Why al-Shabab's Westgate massacre is just the tip of the iceberg for an Africa on the edge of dysfunction.
- By Howard W. FrenchHoward W. French is associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches journalism and photography. He was a senior writer for the New York Times until 2008.
In the early aftermath of the siege of Nairobi’s Westgate mall by the Somali-based extremist group al-Shabab, it was to be expected that the media would remain fixated on the spectacular spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa.
Reporters have often strained to emphasize links between al Qaeda and groups like al-Shabab or the Nigerian extremist organization Boko Haram, with many of them taking a speculative leap to speak of African Muslim movements, as if they existed as some cohesive whole.
Make no mistake, the spread of al Qaeda — or even merely of its values — in Africa represents a serious challenge for the continent, but people who focus excessively on this aspect of African instability do so at the expense of more fundamental problems.
The biggest challenges facing Africa have little to do with religion, per se, and even less with global terrorism. Fundamentally, what unites groups like al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and the Islamist rebels who nearly took over Mali earlier this year is not radical Islam, but an even deeper reality: the gradual erosion of the basic institutions of the state across much of the continent.
This may seem surprising on the face of it, because although Somalia has been famously ungoverned for most of the last two decades, during which time it has become the very symbol of the failed state, Nigeria and Mali, like a great many other African states, have been pluralist and formally democratic for some time. The economy of sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than it has in years, faster indeed than any other continent. Here and there, middle classes are sprouting rapidly, and life expectancy and other health indicators are improving.
But as the old cliché goes, African states are almost without exception artificial creations, defined, if never fully forged, in the experience of European colonialism. Their borders tend to have little to do with pre-existing African realities on the ground, whether political or cultural. The institutions of government that Africans inherited upon independence, meanwhile, were wholly imported from Europe and plunked into place in societies that had little to say in their adoption and were woefully ill-prepared to make them work.
The modern African nation-state has survived since then in large part because the international community has insisted on its relevance. In practice, what this has meant is that the United Nations has accorded countries recognition, treating their existence not just as a juridical fact, but as entities that must be propped up and supported. This, in turn, has created an extraordinary opportunity for local political elites to game the international system and collect lucrative rents while doing just enough to maintain the fiction of statehood.
Some African countries have managed the challenge of constructing nations better than others, building a real sense of identity and belonging among their citizens. Countries like Ghana, Malawi, and Zambia, to name just three, increasingly have seen political parties alternate in power after peaceful, competitive democratic elections. Other countries have seen even more robust institutions take root. More broadly still, a period of brisk and generalized African economic growth has lent a hopeful patina of modernization and newfound dynamism to many parts of the continent.
What the recent spate of terrorism and insurgency should alert us to, however, is that without even more dramatic progress, the juridical fictions of many African states will not be robust enough for their people to prosper in during the years ahead and perhaps may not even survive as the familiar entities that appear fixed on today’s maps. To be sure, security — which is the centerpiece of much American attention to the continent — is important, but in many African states the biggest shortcomings lie elsewhere, notably in the provision of other basic services, from essential utilities to education.
The most powerful challenges ahead should point us away from religion and terrorism because they are linked instead to immense demographic and environmental changes that are already well under way on the continent. As Africa’s population potentially triples to over 3 billion over the course of this century — bigger than India and China combined — many states risk falling further and further behind in meeting the needs (and securing the loyalties) of their citizens.
Africa is witnessing the explosive growth of cities; indeed, urbanization is proceeding faster there than on any other continent. But Africa is still not creating jobs at anything like the pace necessary to absorb the hundreds of millions of young people who will be entering their prime working years over the coming decades. Meanwhile, pressures on vital African resources like water and land are soaring. All of these factors will increasingly place Africans on the move, forcing them to seek their livelihoods — or sometimes merely a bid to survive — in unfamiliar and oftentimes ethnically or politically hostile places, typically meaning neighboring states that are already struggling to cohere.
Kenya is one such country, and it is not an accident that it has become the scene of al-Shabab’s depredations. For years, Kenya has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees from lawless, disintegrated Somalia. The bleak refugee camps, centered on the town of Dadaab, in northern Kenya, are a major recruiting ground for al-Shabab.
The obsessive focus on the militant Islamic character of al-Shabab, which goes hand in hand with America’s post-9/11 preoccupation with terrorism, obscures the way that Somalia’s failure as a state may be a dress rehearsal in minor key for broader and potentially far more consequential state failure around the continent.
With 71 million people, the imaginatively named Democratic Republic of the Congo has at least seven times the population of Somalia, without having very many more of the key, conventional attributes of modern statehood. At century’s end, the United Nations projects that this geographic behemoth, which is situated, as the cliché has it, at the heart of the continent, will also be a demographic behemoth, bulging with 262 million inhabitants.
The United States and Western Europe have shortsightedly supported and indulged Rwanda, next door to Congo’s east, as it has serially invaded and actively destabilized its giant neighbor, while a variety of costly United Nations interventions have labored to sustain the illusion of the old Congolese state left behind (in a shambles, it must be said) by Belgian colonizers. This approach sharply increases the odds that Congo will not merely continue to swell, but explode one day, as its people respond with desperation and intensifying violence to mounting disorganization and hopelessness.
In Nigeria, it is Boko Haram, with what have lately become almost constant attacks in the predominantly Muslim north, that have brought that country, at least episodically, to the world’s attention. "There are few countries as large as Nigeria that are so underreported and misunderstood outside their shores," wrote Michael Peel in the introduction to his excellent 2010 book, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier. He might have added, underengaged by the United States and others. Within days of Nairobi’s Westgate mall attack, at least 60 people were slaughtered by Boko Haram on the campus of an agricultural college in Nigeria, provoking an incomparably smaller international reaction.
Nigeria, Africa’s largest country by population, has been bouncing along near the bottom of any reasonable scale of state performance for decades and has been constantly haunted by the threat of disintegration. Boko Haram, however worrisome, is better understood as a symptom of the country’s persistent dysfunction, perhaps even merely an incidental one. Nigeria has already fought a bloody civil war and is subject to many forces of disintegration. Given the persistent incompetence and corruption of its weak federal government, one of these is the slow centrifugal drift of some of its regions to fashion a more responsive polity for its people. This process is being led by Lagos, soon to be one of the world’s two or three largest cities. Nigeria’s population is projected to increase from a present day 180 million to 900 million by century’s end, and assuming today’s political map of the continent holds until then, all of those people will somehow have to fit into a territory a mere 1.33 times the size of Texas.
If that sounds worrisome, there are other parts of the continent that present even more frightening prospects. The violence in Mali is best seen as a likely harbinger of generalized upheaval in an arid, environmentally fragile region known as the Sahel, which stretches across the continent from the northern borders of the wet, tropical coast of West Africa to the southern fringe of the Sahara. There, countries like Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso will see population growth even faster than in Nigeria, leaving them with 500 million people (compared to 70 million today), if the U.N.’s median projections are to be believed. These are all landlocked states with some of the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in the world, and it is simply hard to imagine them remaining viable under the present geopolitical arrangements. This could mean explosion into a menagerie of small states or their absorption into other, more prosperous coastal states, or simply outright state failure and political confusion. What would seem almost certain is ecological devastation of marginal farm and grazing lands, water crises, large-scale hunger, and immense refugee and emigrant population outflows.
Throughout history, the nation-state has been defined, in large part, in relation to neighboring states. Its borders, its identity, the legitimacy of its leaders, and its very viability have all been determined, to a significant degree, in a competitive yet ultimately symbiotic intercourse with its neighbors.
It is in this reality that the most pertinent lesson of the Kenya attack lies. If the international community is serious about the African nation-states it insistently recognizes, it must do much more to contribute to their viability. This includes working much harder to increase the administrative capacity of African states and improving education. It requires involving rising powers like China, India, and Brazil much more deeply in the task of national construction. Perhaps above all, though, it means doing much more to strengthen African neighborhoods. This means forging vastly stronger commitments to mutual security, but it also means deepening a shared sense of prosperity, out of a recognition that for any country, economic success is only likely in a neighborhood that is advancing.
Fighting terrorism only gets at a tiny piece of this. Kenyan stability and prosperity, like that of any of its neighbors, cannot be secured in isolation but rather depends on the quality of the neighborhood, and restoring functional statehood to Somalia is the biggest project on hand.