Ivory Coast calls for regional response to jihad threat
IVORY Coast is beefing up military deployment on its northern border and seeking stronger security ties with its neighbours as it casts a worried eye on burgeoning jihadist violence in the region. It lies to the south of Mali and Burkina Faso, which are struggling with a years-long insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. Over the past two years, jihadists have carried out several bloody cross-border attacks in Ivory Coast, including a raid in Kafolo in the northeast in June 2020 that killed 14 troops. Kafolo lies close to the Comoe National Park near the Burkina border – a vast forest of 11 000km² used as a bolthole by jihadists, many linked to al-Qaeda, security sources say. In Tengrela, a town farther west near the border with Mali, the army have set up a special forces base, and convoys of trucks are a daily sight. “We are glad to see the special forces among us – we know that we are safe,” said Zie Coulibaly, a local driver. “We are reassured that the troops are there, but if they could send more, we would be happier,” said Kone Zoumana, head of a co-operative of gold miners. “Forces have been stepped up in the north zone and the state is deploying every means to secure the border,” Prime Minister Patrick Achi has said. The jihadist threat in the Sahel region to the north of Ivory Coast first emerged in northern Mali in 2012. It spread to the country’s powder-keg centre, then to Niger and Burkina Faso. “The terrorists’ goal is to extend their religious, cultural and economic grip as far south as possible,” said Fidele Sarassoro, chief of staff to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara. The government’s policy of more boots on the ground goes in parallel with a push to strengthen security co-operation with Mali and Burkina, and beyond. “Burkina Faso and Mali today are the epicentre of the terrorist threat, which is moving southwards towards Ivory Coast. The government has every interest in working closely with those states,” said Lassina Diarra, a specialist in jihadism. Ivorian troops have already taken part in exercises with Burkinabe or Malian counterparts, and last Friday army chiefs from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States agreed to step up joint operations. France and the US have also pitched in. A French-backed centre to train soldiers, police and the judiciary in the fight against terrorism was inaugurated in June in Jacqueville near the Ivorian economic hub Abidjan. The US has stumped up $19.5 million (about R309m )for a five-year programme to help combat the allure of extremism for young people in border regions. But, say experts, whether jihadism takes root among youngsters in northern Ivory Coast can depend greatly on the economy. In poor remote areas where jobs are few, jihadists become potential employers, offering large sums of money to new recruits, the Centre of Research and Action for Peace think tank says. The government insists that it is carrying out programmes in the vulnerable north to spur job creation. But analysts say the authorities’ approach to the jihadist threat is overwhelmingly military. “Terrorist groups play on social dynamics, on the state’s structural deficiencies,” said Diarra. “Other approaches are needed to avoid the country failing, as in Burkina Faso.” Meanwhile, a jihadist attack on a base in northern Burkina Faso this month that left 57 dead has turned the spotlight on glaring failures by the security forces to protect themselves against a ruthless, highly mobile foe. On November 14, more than 300 fighters aboard trucks and motorcycles stormed a gendarmerie camp at Inata. The latest official figures said 53 police and four other people had been slain – the deadliest toll among security forces in the six-year-old insurgency. Around 150 gendarmes were stationed at the camp. So far, only 47 survivors have been found. This week, nine gendarmes and about 10 civilians were killed in an attack on their base at Foube, also in the desert north, security sources say. The government stripped two military commanders in the northern sector of their posts. According to Loana Charles Ouattara, a retired senior officer, “the top officers are all at headquarters while the country is at war”. He said small groups of soldiers scattered across the northern region “wait in vain” for reinforcements. Many accuse former colonial power France of being incapable of eradicating jihadists in the Sahel nations.