In 2023, Niger and Gabon closed the Sahel coup belt from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This was followed by an explosion of violence. But despite all the bad news, the conflicts have so far remained regionally limited – and surprisingly, they have hardly had any impact on the economic growth rates of the affected countries.
The last elected governments in Niger and Gabon fell like dominoes in 2022. They thus joined an illustrious circle of coup countries on the edge of the Sahara. This also closed a belt from the east to the west coast of Africa of countries that are now ruled by a military junta: the so-called coup belt. What they all have in common is a very impassable and difficult-to-control environment across almost endless expanses in the Sahel region, where the Sahara desert merges into the vast savannah.
With the exception of Ethiopia and Sudan, all coup countries have in common that they are former French colonies in which their hegemon still plays a major role in security policy. In 2021, French President Macron announced the gradual withdrawal of his nation. This opened up a power vacuum into which army generals were only too happy to advance – the spoils were the resources of a highly centralized state – a form of government that is also a legacy of France, in which everything is tailored to the country’s French capital. But while the media reports focus primarily on these individual countries, a deeper look at the sub-national level would reveal that even those countries that appear stable today have an equally strained security situation in their regions with similar geographical conditions – such as Ghana and Nigeria in their states bordering the coup belt or Kenya’s north with its merciless desert bordering Somalia.
An explosion of violence in West and Central Africa
In fact, violence exploded at the beginning of 2023, especially in West and Central Africa. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded a sharp increase in fatalities (in fighting, attacks from a distance such as drones or airstrikes, protests and riots and violence against civilians). However, as the ACLED relies primarily on reports available on the internet in online newspapers and social media, this figure could still be extremely underestimated if rural areas in particular are inaccessible to journalists or if the internet infrastructure has been cut off across a wide area, as in Iran (although the ACLED itself has compiled an extensive database on this). The civil war in Sudan only broke out in the second quarter of 2023, which means that its fatal impact in East Africa is not yet reflected. However, it is clear that the figures have been steadily rising with the emergence of COVID-19 and the associated measures, driving up the number of victims.
The increase in the number of incidents counted since 2011 is not necessarily due to an actual increase in the number of deaths. It could also be due to an increasingly developed internet infrastructure and an ever-increasing spread of cell phones and social media among the population of Africa – even in the most remote corners – which makes the incidents known to a wider public. Nevertheless, this does not explain the explosion of violence that shook West and Central Africa from 2023 onwards.
Did France’s withdrawal from the Sahel lead to an escalation of violence?
Even if there are other trouble spots in West Africa, the Sahel states with their vast expanses of land, less settled peoples, such as the Tuareg, who lost their traditional settlement areas after Libya’s civil wars, and Muslim groups that harbor Islamic State jihadists, remain a witch’s cauldron for peace. At the latest with the arrival of the coronavirus and the resulting freezing of global supply chains, which made access to food and fuel more difficult, the distribution struggles became fiercer. Russia’s attack on one of the largest exporters of grain and wheat, as well as the blockade of international payment systems by Russia, a no less important producer of fertilizer and food, and its ability to export fossil fuels, put an end to the region.
Extreme temperatures caused by climate change and the El Niño weather phenomenon are making it even more difficult for people in the region to meet their food needs with their own agriculture. Russia also recently pulled out of the grain deal that allowed Ukraine to ship grain from its own ports. The African Development Bank warns that this will further reduce the country’s capacity to ensure its own food security. This all leads to a shrinking pie, which is now being fought over even more relentlessly. The World Bank warns of a further deterioration of the situation and further unrest.
The Sahel – A region of unrest that puts the whole of Africa in the shade
Within a few years, the situation in the countries of the Coup Belt began to escalate to such an extent that almost a third of all violent events in Africa have taken place in this region since the beginning of 2023. In the rest of the continent, too, violence is mainly taking place in certain hotspots, such as the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though a slight upward trend was already evident beforehand, the violent events in this region obviously picked up speed from 2020 onwards with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethiopia’s civil war in the Tigray region only broke out after elections should have been suspended indefinitely due to the pandemic.
The International Monetary Fund writes that destabilizing attempts have increased recently, coups, election challenges and unrest seem to be becoming the norm again in Africa after years of democratization. In the Sahel regions in particular, Russian mercenaries are increasingly filling the security gap left by French (and in some cases German) soldiers who have been forced to withdraw by the region’s new military governments. It is difficult to predict whether this is just a temporary transitional weakness of the new security forces or whether they will be able to bring the situation under control together with their Russian allies. However, as the latter are paid primarily through commodity contracts, it does bring back memories of Africa’s history, in which the continent’s inhabitants were regularly played off against each other by external forces.
Hardly any influence on economic development
The persistently high cost of food and dried-up state budgets to alleviate it are leading to distribution conflicts and political instability. The African Development Bank speaks of a tripling of unrest due to high prices. It is obvious that these developments have a very strong impact on investment in the region and subsequently on its economic growth, as well as limiting the opportunities for young people to find jobs and earn a living.
Surprisingly, however, this is not reflected anywhere in the International Monetary Fund’s latest forecasts from October 2023. No unconstitutional change of government that shook confidence in legal certainty or a violent clash that destroys investments seems to be slowing down growth. Although the growth figures for some countries have had to be revised downwards somewhat, there has never been a slump of the kind seen in other countries in a state of crisis and war, such as Libya, where growth plummeted by 50 percent.
Development economist Carlos Oya explains that foreign investment in Ethiopia, which is pursuing a very ambitious industrialization strategy, proved to be very resilient. Despite the outbreak of war and the rebels’ march on the capital, numerous production companies in the leather and textile industry did not pull out their machines and remained in the country.
However, many of the Sahel countries have not yet produced any significant manufacturing industry and their economies are still largely based on small-scale, rural production, primarily agriculture. However, an inquiry to several country departments of the International Monetary Fund remained unanswered as to which assumptions and data these forecasts are based on.
Africa’s conflicts are regionally limited – but also in terms of time?
Even if current economic figures do not appear to reflect the rapid increase in conflicts in the Sahel region, the risks to the development of these countries and their poverty-stricken populations outweigh the risks. Even if there had not been an immediate economic collapse, necessary economic and social reforms threaten to take a back seat and prevent the countries in the region from realizing their potential in the long term.
What’s more, the challenges have barely been overcome and the reserves and savings of many people have been used up – although others have long been looming on the horizon: El Niño threatens to exacerbate already severe heatwaves, the war in Ukraine and its impact on global grain markets are far from being resolved. The war now brewing in the Middle East will extend the already thin acute aid of the aid programs to many more people in need. Instability is causing investment to dry up and high interest rates are hardly making it any easier for countries to refinance themselves and launch aid programs.
Ultimately, however, it should be borne in mind that the conflicts are currently regional, mainly limited to the Sahel region, even if the danger of a spillover to other regions should not be underestimated. Other countries are already harboring the seeds of conflict: Muslim population groups and ethnic minorities in other countries could join uprisings. Conflicts of interest and tensions can no longer be covered up with financial means. Under the impression of further pressure from external shocks, other countries on the continent could be drawn into the maelstrom of coups, unrest and instability.
Conversely, however, a rebound in the Chinese economy could drive up commodity prices and flush revenue into African state coffers. Similarly, the interest rates of the most important leading currencies, the euro and the US dollar, could soon fall again and thus relieve the pressure on African budgets. All of this could turn the development of many countries on the continent in a positive direction again and provide light at the end of the tunnel.