Following a surge in terror attacks in 2020 and 2021, north-eastern Côte d’Ivoire has since seen a period of relative calm. Violent extremists haven’t disappeared, however, and are still active in southern Burkina Faso.
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has documented how the region has provided terror groups with the space to finance, recruit and supply – highlighting a dimension of the threat that requires more attention. These dynamics were particularly observed in relation to the livestock economy and illegal gold mining.
Extremist groups have taken advantage of the insecurity their presence creates by offering citizens protection in the Bounkani and Tchologo areas, where they operate or exercise influence, particularly along the border with Burkina Faso.
Many cattle owners, breeders, herders and traders collaborate with these groups to prevent the militants from confiscating their animals. Those unwilling to follow suit have no choice but to leave the area or face becoming victims of cattle theft, intimidation, threats of violence or kidnapping.
Using these tactics, violent extremist groups have become involved in livestock breeding and trade in parts of the Bounkani and Tchologo. Livestock owners who comply with the militants are allowed to continue their work. But on top of being forced to collaborate with extremists, they have to pay them an annual contribution in cash or kind (oxen).
This enabled the armed groups to generate a means of subsistence and income, and expand their networks of ‘commercial partners’ in the livestock trade, including informants, recruiters and couriers.
ISS research also revealed the groups’ involvement in artisanal gold mining, especially in the Comoé National Park and on the Comoé River. Like in the livestock sector, these activities were based on offers of ‘protection’, or ‘authorisation’ for illegal miners to continue their activities.
Testimonies from miners and traders operating along the Comoé River suggested the existence of agreements between violent extremists and mining ‘bosses’ – those who finance or manage activities on mining sites. Often though, particularly in the Comoé National Park, the groups have resorted to coercion by confiscating gold from miners.
The militants also actively searched for gold in the park. Illegal gold miners told ISS they had encountered extremists with ore detection devices. Terror group members also played the role of financier of artisanal gold mining operations. Miners said that intermediaries acting on behalf of the groups had offered them financial support to continue their mining activities.
There are several reasons militants have become established in northern Côte d’Ivoire and have collaborated with those living there. The lack of essential services (roads, schools, water and health) and a weak state presence in general have left the population feeling abandoned. It has forced them to look for alternative means of earning a living and caring for themselves and their families.
Another reason is that the livestock and artisanal mining trades lack sufficient national regulation, allowing terror groups to infiltrate the market and set themselves up as providers of ‘protection’. The porous nature of borders is also a factor, giving easy access in and out of the country for militants and all kinds of traffickers and smugglers.
Despite government and other efforts in recent years to address the insecurity, including military and social interventions, most of the vulnerabilities persist.
Extremist groups need financial, human, logistical and operational resources to function. As long as they are active in southern Burkina Faso, it is unlikely that they will stop trying to mobilise these resources in northern Côte d’Ivoire.
Weak national regulations make it easy for terror groups to infiltrate the livestock and artisanal mining trades
That means the Ivorian authorities and their bilateral and multilateral partners who are helping to prevent the spread of violent extremism must consider this dimension of the threat. Attention must be paid to illicit cross-border economies and the factors enabling them. Understanding and tackling the mechanisms that terrorist groups use to benefit from or shape these economies could limit their ability to operate and expand.
Government efforts to regulate artisanal gold mining should continue, and the authorities must team up with organisations representing the livestock economy to effectively implement regulations governing the sector. In particular, greater awareness is needed about the laws dealing with the movement of livestock and grazing areas.
Cooperation between Côte d’Ivoire and its neighbours is essential to deal with the cross-border nature of violent extremism, and the extremist groups’ efforts to secure the sustenance and finances they need to carry out their mission. This includes not just military and security operations, but improvements in the governance and development of the countries’ shared border areas.