Africa: Through the Looking Glass

Will State Fragility and Crisis Dampen the Success Story?

When it comes to assessing the greatest threats to peace and security in the post-Cold War world, it has long been pointed out that internal conflicts and crises outpace inter-state ones. What is more is that these conflicts tend to a brutal character. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately 90 percent of war victims were soldiers; during the 1990s, by contrast, an estimated 90 percent of those killed in armed conflicts were civilians,” as explained by Roland Paris in At War’s End. The crises are diverse in nature, but a common characteristic is that they involve failing or failed States. Atrocities are perpetrated by rebel or radical groups seeking power or as a response by state actors clinging to that power. The challenge of fixing failed states is that they are prone to cycles of instability with conflict hindering institutional and economic development, in turn breeding more crises.

In this regard, much attention has been turned to various countries in the post Arab-Spring Middle East, but in fact, the continent that most stands out for its state failure and fragility remains Africa. After achieving independence from colonial rule, violence has engulfed the majority of African countries, and the continent still fares the worst of all regions on this front: In the 2014 Fragile States Index, all five “very high alert” countries are African and no African country surpassed “warning” level.

The tragedy is that in the face of so many disasters, the international community sometimes becomes jaded to Africa. Thus, a blog for the Council on Foreign Relations termed the conflict still raging in the Central African Republic a “forgotten crisis.” As attention shifted to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it seemed that the quota of African problems had already been filled. The Ebola crisis itself was another manifestation of state weakness, even if it seems a stroke of bad luck at first glance. Sometimes ignored is that the reason it spread like wildfire had much to do with the legacy of civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia that left behind weak sanitary institutions and bred a lack of trust in sanitary authorities. More recently, the international media has been accused of turning a blind eye to another African crisis. Various commentators asserted that Boko Haram’s attack on Baga was sidelined in the wake of the Paris attacks. Amnesty International satellite imagery testifies to the scale of destruction there, even as Nigerian authorities deny the high-end figure of 2,000 murdered.

All this having been said, there is an entirely opposite, hopeful story to be told about Africa, one that is often understated, but equally important. This was the theme of a recent Le Monde feature entitled, “Ten Surprising Facts about Africa.” Among these was the astonishing 6-13% growth rate expected for 2015 in 25 African countries; “no other continent does better.” It is a factoid surely worth paying attention to in the face of gloomy economic predictions for the Eurozone, with economists now debating whether we are headed to a new normal of zero growth.

What explain this discrepancy? The simple explanation is that it is senseless to generalize about a vast continent, lumping together the Botswanas with the Somalias. This is a large part of the explanation, but there is more to it. Take oil-booming Nigeria, which has been growing at a rate of about 7% per year and which last year beat out South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy. Yet, impoverished swaths of its territory are being ravaged by Boko Haram, while its military seems incapable of handling the situation and protecting civilians. The possible reasons for the military’s apparent incompetence are multiple: it is riddled with corruption or worse, as American authorities suggest, it has been infiltrated by the very jihadists it is supposed to be fighting. At any rate, accusations of human rights abuses make it difficult to empower the Nigerian military for the fight.

The growing threat of jihadism

The threat of Boko Haram points to the broader catastrophe of jihadism’s spread in Africa’s upper-half. Of course, that is not to say that jihadism is the main cause of conflict. In the face of state weakness, various fault lines have emerged dividing religious and ethnic groups and contesting the state’s distribution of resources. But jihadism adds a new level of complexity to these problems. Take for example the situation in Mali where Islamist groups sought to hijack a Tuareg separatist rebellion, transforming it into a power grab for the entirety of the Malian state.

The idea that the spread of terrorism is linked to state fragility is not new. It appeared in the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy in the wake of the September 11th attacks, in large part as a reflection about how Afghanistan became an Al Qaeda haven. But recent events serve as an additional wake-up call. It is feared that things will keep falling apart in Nigeria, putting its fragile neighbors at risk as well. Indeed, Boko Haram is threatening Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. Another concern is the growing influence of Da’esh (the Islamic State), including its declared intention of creating new branches farther afield from Syria and Iraq. It is already building an enclave in anarchical Libya and may be forging links with Boko Haram. In the meantime, Al Qaeda’s “franchises,” Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabab, continue to menace North Africa and the horn. The Mail & Guardian Africa had it right to investigate “How rising jihadism could bring ‘rising’ Africa down.”

To be sure, action is already being taken. Despite accusations that the West is ignoring Africa, the French military is continuing stabilization efforts to root out jihadism in the Sahel, with Operation Barkhane following up from Operation Serval in Northern Mali. The African Union is mobilizing to face Boko Haram. At the same time, action requires more than a securitization logic, which favors the patchwork of intervention when crisis has already broken out over addressing more deeply-rooted problems. These problems involve state weakness: the inability of the state to deliver security and services across its territory.

Ultimately, when it comes to analyzing Africa, the question is whether the glass is half full or half empty. Is it about a hopeful future or a present in which the continent lags significantly behind the rest of the world and where perpetual crises threaten that hopeful future? Prudence requires hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. At the same time, what Africa needs most is optimism: those guided by hope, willing to invest in the continent’s leadership and inclusive development in order to transform its conflict spirals into virtuous spirals of stability and growth.

References

Roland Paris, At War’s End, Building Peace after Civil Conflict, Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN: 9780521541978 (Google Book)

Nigeria: Satellite images show horrific scale of Boko Haram attack on Baga, Amnesty International, 15 January 2015, News,

The True size of Africa, carte (creative commons)

Maeve Shearlaw, “Why did the world ignore Boko Haram’s Baga attacks?”, Guardian Africa network, The Gardian, 12 January 2015, Link

Eric Béziat, Marianne Boyer et Elisa Bellanger, « 10 chiffres sur l’Afrique qui pourraient vous surprendre », Le Monde.fr, 19 janvier 2015, Link

Fund For Peace, Fragile States Index 2014, Link

Amy Maxmen, “Poverty, Slavery and Conflict Fueled Ebola Outbreak”, Newsweek, October 21 2014,Link

Jennifer Newton, “Boko Haram leader threatens war with Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria and warns of more massacres in rant-filled video”, DailyMail, Feb 3rd 2015, Link

Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s model”, Washington Post, January 28 2015, Link

Thomas Zuber, “Central African Republic: Forgotten Crisis”, Council on Foreign Relations, October 22, 2014, Link

Mail and Guardian African Correspondents, “Kenya, Nigeria, Libya risk becoming like Somalia: How rising Jihadism could bring ‘rising’ Africa down”, Mail and Guardian, June 17 2014, Link

Helene Cooper, “Rifts Between U.S. and Nigeria Impeding Fight Against Boko Haram”, Jan. 24, 2015, New York Times, Link

Emad Mostaque, “The Spreading Menace of Boko Haram”, Jan. 26 2015, Wall Street Journal, Link


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