The Deluge Facing Africa’s Leaders Is Going to Get Worse

Originally published by The New York Times on August 13, 2023.

An uninterrupted swath of African countries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea is now under military rule. Mali, Guinea, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso and, most recently, Niger. Some of the putschists deposed elected leaders, like Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum. Others forestalled elections or even overthrew the leaders they had installed.

This is more than a series of distant and regrettable events. It’s a sign that a large part of the continent — mostly in an area south of the Sahara known as the Sahel — has fallen off the path of building functioning states. It raises an unsettling question that affects the whole world: How can poor and insecure countries forge political order and give their citizens the confidence that democratic government can deliver what they need?

Up to now, officials in Washington, Brussels, London and Addis Ababa, where the African Union is headquartered, have responded to each successive military takeover as its own crisis. Some observers see conspiracies in Moscow or terrorist networks at work, but in truth Russia’s Wagner Group and local jihadis are just opportunists. In each country recently taken over by generals, corruption had hollowed out civil administration and undermined politicians’ credibility, while soldiers have been empowered by foreign patrons wanting military bases, cooperation against terrorism and control of migration.

Democracy can’t survive if it can’t deliver results. Like the rest of the world, Africans want jobs, affordable food and housing, quality education and health care. They want peace and security and the chance to set the course of their own nations’ future without being told what they can and cannot do by foreign powers. Throughout much of Africa, citizens also overwhelmingly want democracy, but they get frustrated when elected leaders don’t deliver. When people do welcome a coup, it’s often because they see it as the path to a better elected government.

Democratic leaders everywhere struggle to make credible promises to electorates amid inflation, shortages and rising crime and insecurity. African leaders face no room for maneuver at all. They are trapped between lethal scissor blades: much bigger challenges and much less government capacity to respond to them. I once heard Meles Zenawi, a former prime minister of Ethiopia, say that governing his country was like running in front of an avalanche. Mr. Zenawi was no democrat, but his diagnosis of African leaders’ predicament seems more prescient with each passing year.

The biggest rocks in today’s avalanche are economic. African countries need foreign investment, but outside of oil, gas and minerals, they hardly ever deliver the rates of return that can compete with the leading stocks on Wall Street. Too often, investors want quick deals and rapid returns. Africa loses almost $90 billion — or 3.7 percent of its gross domestic product — in illicit financial flows each year, according to the United Nations, mostly through mispriced transactions within transnational companies. There’s also a new African debt crisis, with much of the money owed to China for mining, transportation and telecommunications.

When it comes to jobs, African countries can’t compete with China and other Asian countries in low-wage manufacturing, such as textiles and footwear; instead, they’re becoming dumping grounds for unwanted fast fashion. In the past, Sahelian communities relied on livestock raising, seasonal agriculture and trans-Saharan trade. Today, farming can’t employ nearly enough people and commercial food producers can’t compete in global markets. Ancient trade routes that once brought wealth to desert-edge towns have become hubs for smugglers and human traffickers.

The pandemic accelerated the landslide. Increasing costs of food imports were made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and given an even newer twist by Moscow’s recent pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Climate change is doing its part as well: Droughts, floods, heat waves and unpredictable growing seasons have struck African economies hard.

Every challenge is intensified by demographics. Niger has the fastest-growing population in the world, at over 3 percent per year. The 10 countries of the Sahel, where the coup dominoes are now falling, are home to about 354 million people today. The population for several of these countries is expected to more than double by 2050. By then, Africa will have 40 percent of the world’s youth aged 15 to 24. School and university class sizes are growing faster than teachers can be trained. Young people are entering the labor market in numbers that far surpass the expansion of jobs.

Europe and wealthy Arab countries want to keep African workers in Africa, but most of their funds and energies aimed at doing so go to deterring migrants from leaving — not creating the jobs people need to stay. Today’s migration flows are but a trickle compared with what is to come should we continue with business as usual.

All of the civilian governments that have been overthrown in recent years had failed to deliver on people’s basic needs — employment, security, education, health care. Junta leaders often win brief acclaim from frustrated citizens, but in the long run, they can’t deliver either. They can show bravado, win applause for expelling former colonial powers and generate energy around short-term campaigns, especially against insurgents. But this charade can’t be maintained for long, partly because aid gets cut and investors are deterred.

Under President Biden, the watchword for U.S. policy toward Africa has been “stability.” Washington responds to Africa’s coups and conflicts on a case-by-case basis, trying to minimize the disruption to U.S. goals in the region, including counterterrorism cooperation. That strategy buys time, but it doesn’t solve problems.

Disillusioned with the failures of state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the calamitous outcome of the intervention in Libya, the United States is in danger of forgetting the perils posed by failing states. America can’t impose templates; each country has unique challenges and must chart its own path. But Washington and its allies should lead the way in creating the wider economic conditions for countries to be able to meet their citizens’ legitimate demands.

The Biden administration defers to African leaders when engaging with the continent, which is, of course, the only reasonable thing to do. Up to now, that’s been its stance on the coup in Niger. The best option is negotiation — backed by diplomatic isolation and targeted sanctions — aimed to reinstall Mr. Bazoum in office. As a last resort, Washington could throw its weight behind neighboring countries sending troops to enforce the African Union principle, established in 2001, of rejecting an unconstitutional seizure of power. But the West African nations’ consensus for such a high-stakes step isn’t yet firm.

Africans and Americans alike must face the reality that there are no Africa-only solutions to the layered crises afflicting the Sahel. No one has a simple formula for creating viable states across the African continent. It’s one of the world’s most daunting challenges, and it’s getting harder every year in a warming, growing world. That is the best argument for settling on long-term strategies today. And the first step is acknowledging the scale of the crisis — and the inadequacies of what we have been doing up to now.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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