The Next Decade: What the World Will Look Like - George Friedman (2011)

Chapter 12. AFRICA: A PLACE TO LEAVE ALONE

The U.S. strategy of maintaining the balance of power between nation-states in every region of the world assumes two things: first, that there are nation-states in the region, and second, that some have enough power to assert themselves. Absent these factors, there is no fabric of regional power to manage. There is also no system for internal stability or coherence. Such is the fate of Africa, a region that can be divided in many ways but as yet is united in none.

Geographically, Africa falls easily into four regions. First, there is North Africa, forming the southern shore of the Mediterranean basin. Second, there is the western shore of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, known as the Horn of Africa. Then there is the region between the Atlantic and the southern Sahara known as West Africa, and finally a large southern region, extending along a line from Gabon to Congo to Kenya to the Cape of Good Hope.

Using the criterion of religion, Africa can be divided into just two parts: Muslim and non-Muslim. Islam dominates North Africa, the northern regions of West Africa, and the west coast of the Indian Ocean basin as far as Tanzania. Islam does not dominate the northern coast of the Atlantic in West Africa, nor has it made major inroads into the southern cone beyond the Indian Ocean coast.

Islam in Africa

The linguistic map probably gives us the best sense of Africa’s broad regions. But language as a way of looking at Africa is infinitely more complex, because hundreds of languages are widely used and many more are spoken by small groups. Given this linguistic diversity, it is ironic that the common tongue within nations is frequently the language of the imperialists: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese. Even in North Africa, where Arabic lies over everything, there are areas where the European languages of past empires remain an anachronistic residue.

Ethnolinguistic Groups in Africa

A similar irony surrounds what is probably the least meaningful way of trying to make sense of Africa, which is in terms of contemporary borders. Many of these are also holdovers representing the divisions among European empires that have retreated, leaving behind their administrative boundaries. The real African dynamic begins to emerge when we consider that these boundaries not only define states that try to preside over multiple and hostile nations contained within, but often divide nations between two contemporary countries. Thus, while there may be African states, there are—North Africa aside—few nation-states.

Population Density in Africa

Finally, we can look at Africa in terms of where people live. Africa’s three major population centers are the Nile River basin, Nigeria, and the Great Lakes region of central Africa, including Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. These may give a sense that Africa is overpopulated, and it is true that given the level of poverty, there may well be too many people trying to extract a living from Africa’s meager economy. But much of the continent is in fact sparsely populated compared to the rest of the world. Africa’s topography of deserts and rain forests makes this inevitable.

Even when we look at these centers of population, we find that the political boundaries and the national boundaries have little to do with each other. Rather than being a foundation for power, then, population density merely increases instability and weakness. Instability occurs when divided populations occupy the same spaces.

Nigeria, for instance, ought to be the major regional power, since it is also a major oil exporter and therefore has the revenues to build power. But for Nigeria the very existence of oil has generated constant internal conflict; the wealth does not go to a central infrastructure of state and businesses but is diverted and dissipated by parochial rivalries. Rather than serving as the foundation of national unity, oil wealth has merely financed chaos based on the cultural, religious, and ethnic differences among Nigeria’s people. This makes Nigeria a state without a nation. To be more precise, it is a state presiding over multiple hostile nations, some of which are divided by state borders. In the same way, the population groupings within Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya are divided, rather than united, by the national identities assigned to them. At times wars have created uneasy states, as in Angola, but long-term stability is hard to find throughout.

Only in Egypt do the nation and the state coincide, which is why from time to time Egypt becomes a major power. But the dynamic of North Africa, which is predominantly a part of the Mediterranean basin, is very different from that of the rest of the continent. Thus when I use the term Africa from now on, I exclude North Africa, which has been dealt with in an earlier chapter.

Another irony is that while Africans have an intense sense of community—which the West often denigrates as merely tribal or clan-based—their sense of a shared fate has never extended to larger aggregations of fellow citizens. This is because the state has not grown organically out of the nation. Instead, the arrangements instituted by Arab and European imperialism have left the continent in chaos.

The only way out of chaos is power, and effective power must be located in a state that derives from and controls a coherent nation. This does not mean that there can’t be multinational states, such as Russia, or even states representing only part of a nation, such as the two Koreas. But it does mean that the state has to preside over people with a genuine sense of shared identity and mutual interest.

There are three possible outcomes worth considering for Africa. The first is the current path of global charity, but the system of international aid that now dominates so much of African public life cannot possibly have any lasting impact, because it does not address the fundamental problem of the irrationality of African borders. At best it can ameliorate some local problems. At worst it can become a system that enhances corruption among both recipients and donors. The latter is more frequently the case, and truth be known, few donors really believe that the aid they provide solves the problems.

The second path is the reappearance of a foreign imperialism that will create some foundation for stable life, but this is not likely. The reason that both the Arab and the European imperial phases ended as readily as they did was that even though there were profits to be made in Africa, the cost was high. Africa’s economic output is primarily in raw materials, and there are simpler ways to obtain these commodities than by sending in military forces and colonial administrators. Corporations making deals with existing governments or warlords can get the job done much more cheaply without taking on the responsibility of governing. Today’s corporate imperialism allows foreign powers to go in, take what they want at the lowest possible cost, and leave when they are done.

The third and most likely path is several generations of warfare, out of which will grow a continent where nations are forged into states with legitimacy. As harsh as it may sound, nations are born in conflict, and it is through the experience of war that people gain a sense of shared fate. This is true not only in the founding of a nation but over the course of a nation’s history. The United States, Germany, or Saudi Arabia are all nations that were forged in the battles that gave rise to them. War is not sufficient, but the tragedy of the human condition is that the thing that makes us most human—community—originates in the inhumanity of war.

Africa’s wars cannot be prevented, and they would happen even if there had never been foreign imperialism. Indeed, they were being fought when imperialism interrupted them. Nation-building does not take place at World Bank meetings or during the building of schools by foreign military engineers, because actual nations are built in blood. The map of Africa must be redrawn, but not by a committee of thoughtful and helpful people sitting in a conference room.

What will happen, in due course, is that Africa will sort itself out into a small number of major powers and a large number of lesser ones. These will provide the framework for economic development and, over generations, create nations that might become global powers, but not at a pace that affects the next decade. The emergence of one nation-state that could introduce a native imperialism to Africa could speed up the process, but all the candidates for imperial power are so internally divided that it is hard to imagine a rapid evolution. Of all of them, South Africa is most interesting, as it combines European expertise with an African political structure. It is the most capable of Africa’s countries. But that very fact leaves it with divisions that make its emergence as a regional power harder to imagine with each passing year.

Ultimately, the United States has no overwhelming interest in Africa. It obviously cares about oil from Nigeria or Angola and about controlling Islamist influence in the north as well as Somalia and Ethiopia. Thus it cares about the stability of Nigeria and Kenya, powers that might help with these issues. But America’s intense involvement in Africa during the Cold War—the Congolese civil war in the early 1960s, Angola’s civil war in the 1980s, Somalia and Ethiopia—was merely an attempt to block Soviet penetration. That level of intensity no longer exists.

In recent years the Chinese have become involved in Africa, purchasing mines and other natural resources. But as we have discussed, China does not represent the same order of threat that the Soviets did, both because of the limits of power projection and because of China’s internal weakness. China can’t exploit Africa’s position strategically, as the Soviets once did, and it can’t carry home the mines. The primary effect of Chinese investment is more intense exposure to Africa’s instability, which leaves the United States free to remain aloof.

At the same time, U.S. corporations are as skilled as any in making the deals that allow them to get oil, other minerals, or agricultural products without a major American commitment to the region. Given all the other interests of the United States, having one region where it can remain indifferent is strategically beneficial, if only in that it allows the U.S. to conserve resources.

But there is an opportunity in Africa nonetheless. The strategic requirement for the United States to be involved in systematic manipulation in many parts of the world makes it disliked and distrusted. There is no way to avoid this through policy, but it is possible to confuse—or defuse—the issue, and Africa is the place for that.

The United States, like all nations, is brutally self-interested. But there is value in not appearing that way, and some value in being liked and admired, as long as being liked isn’t mistaken for the primary goal. Giving significant amounts of aid to Africa would serve the purpose of enhancing America’s image. In a decade in which the United States will need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on defense, spending $10 billion or $20 billion on aid to Africa would be a proportional and reasonable attempt to buy admiration.

Again, the aid itself will not solve Africa’s problems, but it might ameliorate some of them, at least for a time. It is possible that it will do some harm, as many aid programs have had unintended and negative consequences, but the gesture would redound to America’s benefit, and at relatively low cost.

The fact that a president must never lift his eyes from war does not mean that he cannot be clever about it at the same time. One of Machiavelli’s points is that good comes out of the ruthless pursuit of power, not out of trying to do good. But if doing some good merely convinces Europe to send more troops to the next U.S. intervention, it will be a worthwhile investment.