West Africa has experienced evolving violence since independence, first by recording the highest share of military coup frequency in Africa between 1960 and 1989, then in the Mano River regional crisis of 1989-2003, and finally terrorism in the Lake Chad region and the Liptako-Gourma region from 2010 till date.
The report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in February 2023, titled Journey to Extremism in Africa, argues that ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ has now become ‘the global epicentre of violent extremist activity.’ According to the report, the region was the only one in the world to experience a worsening of the impact of terror activity in 2021, with 26 per cent of terrorist attacks and 48 per cent of deaths from violent extremism happening there. The report further shows that in 2021, more than one-third of the terrorism-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa occurred in just four countries, three of which are West African (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali). Of the 135 administrative districts in Mali, Burkina Faso, and western Niger, nearly two-thirds experienced violent extremist attacks in 2022, a substantial growth from a figure of one-third in 2017.
This is, however, merely the latest stage of violence in West Africa. The region was the epicentre of military-led political instability (military coups) in Africa between 1956 and the 2000s and had the largest share of Africa’s military coups. That period ended with the inauguration of the practice of national conferences for transitioning to democracy. Benin’s National and Sovereign Conference of the Bone and Sinew of the Nation became, as the African Peer Review Mechanism argues, ‘the first of its kind in Africa’ which a number of other African states subsequently followed.
It then became the site of one of the world’s most devastating regional conflicts – the Mano River region crisis. It comprised the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003), the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002), Guinea-Bissau Civil War (1998-1999), and the Ivoirian Civil War (2002-2011). It resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis, the creation of Africa’s first regional military intervention force in 1990 (the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group), and the world’s largest peacekeeping operation at the time.
When the Mano River region crisis died down in the early 2000s, terrorism spiralled in the Lake Chad region (Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon), producing Boko Haram, the world’s deadliest terrorist organization by 2015. As the violence committed by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin has declined in relative terms, the intensification of terrorism in the Central Sahara and Sahel (now concentrated in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger) has outweighed Boko Haram’s decline. The sub-region has now become a major player in the global epicentre of violent extremist activity.
These fragilities are connected by West Africa’s ‘malformation’—a concept I introduced in an earlier article and a major component of which is coastal-interior material inequalities.
STAGE ONE: MILITARY COUPS
Before 1989, civil wars were relatively uncommon in post-colonial West Africa, save for the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) and the smaller-scale first Tuareg Rebellion (1962-1964). The instability that prevailed was military coups. Not only did sub-Saharan Africa’s first successful military coup occur in West Africa (in Togo), but the region made up the largest share of the sub-continent’s subsequent military coups. As the political scientist Patrick McGowan has documented, out of the 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that suffered at least one successful coup between 1956 and 2001, 18 have suffered multiple coups, with Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria topping the ranking.
Despite comprising one-third of all independent states in sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa makes up 45.2 per cent of the sub-continent’s failed and successful coups and is the African region most prone to elite political instability. Moreover, out of the six countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been free of military intervention events, besides the small island of Cabo Verde, not one of them is from West Africa.
The role of coastal-interior inequalities—a primary feature of West Africa’s malformation—in the region’s history of military rule is evident. In the case of the first successful coup in sub-Saharan Africa, which occurred in Togo, the country’s first president, Sylvannus Olympio ‘was a scion of a commercial family from coastal Togo. His government included mainly people who came from southern Togo and belonged to the same ethnic group,’ remarks John Heilbrunn, a professor of international studies. This was until 1963 when the coup brought to power a regime that was more sympathetic to the northern population’s needs. Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was implicated in the 1963 coup, took power in 1967. As Frédérick Madore notes, Eyadéma claimed ‘to have “saved” the country from an ethnically unbalanced government in which the Ewé and Mina people from southern Togo were overrepresented.’
Similar coups and counter-coups reflecting north-south cleavages occurred in Nigeria (1966), Benin (1967), Sierra Leone (1968), Liberia (1980) and eventually Côte d’Ivoire (1999). In Mali, it was the military mobilization against the first Tuareg rebellion (1962-1964) in northern Mali which placed Mali on the path towards military rule in 1968.
Nigeria and Benin were the poster children of frequent coups. Between 1960 and 1972, Benin experienced eleven presidents (five civilians, six military men), six different constitutions twelve coups d’états, of which five were successful, and a level of political instability earning it the sobriquet enfant malade de I’Afrique. In the background of this instability was enduring rivalry between three political leaders representing the three major political regions of the country (Justin Ahomadegbe in the Southwest, Sourou-Migan Apithy in Porto-Novo and Hubert Maga in the North).
Democratization occurred widely in the 1990s, partly driven by economic difficulties, frustration over the ineffectiveness and instability of military rule and international pressure for democratic rule. Nonetheless, among the fewer coups that have occurred in twenty-first–century Africa, West Africa retains prominence with the failed and successful coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and Niger.
STAGE TWO: CIVIL WARS
Relative regional stability was maintained between the 1960s and 1970s through state patronage in a period of a growing global economy and commodity prices. This allowed regimes to distribute public funds, political appointments, public expenditure and state parastatals to secure a modicum of inter-regional stability. When commodity prices crashed and the Third World debt crises occurred in the 1980s, these systems of patronage collapsed.
It was in this general context that the Liberian Civil War occurred. It began with Samuel Doe’ military coup in 1980 which ended 133 years of coastal Americo-Liberian rule in Liberia and engaged in systematic killings of prominent members of the Americo-Liberian political class and forcing the majority of them into exile. In 1989, Charles Taylor (an Americo-Liberian with support from the Liberian community in exile) began a rebel assault from the north-eastern province of Nimba, reaching Monrovia by September 1990.
The Liberian Civil War had some spill over effects on Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau, amplifying the effects of their own structural vulnerabilities. The large-scale migration of labour from Côte d’Ivoire’s northern region and from neighbouring Sahel countries fuelled economic growth based on cocoa and coffee cultivation in the forest frontiers in the south, leading to a xenophobic backlash. As political scientist Elliot Green observes,
the dual factors of a declining economy and the death of President Houphouët-Boigny halted the ability of rulers in Abidjan to ease regional tensions, which led both to the creation of new ethnic/regional identities – Ivoirité in the South and a new concept of a ‘Grand North’ – and to the outbreak of civil war in 2002.
The Mano River region crisis resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis, the creation of Africa’s first regional military intervention force in 1990 (the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group), and the world’s largest peacekeeping operation at the time.
STAGE THREE: VIOLENT EXTREMISM
The Mano River region crisis subsided by 2007-2010 such that an Institute of Security Studies Situation Report could claim in 2010 that ‘intra-state conflicts were limited to sporadic instances of political violence in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria and parts of northern Mali and Niger, in addition to a ‘no peace, no war’ situation in Casamance.’
However, something else was brewing. The Sahel countries (and especially their Saharan regions) and the interior regions of the Gulf of Guinea countries received substantially less colonial development expenditure and attention than did coastal regions in West Africa. They have, therefore, long had significantly lower per capita incomes, literacy and school enrolment rates, and other poorer outcomes on human development indicators than coastal regions.
During the economic turbulence of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the Structural Adjustment programmes and deindustrialization, these regions were hard hit and forced to reckon with the stark failures of the secular development and democratic paradigm. These regions have also traditionally had Muslim majorities since Islam spread in West Africa through the Sahara and mainly through trade.
Faced with these economic downturns, a failed secular system, a legacy of state corruption and elites’ anti-poor orientation, awareness of the international atmosphere of Islamic revivalism, and sharing a history of violent religious dissidence since the late seventeenth century, it was not shocking that violent extremism emerged in West Africa. Since 2010, violence has been on the increase. The Lake Chad Basin and the Liptako–Gourma region are the two regions which form West Africa’s two primary epicentres of transnational violence.
In Nigeria, there has always been violent religious dissidence, such as the Mahdist-inspired uprisings of Mallam Njidda of Bama Hill (1949), Mallam Hanafi of Gwandu (1958), Abubakar Bawanke ‘Mahdi’ of Toranke (1965) and Muhammad Marwa who led the Maitatsine riots in Kano (1980-1985). It was the movement led by Muhammad Yusuf from Borno in the poorest region of the country’s north, the North East, which succeeded in building a large terrorist group by 2009 colloquially referred to as Boko Haram.
For Mali, the Algerian Civil War of 1991-2002 produced the violent extremist organization Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which expanded operations across the Central Sahara, taking advantage of weak national governance and development in areas like northern Mali and Niger, and aided by the rise of the United States’ Saharan Front for the Global War on Terror in 2002. Moreover, while Islam did not play a major role in previous Tuareg uprisings, Kassim Kone makes note of the fact that ‘it is only in the last Tuareg uprisings that Islam became the battle horse of the splinter group known as Ansâr ul-Dîn.’
That these two epicentres originated from Nigeria and Mali is no coincidence. The two countries are the major zones of reversal in West Africa. Nigeria is the location of: Bornu, which was the most powerful empire in Central Sudan after the Songhai Empire fell in the 1590s; Kano, the site of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa’s largest crafts industry; the Sokoto caliphate, the largest empire in nineteenth–century sub-Saharan Africa resulting from the most successful and largest ever jihad in the sub-continent; and the location of the southern termini of the most important trans-Saharan trade routes of the nineteenth century, the Kano-Tripoli and Bornu-Tripoli routes. Yet northern Nigeria is the poorest region in the country today while southern Nigeria holds Lagos, the wealthiest city in West Africa, and the Niger Delta which for many decades has been the largest oil-producing region on the continent.
Gao in Azawad of northern Mali was the capital of West Africa’s largest ever empire, the Songhai Empire. Timbuktu, an educational capital, was famed and sought after as an El Dorado in the Sahel and famed as holding one of the world’s first universities. Indeed, as the historian, Ọlatunji Ọlọruntimẹhin recounts, ‘Timbuktu region in particular had conjured this expectation in Europe [of an El Dorado where gold abounded and merely awaited extraction] for over two centuries.’ The Tuareg, who controlled trans-Saharan trade routes, held enslaved Africans acquired from their sedentary neighbours to the south and maintained a racialized hierarchy that became upended with colonial rule and the development of southern Mali to the neglect of northern Mali—as with Saharan spaces in Niger and Mauritania.
With Bamako made the colonial capital of the territory, southern Mali became primary among the landlocked Sahel territories of West Africa because it was an important junction for railway traffic. The traffic was with Dakar and the Atlantic to the west and with the interior to the east through the River Niger. Bamako also became a key transit point between the Niger Bend and the sea (east to west) and between Ivory Coast and Senegal (north to south). Across the continental Sahel French territories, it was in Mali that the largest Francophone West African agricultural development project (from its initiation in 1932 till today) occurred—the failed Office du Niger project.
The strength of diffusive forces of violence in West Africa is also due to the two epicentres’ locations at the centre-north (Mali) and south-eastern boundaries (Nigeria) of West Africa, which broaden their joint geographical reach (north and south, east and west). Especially given porous borders and ethnic groups with kin across borders in neighbouring countries. Therefore, insecurity in north–east Nigeria was able to diffuse into Chad, Niger and Cameroon, while insecurity in northern Mali has managed to spread to Burkina Faso and western Niger. Moreover, Nigeria holds half of West Africa’s population and 68.7 per cent of the ECOWAS economy and therefore its instability limits regional economic growth.
In over 60 years of independence, West Africa has passed through the predominance of military-led elite political instability, the Mano River sub-region crisis, the Lake Chad basin crisis and the Central Sahara-Sahel crisis. The rise of the latter crises means that violence in the region has only worsened over time. The fear now is that there is a risk of terrorism spreading from Mali and Burkina Faso to the northern regions of Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and even Ghana.
Compared to military coups and civil wars, violent religious extremism, on average, lasts longer and is more likely to recur after settlement than civil wars fought over other issues (such as ideology or ethnicity). Sahel and Savannah states, therefore, remain vulnerable to the resurgence (in Nigeria’s case), prolongation (in the Liptako-Gourma) and the spread (to the Gulf of Guinea) of violent extremism. It is in recognition of this threat that the World Bank in 2022 launched a $450 million programme to invest in northern regions of Gulf of Guinea countries (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo) to proactively prevent the spread of conflict from the Sahel.
Nonetheless, 20 years after the lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s, the growing global poly–crisis of overlapping emergencies (from COVID–19 to the Russian-Ukraine War, to debt distress and climate shocks), West Africa’s economic conditions could worsen this state of insecurity just as it did in the 1980s. Another dimension of malformation – the broken interdependence between sedentary and nomadic groups, and between desert and desert-edge could amplify this risk. Violence between herders and farming communities have increased since 2010, to the point that professor of global development studies, Leif Brottem, argues that ‘Although farmers and pastoralists have held competitive relations for centuries, the current climate of violence is unprecedented in modern times.’
While national, sub-regional and international efforts must continue and in many cases adapt to stabilize the region, there is great need for innovations in addressing the root causes of West Africa’s instability to prevent further regional regression. A first step would be to mobilize towards having the first ‘Sahvara Summit’. Sahvara is a portmanteau of Sahel, savannah and Sahara, referring to the band of societies encompassing the West African Sahara in the north to the northern regions of Gulf of Guinea countries in the south. The summit would be a starting point for a region-wide consciousness movement of the commonality of challenges that the Sahvara faces, including talibé (almajiri), spiralling farmer-herder conflicts, violent religious extremism, need for a revived trans-Saharan trade, and north-south political conflicts. Just as colonial reform and anti-colonialism brought together coastal West African elites to form region-wide movements like the National Congress of British West Africa in 1917 and the West African National Secretariat in 1945, the crises in the Sahvara should stoke additional levels of activism and coordination beyond the pioneering Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel in reaction to the great drought of 1973 and the G5 Sahel of 2014 in reaction to the Malian conflict⎈
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