TOGO (AFP): Around 40 soldiers and 100 civilians have been killed in a jihadist “war” in northern Togo, President Faure Gnassingbe has said, in a ground-breaking interview.
The small West African nation, along with neighbouring Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast, is increasingly facing threats of a jihadist spillover from Burkina Faso and Mali.
“We have paid a heavy price, especially our defence and security forces, who have lost around 40 men unfortunately, and then we add civilian victims, a hundred or so civilian victims in the country,” Gnassingbe said in an interview with local private station New World TV broadcast on Thursday.
The president’s family has ruled Togo since 1967.
The interview — his first since taking over from his father in 2005 — marked mark the 63rd anniversary of the country’s independence from France.
“What is happening to us is a form of aggression by two groups… one is called the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the other, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims,” he said, referring to a group linked to al-Qaeda.
This campaign by “two terrorist organisations… is a form of war,” said Gnassingbe.
The president said a three-tiered strategy had been put in place to confront the threat, including launching a military operation known as Koundjoare in September 2018.
“It was a preventive operation at first, which then became defensive, and now occasionally we are also on the offensive,” he said.
The 56-year-old, reelected three times in polls contested by the opposition, addressed concerns over the government and military’s choice to stay mum over the more frequent attacks when questioned by the media including AFP.
“There is something indecent about proclaiming someone’s death,” he said.
“It is not because we don’t issue statements that we don’t have successes. We do have successes.”
Members of the political opposition and civil society have often criticised the authorities’ silence over the situation in the north.
An official asking to remain anonymous recently told AFP that this was “a choice, because we have to protect our defence and security forces.”
– Thousands displaced –
Gnassingbe warned the Togolese people “should expect a long fight with dramatic moments, which is is inevitable in times of war.”
“But I want to assure my countrymen that in the end, we will win,” he said.
In addition to military operations, he said the government had set up “an interministerial committee for the prevention and fight against violent extremism.”
The aim, he said, was “to try and deradicalise or prevent radicalisation, because it is men, young people, who are being used to conduct these attacks.”
The president said that nearly 12,000 people had been from their homes by the government in order to “better protect the border.”
The region is also hosting people displaced from Burkina Faso, and the president said that about half of the 100 civilians killed in the jihadist “war” in the north were not Togolese citizens.
Earlier this month, the country’s parliament voted to extend a state of emergency in the north, a measure that allows security forces and local authorities more flexibility to take urgent measures to combat threats from militant groups.