Côte d'Ivoire, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

Theme: Securing borders in West Africa faced with multiple threats and the need of strengthening regional integration

IS, WAXES, WATHI, CAPES Télécharger le PDF   Summary: African borders are porous for people and goods. This increases the...


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Summary: African borders are porous for people and goods. This increases the risks of trafficking and socio-political destabilization. The Heads of State as well as technical and financial partners have surely taken stock of the challenges. Increasingly, institutional organization, policy and strategy formulation, funding for regional integration and capacity building activities are being implemented. Difficulties in controlling border management continue to exist. This is about the duality of securing borders and facilitating the free movement of people and goods in a context of insufficient demarcation and delimitation. Despite the lack of efficient tools for border surveillance and control and the corruption that occurs at borders, the States are still in a dynamic of synergy of actions for a better control of regional integration and a secure flow of people and goods.


Inadequate border control is a real problem in all West African countries. This increases the risks of trafficking and socio-political destabilisation. Touchard (2018, page 20), considers that it is indeed as a result of the historical border disputes that the Tuareg “problem” in the Sahara arose.

In the current context of the crises in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, border security has become a major concern for authorities in the region. Added to this is the ongoing Libyan chaos which has immediate consequences on the security of West African countries, as Niger shares a border with that country. The issue of securing West Africa’s borders is the subject of regular meetings at the level of regional and community bodies.

The following map shows the location of the countries studied:

Map 1: Location Map

Source: google search

Challenges in securing West African borders

Border security is made more complex in a configuration marked by terrorism-related activities and acts of insecurity that have been perpetrated by criminal groups and traffickers. The reality of border security has taken on a new dimension due to these new actors who have a very high capacity of causing trouble and are difficult to combat. Security doctrine has long been based on a state-originated threat pattern. Indeed, states through their defence and security forces had to protect themselves against threats from state units. Today, the situation has changed, as States are no longer required to guard against threats from non-State actors in an unconventional warfare posture.

In just a few years, the borders of West Africa have never been so unstable, becoming zones of great insecurity. The African Union (AU) adopted in November 2017 a Border Management Strategy. The aim is the use of borders as “vehicles for promoting and accelerating integration through effective border management and facilitating the movement of persons, goods, services and capital between States”. The challenges are still immense and the project is still in its early stages. According to the continental organisation, only 35% of Africa’s borders are demarcated. Border marking does not reduce the porosity of borders and allows armed groups and traffickers to cross from one border to another.

Many countries in the region are covered by vast territories and their borders are either in very isolated areas or are densely populated. This geographical and demographic situation makes security efforts particularly difficult. When borders are beyond the control of the central government and the central government is unable to assert its authority, other actors may move in and create new dynamics that undermine the security of the population.

In the border areas, there is intense trading activity. People are accustomed to trade and move from one area to another without regard for borders that seem abstract to them. People even talk of “artificial boundaries”. States are then faced with the dual problem of ensuring border control while at the same time ensuring the fluidity of trade and the movement of persons. The problems posed by the lack of delimitation and demarcation of borders result in confused or marginal areas, in which the application of national sovereignty is problematic and constitutes a real obstacle to the deepening of the integration process.

Several factors explain the difficulties in securing borders effectively. These include the lack of technical and human resources needed for border control. Corruption in border control units is often identified as a vulnerability. However, the fragility of some States in crisis or post-crisis situations that are unable to preserve their territorial integrity is a crucial issue. This situation leads to a form of abandonment of border territories that become spaces marked by a weak state presence. Basic social services are not provided and people in these areas feel “disconnected” from other parts of the country.

In the current threat environment, border control arrangements are still treated through the traditional prism. The length of the borders is a destabilizing factor because some States do not have the material and human resources to ensure total security.

Border threats amplified by the intensity of transnational criminal activity and terrorism

According to the OECD (year), the World Bank (year) and the African Development Bank (year), the income from crime in the fifteen West African states would represent 3.6% of their GDP. West Africa loses $50 billion every year to illicit trade. The Gulf of Guinea with its 5,700 km of coastline has become the new epicentre of maritime piracy in Africa. In recent years, the Gulf of Guinea has become one of the shipping areas with the highest number of acts of piracy in the world. 151 attacks were recorded in 2016. In addition, out of 16 incidents on ships around the world that have been fired upon, 7 took place in the Gulf of Guinea in 2017. Securing borders also concerns maritime areas that are increasingly exposed to threats. Map 2 is an illustration of the presence of terrorist groups in countries.

Map 2: Violent events linked to militant Islamic groups in the Sahel in 2018

Source: google search

Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM)Ansar DineMacina Liberation Front (FLM)Katiba SermaAQIM SaharaAl Mourabitoun Ansaroul IslamIslamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS) Katiba SalaheddineNon affiliateted

Legend for Map 2: https://africacenter.org/fr/spotlight/la-menace-complexe-et-croissante-des-groupes-islamistes-militants-au-sahel/

Chronological analysis highlights the rapid acceleration of episodes of violence linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel in 2018. Before 2012, only one militant Islamist group, AQIM, was operating in Mali. In 2018, more than 10 groups were active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Episodes of violence in 2018 surpassed all activities observed between 2009 and 2015.

This growing insecurity in West African countries could be explained by the strategic geographic position of West Africa midway between drug production areas (South America) and consumer markets (Europe), which has favoured the rapid expansion of drug trafficking. As of December 2013, the United Nations estimated the annual value of cocaine transiting West Africa at $1.25 billion. An amount well in excess of the annual budget of several States in the region. In May 2016, the drug control unit of Mali made a large seizure of 2.7 tons of cannabis near Bamako. The drugs, seized from a truck, came from Ghana, after transiting through Burkina Faso. This route shows the regionalization of traffic and the ability of traffickers to cross borders.

Terrorist attacks have reached worrying proportions in the region. The number of terrorist or affiliated groups present in West Africa and the Sahel is staggering. On 20 November 2015, in Bamako, the terrorist group El-Mourabitoune attacked and operated a hostage-taking operation at the Radisson Hotel. On January 15, 2016, in Ouagadougou, he struck in collaboration with AQMI, the Splendid Hotel and the Capuccino restaurant. On 13 March 2016, the seaside resort of Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire is attacked in turn. These attacks have been perpetrated within these three countries and continue more intensely in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. But porous borders remain the determining factor, as these terrorists have moved from one country to another without arousing suspicion. These unfortunate episodes are certainly a testament to the mobility of terrorist groups that demonstrate their ingenuity in crossing borders.

The Liptako Gourma, the tri-border region (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali) is one of the most vulnerable areas in West Africa where terrorist groups abound. They use borders to their advantage to blend in with a population that is predominantly pastoral. It is an area characterized by its humidity, it is sandy and difficult to access. It constitutes a “sanctuary” for armed groups. These three countries of the Liptako Gourma joined Mauritania and Chad to create the G5.

State strategies for securing borders in the face of various threats

To deal with border threats, West African countries have adopted strategies in turn. They include a series of measures involving the army, gendarmerie, border guards, intelligence services, police, customs, territorial administration, operational ministries of rural development (agriculture, livestock, water, forestry, education, etc.).

West African countries are working with technical and financial partners to address the issue of border security. Burkina Faso, through the Ministry in charge of border issues, ensures, through the National Border Commission (CNF), the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of government policy on border management. We can cite the case of GiZ, which finances the ProGEF (Programme de la Gestion Intégrée des Espaces Frontières) in Burkina Faso, in the border regions and victims of insecurity: Sahel, North and the Boucle du Mouhoun. The same technical and financial partner is contributing to security issues in Mali and migration issues in Niger. Other United Nations system partners such as IOM, UNDP are contributing. In recent years, efforts have increased in these countries to resolve the thorny issue of securing borders in the face of the upsurge in terrorism. In 2013, Burkina Faso established the Permanent Secretariat of the National Border Commission (SP CNF), which is responsible for coordinating all border-related activities with national and international partners. In any case, efforts still need to be made at the country level. Deliberate concealment of information remains a constant difficulty because of the sensitivity of the problem.

Within the framework of its National Security Strategy, which began in 2012, Côte d’Ivoire attaches great importance to border security. The implemented National Security Strategy states that “military forces must be flexible and adaptable in order to address all threat spectrums, among them and primarily organized crime, small arms proliferation, terrorist incursions and regional instability”. The army is the first in line in protecting national borders against the risk of terrorism. In Côte d’Ivoire, police security battalions intervene in the border areas.

Senegal has also set up two new border security units. These are the Rapid Border Action Unit and the National Division to Combat Migrant Smuggling. The Senegalese army has equipped itself with weapons, night vision goggles and drones for better control of its borders. To combat terrorism, the Inter-ministerial Coordination Cell for Operations against Terrorist Acts (CICO) was established in February 2016. This structure is placed under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. It is a “mechanism for coordination and strategic intelligence in the fight against terrorism”. The OICC is involved in intelligence work and focuses on border surveillance”.

Niger has operational intervention units such as the Mobile Border Control Company to combat Boko Haram in the Diffa region. In Mauritania, we find the special intervention groups that are present at the Malian border and have the necessary armed means to deal with jihadist groups.

Better adapting to new threats for a more effective securing of border areas

The training of defense and security forces to deal with new forms of border threats is essential. In collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Senegalese authorities organized a mock terrorist attack in Kidira, on the border with Mali, on 13 December 2017. The objective of this crisis simulation exercise was to better prepare the response of the intervention forces in case of an attack near the Senegal-Malian border, a winding strip that runs 489 km along the Senegal River. It was part of the project “Engagement of border communities in border security and management in Senegal”. This simulation made it possible to identify points of vulnerability of the rescue and intervention system.

These types of activities are conducted in the G5 countries in collaboration with the Barkhane forces.

In general, urgent action is needed on such matters as the reinforcement of technical resources, in particular the refurbishment of dilapidated checkpoints and the construction of new checkpoints. The reinforcement of transport equipment for the personnel patrolling along the borders is crucial in terms of signals and presence to reassure the population and intervene more rapidly in the event of a threat. Improving the skills of staff responsible for border checks on travellers is essential, particularly expertise in detecting fraudulent or illegally obtained travel documents.

Initiatives aimed at pooling defence forces among States are approaches that should be multiplied in the region. For example, in the fight against terrorism, the Mauritanian and Senegalese armed forces have decided to work in synergy to prevent risks. They organized a mixed patrol on the bank of the Senegal River. This joint patrol has several objectives, the first of which is to work to ensure the security of the populations settled along the border between the two countries. Continuous vigilance and rigorous deployment of defence and border security forces can have positive effects in the fight against threats.

A joint patrol arrangement between the armed forces of different border countries has been operational since 2018. West African experts on border security are more in favour of borders being places of cross-border cooperation with a particular focus on social and socio-economic integration. Gradually, physical beacons can be built for administrative and geopolitical reasons.

Communication and intelligence between States are also two strategic dimensions for better border security. Sharing information from the field in real time helps reduce threats. Local intelligence must be encouraged and a system for protecting informants must be developed. A fluid intelligence system makes it possible to better manage the continuous presence of defence forces along the borders. The use of technology, in particular UAVs or the installation of electronic surveillance equipment, can be decisive tools in the fight against all forms of crime often found at borders.

Despite the significant resources committed by States, the mission to secure borders remains a difficult outcome to achieve in West Africa. States have to deal with a set of factors ranging from the density of land borders, which is very difficult or even impossible to cover globally, the mobility of terrorist groups, the good organization of transnational criminal groups and, above all, the weakness of some States in terms of their defence and security forces. These new actors who threaten the security of countries in the region know how to exploit loopholes in surveillance. The desire to combat them is all the more justified since the intensity of relations between West African border populations, the impact of crises on border areas and the imperative need for regional integration call for more concerted action by States.


The securing of borders, persons and goods in a context of regional integration is not impossible for African States that are victims of all forms of abuse and, in recent times, of the generalisation of terrorist acts. Measures are being taken within the framework of institutional organization, capacity building, sub-regional cooperation, etc. to stem the atrocities experienced in border areas that are spreading to the epicentre of the countries concerned. States would not lose out if they were more engaged in funded programmes focused on border security issues.

Bibliographical references

  1. Aline Leboeuf, 2016, La réforme du secteur de sécurité à l’ivoirienne, Les études IFRI, 60 pages. ISBN: 978-2-36567-541-3
  2. Laurent Touchard, « Des murs et des hommes: sécuriser les frontières africaines au XXIe siècle », Focus stratégique, No. 85, Ifri, November 2018.
  3. Koffi Nutefé Tsigbé and Koffi Bakayota Kpaye, La question de la libre circulation des biens dans l’espace ECOEAO (1975 – 2015), 2017.
  4. Partners West Africa, 2016, Promoting an Inclusive Approach to Security in West Africa: A Collection of Interviews. Cheick Cissé and Patricia Kouyaté for Côte d’Ivoire.
  5. SP/CNF, 2015; National Border Security Strategy
  6. SP/CNF, 2015; National Border Management Program
  7. Centre for Strategic Studies for Africa, 2019; The complex and growing threat of militant Islamist groups in the Sahel

Solution Think Tank members:

CIRES (Côte d’Ivoire)Stat View International (Guinée)
CRPA (Côte d’Ivoire)IREEP (Bénin)
CADERT (Togo)Afrobaromètre (Bénin)
CROP (Togo)Social Watch (Bénin)
CAPES (Burkina Faso)Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Allemagne)
Chatham House (Royaume-Uni)WATHI (Sénégal)
IPED (Guinée)Institut de Stratégies (Côte d’Ivoire)