Containing Militancy In West Africa’s Park W
Insurgents have established bases in an important nature reserve spanning parts of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. They pose a growing danger to local ecosystems and people living around the park. The three countries need to collaborate more closely to keep the threat at bay.
What’s new? Militant groups have moved into Park W, a vast protected area of forest stretching across the tri-border zone of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. Their presence is imperilling efforts to preserve the park’s biodiversity as well as the livelihoods of people living in its vicinity.
Why does it matter? If left unchecked, the insurgents could consolidate their hold on the park, using it as a base for infiltrating other West African countries. They could also exacerbate disputes over natural resources, fuelling inter-communal conflict.
What should be done? The three countries home to the park should find better ways of working together to keep the militants contained, the residents safe and competition for land and water under control.
Sahelian jihadists have occupied Park W, a huge nature reserve in the borderlands of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, transforming it into a launchpad for expansion toward the West African savannah. Their presence in the park is disrupting century-old conservation efforts as well as local livelihoods, feeding struggles among sedentary farmers and nomadic herders for land and water. It also risks aggravating insecurity in coastal countries farther south. Authorities in the three countries have tried hard, with the support of foreign partners, to halt the militants’ advance. But their efforts have fallen short, as have endeavours to improve conservation and ameliorate conflict over natural resources in and around the park. The three countries should agree on better protocols for coordinated military action and a common strategy for protecting the population, which should include openness to dialogue with militants when appropriate. They should also explore reforms to better manage resource competition in the park’s surroundings.
Park W is part of the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex, the single biggest protected area in West Africa and home to elephants, lions and other species whose habitats are vanishing elsewhere. From its colonial-era beginnings, the conservation effort at Park W has generated contention between environmentalists, who wanted to protect a precious site of biodiversity, and residents, who viewed the park as a place to raise crops, hunt and gather fodder for their livestock. The three governments that share jurisdiction have lacked the money and manpower to preserve the park intact. Starting in the 1970s, recurrent droughts pushed people from the arid Sahel into the park’s vicinity, stoking competition over grasslands and water.
Jihadists have tapped into these grievances to establish themselves. In 2018, two groups – the Katiba Ansarul Islam and the Katiba Serma – made inroads in the park, gaining control of most of it by late August of that year. Militants have used various tactics to bring in fresh recruits. At first, they attracted bandits from the forest and other troubled youth. Over time, they cultivated ties with herders, who like them dwell in bushland.
Over the last two years, Park W has become an important militant base.
Over the last two years, Park W has become an important militant base. Jihadists fill their coffers by taxing artisanal gold mining around the park and trading herds of livestock, as well as smuggling various goods. In the park’s periphery, militants try to enforce their harsh interpretation of Sharia law, particularly on women, whom they have barred from going out alone in public. They meddle in relationships between men and women and have in some cases forced underage girls to marry. Militants have also attempted to stop what they see as un-Islamic practices, including in places where animists and Christians are the majority of the population.
The jihadists in the park are causing other problems as well. From hideouts there, they have attempted to take new territory in western Niger, northern Benin and eastern Burkina Faso.
Authorities in the three countries are working alongside foreign partners to regain control of Park W and its surroundings. They emphasise three axes of intervention: securing the park through military action; improving surveillance and anti-poaching mechanisms; and addressing resource conflicts. They have stepped up conservation efforts through legal reform, capacity building for the park’s managerial staff and concerted programs designed to bring local communities on board. They are taking measures to stop the spread of farmland into the park, as well as to mark off grazing lands, transhumance corridors and resting areas for livestock.
Still, more will be required to restore security to Park W and its environs. On the military level, stronger coordination among Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger will be necessary – although for the sake of efficiency they should keep operating as separate commands rather than under a single framework. But the terrain is rough going for the three armies, and the human and environmental costs of military action will likely be high. For this reason, the three countries should be prepared to focus on containing rather than overpowering the insurgents in some regions – particularly around Niamey, Niger’s capital city, which is just 150km from the park and threatened by militant outposts – and remain willing to engage in discreet negotiations with the jihadists when called for.
At the same time, the three countries will have to wrestle with the drivers of social tensions outside the park, notably the contest for resources. Here, the solutions are likely to be highly contentious. For example, the authorities may wish to consider declassifying parts of the park’s buffer zones to allow pastoralists to graze and give farmers land to cultivate, despite the tension between this step and conservationist goals. Looking at the horizon, the three countries – and other states in the region – could also explore the difficult but increasingly unavoidable question of whether to encourage nomads to adopt sedentary lifestyles.
With jihadists in control of large parts of Park W, and people living nearby under economic and environmental pressures, the three governments that share responsibility for the park have their hands more than full. But coordinated military action that leaves the door open for a range of approaches, combined with donor-supported efforts to address resource scarcity through near- and long-term reforms, can help make this troubled part of West Africa safer, while preserving its natural wonders and ecosystems on which many local livelihoods rely.
Ouagadougou/Cotonou/Niamey/Brussels, 26 January 2023
Containing Militancy in West Africa’s Park W
Parks and forests have become way stations for jihadist groups seeking to move south from the Sahel toward the West African coast. Sahelian countries and their coastal neighbours have designated millions of hectares as nature reserves to protect wildlife, prevent desertification, develop a local green economy and, more recently, contribute to global efforts at safeguarding biodiversity and ecological balance. 1 In recent years, Islamist groups have encroached on several such protected areas. Parks and forests offer hideouts far from the security forces’ reach, where militants can recruit fighters from among nearby residents and plan attacks on new territories. 2 (See the map in Appendix A. 3 )
Sahelian insurgents are extending their reach to new territories.
The militants in Park W, which straddles the tri-border area of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, are one group of particular concern. They are undermining longstanding conservation efforts, jeopardising livelihoods and aggravating an already dire security situation. National armies have struggled to contain them, lacking the equipment and experience for combat in forests. What is more, the Sahelian insurgents are extending their reach to new territories. Via protected forests and wooded areas, they have secured a gateway to countries on the Gulf of Guinea coast, notably Benin, Togo and Ghana. While Sahelian countries have been riddled by jihadist violence over the last six years, those along the Gulf of Guinea have only recently started to suffer from it. 4 Militants staged an unprecedented number of attacks in these countries in 2022, showing that they are becoming entrenched.
This report recounts the history of conservation in and around Park W, describes the jihadists’ encroachment into the park and its implications for both the neighbouring communities and the environment, analyses the efforts of the tri-border countries to protect the park and nearby residents, and offers recommendations for how these efforts might be improved. In so doing, it looks both at how jihadists have exploited conservation policies in Park W and adjacent areas and at how their presence has undermined efforts at protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity.
The report is based on over 70 interviews with high-level government officials and military officers, conservationists, herders, farmers, community representatives and former hostages detained by jihadists in Park W. Research involved interviews in Ouagadougou and Fada N’Gourma in Burkina Faso; Cotonou and Kandi in Benin; and Niamey, Say and Torodi in Niger. The report also draws upon a variety of additional information including satellite imagery, Armed Conflict Location Event Data and other secondary sources.
II. A Park under Threat
Park W spans nearly 10,300 sq km where the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger meet. 5 The reserve is part of the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex (WAP Complex), a conjunction of parks that together make up the single biggest protected area in West Africa. It is home to some of the region’s last remaining viable populations of large mammals, such as lions, elephants and cheetahs. As the name indicates, WAP includes Burkina Faso’s national park of Arly and Benin’s national park of Pendjari, as well as several adjacent reserves and hunting zones. 6 In 1996, UNESCO added the WAP Complex to its World Heritage list, citing its size, ecosystems, biodiversity and importance as a refuge for fauna that have disappeared elsewhere in West Africa. 7
A. A Century-long Conservation Effort
Park W has been a locus of contention from its creation a century ago during the colonial era to the present day. In 1937, after designating it a protected reserve, the French colonial administration imposed strict conservation policies in the park, starting by evicting the residents for the stated purpose of shielding wildlife from human activity, including farming, herding, fishing and poaching. 8 To this day, the forced removal of these villagers feeds local perceptions that conservation deprives indigenous people of their farmland, sacred forests and sources of income. 9
After achieving independence in 1960, the three countries that inherited the park maintained the colonial-era conservation policies in order to preserve biodiversity and prevent desertification. 10 Special paramilitary units or agents des eaux et forêts (“water and forestry guards”, in French) patrolled the park and its surroundings to enforce these policies, which required few resources given that the area was sparsely populated at the time.
From the late 1970s onward, however, competition over natural resources on the park’s outskirts soared amid rapid population growth, triggering a slow but irreversible environmental decline (see next sub-section). None of the three governments had the staff or the money to effectively protect the park from poachers, firewood collectors, grazing cattle or farmers in search of new land to grow crops. 11 Furthermore, managing the vast reserve in its entirety proved impossible, given that each country had different institutional mechanisms and conservation policies. 12 Overall, until the late 1990s, less than 15 per cent of Park W was under effective government scrutiny. 13
Most donor projects promoted a community-centric approach to conservation.
This lacklustre approach to conservation changed considerably in the early 2000s, when external donors became concerned with environmental issues. In particular, the European Union and Germany’s development agency GIZ began to pour money into the WAP Complex, funding anti-poaching projects and strengthening the surveillance capacities of forest guards. 14 Most donor projects promoted a community-centric approach to conservation. 15 They did so based on growing recognition that protecting wilderness should go hand in hand with giving local people incentives to preserve the natural resources on which they rely. One such project in Park W, for instance, encouraged the formation of village associations to help manage the park. 16 Previously, authorities had made little effort to involve the locals or to explain that they would reap material benefits from conservation. 17
Involving local communities paid off. Villagers living close to the park tempered their scepticism of conservation when they saw their livelihoods improve. 18 Tourism became an important source of employment, with locals working as rangers, eco-guards, guides or labourers for track maintenance. 19 Women developed various economic activities linked to the park, including selling forest products such as shea butter, natural honey and fruit of the baobab tree. 20 As scientists and researchers began to pay attention to the park, non-governmental organisations opened offices in nearby towns, hiring local personnel and support staff. District authorities also gained from collecting taxes on activities in and around the park.
In recent years, many locals have relied on the park for their livelihoods and well-being, but it is still a source of controversy. Some, especially young people, acknowledge the benefits of conservation. 21 At the same time, the fact that many of the park’s precious natural resources have been off limits for so long has stoked resentment among locals. A main challenge of conservation has been to reconcile the views of environmentalists with the needs of farmers and herders, who tend to view the park as a source of land, bushmeat and nutritious animal fodder.
Savanna vegetation near Point Triple in the W National Park. Rainy season.Marco Schmidt / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
B. Droughts, Migration and Growing Populations
From the sky, Park W looks like a green island in a sea of degraded vegetation and advancing cropland. Satellite images taken over the years from 1995 to 2020 clearly show the transformation of the landscape, with grass- and shrublands thinning out and croplands creeping up on the park’s outskirts, particularly in northern Benin and eastern Burkina Faso. In the words of a Burkinabé official, “the park today resembles a garnished dish surrounded by starving populations”. 22
As mentioned above, from the late 1970s onward, a combination of social, environmental and political changes heightened competition over land and water around the park. In the 1970s and 1980s, severe, recurrent droughts pushed large numbers of farmers and herders southward from the arid Sahel. 23 Many settled in the park’s surroundings, driving up demand for farmland. High birth rates then compounded the pressure to derive sustenance from limited productive land. Some districts in the park’s vicinity saw their population triple in less than four decades. 24 Evolving agricultural practices, such as development of cash crops, mechanisation, use of herbicides and privatisation of land ownership, fuelled the scramble for land in the park’s environs.
Changing patterns of nomadic herding ... have not only led to more frequent disputes over crop damage but also threaten Park W’s ecosystems.
Meanwhile, nomadic herders have had to adapt to a changing environment. For generations, pastoralists, mostly ethnic Peul (also known as Fulani) from western Niger, northern and eastern Burkina Faso and north-western Nigeria, roamed the Sahelian belt north of the park. 25 In recent years, however, soil erosion, the silting-up of the Niger River, disappearance of surface waters and vegetation degradation have reduced the area of pasture for livestock. Herders now migrate further south into savannahs and forests, and earlier than they used to – often before the harvest is over at area farms – and return later, when the sowing season has begun. Changing patterns of nomadic herding – ie, transhumance – have not only led to more frequent disputes over crop damage but also threaten Park W’s ecosystems. Herders increasingly turn to the park’s grasslands for pasture and water, especially when the season is driest between March and May. 26 They often seek to justify illegal grazing by citing the growing scarcity of fertile land and water sources elsewhere, as well as their perception that the park is sitting in disuse.
C. Conflict on the Park’s Edges
Surging demand for land on the park’s outer edges has triggered deadly conflict in recent years. Attempts by farmers to encroach on designated pastoral areas and cattle migratory corridors often result in crop damage and sometimes lead to violent confrontation between farmers and herders. 27 Growing competition over land also threatens longstanding land tenure pacts between early settlers who consider themselves rightful owners and migrants with legally shakier claims. In particular, long-time residents often view Peul pastoralists who have recently arrived in the park’s surroundings as outsiders with no right to the land. Northern Benin has seen recurrent clashes between herders and farmers, who have repeatedly tried to evict those they perceive as newcomers. 28
Meanwhile, the collapse of Burkina Faso’s security apparatus in 2014, following a popular uprising that ousted long-time President Blaise Compaoré, left a security vacuum in rural areas, particularly in remote eastern forests. 29 Robbery, extortion at improvised roadblocks and cattle rustling increased as bandits grouped in the woodlands. By 2016, villagers on both sides of the Niger-Burkina Faso border began to form vigilante groups, known as Koglweogo (“bush vanguard”, in Mooré), to keep themselves safe. 30 Known for meting out harsh physical punishment to suspected criminals, the Koglweogo succeeded in chasing the most notorious gangsters from the area, only for many of them to return when insurgents moved into the park. More broadly, weak rule of law around Park W spurred many locals to arm themselves – first with hunting rifles and, later, with more sophisticated weapons – making disputes more violent. 31
III. Jihadist Takeover
Militants arrived in Park W’s surrounds in early 2018. 32 The Katiba Ansarul Islam, based in northern Burkina Faso, and the Katiba Serma, based on the Malian side of the Liptako Gourma, the territory edging the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, are mainly responsible for the violent spillover. 33 The katibas(“battalions”, in Arabic) used two routes to get to the park. The first led them from Liptako Gourma southward, during which they occupied several forests along the Niger-Burkina Faso border, including Kodjoga Beli and Tapoa-Boppo, which abut Park W. The other route went through south-eastern Burkina Faso, passing through the Kabonga forest and Arly park (see the map in Appendix A). The katibas’ presence in the park has devastating consequences for conservation efforts and people’s livelihoods. It also risks aggravating insecurity in coastal countries farther south.
A. Arrivals, Recruits and Allies
The first militants to arrive in Park W’s surroundings were foreigners predominantly speaking Jelgoji – a Fulfulde dialect common in the Liptako Gourma region and northern Burkina Faso. 34 In western Niger, they were often accompanied by locals, mainly former students at Islamic learning centres in the Sahelian towns of Mopti, Djibo or Dori. 35 In one case, graduates of these schools asked militants to come to their village because – in a resident’s words – they felt that “the practice of Islam needs to be revived in our community as well”. 36
Militants have used various tactics to lure recruits from among the people living around the park. 37 At first, they mainly signed up bandits operating in forests. 38 Young men with histories of delinquency, drug abuse or family troubles often volunteered as well. 39 In some instances, recruits have returned to their birth villages to assault relatives or steal property, usually cattle. 40 Piecemeal recruitment in villages often involved promises to help locals gain full control of the forests. 41 Militants also capitalised on village chieftaincy and land ownership disputes. 42 Coercive recruitment also occurs, albeit more rarely.
Mass recruitment generally comes at a later stage, often as a result of counter-terrorism operations. When news spreads that jihadists have arrived in a particular area, authorities take extra security measures in nearby villages. As the army moves in, militants begin pushing the residents not to cooperate with the authorities. Caught between the jihadists, on one hand, and security forces, on the other, villagers face a difficult choice. If they stay in their homes, security forces are likely to suspect them of collaborating with the jihadists; if they leave, they could lose their property. 43 This pressure has often led villagers to side with jihadists to seek protection or take revenge for abuses by security forces.
Militants have cultivated close ties with nomadic herders.
Militants have cultivated close ties with nomadic herders, who like them are often Peul, Muslim and bushland dwellers. 44 Despite mutual distrust at first – jihadists worried that pastoralists might have government informants in their ranks, while pastoralists baulked at paying Islamic alms (or zakat) – the two groups now collaborate in ways that benefit both. 45 Jihadists give pastoralists free access to the park’s abundant grasslands, while the latter’s presence inside the park deters military action, given the high risk of civilian casualties. 46 Pastoralists often run errands in rural markets to get insurgents their daily supplies. 47 Militants regularly preach their version of Islam in herders’ camps, seeking recruits. 48
Still, most people living on the park’s outskirts feel apprehensive about the militants. News that a relative has joined the insurgency is typically met with great sorrow, as well as fear of retaliation by security forces. Whereas communities in northern and central Mali have at times welcomed insurgents for their purported ability to provide security, justice and effective governance, the militants in Park W – although they serve some of these functions (see below) – are not seen in this light. Wary of the militants’ influence, many Peul parents now avoid sending their children to centres of Islamic learning in Burkina Faso or Mali, enrolling them instead in schools in Niamey or northern Nigeria. 49
B. Local Headquarters
Park W serves as both a refuge and a launchpad for the militants there. Militants have sabotaged key infrastructure in the park, including watchtowers, boreholes, solar panels, water points and mobile network antennas. Most jihadist camps are nestled under a thick canopy of trees, hidden from the view of drones and other military aircraft. 50 Camps are usually near water points, though scarcity forces insurgents to move regularly between them. 51 Insurgents also run a court to adjudicate perceived violations of Islamic law and to punish collaboration with state authorities. They imprison those they find guilty inside the park. 52 The court also settles disputes among villagers. Until recently, only male combatants lived in the camps. After Burkina Faso labelled its side of the park a special military zone, however, women and children moved into the park from neighbouring villages, reportedly to seek the jihadists’ protection from the army. 53
Park W is an important source of revenue for militants. First, jihadists use the park’s dense network of unpaved roads and rivers to smuggle food, fuel, weapons and motorcycles across the three borders. 54 Secondly, they avail themselves of its ample space to stock cattle that they have stolen or accumulated through zakat, sometimes selling cows in nearby markets. 55 Thirdly, they levy taxes on artisans mining gold in the area and trade gold through intermediaries, some of whom are suspected to be based in Niamey. 56
The jihadists’ presence has harmed the local economy, depriving many of a stable income. 57 It has wrecked tourism. Though Benin’s side of the park is still open to visitors, attacks on security forces and kidnappings have become more frequent there. 58 In villages in Niger and Burkina Faso, militants are policing society, trying to bring people’s behaviour into line with their stringent interpretation of Sharia law. 59 They have prohibited alcohol sales and consumption, tobacco farming and pig rearing.
Women have borne the brunt of the jihadists’ meddling.
Women have borne the brunt of the jihadists’ meddling. Militants have barred women from shopping in rural markets and washing dishes in rivers or at wells. They also interfere in marriages. Locals have reported cases of child and forced marriage, with militants pushing parents to marry off their underage daughters on the pretext of preventing adultery. 60 Militants sometimes use the threat of physical force if parents do not comply or take it upon themselves to arrange a marriage regardless of whether the girl or her parents consent to it. 61
The park’s surroundings have a large population of animists and Christians, particularly in Burkina Faso and Benin. 62 While jihadists have seldom physically attacked these non-Muslims, they have often preached against local religious practices, and in some instances, attempted to halt church services, saying men and women should not gather in the same space. 63
Jihadists have also disrupted education. They have closed and, in some cases, burnt francophone schools. They have also prohibited a traditional practice at Quranic schools, whereby the pupils beg in order to feed themselves and support the marabout (teacher) to whom their parents have entrusted them. Many marabouts from the Burkina Faso-Niger border area have fled with their students to settle in cities, including Niamey. 64
Fada N’gourma’s cattle market is one of the biggest in the Sahel region. CRISIS GROUP / Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim
C. Satellite Cells and Forested By-ways
From bases inside the park, the jihadists are launching attacks in several new directions. To the north, they have built a string of satellite bases that connect Park W to their other strongholds, notably in the Kodjoga Beli forest along the Niger-Burkina Faso border, and from there up to northern Burkina Faso and the Liptako Gourma. In Niger’s Rive Droite – the territory between the Niger River and the Burkina Faso frontier – militants have established satellite bases in the districts of Ouro Gueladjo, Torodi and Say. 65 Most combatants in the satellite bases are local recruits who rotate regularly back to the park.
This expansion is particularly worrying in Niger. Militants connected to the groups in Park W are believed to be living in several Niamey suburbs. In fact, since early 2022, jihadists have been creeping up on the capital, as illustrated by an attack that occurred only 15km away. 66
Insurgents have ... extended their reach to Togo and Ghana via a series of inter-connecting forests.
Insurgents have also extended their reach to Togo and Ghana via a series of interconnecting forests. Park W abuts Benin’s Pendjari reserve and its Atacora hunting zone, as well as Burkina Faso’s Arly reserve, which both sit on the border with Togo and Burkina Faso. 67 The jihadists roam all over this vast area of protected forests and reserves, rendering it more difficult for those fighting them to find them. 68 Jihadist movements across these three borders up to northern Ghana are well documented. 69
Finally, to the south, militants have attempted to reach forests in Benin. The northern Benin region has many parks that are close to one another. Benin’s side of Park W is connected to other protected areas that include the Djona hunting zone and the Sota, Goungoun and Trois Rivières classified forests. 70 Evidence of jihadist incursions in these preserves is mounting, along with concern that militants are trying to establish ties with criminal gangs in Kainji national park, just across the border in south-western Nigeria. 71
D. Undermining Conservation
Beyond the security issues it presents, the jihadist presence in Park W is undermining long-running conservation efforts. The three countries have withdrawn most of their forest guards from posts in the park. 72 On Burkina Faso’s side of the reserve, guards have abandoned the three main forestry bases, while those in Niger and Benin primarily patrol the peripheries. 73
The militants’ open-door recruitment policy has lured herders, poachers, farmers and artisanal miners to the area. A 2021 aerial survey counted around 63,000 head of cattle inside Park W. 74 It also found that the elephant population had dropped to 4,056 from 8,938 in 2015, the date of the previous survey, pointing to a surge in poaching. 75 Declining prices for bushmeat and other wildlife products in rural markets are another such indicator. 76 In the park’s peripheries, farmers are cultivating new fields, while artisanal gold mining (which makes liberal use of hazardous chemicals) has mushroomed. 77 All these activities are accelerating the environmental decline of West Africa’s biggest natural reserve. On the plus side, the jihadists have prohibited logging. 78
Herders told Crisis Group that they worry about the [Park W’s] survival.
As mentioned above, the primary beneficiaries of this open-door policy are herders, whose animals now seemingly graze unrestricted inside the park. Paradoxically, however, herders told Crisis Group that they worry about the park’s survival. 79 They fear that cattle will eat the grasslands bare, gradually destroying one of West Africa’s few remaining areas of fresh pasture and available water. Further, contact with wildlife transmits pathogens to livestock, heightening the risk of contagion. Several herders who regularly let their cattle graze inside the park said they have lost a significant number of animals to disease. 80
Park W thus risks suffering a fate similar to that of the Sambisa forest, a once-thriving game reserve in north-eastern Nigeria where the Islamist insurgency Boko Haram set up its base in the mid-2010s. Over the years, Sambisa became a smuggling hub for militants and an impregnable fortress to security forces, which tried to dislodge the group with aerial bombardments. Today, the forest is completely degraded, and its rare fauna and flora have vanished. 81
IV. Safeguarding Park W
Along with foreign partners, authorities in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger are working to regain control of Park W and its surroundings. They have three priorities: first, securing the park through stepped-up military action; secondly, improving conservation efforts; and, finally, addressing conflict over resources.
A. Securing Park W
The three countries’ armies tried to prevent the jihadists from encroaching on Park W and, later, to uproot them, but all to no avail. In 2016, Burkina Faso’s defence and security forces swept through the park as rumours of the jihadists’ presence began to spread. Two years later, Niger declared a state of emergency in three districts near the Burkinabé border, including its part of Park W, handing the army additional powers to prosecute those suspected of involvement in militancy. 82 In 2020, Nigerien authorities tasked a special military unit with securing the Tapoa base camp inside the park. 83 The unit retreated, however, after suspected militants killed two forestry guards in an attack in December that year. 84
Similarly, although starting late, the Beninese government has made efforts to stop the spillover of jihadist violence from its Sahelian neighbours. The government has laid out a strategy that includes dividing its northern region into two areas of operation: Sector West, covering the Atacora region along the border with Burkina Faso and Togo, and Sector East, which encompasses Park W. It is also trying to procure military aircraft such as drones. Along with military action to boot jihadists out of the park, Benin has enhanced its community-based intelligence gathering, which could help explain why, thus far, jihadists have been slower to infiltrate Beninese than Burkinabé or Nigerien villages.
The three states’ military action has yielded short-term gains. In 2019, the Burkinabé army launched Operation Otapuanu, which temporarily disrupted jihadist activities and reduced the frequency of major attacks in eastern Burkina Faso. 85 Similarly, between 2019 and 2020, Niger armed forces conducted Operation Saki, which chased militants out of most of the Rive Droite. 86 Benin authorities have established a number of police stations in towns near Park W that, until recently, had improved public safety. 87
Neither Burkina Faso, Niger nor Benin has been able to flush out the militants or establish permanent military positions inside the park.
Yet neither Burkina Faso, Niger nor Benin has been able to flush out the militants or establish permanent military positions inside the park. Generally speaking, troops lack the training and equipment to work well in dense forests full of wildlife. 88 On top of that, the three countries’ armies have severe staffing problems. In Burkina Faso, the defence and security forces are stretched across several fronts fighting insurgents, the top priorities of which are those in the populous north and centre. 89 In Niger, officers likewise lamented having to send men to other fronts, saying unit rotations make battlefield victories ephemeral. 90 Meanwhile, Benin’s army is small, poorly equipped and inexperienced in counter-terrorism operations. 91
The three countries have also attempted to boost military cooperation among themselves, as well as with West African neighbours and foreign allies. In 2017, Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Burkina Faso launched the Accra Initiative to curb spillover from the Sahel, pledging, among other things, to better share intelligence. This pact led to several joint military operations, including incursions in Park W. 92 In October 2018, top brass from Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo met in Cotonou to discuss ways to coordinate the anti-jihadist fight in the WAP Complex. These consultations were under way at the time of writing.
One reason that regional collaboration has produced few results is that so many different military and law enforcement units – including gendarmes, foresters and the national guard – are involved in securing the park and its surroundings. Coordination is a struggle at the national level and even more complicated when countries are working together across borders. 93
The three countries are exploring options for outside military help. Niger and Burkina Faso have collaborated with France, other European allies and the U.S. in fighting terrorism. In Benin, the government has asked France, Rwanda and private U.S. security firms to help with military training, while the European Union plans to increase its support, including lethal equipment for the military. The U.S., via its Africa Command (AFRICOM) has also pledged to help the Beninese government curb the jihadist threat, notably with intelligence sharing. AFRICOM has been using drones to gather information on jihadist activity in Park W, which the three countries may find useful in their counter-terrorism efforts.
Military commanders of the three countries are meanwhile debating how to better secure the borders. While Niger and Burkina Faso have yet to dedicate troops to the mission, Niger plans to train a special battalion for the anti-jihadist fight in Park W and other forests. But it could take time before the battalion is able to deploy. In June 2022, Burkinabé authorities designated Park W and its surroundings as zones of military interest, signalling intent to launch an important operation. 94 But shortly thereafter, divisions in the army triggered the country’s second coup in eight months, shifting the military’s attention back to the centre of power in Ouagadougou.
B. Improving Conservation
The jihadists encroached on the park at a time when the three countries, with the help of foreign partners, were stepping up conservation efforts. They were trying to address the lack of coherence in their respective legal and institutional frameworks, the weak capacity of the park’s managerial staff, and the low rates of local participation in conservation.
The three countries have at various intervals tried to align their conservation policies, with little success. A slew of tripartite agreements signed over the last 40 years – notably in 1984, 2003, 2008 and 2019 – aimed to harmonise management practices with respect to parks in the tri-border region, but none of these deals fundamentally changed the three countries’ tendency to manage the parks unilaterally. 95 The push for harmonisation has little local buy-in, as it comes largely from foreign partners. 96
In 2019, the countries’ foreign ministers agreed to create four institutional mechanisms to better align conservation and other policies, including a ministerial council, a technical and evaluation committee, a scientific council and an executive secretary to oversee policy in the WAP Complex. 97 Three years on, none of these mechanisms is operational. The countries are squabbling over whom to appoint as executive secretary.
The countries with donor support are working to get better at park administration.
As concerns capacity building, the countries with donor support are working to get better at park administration. Over the last twenty years, donors have funded numerous projects aiming to improve management of the WAP complex. 98 But the projects have not met expectations, and the donor support has been inconsistent. Even the limited gains the projects achieve are rarely sustained after the funding ends. Nonetheless, the countries and their partners have been working to secure long-term, regular funding for conservation. In August, the West African Savannah Foundation – a trust fund for the environment created in Benin in 2012 – signed an agreement with Burkina Faso and Niger authorities that may mobilise nearly 20 billion CFA francs ($30 million) to fund conservation efforts. Officials say it is a big step toward ensuring sustainable funding for the protection of the WAP Complex. 99
Finally, the three governments and foreign partners have been trying to promote community-based conservation. Several projects funded by donors try to improve dialogue between conservationists and park area residents, in order to build trust and promote better ways of resolving land and communal conflicts. 100 Yet while more locals are participating in park management, contestation over resources has increased as well.
The three countries and their foreign partners are also taking major steps toward delegating the park’s management to non-governmental actors. Losing confidence in state management, they are shifting toward partnerships with private organisations that have more experience and more money. 101 In 2020, Benin asked the South African non-profit African Parks Network (APN) to take over management of its side of Park W. 102 African Parks has been managing Pendjari National Park since 2017. African Parks says it now has about 600 staff, mostly locals, including rangers and guards who have worked in the reserves before. 103 APN’s achievements in Pendjari, described below, are widely applauded among government officials and foreign donors, though its strict management style has at time angered residents. 104 So far, APN has struggled to replicate its success in Park W, which is twice the size of Pendjari and located in a much more densely populated area, and thus subject to fiercer resource competition along its boundaries.
Benin’s partnership with African Parks could significantly improve management in its part of Park W. With considerable resources and significant experience with restoring degraded natural reserves, African Parks has already demonstrated its capacity to enhance surveillance and curb poaching. 105 It has also drawn important lessons from its management of Pendjari, setting up a “peripheral zones commission” to have a direct channel of communication with residents. African Parks has recruited staff who engage directly with locals to discuss mutual concerns and explain regulations pertaining to conservation. The commission now serves as an effective conflict resolution mechanism. 106
These results seem to have persuaded donors to encourage authorities in Burkina Faso and Niger to explore similar partnerships. In January 2022, prior to the first of the country’s two coups that year, Burkinabé authorities showed interest in collaborating with African Parks, asking the organisation to carry out a feasibility study for its side of the Park W. There is no indication that a concrete partnership will come about, however. In Niger, a non-governmental organisation called African Wildlife Conservation (WAC), a local African Parks partner, is carrying out a similar study that could lead to a proposal for a new management model for the Nigerien part of Park W. 107
The partnership model for managing protected areas comes with challenges. Conservationist organisations such as African Parks or WAC have neither the mandate nor the capacity to fight insurgents. The two NGOs and the defence and security forces have pledged to share information and work together in the park. 108 But these joint interventions have been difficult to get off the ground, due to the military’s reticence to work with foreign conservationists and an inability to iron out command issues between military officers and the states’ forest guards, as well as the African Parks and WAC rangers. Many forest guards in the three countries oppose delegating management functions to non-state organisations. Some view it as an unwarranted negative judgment of their park management skills, saying that any shortcomings in their performance are due to lack of resources. Others castigate the government for privatising a public good and worry that the countries will lose sovereignty over the park. 109
C. Addressing Conflict over Resources
Since the early 2000s, authorities and their partners have struggled to reconcile conservation efforts with the needs of locals. As farmers encroached on the park’s peripheries and herders let their cattle graze inside it, park managers and their foreign partners worked to restore farm and grasslands outside the reserve.
To stop the advance of farmland around the park, authorities and their partners have promoted mechanisms for land restoration such as fertilising degraded soil and introducing seeds that produce higher yields. Similarly, authorities worked to delimit pastures, transhumance corridors and resting areas for livestock. 110 They also built water points and vaccination sites. Many other community initiatives promoted peaceful conflict resolution and raised awareness, not only of conservation objectives among pastoralists but also of the herders’ needs among foresters. Some of these initiatives have borne fruit.
[Herders] can hardly stop all their roaming cattle from damaging protected grasslands and crops.
Regulation of transhumance has proven particularly complicated. At present, herders move around looking for pasture and water as the weather dictates. They can hardly stop all their roaming cattle from damaging protected grasslands and crops. West African countries have signed numerous agreements that set out conditions for herders to cross borders, such as carrying a cattle vaccination certificate and informing authorities of their itinerary and herds’ size prior to departure. The idea was that countries could then prepare for the pastoralists’ arrival. Yet thus far no country has been able to enforce the rules, mainly because herders rarely seek permission from authorities when they leave a jurisdiction. Nor do they follow a predetermined route. Indeed, herders are usually guided by information about the availability of resources, particularly salt (a vital mineral for cattle), that they receive along the way.
Benin and Togo have regularly shut their borders to herders from Niger because of the latter’s failure to abide by regulations, but also due to heightened tensions between herders and farmers. Beninese authorities have justified border closures by citing pastoral reforms and the need to assess how many cattle its grasslands can feed.
Generally, Benin has outperformed its neighbours in this area. Authorities have launched various initiatives to mitigate the risk of land-use conflict in northern districts. Through the Agence Béninoise de Gestion Intégrée des Espaces Frontaliers, for instance, the government funds numerous projects aimed at improving local livelihoods. It is also trying to reform the livestock sector by, among other things, encouraging herders to settle as well as requiring district authorities to designate pastoral zones and manage the nomads’ itineraries.
V. Policy Recommendations
Protecting nature reserves like Park W is a security, environmental and development imperative. Dislodging the insurgents who have based themselves there will be difficult, requiring a multi-pronged strategy. As authorities in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger are preparing to better address the jihadist problem militarily, they will simultaneously need to consider near- and long-term reforms that can help address the economic and ecological challenges facing the region’s people.
A. A Three-tiered Military Strategy
Counter-terrorism efforts have struggled to achieve their objectives in the open expanses of the Sahel, and in dense forests like those in Park W they will face even greater challenges. 111 Success will likely require the three countries to toggle between a range of strategies – including military pressure, containment and even negotiation.
As a threshold matter, for counter-terrorism efforts in Park W to have a chance of succeeding, all three countries will need to cooperate militarily, develop better intelligence gathering and devise a common long-term strategy. Benin may be well positioned to take the lead. It can impress upon Burkina Faso and Niger the need for trilateral military mechanisms, in part because so far it has suffered the least from jihadist militancy. Rather than setting up a cumbersome mission like the G5 Sahel force, which Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger created in 2014, the militaries will likely find it more efficient to work within national commands while relying on constant communication among field commanders on each of the borders for coordination. 112
[Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger] should work together to mitigate harmful consequences of direct military action.
In addition to planning for cross-border military cooperation, the three states should work together to mitigate harmful consequences of direct military action. For one thing, having more soldiers on the ground will heighten the risk of abuses against civilians. Heavy-handed behaviour feeds resentment of central authorities and undermine the military’s credibility. In previous counter-terrorism operations in the area, the army has carried out mass arrests of locals, singling out Peul men for maltreatment and slaughtering their livestock.
There is also a high risk of harm to the environment. Deploying a large number of troops inside the park could damage flora and fauna, which would defeat the purpose of conservation efforts.
For these and other reasons, the three countries should consider whether they could achieve some of their immediate objectives – at least temporarily – by trying to contain the jihadists’ expansion rather than overwhelm them with force. The three countries could establish bases around the park or step up patrols in the area in order to restrain militant movements. Doing so would give the residents respite and afford the three countries time to work out a long-term strategy. This strategy should be of particular interest to Niger, given how close the park is to Niamey. Now that Burkinabé soldiers have left the border, Nigerien troops there are more exposed to attack. A containment strategy would involve urgent deployment of troops to strategic spots in the region. For example, soldiers could go to the commune of Ouro Gueladjo, near the outskirts of Niamey. No garrison is there now.
The strategy’s third element could be for state officials to be open to talks with the jihadists occupying Park W – as some already are – so that they can explore whether they may be able to deal with a few issues through discreet negotiations. Both Nigerien and Burkinabé authorities have spoken at times with local militants. In Niger, such talks in the Rive Droite near Park W have produced results, including the release of a U.S. hostage and a temporary ceasefire. Beninese authorities have said nothing about engaging in dialogue with jihadists, but according to a top official, they do not categorically oppose it. 114
B. Declassifying the Park’s Buffer Zones
As they work to address the threat posed by jihadists in the park, the authorities of the three jurisdictional countries should also consider mechanisms that could be used to alleviate resource competition in the surrounding areas. That competition has both created social frictions and driven some people – mostly herders but also some farmers – through the door the jihadists have opened to the park’s grasslands.
One stopgap measure that the authorities might consider would be to lift the protected designation from parts of the buffer zones around the park and open these areas up to increased human activity. To go a step further, they could authorise herders to let their cattle graze in particular grasslands inside the park at agreed-upon times of the day during the lean season between January and May, when pasture and water are scarce elsewhere.
Authorities have declassified protected areas in the region before.
Authorities have declassified protected areas in the region before. In 2004, Benin removed the designation from a 5km-wide strip on the edge of Park W, which was then made available to farmers, herders and traditional medical practitioners. Similarly, in eastern Niger, forestry services partially opened the Gadabédji Total Reserve to herders during the lean season, which rapidly improved their relations with forest guards and eventually motivated residents to help patrol the reserve. 115 African Parks is testing this approach in northern Benin. In 2022, the organisation labelled areas on the park’s edge “moderate restrictions zones”, allowing pastoralists to bring in livestock during the day. Herders say the program has eased their hardships. 116
Still, there are significant downsides to weigh. Conservationists may consider such measures too high of a price to pay – a calculation that might depend on whether making more fertile land available could secure immediate community buy-in for overarching conservation efforts. The authorities should also review previous declassification exercises in Niger and Benin, some of which created lasting communal tensions, to see what lessons might be drawn. Finally, declassification is only a temporary remedy for land-use frictions. It is no substitute for long-term solutions to the security crisis in the park or the resource management challenges in its surroundings.
Crisis Group’s Analyst for the Sahel Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim talks with a resident of a village near Park W. CRISIS GROUP / Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim
C. A Long-term Project: Transforming Agricultural Production
The militant presence in Park W is not the only threat to the area’s security and stability. Trends in population growth, migration and land use have also driven up tensions. If the last decade has been the deadliest yet, the next is likely to be bloodier still. 117 Thus, the three governments and their outside partners need to consider what would be required to put the region’s agricultural economy on a sounder footing. One idea that some regional actors have begun exploring is to encourage nomads to settle, while helping semi-nomadic herders and farmers adopt new practices that increase crop yields.
This undertaking would be enormous. Sahelian authorities have tried to settle nomads for decades, with little success. Nomadic pastoralism is a deeply rooted culture sustaining millions of people in the region – a lifestyle that some have pursued for centuries. Settling herders would require huge investment over a long period. It would additionally be impossible absent sustained political engagement from officials, which might be difficult, particularly in Niger and Burkina Faso, from which most nomadic herders originate. Powerful pastoralist associations in these countries would stridently object to any such measure. For these and other reasons, the idea of settling nomadic herders was barely discussed in the Sahel, until recently.
Many herders are becoming aware that nomadic pastoralism will come to an end, sooner or later.
But the notion is now gaining traction in state and society. In 2020, Benin launched an ambitious program to settle nomadic herders and change pastoralist practices, restricting, among other things, cattle movement between regions. 118 Meanwhile, many herders are becoming aware that nomadic pastoralism will come to an end, sooner or later. 119 In Burkina Faso, the influential pastoralist organisation Union Nationale des Rugga du Burkina Faso supports sedentarisation, saying traditional cross-border transhumance is unsustainable. 120
As they weigh prospects for sedentarisation, authorities and their partners will need to consider the equally difficult question of how to reform farming methods so that farmers can produce more with greater efficiency. They will need to invest in new technology that can boost productivity in limited space. There are ways, for example, of getting more milk and meat from livestock without expanding herds or farms.
Agriculture is the mainstay of rural economies in Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin, and each country is well aware of the pressing need to transform farm production, including livestock management, in part to reduce food insecurity. Benin and Niger in particular have articulated wide-ranging strategies for improving crop yields. For their part, donors and institutions such as the African Development Bank are increasingly interested in funding such initiatives as they move their sights in Africa from infrastructure to sustainable agriculture – a shift motivated by, among other things, global supply chain problems and climatic changes that are worsening food shortages on the continent.
Authorities in the three countries should continue to test policy ideas for better regulating transhumant pastoralism and encouraging nomads to settle in conflict-prone areas, ideally with the input of professional herder and farmer associations as well as local civil society organisations. Donors should be prepared to help, but numerous relevant projects already exist in all of these countries.
Park W’s troubles are many-sided and will require a multifaceted solution. The three governments sharing responsibility for the park will need to coordinate efforts to restore security – ideally through a flexible approach that mixes military action with openness to quiet dialogue. But they will also have to work with donors to develop near- and long-term solutions to the resource challenges that have created rancour in the communities surrounding the park. This combination of efforts is the best hope for bringing human security, economic viability and environmental sustainability to this troubled region.
Ouagadougou/Cotonou/Niamey/Brussels, 26 January 2023