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The Challenge of Africa
A Critical Continent Under Siege

Reports are emerging that Boko Haram has taken a town on the outskirts of Maidiguri, Nigeria’s largest city in its north, and is girding for an attack on the city. The Financial Times:

Counter terrorism and Nigeria experts tracking the insurgency said this week that urgent action is needed to defend the city, and warned that its fall would “be a symbolic and strategic victory unparalleled so far in the conflict”. […]

Confusion surrounds the status of Bama, a town with a population of about 250,000 situated 75km east of Maiduguri. Nigerian defence officials have denied that it has fallen under Boko Haram control, but local politicians and officials described scenes of carnage in the town after an assault that precipitated the flight of thousands of residents and also, after reportedly heavy fighting, the soldiers garrisoned there.

The fall of Maiduguri would create the biggest threat to Nigerian unity since the Biafra rebellion.

The accelerating breakdown of weak states in West Africa poses a significant threat to the rest of the world. The spread of Ebola and the rise of Boko Haram both illustrate how state and development failures in Africa generate dangers that the rest of the world cannot ignore. The Africa Lobby of human rights crusaders and development NGOs has tried to peddle a narrative of rapid development and democratic progress ever since decolonization led to the first wave of Africa optimism back in the 1950s. But the reality that most (not all) of the sub-Saharan governments lack the competence to manage many of the key challenges of the 21st century cannot be glossed over.

Economic progress is coming to Africa, but it is more likely to set off waves of conflict and state failure than to usher in an era of prosperity and peace. That was the experience of the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 19th and early 20th century. It is the curse of the Middle East today. Africa is unlikely to escape the consequences that follow when social, economic and cultural changes over power the capacity of weak states and feeble institutions.

One example was the spread of HIV. The rise of the African regional economy led to truckers hauling freight across an expanding road network. Those roads and those networks became the channels through which HIV spread so quickly. Progress and disaster travel hand in hand.

The U.S., meanwhile, in a trend that unites the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, has become more deeply engaged. The rise of groups like Boko Haram and the real concern that jihadi safe havens will pop up across Africa has led the United States to a significant and growing military engagement. HIV became a global problem, and Ebola and other diseases could have that kind of impact.

Everybody is half right and half wrong about Africa. The optimists are right to see economic change and progress in some states. But they have repeatedly proclaimed the dawn of a new day that never quite arrives. The pessimists are right to criticize all that intellectually silly and ahistorical optimism, but too often fail to grasp the significance of the very real changes sweeping across the region. Those who want the U.S. to engage more deeply with Africa are right about the importance of Africa to the world and right, too, as Boko Haram and Ebola point up, the dangers that African problems have for the rest of the world.

But their critics also have a point… Most Western aid that has gone to Africa hasn’t really helped much, and in more than a few cases it has been misguided and damaging.

Too important and too dangerous to ignore, too complicated and messy to fix, Africa will test the wisdom of American policy makers for a long time to come.

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  • Pete

    I fear that you greatly exaggerate the importance of Africa to the world community.

    • Andrew Allison

      Not to mention the so-called “economic progress”.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Well, twice nothing is still nothing…

  • Anthony

    Two interesting views: 1) Why do African States fail? Don’t Blame Neo-Colonialism (Jean-Loup Amselle) and 2) The Real Africa (David Brooks). So, is Africa as a whole rising and many of the world’s fastest growing countries are in the region (Bloomberg View) or a continent of conflict, lawlessness, and perennial problems. One may have to look at fine print. Nevertheless and in line with Feed’s general theme, “Boko Haram is not the main story in Africa or even in Nigeria. It is a small rear-guard reaction to the main story. The main story in Africa is an impressive surge of growth, urbanization and modernization which has sparked panic in a few people who don’t like these things.” A revisit is certainly merited by any serious policy makers attuned to global realities.

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