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Al Qaeda and Islamic State extremists are gaining a foothold in Africa as the Russian-Ukrainian war, the pandemic and economic woes preoccupy the rest of the world. Benin in West Africa is among the hardest hit.

Jihadist attacks in Benin increased to 25 between July and December 2022 compared with just two over the same period in 2021, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The numbers suggest that violent militants are pushing to open a new front in the war that they have been waging in the Sahel, the region that separates the Sahara Desert in North Africa from the jungles of the Congo River Basin.

“When you talk about the Sahel, geopolitical interests are limited,” Kars de Bruijne, a researcher at Dutch think tank the Clingendael Institute, told the Associated Press. “But it’s different for coastal states, which are economically much stronger and more important to the African Union and Western countries such as England and the United States.”

Leading the fight against the terrorists in Benin is President Patrice Talon, who has cracked down on freedom of expression, political dissent and other human rights in order to maintain an iron grip on power since being reelected in 2021, Amnesty International wrote. Talon, for example, recently declared during a state visit with French President Emmanuel Macron that “democracy can lead to anarchy and paralyze government decisions … and I don’t intend to fully implement it,” wrote Benin’s former ambassador to the US, Omar Arouna, in an opinion piece for the US-Africa Cybersecurity Group in Washington, DC.

Opposition leaders were excluded from running in legislative elections four years ago by the constitutional court, for instance. Election officials have however allowed them to run in elections on Jan. 8 Agence France-Presse wrote. Analysts predict they would do well if the election was free and fair. Catholic Bishops also have called on Talon officials to refrain from tampering with the results, expressing doubts about the election.

In the meantime, while fending off jihadists, Talon has sought to bolster his popularity by appealing to Benin’s rich history and funding large economic development projects with the help of the International Monetary Fund.

Considered the source of Voodooism, as the BBC explained, the small former French colony was a major slave port from the 1790s until the 1860s. Talon officials are planning on developing a massive theme park to recall and apparently profit from that history, University of Cape Town researcher Dominique Somda lamented in an op-ed in the Conversation. Park developers hope they can build on the success of the recent film “The Woman King,” which depicts a group of female warriors in an African kingdom in the 1820s that, as Voice of America noted, are based on Beninese history.

It will take more than rides and slave shop replicas to stop the jihadists, though.

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