Sources of fragility in West Africa

Min Kyung Yoo, a master’s student in my post-war stabilization and transition class, writes about a presentation yesterday on drivers of violence in West Africa by Alexandre Marc, Chief Technical Specialist of Fragility, Conflict, and Violence at the World Bank:

West African countries have experienced robust economic growth in the past decade. Since 1990, there has also been improvement in democratic consolidation, which seems to hold better than in other parts of Africa. Most governments in the region are elected and many people resist constitutional changes. In addition, West Africa has one of the most mobile populations in the world, hosting 7.5 million intra-regional migrants, and demonstrates strong regional cooperation through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Despite these positive signs, the Ebola crisis, the Nigerian war with Boko Haram, Mali’s fragility and the Burkina Faso revolt show the region is still fragile. Intra-state civil wars dominate in West Africa, including long-standing ethnic conflicts that disrupt national and regional economies. Politics in West Africa is ethnically oriented and political institutions are very weak. Political and election-related violence is a growing challenge. The nature of violence and conflict has shifted in the past decade, with new threats such as illegal trafficking, religious radicalization, and piracy. Piracy is more rampant along the coast of Guinea than off Somalia.

Marc discussed in depth five drivers of conflict and violence in West Africa:

1. Drug trafficking

Protracted conflicts and political instability, corruption, porous borders, and geographic location all contribute to making West Africa attractive to traffickers. While physical drug trafficking takes place in Guinea and Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Ghana are drawn into the business as they have more reliable and functioning banking system in which drug traffickers perform financial transactions. Drug trafficking has potential to compromise officials and security agents, destabilize governments and weaken states, erode the region’s social fabric and damage economic development.

2. Religious extremism

Religious extremism in West Africa is largely home-grown, and has developed in areas with strong grievances—unemployment, corruption, and perceived marginalization. Increasing traditionalization, intergenerational crisis, disillusionment with the state, as well as external factors such as civil wars in Algeria and Libya, have accelerated radicalization.

3. Challenges of youth inclusion

West Africa hosts a rapidly growing population, but lacks capacity to address the needs of youth. Challenges include poor quality education and few employment opportunities. Unemployment is rarely a main or direct cause of conflict. But youth tend to have high expectations and seek to assert themselves outside both traditional and modern institutions. Meeting the expectations of youth has been a big challenge, leading to frustration and alienation. Gender dimensions and rapidly changing gender roles should not be neglected.

4. Migration

Tensions surrounding migratory flows—including discriminatory notions of citizenship and foreigner, political and social marginalization, competition over land, resources, and employment—have contributed to violence and conflict in West Africa in past decades. Rapid urbanization across the region and the influx of migrants into urban center is another source of instability. Informal settlements populated by unemployed and marginalized youth intensify perceptions of inequality and increase the risk of violent crime and gang activity.

5. Fragility of political and land institutions

Competition for control over political processes that guarantee access to resources has been at the core of much conflict and violence in recent decades. The high incidence of military coups in the region reflects this trend. Almost every conflict in the sub-region features land: ambiguities around legal pluralism (customary and statutory land tenure), ineffective land management, and unequal distribution.

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