The collapse of real existing socialism in the form of the Soviet Union sent its shock waves to the African continent as well. Many African states thus lost their external financing. Financial flows from Moscow were not the only ones to dry up; on the contrary, many formerly communist Eastern European countries became recipients themselves, and Washington reallocated funds. Africa, before the 1990s still the theater of the Cold War, lost its importance in the eyes of strategists, and at the latest with the geopolitical defeats in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the genocide in Rwanda, the black continent seemed to have been abandoned as a hopeless case. Development aid dried up. In fact, the first half of the 1990s was characterized by states in which a wide variety of parties, interest groups and ethnic groups fought over the dwindling pie – which not too infrequently turned into open violence. The number of failing states whose governments could no longer maintain order skyrocketed, as did intra-state conflicts and the number of warring states.
So far, the story is familiar to most Europeans. But Western attention wavered as Africans managed to recover from this shock in the 1990s. At the turn of the millennium, the largest and bloodiest conflicts came to an end almost as quickly as they had built up in the early 1990s. The number of African states in conflict dropped from more than 15 to fewer than ten. This development did not come about by chance. After all, the 2000s led to a great wave of liberalization on the continent. The number of pure autocracies fell rapidly. They were replaced by anocracies, though not full-fledged democracies by a long shot. These anocracies integrate democratic elements into their form of government, leading to more inclusive institutions that involve the population. These democratic institutions allow for better compromise among interest groups and mutual checks and balances. In addition, these institutions address distributional issues and decision-making for public goods.
Instability – A Local Phenomenon
As in the West, no country or democratic structure was unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Measures such as lockdowns and contact restrictions and their enforcement took their toll here as well. Particularly in countries with weak or absent social welfare systems, the population was pushed to its breaking point. Poverty and deprivation forced many to take desperate measures, and the security situation in many regions deteriorated significantly.
The coups and outbreaks of violence in many cities and rural areas bode ill, as the coup in Niger in particular has shown us. One must always keep in mind that the Sahel is a vast area that can hardly be monitored (even with Western military technology). The region has always been prone to insurgency, banditry and instability. To challenge the state’s monopoly on the use of force, it often takes little more than a handgun and a good hiding place – neither of which is in short supply in the inaccessible landscapes with barely paved roads and scattered villages. This is exacerbated by rising food prices as a result of the pandemic and war in Ukraine.
Even though Niger (along with Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan) seems to be taking Africa off its road to success again, with its 20 million inhabitants after all, these are countries in precisely this Sahel region, and they are hardly exemplary for the rest of the continent. It is worth taking a look at the different regions of the continent: Northern Nigeria is also located in the Sahel and is plagued by the Islamist group Boko Haram. The same is true for northern Kenya, Marsabit, which actually experienced an upswing before COVID due to a new road and is now again infested by bandits. Yet, conversely, there is no sign of war or conflict in the major population centers on the coasts and inland. Africa remains diverse and is anything but homogeneous even within its countries.
Nevertheless, many African countries could revert to a different pattern: While today it is anocracies on the road to democracy that serve as the continent’s anchors of stability, in Cold War times autocracies took over this role. This was due to a perfidious mechanism: As soon as an autocrat liberalized and compromised with the opposition, this weakness was immediately exploited by an external power that escalated the situation to pull the country as a whole into its camp-be it the United States, the USSR, or even the autocratic apartheid regime of South Africa, Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, or Israel, which wanted to contain the expanding Islam on the Great Lakes equator. All supported opposition forces and supplied finance and firearms to bring the country completely over to their side. Today, a power is entering the scene in Africa in the form of Russia, which is acting in a similar manner. Africa’s peoples must be vigilant.