Seven trends shaping the future of peace and security in Africa

Surveying the current state of the peace and security landscape in Africa is a complex task. The drivers of conflict and violence include young populations, high unemployment, lack of equal opportunities, urbanisation, poverty, inequality, too many guns, and bad governance and corruption.

In spite of unprecedented economic growth and efforts towards establishing peace in a number of countries, the devastating socio-economic impact caused by previous and ongoing unrest serves as a catalyst for chronic instability in years to come. Several African countries have seen an upsurge in political violence and polarisation, while others are in a state of limbo. This provides fertile ground for violent extremism to grow. 

Although there are signs of stabilisation of trends in 2016, the upsurge has caused millions of people to flee their homes. At present there are no clear signs of the trouble letting up. Among the main dimensions characterising the continent’s peace and security landscape, seven in particular stand out as critical for leaders in government, business and civil society to understand and act on, not least the interconnections between them.

Will Africa get ahead of climate change so as to reduce negative impacts on security?

Can we achieve accountability in African societies by strengthening institutions? Can the rule of law be a deterrent to bad leaders? These are some of the issues that need to be addressed to help shape a new agenda for stability on the continent:

1. Poverty versus inclusive growth. Poverty and social injustice have long been drivers of insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, this is further exacerbated by armed insurgencies and terrorist groups who feed off widespread frustration, especially among young people. Economic growth on the continent is forecast to continue at healthy average rates of 5-7% per annum, but there is an urgent need to ensure it raises living standards more broadly to tackle extreme poverty and inequality across the continent.

The rapid growth and the uneven spread of foreign investment around cities and certain sectors is cementing this. The infrastructure needs remain high, and the importance of fully internalising the importance and needs of cities and the built environment becomes more critical. Putting into place policies for inclusive growth, investments in education and health, and providing public services to the poorest, would improve social cohesion and harmony in African societies. It would also ensure the economic allure of Africa as an area of investment for regional as well as external partners.

2. Sustainably managing resources. Africa is blessed with abundant natural resources and land, but these have often been exploited irresponsibly. This has damaged the environment, widened wealth inequality and fuelled resentment and conflict. Increasingly serious problems with water distribution and population growth will put greater pressure on the need to modernise subsistence agriculture, while climate change effects will aggravate the problems: drought, floods or poor harvests may create new refugee populations and increase strains over shared resources.

Will Africa manage its water, mineral, and agricultural resources sustainably, so as to avoid the resources curse or future resource conflicts? Will Africa get ahead of climate change impacts, so as to reduce their negative impacts on security?

Weak governance is perhaps the most important driver of conflict in Africa

3. Closing the ‘grey zones’ in governance. Perhaps the most important driver of violence and conflict in Africa today is weak and unconsolidated governance. Bad governance and corruption don’t just undermine development; they also drive violence.

Yet the moral and financial investment in fighting downstream consequences of corruption – including terror, drug trafficking and organised crime – is much greater than the investment in stopping graft. In addition, too many developed countries tolerate the export and enabling of corruption by their corporate and individual citizens. Good governance requires political will, and business must be an activist partner in Africa’s development.

Africa is making progress in this regard. Indeed, the African Union (AU) recognises that national and regional governance institutions need to be strengthened. The African Peer Review Mechanism is seeing somewhat of a revitalisation, and the AU’s African Governance Architecture (AGA) is increasingly part of mainstream discussions on the need for more integrated responses to Africa’s security and development challenges. But the task of building and consolidating institutions requires long-term persistence. Furthermore, there is a growing need to tackle corruption, improve transparency and secure the democratic space.

State presence needs to be strengthened in ‘grey zones’, where problematic non-state actors such as extremist groups, terrorist organisations and criminals have flourished in the absence of government control and even established their own administrations. Grey zones in West Africa and the Sahel, in particular, are becoming global hubs for criminal activity, including illicit fishing, piracy, and trafficking of drugs, arms and people.

Grey zones in the Sahel are becoming global hubs for criminal activity

4. Addressing the ‘democratic deficit’. The (growing) imbalance between levels of human development and economic growth and political and social inclusion remains a key threat to stability.

In settings where democracy has not been entrenched, there is a lack of transparency and trust in the process – or where the government has been actively factional in favouring one ethnic group above others, election-related violence often occurs. The role of social media as an ‘amplifier’ is still not contended with by regional leaders.

Leaders have sometimes been unwilling to step down when ousted in a vote and use various methods, both legal and otherwise, to prolong their stay in power. Examples include Burundi and the unfolding situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The increasing connectedness of the population should also be viewed as an opportunity to address the deficit, including better civil education programmes and election monitoring and the quality of civic processes.

5. Regionalism that delivers on regional solutions. After years of talking about it, African regional organisations are finally starting to provide solutions to African problems.

These institutions must further improve their ability to positively influence national politics, monitor internal behaviours of member states and prevent human rights violations. Over time, more robust regional and national conflict resolution structures and mechanisms are being developed, but still struggle to raise necessary funds and mobilise sufficient political support to become fully operational.

These need in turn to be given space and support by non-African actors who are accustomed to intervening in African affairs. There is a need to go beyond existing mechanisms to create regional and sub-regional forces that are equipped to deal with security issues – including the spread of transnational organised crime, terrorism and election-related violence. However, this must be done in ways that avoid adding to the region’s problems with increasing militarisation (in spite of the overall defence expenditure of the continent remaining low).

It is critical to harness the potential of the continent’s youthful population

6. Youth, as a stabilising or destabilising factor. Africa is a young continent, with the median age at just 19 years. The protruding youth population could become an important economic boost to the region. Alternatively, it could further increase the risk of instability and violence if young people are deprived of a quality education, stable employment and a political voice.

It is also critical to promote an education system ‘fit for purpose’, with a strong focus on entrepreneurship and technology to optimise opportunities and reframe narratives. Failing to do so will have wide-ranging consequences. If large populations of youth become sufficiently disillusioned with their prospects and try to migrate elsewhere in search of economic opportunities, social cohesion could be challenged, both within and outside of Africa.

It is critical to harness the potential of the continent’s youthful population and meet their expectations for education, opportunities and jobs to create long-term security.

7. Technology as a game-changer. Technological changes are raising the security stakes and enabling self-organisation of individuals in both negative (terrorism/extremism) and positive (social change/transparency) ways. The potential for technology to do good in Africa is, however, staggering – as has been demonstrated in areas ranging from improving education quality and quantity, to mobile money reaching the unbanked, data being used to improve public health, and connectivity improving transparency.

However, protecting millions of newly connected Africans from cyber security threats is a major concern, as is the usefulness of the Internet as a recruitment tool for extremist groups operating in the region.

Anton du Plessis, Executive Director, Institute for Security Studies and Anja Kaspersen, Head of International Security, World Economic Forum, Geneva

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum

Picture: ©John Robinson/Africa Media Online

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