What drives instability in Africa and what can be done about it
Africa will remain turbulent because it is poor and young, but also because it is growing and dynamic. Development is disruptive but also presents huge opportunities. The continent needs to plan accordingly.
Levels of armed conflict in Africa rise and fall. Data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the Global Terrorism Database and others indicate that armed conflict peaked in 1990/91 at the end of the Cold War, declined to 2005/6, remained relative stable to 2010/11 and then increased to 2015, although it peaked at lower levels than in 1990/91 before its most recent decline.
Armed conflict has changed. Today there are many more non-state actors involved in armed conflict in Africa – representing a greater fracturing of armed groupings. So it’s not a matter of “government vs an armed group” but a “government vs many armed groups”. Insurgents are often divided and sometimes even fighting amongst themselves. This greater fragmentation complicates peacemaking.
Terrorism has also increased, but depending on how one defines it, it has always been widely prevalent in Africa both as a tactic to secure decolonisation as well as between and among competing armed groups. The big question for 2017 is: is violent political extremism going to move from the Middle East to Africa? Put another way, is it in Africa that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will find solid footage as they are displaced from the Middle East?
Anti government turbulence has also increased in recent years. In Africa, this has led to disaffection and violence around elections that are often rigged rather than free and fair. Generally this is because governance in many African countries present a facade of democracy but don’t yet reflect substantive democracy.
Seven relationships lie behind patterns of violence on the continent, and provide insights into whether it can be managed better.
Relationships explaining violence
Internal armed conflict is much more prevalent in poor countries than in rich ones. This is not because poor people are violent but because poor states lack the ability to ensure law and order. The impact of poverty is exacerbated by inequality, such as in South Africa.
Updated forecasts using the International Futures forecasting system indicate that around 37% of Africans live in extreme poverty (roughly 460 million people).
By 2030, 32% of Africans (forecast at 548 million) are likely to live in extreme poverty. So, while the portion is coming down (around 5% less), the absolute numbers will likely increase by around 90 million. It’s therefore unlikely that Africa will meet the first of the Sustainable Development Goals on ending absolute poverty on a current growth path of roughly 4% GDP growth per annum.
Democratisation can trigger violence in the short to medium term, particularly around elections. Recent events in Kenya are an example. Where there is a large democratic deficit, as in North Africa before the Arab spring, tension builds up and can explode.
And a democratic deficit – where levels of democracy are below what can be expected when compared to other countries at similar levels of income and education – often leads to instability.
Instability is also fuelled by the manipulation of elections and constitutions by heads of state to extend their stay in power. Examples include Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Uganda.
The nature of the governing regime is another structural factor. Most stable countries are either full democracies or full autocracies. But most African countries have mixed regimes with some elements of democracy mixed with strong autocratic features. They present a façade of democracy but lack its substantive elements. Mixed regimes are inherently more unstable and prone to disruptions than either full democracies or full autocracies.
Africa’s population is young, with a median age of 19. By comparison, the median age is 41 in France (a relatively young country by European standards). So 22% of adult French are in the youth bulge of 15-29 years compared to 47% of Africans.
Young countries tend to be more turbulent because young men are largely responsible for violence and crime. If young people lack jobs and rates of urbanisation are high, social exclusion and instability follow.
A history of violence is generally the best predictor of future violence. Countries such as Mali, Central African Republic and the DRC are trapped in cycles of violence. This is very difficult to break. It requires a huge effort and is very expensive, often requiring a large, multi-dimensional peace mission that only the UN can provide. But, scaling peacekeeping back rather than scaling it up is the order of the day at the UN.
A bad neighbourhood
Where a country is located can increase the risk of violence because borders are not controlled and rural areas not policed. Most conflict in Africa is supported from neighbouring countries. Violence spills over national borders and affects other countries while poorly trained and equipped law and order institutions generally cannot operate regionally.
Slow growth and rising inequality
Africa is quite unequal, so growth does not translate into poverty reduction. In addition, the world is in a low growth environment after the 2007/8 global financial crisis, with average rates of growth significantly lower than before. Africa needs to grow at average rates of 7% or more a year if it is to reduce poverty and create jobs, yet current long term forecasts are for rates significantly below that.
Opportunity amid challenges
These seven related factors indicate that the notion that Africa can somehow “silence the guns by 2020”, as advocated by the African Union as part of its Agenda 2063 is unrealistic. Violence will remain a characteristic of a number of African countries for many years to come and Africa should plan accordingly.
In the long term only rapid, inclusive economic growth combined with good governance can chip away at the structural drivers of violence. It is also clear that middle income countries are making progress in attracting foreign direct investment but that poor countries will remain aid dependent.
Much more international and regional cooperation will be required as part of this process, including substantive and scaled up support for peacekeeping.
– Jakkie Cilliers is Chair of the Board of Trustees and Head of African Futures & Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies and Extraordinary Professor in the Centre of Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.