International Relations > Regions
Sub-Saharan Africa is a complex macro-region plagued by poverty and armed conflict.
While the north of the continent is more culturally and politically related with the Middle East, the part of Africa south of the Sahara Desert followed a different historical path. Once home of vast and powerful empires, it ended up being almost completely dominated by European colonial powers during the 18th century. While numerous states arose in the wake of the decolonization process between the late ‘40s and the ‘70s, all of them still bear the socio-political signs of their colonial past.
Today, Sub-Saharan Africa is home of a number of fragile states facing huge challenges. The border inherited from the colonial era often do not correspond to natural and cultural demarcation lines, thus reducing them to mere juridical fictions or even causing severe territorial disputes. Virtually all states are socially fragmented, due to the existence of various ethnic groups having their specific cultural and linguistic character and often divided within themselves by tribal affiliations. State institutions are weak and usually have little or no control over the territory. Similarly, infrastructures are insufficient and in decay. Inequality is marked, and very large swathes of the population live in poverty and have no access to basic needs in terms of health care, education, electricity and availability of food and water. In this catastrophic humanitarian situation, and as a consequence of it, violent conflict is also widespread. Armed groups like rebels, terrorists, militias and criminal organizations proliferate all over the continent; and make of it a hub of illicit traffics of weapons, drugs and even human beings. This further deteriorates the security situation and hampers Africa’s economic development.
Still, the Black Continent is rich in natural resources; but in many case their exploitation only worsens the situation; either because it results in a resource curse (where the nation’s economy becomes completely dependent on the export of a given commodity, thus making it vulnerable to fall of its price on the international markets) or because their exploitation is controlled by powerful warlords (as in the case of the infamous Blood Diamonds) or by non-African firms. In this regard, while colonialism is over in political terms, many consider that Sub-Saharan Africa is victim of a form of economic neo-colonialism where foreign states control their key industries, notably the extractive ones. While this is debated, it is true that many external powers are interested in in Africa’s resources; and differently from the past, it is not only the European ones. In particular, China is greatly expanding its investments and economic presence in the continent, notably by building infrastructures. Local governments welcome the PRC’s initiatives as they come with no prerequisites in terms of respect of civil, political and human rights; but raising concerns about the dependency from Chinese loans, about the weight of foreign debt and about its true intentions, as China seems mainly interested in accessing the natural resources it needs to feed its own economy. But powers like India and Brazil are also increasing their economic activities in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In spite of all these difficulties, the region managed to develop its economy, albeit to a limited and insufficient level. New infrastructures are under construction, the living conditions in certain areas have improved and the economy is being industrialized. Yet, progress also brought its own drawback: the rapid urbanization resulted in large overcrowded metropolis made of slums and affected by chronic pollution. This problem, in turn, will be further exacerbated by what is probably the greatest challenge that Sub-Saharan Africa will have to face: global warming. Along with South Asia, the area is the most exposed to its deleterious effects; like drought, the spread of pests and disease, desertification and so on. The consequences will be profound: in particular, as more and more areas of the continent become practically inhabitable, people will be forced to move to the cities or abroad; thus worsening the problem of uncontrolled urbanization and the migration crisis affecting Europe.
Among local states, some are notable as they can be considered as regional power hubs, while others are mainly important for their chaotic condition.
Among the first type, the most prominent example is South Africa: thanks to its position between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and to its relative economic prosperity, it aspires to become Africa’s main geopolitical player. Still, its domestic socio-political troubles are undermining its efforts in this sense. Ethiopia, the main power in the Horn of Africa, also has its ambitions, but is affected by severe ethnic divides, poverty and is threatened by climate change. Other states worth mentioning in this sense are Angola (mainly due to its oil) and Chad (a crossroad on the Sahara with a relatively powerful military and an important partner for European countries in the struggle against terrorism and illicit traffic in the Sahel).
In the second category, Somalia is the archetype of the failed state: economically poor, with powerless central authorities and dominated by armed groups, and a hub of piracy (even though the international response has largely diminished this threat). It is possible to add Mali and the Central African Republic to the list; and recent tensions in Cameroon risk to bring it to a similar fate.
Then, there are some states that share both characteristics, like Nigeria. A country with huge oil reserves, its international role is undermined by social unrest and by armed militants, notably the Islamist group Boko Haram. Similarly, the two Sudanese states are also oil-rich territories ravaged by civil war; while significant mineral resources are present in the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo.
Most of these states are located on what I defined as Africa’s “Conflict Belt”; a band of instability crossing the continent along an East-West axis and whose problems, if not dealt with in a systematic manner (also with the aid of foreign powers), will remain trapped in war with deleterious consequences for the rest of Africa and Europe.
As such, the importance of Sub-Saharan Africa comes not much from the activity of its own states, but from the (economic) interests that foreign powers have there and from the repercussion that the poor humanitarian and security situation will have locally and on other regions, notably Europe.
Cameroon: The Next Flashpoint in Africa’s “Conflict Belt”
The situation in Cameroon is gradually degenerating.
The country is facing growing domestic troubles. The conflict between the French and English speakers is becoming more and more intense; raising fears of an upcoming civil war. But Cameroon's society is also fragmented along deeper ethno-linguistic, religious and economic lines; thus further destabilizing the country.
Moreover, the conflicts in Cameroon could become intertwined with those affecting neighbouring Nigeria (notably the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, the Fulani issue and the rebellion of the Niger Delta Avengers); with deleterious effect for regional stability.
Ultimately, Cameroon could become another component of the "Conflict Belt" that stretches across Africa from Somalia to Mali; which (along with other factors) hampers the development of the continent, fuels illicit traffics and drives the migration flow towards Europe.
Ethiopia’s Geopolitical Ambitions Could Bring about Its Downfall
Recently, there have been two notable developments in Ethiopia's foreign policy.
The first is the declaration that it would comply with a 2002 ruling on the disputed territories it occupied during the war with Eritrea.
The second is a statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that Ethiopia aims at building a Navy and become a naval power, in spite of being a landlocked state.
These two initiatives are linked, and reveal Ethiopia's broader aspiration to gain access to the sea and consolidate its position as the main power in the Horn of Africa.
But as I wrote in a previous article, Ethiopia has to face huge socio-economic and environmental challenges which threaten its very existence in the long term. Consequently, pursuing such ambitious projects may accelerate Ethiopia's downfall, rather than marking its rise as a major power.
Ethiopia: A Geopolitical Time Bomb in the Making
Ethiopia is a vast and populated country with opportunities as well as challenges to face. But a combinaton of factors hamper its perspectives of future development. In particular, the interaction between ethnic divisions, economic inequalities and climate change make of it a "geopolitical time bomb" preparing to explode.
If this happened, the whole country would plunge into instability, civil war and maybe even genocide; with detrimental consequences for the population, for the region and even beyond; as a new large mass of refugees would flow towards Europe, thus reopening the immigration crisis the continent has been facing.
Photo copyright: Jonathan Alpeyrie, modified, Wikicommons.