There has been a lot of bad news out of West Africa recently. Coup d’états have destabilized Mali and Guinea-Bissau. Nigeria has seen a series of terrorist attacks. Toureg rebels have conquered northern Mali and declared independence. Cote d’Ivoire is still recovering from its civil war. Meanwhile, there are reports about drug trafficking, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and a food crisis in the making.
No region in the world has more fragile states than West Africa. The region, which consists of the fifteen countries stretching from Senegal to Nigeria, exemplifies the problems of state building when surrounded by other fragile states. Pint-sized, expensive markets keep most countries isolated from the dynamic changes globalization is bringing elsewhere. The region’s aggregate GDP is roughly the same as Norway’s—despite having over fifty times more people. Although Ghana and Senegal have made significant political and/or economic gains in recent years, most of the other states have been rocked by war, ethnic or religious clashes, political unrest, famine, or serious economic dislocation at various times over the past two decades.
Common problems obscure immense diversity among the hundreds of different groups that populate the area, between northern Muslims and southern Christians, between deserts and rain forests, and between countries. The French and British colonized most of the region in the nineteenth century, dividing it linguistically, economically, and politically into one large country, Nigeria, and fourteen small fiefdoms. These boundaries did not reflect the strong cultural traditions of the Igbo, Hausa, Asante, Wolof, and other indigenous peoples (see map), and thus the legitimacy of these states was undermined from the outset, leaving divided populations to see any competition for power as a zero-sum game and enabling elites to exploit identity divisions for personal gain. When they became independent (mainly in the early 1960s), few of West Africa’s states had the cohesion and critical mass of effective administrators necessary to build the strong national institutions—such as regulatory bodies, central banks, and courts—that could in turn ignite growth.
Nine of the fifteen countries make Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index. Fourteen have “Low Human Development” levels (i.e., low levels of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living), according to the United Nations Development Programme. In essence, 75 percent of the area’s people live under governments that cannot deliver basic services—including, in many cases, security. The area contains eight of the world’s fourteen most impoverished territories, and over one-half of the overall population lives in poverty.
Inhabiting a bad neighborhood where almost all countries share analogous weaknesses multiplies the difficulties facing individual states. The troubles of one country often affect others—with disastrous consequences. Côte d’Ivoire, once West Africa’s economic star, has caused immense suffering throughout the region from its two civil wars and ongoing domestic conflict since the early 2000s. Millions of migrant workers were forced to flee, reversing the flow of remittances; trade relations were disrupted, shrinking markets; and criminal activity increased, disrupting legitimate businesses. Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war was rooted in identity group tensions but was itself exacerbated by the destabilizing impact of a macabre and bloody war in neighboring Liberia. The recent problems in Mali reflect a similar dynamic, with the country affected by the war in Libya. More than 25,000 peacekeepers are needed to maintain a fragile peace in the region’s simmering war zones.
Although West African prices for electricity and transport are among the highest in the world, the region’s power grids and transportation systems are woefully inadequate and unreliable. Regulatory burdens force all but the largest businesses underground. Much of the sparse road network is in poor condition and frequent checkpoints—one every fourteen kilometers on the road between Lagos and Abidjan—shrink markets (see map). The onerous business climate and small market sizes mean that little private capital is invested outside of Nigeria in anything but the natural resources sector.
Many of these problems are beyond the capacity of individual states to solve—especially states with limited capacity and cohesion.
Given ample evidence that the state-based development model is not working, what might be done?
Regionalism is the only real long-term answer. Although West Africa faces a unique concoction of problems, some of the functions performed by other regional organizations such as the European Union promise to be of great benefit if tailored to local needs. Imagine, for example, what might be achieved by a centralized commission with a long-term commitment to stabilizing, modernizing, and enriching West Africa; able to provide practical help and incentives to foster solid institutions, sound economic conditions, and democracy; staffed by executives intimate with local conditions; and empowered to seek regional solutions for what are, in essence, regional problems. If such a body could be created with the mandate to raise governance standards, merge economies, establish one set of rules for doing business, and integrate transportation systems, the new dynamism would not only unleash the caged entrepreneurism of West Africans but also draw multinational corporations from around the world.
By superseding national institutions in a few crucial domains, the new organ would help circumvent some of the most deep-rooted problems holding the region back. As a new entity, it would not inherit the troubled legacies of state governments, including illegitimacy spawned by discredited policies, toxic relations with identity groups, and legions of corrupt bureaucrats. By recruiting top-flight managers with the right mix of incentives, the new organization would swiftly become the region’s most competent public body, capable not only of devising common policies but also of helping transform state bureaucracies. Outsiders could concentrate their limited resources on supporting this one proficient organ instead of trying to fix fifteen dysfunctional bureaucracies.
To be sure, efforts to construct a regionwide organization face significant obstacles. Past initiatives to create such a body have been plagued by rivalries between states, by a reluctance to compromise national sovereignty, by internal instability within key states, by resistance from officials who profit from disparate national policies, and by a general lack of capacity and political will to move forward. Attempts at economic integration have met with especially stern opposition from the powerful vested interests. Rent-seeking traders and their government patrons stand to lose much business if formal and informal barriers to the effective coordination of policy are reduced. Even officials concerned not so much for personal gain as for the well-being of their country as a whole have been unwilling or unable to implement protocols regarding integration because of the threat of revenue losses from reduced tariffs and of job losses from diverted trade.
But regionalism has many proponents within Africa and progress is being made. West Africa has developed many regional security institutions with some success, but it has made much less progress in the economic sphere. The East African Community (EAC), composed of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, has done better. In 2010, the EAC introduced a common market, which is expected to permit the free movement of labor, capital, goods, and services throughout the region. A machine-readable ID card for every citizen is being introduced in EAC member states, which are also working on developing the mutual recognition and accreditation of their higher education institutions. Future plans include the adoption of a common currency and deeper political ties.
For more on regionalism in West Africa, see my article in the Washington Quarterly.