximity and know each other quite well. ‘We know where to find one another when decisions need to be taken or a crisis needs to be solved’ is an expression that is often and openly used by members of the ruling class in Benin. This small group of elites runs the country like a private company, with high concern for the protection of their own interests.
Still, there are also some striking typically ‘Beninois’ characteristics. One of the most important is that, more than in other African countries, the local or indigenous religions were preserved and openly mixed with the imported Islamic and Christian teachings and, more importantly, practices. Another typical characteristic of Benin is the high level of mistrust among individuals.
The Political Field of Benin
Benin’s present-day political landscape is scattered. There are many (over 200) different political parties. The Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (Forces Cauris pour un Bénin Emergent in French, or FCBE), which is the current presidential coalition, gathers more than 100 different parties. Together with the Democratic Renewal Party (Parti du renouveau démocratique, or PRD), which is led by the president of the National Assembly and the Union Makes the Nation party (L’Union fait la Nation, or UN), they occupy most of the public space. Like in other West African countries, politics in Benin is based on personal interests (‘mailbox political parties’) and is about patronage and serving clients, predominantly from the politician’s native region.
Since Benin’s society is strongly organized along religious affiliations, religious leaders seek to extend their political influence on different levels. Ties with political parties and ministers are strong, and church leaders belong to the small elite group that runs the country.
Historically, the influence of the classic Christian churches has been strong, but was always associated with colonialism. Some of this has changed with the conversion of Benin’s present president to Evangelical Protestantism. This fact has further extended the influence of the newcomer, the Evangelic church, at the highest level of government. Benin’s Ministry of the Interior and all of the presidential advisors are Evangelists, a fact that has impacted the relations between different societal actors and the balance of power in Cotonou and Porto-Novo. The classic, traditional elite is confronted with reduced access to a number of high-ranking politicians…
It is important to note that the Evangelical churches have strong backing from private sources, especially in the United States, and that they represent a new player/power in sub-Saharan Africa…
It is equally important to note that, traditionally, the influence of imams in national politics is, and always has been, limited. Islam was a power in the north, influenced by Arabs, and had its own dynamics and constituency, with little relevance in the high politics of Benin’s coastal areas…
Islam is tolerated in Benin, but is not integrated into the national political landscape. With only one Muslim national political leader – Abdoulaye Bio Tchané from the L’alliance Avenir pour un Bénin triomphant (ABT political alliance) – Benin remains largely Christian-dominated. Combined with growing (and sometimes destabilizing) foreign interference on both the Christian and Muslim sides, and parallel to the increasingly intolerant religious discourse in Benin, this low visibility by Muslims may lead to tensions in the future (because of resentment at their marginalization, and political or economic frustration).
The North-South Equation in Benin
Like in Ghana, there is a strong, or at least perceived, ‘north–south’ divide in Benin. The north of Benin continues to be poor and less developed, where the south holds the economic power. Colonial penetration from the coasts led to north–south ‘development’ disparities. Because of southern divisions (especially Abomey, Porto-Novo and Mono), politicians often originate from the northern part of the country. This operative equilibrium between the north (holding political power) and the south (which has social and economic influence) has so far succeeded in fostering national unity and in preserving peaceful relationships among Benin’s communities.
Although there is a claim that relations among Benin’s religions can be described as ‘tolerant’, much of this tolerance disappears with a slight scratch of a nail. There is an anti-Islamic discourse present in different Christian churches and sermons, on both the Catholic and Evangelist sides. Muslim interviewees in Cotonou, for instance, referred to some pastors’ interdiction not to eat meat from the Muslim feast of sacrifice (Tabaski), because eating Tabaski meat would hold the risk of becoming poor.
The anti-Muslim discourse more generally highlights the assumed ambition of Islam to convert Christians to Muslims, as well as the ambition of Muslims to dominate politics. The researchers were warned, on several occasions, by Christian church leaders about the potential for a Sharia law-based state in Benin. The anti-tolerant discourse of the Evangelist churches is wider and targets not only Muslims, but also classical Christian churches.
On the other hand, the more tolerant Sufi interpretation of Islam is being challenged by more purist imported versions. The number of mosques that are being built and the introduction of the veil for girls and women in the north, especially in the city of Djougou, are recent examples of these fundamentalist pressures.
Islamic presence in Benin is old and coincided with the establishment of freedom of association in the 1980s–1990s, which encouraged a proliferation of Islamic charitable NGOs and the dissemination of new foreign doctrines. External training for Beninese scholars, especially in Medina in Saudi Arabia, exacerbated these foreign influences. A revival of religious orientation and related Dawa is visibly present. According to some sources, police have stepped in on several occasions in the north against young extremist preachers returning from Saudi Arabia. In Cotonou, a radical Muslim cleric from Congo has also recently been expelled.
These phenomena are catalysed by the fact that youngsters are travelling to the Middle East to receive training and are sponsored to return to preach a different approach to Islam that is purer than local traditional or other syncretic influences. Some imams are, for instance, reported to earn 300,000 FCFA per month (around 450 euros), an amount that cannot come exclusively from local worshippers’ contributions. Pockets of more purist groups, which are organized around these individuals and which hold a certain societal status based on their studies abroad, form parallel societies, much like those that exist in Ghana. The northern city of Djougou, close to the border with Togo, clearly illustrates this Beninese Islamic revivalism.
The Conflict-Management Systems
The conflict-resolution systems in Benin are strong, in that these are based on the interest of the elite to keep the system in place and stable. This has little to do with the official legal or political procedures. Like in most other similar countries, however, these formal systems hardly function as a legitimate and effective way to solve conflicts.
The existing conflict-resolution system may be able to fix some of the potential upcoming societal divisions. It may also fail, however, because of the described weaknesses. The possibility of failure cannot be excluded, since the external influences are increasingly relevant, and not just because of the influence of organizations in the United States via the Evangelist networks, and the influence of certain forces in the Gulf via students and preachers who are educated in the Middle East, but more directly by security developments in neighbouring Nigeria.
The Nigerian situation is relevant, not just because Benin takes part in the regional coalition against Boko Haram (only at a political level for now, because of the lack of military means available), but also because there are reports about infiltration by, and recruitment for, Boko Haram in Benin. The presence of northern Nigerian imams and Arabic-speaking advisors in the biggest mosque of Benin (in Cotonou city) is one more indication of the interest that Nigerian religious circles have for the situation in Benin.
Diversity of Islam in Benin
Like in Ghana, the Wahhabi influence is relevant in Benin. This started in the 1970s, based on scholars returning from the Gulf countries and bringing a purist, anti-Sufi interpretation of Islam to the West African region, including to Benin. The reach and impact of Wahhabism is visible and strong today in some areas of Benin, especially in the north. Although the political elite has tried to reduce the impact of these preachers, it seems that of late the relevance of the elders’ voices is diminishing.
Youths feel attracted to this new promise of perspective and guidance and increasingly ignore the voice of a generation that is losing credibility because of the ‘politics of the belly’. The lack of (economic) perspective for a new generation provides the last push for youngsters who are seeking a reason to live and die. Like in Ghana, the more aggressive Tabliq doctrine, which is influenced by Pakistanis, has also established cells in Benin.
Benin’s real difference with Ghana, however, lies in the fact that Benin’s individuals are joining the struggle in neighbouring Nigeria. The level and intensity of these recruitments are yet to be established, as well as the real push factors at play (whether economic or ideological attraction), but this recruitment gives a new dimension to Boko Haram’s reach, which has always been believed to be restricted to the geographic area around Maiduguri.
Apparently, the fact that these foreign fighters – who are joining Boko Haram from Benin – do not speak Kanuri or English does not stop the organization from this recruitment activity outside their normal zone of action. According to the researchers’ sources in Benin, the recruitment takes place as a routine activity, but exact numbers are not available. Another sign of the increasing Nigerian influence in Benin is the presence of Nigerian imams in relevant mosques…
The question is whether Benin’s traditional elite will be able to respond by giving space to the youth to express their ambitions and perspective, and will facilitate access to resources and politics. The increasing intolerant discourse from the Christian churches suggests, however, that tensions are escalating rather than de-escalating…
The Potential for Recruitment and Hotbeds of Radicalism
- Urban, young Muslims who may come under the influence of Nigerians who are presently invading the religious space in Cotonou;
- External influences in the northern Islamized region of Djougou;
- Northern, more isolated, Muslim communities that are influenced by more fundamentalist, imported Dawa. There are indications that recruitment for Boko Haram takes place on a routine basis;
- The Tabliq movement in northern Benin, which seeks more recruits and which may gain momentum under external or internal pressure.
Although violent extremism – as we have seen it develop in Nigeria and Mali – has not yet reached the countries that were visited as part of this research project, all of the ingredients required to create similar violent clashes are present in Ghana and Benin. Apart from the population, which feels marginalized and economically and otherwise excluded, there are also charismatic religious leaders, parallel societies, a youth ‘bulge’ with few prospects, strongly opposing positions and the geographic proximity of violent conflicts. The latter, especially the Nigerian conflict, has a geographical reach that is beyond the borders of Nigeria and touching its neighbours, more specifically Benin.
Prevention is still a relevant option and a number of actions should be undertaken in order to make policy responses that are more in tune with these new trends and phenomena.
By the governments in close cooperation with civil society organizations (CSOs) and with the support of the international community:
- A Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) action plan should be developed, initially at a national level. This should be initiated by government (mainly by the Ministry of the Interior and Religious Affairs) and CSOs jointly. Youth groups and key leaders in the urban environments must be part of this exercise, which should be as inclusive as possible. A mapping exercise should be the first step in the process to ensure that all of the relevant actors are on board. This process must empower government representatives, traditional and religious leaders, and youth groups actively to identify hotbeds of radicalization and to counter extremist messaging and recruitment activities…
By the governments with support from the United Nations:
- A national discussion needs to take place, for example on the basis of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1624 (2005), about the possible limitations to freedom of expression and hate speech in specific contexts. Representatives of the press, religious leaders and ‘major witnesses’ from the political and academic fields should be part of this process of finding consensus on the limitations to freedoms in public discourse and expression of opinions.
By the political parties and the national religious associations:
- All societal actors should be mobilized to create space for a new generation to step forward and take societal and other relevant leadership positions. Political parties and associations need to create more space for the new cohorts and make them more accountable (for example, by training courses and leadership positions). These efforts must be more specifically directed towards students and urban youth in more generic terms, in order to generate new groups of youths with leadership skills. Incentives, assistance and funding would be required.
By the government, with the support of international technical and financial partners:
- Development of the peripheral region and a more visible presence by the central state in remote areas (including the delivery of services, infrastructure and border control, etc.) would represent a major contribution to acceptance of the central state by communities all over the territory…
By the government (mainly the ministries of Defence and Interior), with the support of their foreign allies (from the region and elsewhere):
- Better identification of hotbeds of radicalization and recruitment. Actions that are directed at winning hearts and minds, increasing resilience, community policing and early warning should be concentrated around these hotbeds (mostly border regions and urban areas). The city of Tamale in Ghana, or Djougou in Benin, would represent a good start. These actions should be taken in parallel with actions that are focused on gathering information about recruitment (scope and space) by Boko Haram and others. Most of the time, this information already exists and only needs to be centralized. Dialogue with local communities and nomad groups is essential in this context.
- Qualitative investments in border-control efforts are urgently needed to prevent illegal border crossings by foreign fighters travelling to Nigeria. Regional dialogues (at bilateral or multi-lateral levels) are required to improve intelligence-sharing on these populations flows. More formal initiatives (such as a regional memorandum of understanding between West African states that are impacted by the foreign fighters’ issue) could also represent a positive step in this awareness (such as joint patrols, intelligence-sharing and regional warrants)…
By the Ministry of the Interior and organizations that are active in the country:
- An increasing number of external actors are present and active in the religious war zone of West Africa. Better coordination and greater transparency of agendas, sponsors and the dynamics at play could significantly help local governments to target their own assistance better and to avoid possible overlaps. This coordination should be undertaken by the Ministry of the Interior, with the support of all of the active organizations (associations, NGOs and foreign states, etc.).
Credits photo: Clingendael