The Enduring Malformation of West Africa Why Economics Alone Cannot Explain West Africa’s Slow Development

Many West African countries have disparities between their northern and southern regions that conventional economic literature can neither explain nor solve. Across West Africa, there is a growing case for thinking about these shared disparities from a regional lens. 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.

West African scholars and politicians had high hopes for their region at independence. Even before this, in 1927 Ladipo Solanke had published United West Africa or Africa at the Bar of the Family of Nations, in which he argued that:

It took the white race a thousand years to arrive at their present level of advance: it took the Japanese, a Mongol race, 50 years to catch up with the white race, there is no reason why we West Africans, a Negro race, should not catch up with the Aryans and the Mongols in one quarter of a century.

Sadly, this prediction woefully failed. Instead, West Africa has gone over 60 years without the development Solanke envisioned, and Nigeria, the ‘giant of Africa’, ranks high on state fragility and features one of the highest poverty rates in the world.

We should not be too critical of the lofty dreams optimistic Africanist nationalists, economic liberals, dependency theorists and socialists had decades ago. It is only from the 1990s that the broader implications of West African (and African) development challenges have manifested empirically, in persistent poverty, greater difficulty in fostering growth-enhancing national political systems, the persistence of low intra-regional official trade and weak economic integration, high levels of parallel trade and violent extremism and droughts across the Sahel and Sahara.

It was only in 2000 that Frances Stewart, director of the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) at the University of Oxford, convinced scholars to go beyond simple terms like ‘tribalism’, ‘prebendalism’, ethnic diversity and class struggles to emphasize horizontal inequalities as key for studying the roots of many conflicts in Africa.

Building on these developments, one could argue that West Africa is ‘malformed’—an idea based on three major arguments—spatial inequalities between coastal and hinterland spaces, the decline in functional interdependency between the desert-edge and the savannah, and the fall of trans-Saharan trade as a revenue source and environmental risk mitigation for its populations. Political scientists and development scholars have begun to give greater attention to the role of spatial inequalities in African politics. Development scholars have also come a long way from perceiving economic development as simply requiring political will to a better and more complex understanding of political economy constraints.


By the 1500s, when Africa maintained middle position in global rankings based on technology, population, or power, and when development in Africa was strongly concentrated in the west of the continent, the bulk of West Africa’s population and the major centres of high population density were in the savannah interior, especially the Niger Bend. This subregion held very large cities—the best known of which are Niani, Jenne, Timbuktu, and Gao (all in modern-day Mali)—from the early centuries of the 1000s to the 1500s. Historian Joseph Inikori has described these cities as occupying a ‘powerful growth pole for all the subregions,’ and enjoying ‘geographical location advantages which made the region the centre of trade and manufacturing in West Africa until the middle centuries of the second millennium.’ The region’s interior also ranked highly in measures of urbanization (measured by city sizes), communications, agriculture, military, industry, transportation technologies, and literacy.

The growth of the trans-Atlantic trade empowered a few coastal kingdoms and, the subsequent emergence of nineteenth-century movements to replace it with Afro-European commodity trade, led to the coastal West Africa’s increased wealth. This led to the region representing nearly 33 per cent of the value of British exports to Africa by the mid-nineteenth century. The dawn of colonization, and subsequent colonial investments in rail to leverage coast to country movement, led to the eventual decline of the trans-Saharan trade. It also meant a reversal of fortunes between the coast and the Sahara-Sahel-Savannah occurred, because the end of trans-Saharan trade was accompanied by infrastructure spending that was mostly directed towards coastal spaces and colonies since they dominated in shares of Atlantic-exported products

Although the budget of the French colonial empire’s economic and investment fund increased development spending by 867 per cent between 1946 and 1960, the majority was allocated to port and road development in the coastal states, whose southern regions made up 91 per cent (in value terms) of exported products in French West Africa. Moreover, until 1955, almost all external private financial contribution to this public effort was channelled to the light industries of areas around Dakar. This investment deficit was even worse for desert spaces.

By 1960, it was the coastal states (Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria) which had the highest manufacturing shares of GDP in the region. The result was that, by 1990, the countries in the Gulf of Guinea around Nigeria (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Cameroon) accounted for more than 80 per cent of West Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is highly concentrated on a shallow coastal strip (within 25 kilometres from the coast) which generates 56 per cent of West Africa’s GDP (which could increase to two-thirds by 2050), and makes up 51 per cent of the urban populations of these countries, despite being home to only 31 per cent of the total population of the region. This situation is reinforced by market dynamics which concentrate private domestic, foreign, even public investment and sometimes foreign aid in these areas.


Across West Africa, more inland regions regained influence through political power due to their large populations and/or the fragmentation of southern regions (as in Nigeria and Benin), through waves of coups and military rule (with West Africa having the highest share of Africa’s military coups), or both.

Economically lagging northern regions increasingly asserted centralized power in different countries in different ways. Some did so through military coups, as in Benin (first under Mathieu Kerekou in 1972), Togo (first under Gnassingbé Eyadéma in 1967), Sierra Leone (first under Siaka Stevens in 1967/1968) and Liberia (first under Samuel Doe in 1980, overturning 137 years of Americo—Liberian settler rule concentrated in the south-west).

Others leveraged their demographic power to hold political power through the electoral process, although waves of military rule centralizing national power further entrenched their influence, as in Nigeria (under civilian prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, in 1960 and subsequently under centralizing military rule). In the Sahel, only the Arab-Berber Mauritanians consolidated power over their Afro-Mauritanian counterparts (first under Moktar Ould Daddah in 1960), aided by the division of black Mauritanians between Haratin and Afro-Mauritanians.

Northern coup plots and rumours occurred in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1960s, with the attempt in 2002 failing and leading to the country’s civil war—although the country’s first northern president, Alassane Ouattara, has led the country since 2010. The demographically weak, but strategically mobile, Tuareg of northern Mali and northern Niger have launched rebellions multiple times, but insurrections and terrorism are yet to lead to a power shift in Bamako and Niamey. In another outlier, Ghana, the northern region possessed neither the population, high level of pre-colonial political centralization, nor the military seniority among the officers’ corps to succeed in capturing power.

It has led to uneven development between hinterland and coastal territories, within the region. On one hand, politically marginalized lagging regions (such as the northern regions of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger), too politically weak to channel central government resources to their regions, suffer from inadequate development expenditure channelled to their regions from central governments. However, conversely, politically powerful, but economically lagging regions in the rest of the countries suffer from weak states, inter-regional competition and policy incoherence which distort development action undertaken by both central governments and subnational governments in lagging regions. In Ghana, for instance, the Nkrumah regime set up a tomato-canning facility in Tamale in the Northern Region, despite production of tomatoes and the main consumer markets being located in the south. In Côte d’Ivoire where the state agency, Sodesucre was established to implement the policy of constructing and operating sugar plants and complexes to drive rural development across northern Côte d’Ivoire, but, as Dwayne Woods argues, ‘Sodesucre officials were not allowed to plan production exclusively around economic objectives.’ In Nigeria, the historian Olufeni Ekundare observes how there was systematic ‘duplication of projects, and an unhealthy competition among the Regions with consequent economic waste.’


Ethnic inequality has contributed to the normalcy of ethno-regional party mobilization in West Africa and therefore the dispersion of power at the national level. First, as Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai proposes, the division of power itself, and its biasing of ruling elites, towards short-term political survival may make them more inclined towards immediate and ‘visible’ policy outcomes as opposed to long-term productive investments that would otherwise be necessary for reducing poverty in lagging regions.

Second, the need to capture a wide range of voters may push ruling elites, in the distribution of public goods, to focus on broader geographical coverage (irrespective of varied level of needs). A recent example is the hurried formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party in Nigeria with the short-term goal of snatching power away from a ruling party whose incumbent presidential candidate had been accused of disrupting an informal ethno-regional power rotation arrangement after having succeeded a deceased president descended from the north. Consequently, while the ruling coalition has made some progress on visible transport infrastructure projects, progress in addressing more complex security, development and macroeconomic challenges has been elusive.

Indeed, the first dataset quantifying political settlements developed at the Effective States and Inclusive Development Center (ESID) to understand how politics and distributions of power affect development, shows that among 44 developing countries, sub-Saharan Africa exhibits the highest level of national dispersion of power, while West Africa (only five Gulf of Guinea countries—Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea) ranks highest on the same metric within the continent. In fact, West Africa ranks the lowest in Africa in terms of virtually all the variables identified as critical for industrial and development policy success.

At the subnational level, being a lagging region comes with institutional characteristics which make it more difficult to overcome that condition. These characteristics often include not having a strong middle class, civil society and productive capitalist class to press for more developmental action by regional and local governments, while weaker administrative capacity limits the capacity for regional governments to effectively implement development policy. Alexandre Marc, Neelam Verjee and Stephen Mogaka observe that ‘Most lagging regions experience governance problems. In some cases, the problem is one of capacity, but frequently it reflects dysfunctions in the modalities of governance in remote regions.’ Zainab Usman notes that although the largest city of interior West Africa, Kano (larger in population size than Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou and any other savannah cities), has a strong historical commercial legacy, ‘an unskilled human capital stock, large but weak private sector and weak civil society presence’ have ‘limited influence in the policy process compared to the well-organized and vocal minority of conservative Islamists.’

Catherine Boone, in her Political Topographies of the African State, called Africanist scholars to focus on how ‘there are significant regional (subnational) variations in the political capacities and interests of rural societies and rural notables,’ in contrast to scholars in the 1970s to 1990s on both left and right whom often depicted rural Africa, ‘– often by default – as homogeneous and uniformly alienated from national politics.’

In continuity with colonial practices of indirect rule, Boone argues that national ruling coalitions often choose a strategy of ‘power-sharing’ to project power into rural localities where hierarchical communal structures exist (thereby giving these rural elites bargaining power with the central state) and where rural elite are economically dependent upon the state (for instance, through access to state-provided goods necessary for agrarian services). Power-sharing means that state authorities administer rural localities by a deconcentrated network of state agencies and outposts spread across the villages and small towns, and the state rules the countryside indirectly, through chiefs and notabilities.

Boone highlights that major consequence of power-sharing is its non-conduciveness to economic innovation and its non-openness to widened grassroots participation in local governance. She argues that ‘the most noticeable effect of ‘democratic decentralization’ in such cases, at least in the short run, is likely to be the further empowerment of the pre-existing local elite.’ This applies to cases like northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria, Chad, the Zerma and Hausa regions of Niger, northern Ghana and the Korhogo region of northern Côte d’Ivoire.

This also implies that the move towards decentralization and subnational unit proliferation (i.e., increasing the number of subnational administrative units such as states, local governments and districts) across West Africa does not solve this problem. Guy Grossman and Janet Lewis have observed a ‘rarely noted phenomenon’: the trend of proliferation of subnational administrative units particularly pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, where almost half of countries increased their number of administrative units by over 20 per cent since the mid-1990s. Their list of sub-Saharan African countries that have increased their number of subnational administrative units by over 20 per cent since the 1990 shows that West Africa ranks first in administrative unit proliferation since 1990.

Generally, newly created administrative units face relative difficulty generating resources and staffing a full and competent bureaucracy, and as a result, are less capable of providing public goods to their constituencies. Decentralization also empowers local powerbrokers and weakens local democracy, and in the Sahel and Sahara, ‘the recent politics of decentralization imposed on national states has not brought more equality; instead, corruption has been installed as part of culture and society.’ In other words, centralized state redistributive interventions, market mechanisms and decentralization have had limited impact on spatial inequalities in West Africa.


Malformation is not inconsequential. That the Liptako-Gourma area (at the intersection of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) and the Lake Chad Basin (at the intersection of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon) form ‘the two main epicentres of transnational violence’ in West Africa is not a coincidence. The epicentres of West Africa’s malformation are Nigeria and Mali because they are the West African countries where the reversal between northern and southern regions have been most salient.

Analysts are realizing that relatively successful counter-insurgency efforts in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger risk pushing terrorists’ ‘territorial expansion towards the Gulf of Guinea countries and their desire to extend their influence beyond Sahelian countries’, especially northern Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, and also Ghana.

Unfortunately, coastal-hinterland disparities are often persistent. It might not be that much of a problem for regions with strong state capacity, undergoing widespread development and characterized by sufficient inland navigable waterways which connect coastal spaces with distant interiors. This applies, for instance, to China which has experimented with taking inland the urbanization strategy successful in the leading coastal areas in the 1980s and 1990s, in order to enhance interregional equality.

This is not the case for Africa, however, since Africa is the continent with the lowest number of inland navigable rivers relative to continental size and holds the highest number of people living in landlocked countries. Solving West Africa’s crisis and addressing its spatial inequalities requires much more than conventional economic analysis, deployment of the ‘good governance’ literature and simple arguments to turn towards a population-centric and development-oriented counter-insurgency approach. ‘Good governance’ analysis must be replaced by that of ‘developmental governance’ and West Africans must analyse their countries’ problems from a more regional lens

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