An Attack in/on Togo: Serious, But Not Necessarily A Game-Changer


Eight soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in an attack in northern Togo on Wednesday, the government said, marking potentially the first deadly raid on its territory by Islamist militants who have killed thousands in neighbouring countries.

Before dawn, a group of heavily armed gunmen ambushed an army post in the Kpendjal prefecture near the border with Burkina Faso, the government said in a statement.

The Togolese government’s statement is here.

As the statement mentions, the attack targeted soldiers in a Togolese border security mission called Operation Koundjouare, which was launched in 2018 (the most information I could find about it was here).

Kpendjal (map) is the northwestern-most prefecture in Togo. From Kpendjal, it is almost twice as far to Togo’s capital Lomé as it is from Kpendjal to Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. In other words, this is a remote part of Togo. Notably, an earlier attack in Kpendjal was also reported in the Togolese press in November 2021, also targeting the security forces, although that attack was attributed to “bandits” rather than “terrorists.”

Assuming that one or both of those attacks were by jihadists, that would be worrying – and any attack is worrying, even “just” by bandits. But I think the concerns about the spread of jihadism into the coastal West African countries – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, and possibly Senegal – need to be right-sized. On the one hand, sporadic attacks can signal the beginning of a more substantial incursion, as areas such as central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger have tragically discovered. There are already credible fears about a jihadist presence in northern Benin, and Cote d’Ivoire has suffered attacks since at least 2020. On the other hand, even in the worst conflict zones of the Sahel (and the Lake Chad Basin), the degradation of insecurity and the onset of multi-sided civil war took considerable time to occur. Moreover, there are serious potentials for self-fulfilling prophecies – counter-jihadist units tend to get attacked by jihadists, government efforts at rooting out cells tend to lead into counterproductive collective punishment, foreign interventions and heated rhetoric tend to turn up the temperature, etc.

Meanwhile, I think one should be hesitant about drawing any connections between national-level politics and what are, ultimately, very local dynamics that are necessary for insurgencies to gain traction. Would Togo appear to be remarkably brittle and potentially full of resentments, having been ruled by the same family since 1967? Definitely. Does that mean that jihadists are going house-to-house in Kpendjal riling up sentiment against President Faure Gnassingbé? I doubt it. I think where jihadists choose targets or see footholds (and sometimes I think they stumble into opportunities rather than seizing them), I don’t think who the head of state is figures largely in their calculations. Or, if one wants to feel very grim, one could say that the majority of the coastal states (with the exception of Ghana and Senegal, in my view) are brittle at the top. But as I mentioned above, it’s a long way from Kpendjal to Lomé.