By Richard Joseph
In the second of a three-part series for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Richard Joseph discusses Africa’s “disaster narrative.” The article can be read below or on the Council’s website. The first article, on the “progress narrative,” can be found in the AfricaPlus archives.
It would require the skills of a master carver to capture the radically different faces of the African continent. Reports of political instability, state erosion, gross abuses of government power, and appalling human catastrophes appear alongside stories of remarkable economic advances. This has been the case for many years. In November 1993, for example, IMF director Michel Camdessus characterized the 20-year decline in Africa’s per capita growth rates as “the sinking of a continent.” Less than three years later, he stated that an economic recovery was underway—an analysis now confirmed. Camdessus warned, however, that the recovery would not occur in “countries ravaged by war, fratricidal conflicts, and serious political upheaval.”
Even African countries that appear to be doing well can suddenly spin into crisis. Consider Mali, one of the poster countries for democratic progress and political stability during the past two decades. Tuareg nomads recruited into the armed forces of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, along with other migrants from west and equatorial Africa, returned to their native Mali in early 2012 lugging heavy weaponry. They quickly turned the tide in a rebellion that had waxed and waned for many years in the country’s vast northern lands. Disgruntled soldiers in the national army then turned their guns on their own government and ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré. A rebel faction in the north soon declared the new independent nation of Azawad. The international coalition, which reversed democratic downturns in the neighboring countries of Ivory Coast, Guinea and Niger, applied firm pressure on the putschists and constitutional government was nominally restored. The crisis persists, however, as army rebels in the south have arrested political leaders, and books and manuscripts are pillaged by Tuareg rebels in the historic city of Timbuktu along with other depredations.
Despite the appearance of flux and uncertainty, the deep logic of Africa’s disaster narrative centers on the state. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in The Leviathan (1651), without a capable state, life is “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.” Harvard author, Steven Pinker, in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, documented the significant decline in violence over the course of human history. Among the few exceptions: the Hobbesian parts of Africa that lack capable and legitimate states. Yet the state itself can also be the source of great suffering, as exemplified by current regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe and soberly discussed by Pierre Engelbert in Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow (2009).
In Foresight Africa, a Brookings Institution publication of January 2012, I described a band of insecurity extending from the northeast to the northwest of the continent that was “likely to experience increasing instability and warfare, while narratives of jihadist revolt and terrorist technologies circulate among its citizens.” One of the at-risk countries I identified was Mali. I also argued the need for “increased research by policy scholars on the interwoven economic, political and security dimensions” of these under-governed and usually impoverished frontier lands. A good starting point for such investigations would be Jeffrey Herbst’s magisterial study, State and Power in Africa (2000). Briefly, Herbst shows how, in carving Africa among themselves in the late-nineteenth century, the imperial powers showed scant regard for whether coherent nations would someday emerge from the jigsaw. Subsequently, colonial administrators did not bother much with bringing government services to the distant reaches of their territorial possessions. Their African successors are similarly disabled.
Attempts to alter the design of post-colonial states—except through prolonged war, as in Eritrea and South Sudan—are invariably foiled. There is little reason to think that Azawad will not suffer the same fate as Biafra, Katanga, and others. The persistence of ungovernable countries can have appalling consequences. In the two largest nations, Congo and Sudan, deaths attributed to warfare over the past 25 years are now estimated to be eight million. A colonial governor-general, Lord Lugard, could decide in 1914 to merge the remnants of the century-old Sokoto Caliphate with a panoply of peoples under British rule between the savannah and the sea, and call the entity (with the name bestowed by his wife) “Nigeria.” In two years’ time, the centenary of this “amalgamation” will be both celebrated and mourned. The steep economic decline of the north—as compared with other parts of the Nigerian Federation—and relentless attacks by Islamic terrorists have deepened this pivotal nation’s distress and uncertainties.
It will take at least a generation to tip the balance decisively in favor of the progress narrative. A positive development is that far more coordination and collaboration is taking place between regional and continental African organizations, and between external agencies and national governments. Such alliances are gradually wresting control of land areas from militias and bandits in Somalia. They will be called upon, as in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast, to help engineer the return to constitutional government in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Within the band of insecurity mentioned above, sustained action by international, continental, and regional organizations over many years will also be needed to reverse the downward trend.
The profound challenges posed by lawlessness and poverty in regions of the Congo require even greater concerted action than any of the major powers or international agencies are willing to undertake. The U.S. decision to send a team of special forces to help track down Joseph Kony and the remnants of the Lord Resistance Army in equatorial Africa illustrates the surgical operations, on the ground and in the air, that can be expected in the “badlands” of Africa. For another generation, there is likely to be significant areas of the continent that continue to be “ravaged by war, fratricidal conflicts, and serious political upheaval.” These will take place outside the boundaries of effective action by international organizations and humanitarian agencies. Sadly, the best that can be hoped for, and pursued, is the relentless extension of these boundaries. Even more to be regretted, as Herbst cautioned many years ago, is the paucity of innovative thinking regarding what can be done to transform the debilitating colonial legacy of ungovernable nation spaces in Africa.
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