Bucking the Global Trend: Africa’s Economic Growth

Europe’s economic funk continues. Japan’s aging society is struggling under a huge pile of public debt and slow GDP growth. Recovery in the United States is about what can be expected from a post-financial crisis expansionary cycle. And in China, Communist Party leaders are adjusting to much slower growth. In much of Africa, though, growth prospects are strong, if we can believe aid agencies such as the World Bank and USAID.

On April 15th, the Washington-based World Bank issued a periodic check-up on Africa’s near-term growth prospects. Partly fueled by high commodity prices – especially for energy resources and minerals – continental growth is forecasted to be more than five percent per year over the period 2013-2015. The optimistic forecast also highlights the impact of increased consumer spending in many countries south of the Sahara, including places like Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, and Mozambique. Indeed, many sub-Saharan states have seen above-average growth rates for more than a decade, leading to some reduction in still-high poverty rates. The diffusion of mobile phones and more predictable macro-economic conditions are key factors leading to better growth prospects.

USAID and the World Bank are probably right about continued high commodity prices. Even if some of this new African wealth is squandered through corruption, better terms of trade will lift many ordinary people out of poverty. A cautionary word is in order, though. Enclave-based development – especially if it involves oil or high-value minerals – can facilitate political instability and armed conflicts. Think diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola, numerous precious resources in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and oil in Nigeria. In short, over-reliance on mineral and energy exports can lead to so-called “rentier states” (and failed states) that do not necessarily promote broad-based human development. Careful observers of the DRC and Nigeria know about the “resource curse” all too well.

So, boosting international trade between Africa and other continents is set to grow significantly in coming years. With luck and better governance, many states will avoid the worst excesses of the resource curse.

The perennial problem of limited inter-state trade in Africa also requires urgent attention. Vast distances, colonial legacies, poor governance, and under-investment in transportation infrastructure have all contributed to high costs of trade throughout much of the continent. As USAID indicates,

Trade among African countries makes up only 10 percent of the region’s total trade volume. In East Africa, it costs 50 percent more to move freight one kilometer than it does in the United States or Europe, and in landlocked countries transport costs can be as high as 75 percent of the value of the goods they are trying to export.

Like South Asia (India and its neighbors), Africa possesses huge potential for growth in intra-regional trade and investment. This potential will only increase if Africa’s middle classes continue to swell.

The economic news out of Africa is relatively good, particularly compared to the world as a whole. Still, it is worth remembering the continent’s patchwork pattern of progress on governance, peace, and economic reforms. The overall trend is clearly positive, but recent news out of the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and the DRC reminds us that progress is geographically uneven.

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Mali as Mirage: State Failure and Regional Turmoil

Just two years ago, many outsiders were still praising Mali for its democratic credentials and relative stability.  The democracy monitoring group Freedom House categorized Mali as one of the few liberal democracies in West Africa. We can now see more clearly that the Sahelian state’s status in early 2012 was something of a mirage.

The Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, recently held a lively panel discussion, entitled “Managing the Crisis in Mali and the Sahel.” The discussion was re-broadcast on CSPAN.

For those of you unfamiliar with CSPAN – especially non-American readers of this blog – this is the television network that shows sessions of the U.S. Congress, government press conferences, and other public affairs programs. Most Americans could truthfully tell you that they have never watched more than five minutes of CSPAN programming at one time. Even for me, a politics junkie, many CSPAN programs are quite dry and uninteresting.

In contrast, this Atlantic Council panel on Mali and its neighbors was lively and compelling. The full video is worth a look. If you don’t make it through the full video, here are a few high points, with some of my own commentary.

  1. Cote d’Ivoire’s instability in the 2000s is an underappreciated factor in Mali’s current crisis. Cote d’Ivoire’s turmoil disrupted and rechanneled Mali’s ties with the coast. This sequence of events is another reminder of the vulnerabilities of landlocked states. The panel also discussed the unintended and harmful effects of Libya’s upheaval for Mali.
  2. Mali’s economic foundation is now extraordinarily weak. Reconstructing the Malian state will require the emergence of legitimate economic activities that can supplant illicit trading and smuggling. In the years ahead, climate change will be an intensifying economic constraint for Mali and other Sahelian states.
  3. Mali’s civilian leaders did not adequately fund the military’s fight against northern rebels. As panelist Ricardo René Larémont bluntly stated, Mali’s military leaders had good reasons for launching their coup in 2012. Lack of weapons, equipment, and pay will lead many soldiers to leave the barracks and topple governments.
  4. International military training programs are worth doing, even if they don’t always have the desired results (e.g. Mali’s coup). On this point, particularly see the contributions of panelist Rudolph Atallah, who was formerly a top Pentagon official dealing with African affairs.
  5. Europe should be very concerned about intensifying flows of migrants and refugees out of this region.
  6. There is a debate about how threatening the region’s Islamist militants are to the West and the wider international community, contrary to the views of David Cameron. The Obama administration’s back-seat approach on Mali seems to reflect an ambivalence about how dangerous these militant groups actually are to the wider world.

Geographic Imaginations and the Volatile Sahara Desert

Recent events in Mali and Algeria have focused attention on the world’s biggest desert. Western intelligence agencies have long been concerned about terrorists and other rogue groups utilizing the vast, barren expanses of the Sahara. In many outsiders’ imaginations, the great desert is primarily a sea of seductive, rippling sand dunes.

Saharan Desert Sand Dunes

Though this is a familiar Sahara Desert landscape for many outsiders, only about 20 percent of the desert looks like this. Photo credit: Brandon Prince (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

This tourist-friendly landscape is characteristic of North Africa’s drylands, but only in part. Much more common is a rocky landscape strewn with scrub vegetation, and marked with scattered oases.

The Sahara Desert in Algeria

A rocky Saharan landscape in Algeria is punctuated by a desert oasis. Photo credit: Cernavoda (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Saharan Desert Scrub

Scrub vegetation in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Photo credit: bobrayner (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

These more characteristic landscapes of gravel and undulating terrain share much in common with parts of Afghanistan, although that Central Asian state is far more rugged.

As the world grapples with the effects of state failure, climate change, and other challenges in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa, it is helpful to have a more accurate geographic imagination about these lands.

Timbuktu, Mali

The culturally important city of Timbuktu, Mali lies on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, along the Niger River. Photo credit: emilio labrador (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

France and State Failure in Mali

On January 11th, France began air strikes in Mali, in an effort to defeat an Islamist insurgency. Cynics can be forgiven for seeing this latest military intervention in Africa as just one more chapter in a long narrative of post-colonial meddling by France in its former colonies. There are indeed some key parallels between the current operation and previous French engagements in places like Chad, Togo, and Central African Republic. This intervention, though, is different in key ways. And, critically, the multi-lateral intervention in Mali could provide some pointers about longer-term efforts to deal with failed states.

During the Cold War, the United States and other Western states largely allowed France to intervene in Africa at will, even in areas outside its former colonial domain. Publicly, France usually justified its efforts as supporting anti-Communist ends. In practice, French commercial and geo-political interests often drove decisions to utilize troops in African countries. Remember, France has long maintained military bases in places like Dakar, N’Djamena, Libreville, and Djibouti, though that military footprint has shrunk in size in the post-Cold War era.

So, has France simply replaced Cold War aims with global counter-terrorism, in its justification of African interventions? There is some truth to this assertion, but France no longer has the interest or the resources to sustain unilateral adventures in Africa.

In the current operation in Mali, it is quite telling that France seems content to let neighboring West African states supply ground forces to support the beleaguered Malian government. The ECOWAS ground forces do not yet seem to be ready, but the regional organization does have a history marked with some successes in security affairs.

In addition, France’s air strikes are supported – at least in broad terms – by a December 2012 United Nations Security Council resolution. Russia, China, and the entire Security Council do not want to see gains by the Malian Islamists. So, even if not all states agree on the timing of France’s move, there would appear to be broad consensus in support of a coalition to defeat the Islamists.

In terms of the longer-term effort to address state failure, neither the French public nor others should believe that a few weeks of air strikes will be enough to deal with the root causes of ineffective governance in critically weak states. Indeed, Mali’s current turmoil is partly the result of imported fighters and weapons from Algeria and Libya. The international community will need to do a much better job of addressing “regional conflict formations,” an issue that I address in my recently released book.

Weak and Failed States in 2012

The year 2012 was an eventful one for the world’s weak and failed states. What follows is a quick review of some key trends and highlights from the year that was.

In Afghanistan, the “forgotten war” continued. A long-sought political settlement with the Taliban proved elusive as NATO and the United States prepared for a full military departure in 2014. Insider attacks by Afghan government security personnel on NATO soldiers grabbed headlines, as did continued evidence of widespread corruption and dysfunction in the Afghan government. Afghan watchers are very nervous about the post-2014 era.

In 2012, Pakistan muddled along on a variety of fronts. Relations between Pakistan and the United States remained very strained, even as cooperation improved somewhat by the end of the year. Most critically, the military establishment has strengthened its position with regard to the country’s politicians. Civilian control of the military is only an aspiration at the present time, and true democracy is therefore on hold. Militant attacks on aid workers halted efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan’s border regions.

In Syria, the ruling Assad clique fought a losing effort of regime survival. If last year was a tragic year in Syria, the year ahead may be catastrophic. The United Nations warns that this key crossroads state could produce more than one-half million refugees in 2013. Intense urban warfare in Damascus and Aleppo could lead to truly awful humanitarian conditions.

Tuareg Rebels in Mali

Mali, previously stable and democratic, suffered major setbacks in 2012. Photo credit: Magharebia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In three African states, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR), insurgents secured or expanded zones of open defiance. Governments lost the ability to control vast portions of territory, a key marker of state failure. The troubles in the DRC, related to the M23 rebel group, were particularly noteworthy. Rwanda and Uganda again meddled in the internal affairs of their large neighbor, as they did during Africa’s World War of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite gains in governance and economic development over the last decade, Nigeria continued to suffer the effects of a well-organized Islamist insurgency. Boko Haram does not seem to represent a mortal threat to the central government, but the Islamists’ activities are further straining religious coexistence in a deeply divided country.

Finally, I close this review with some hopeful developments. In Southeast Asia, the long-mismanaged Myanmar (Burma) is moving towards political openness and engagement with the rest of the world. Though sometimes ignored due to its location between China and India, Burma is an important, resource-rich state that deserves more attention. And Burma seems to be steadily moving in a positive direction, thanks in part to a more enlightened set of autocrats.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma’s opposition and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo credit: World Economic Forum (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In the Horn of Africa, 2012 was a relatively good year for Somalia. The Western-financed AU mission is helping the Mogadishu-based government push back militant Islamists. Al-Shabaab lost a huge amount of territory in the last year. And, whatever the reasons, maritime piracy off Somalia declined in the last 12 months.

In Latin America, a new narrative is emerging in Mexico, and perhaps all of Central America. In Latin America’s second giant, economic development and new political momentum is shifting the discourse away from drug violence, even though that violence is still stubbornly high.

Mali’s Collapse

On the surface, Mali’s descent into chaos has been intense and rapid. John Campbell’s Council on Foreign Relations blog recently used the headline “Mali Descends into Hell.” Ever since a March 2012 coup toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure, the landlocked West African state has indeed resembled hell for many Malians.

Up until the coup, though, Mali seemed to be moving in the right direction, if we focused on democratization (and Freedom House reports). For much of the last decade, Mali has received the overall rating “free,” which is indicative of liberal democracy. The 2011 Freedom in the World report gave Mali very respectable scores on both civil liberties and political rights, noting some room for improvements.

As we now know, political progress since the 1990s was not enough to overcome economic and geopolitical weaknesses. Key weaknesses include:

  • A strong divide between Mali’s core region (the South) and the peripheral North, which is driven by environmental, economic, and cultural differences.
  • Proximity to a destabilized Libya, which led to an infusion of weapons and fighters in 2011.
  • A small economy, which limits the state’s ability to integrate the peoples and places that constitute Mali.

As we reflect further on Mali’s apparent progress from the early 1990s up until early 2012, it is becoming clear that progress was quite partial and fragile. Though the country was a star with donors interested in democratization, Mali did not develop the foundation to help it weather basic attacks on its territorial and social unity.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.