Will the Rest of Africa Be the Next Phase of the "Arab" Awakening?

10/23/2012 03:28 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2012

As the Syrian conflict descends into an abyss, Libya has become a land of battles between security forces and jihadists, and Egypt is struggling to adjust to its evolving version of 'democracy.' Little seems predictable -- in the short or longer term -- in the countries that have to date experienced the Arab Awakening. Little has turned out as had been hoped -- by these countries' people, regional governments, or the larger global community -- and optimists about the future are rare.

Now that the genie has been let out of its bottle, there is of course no turning back. It remains to be seen whether events to date will prove to be watershed moments in the Middle East and North Africa's political history, or simply a transferal of autocratic power from one despotic political force to another. One has to wonder what the real prospects for long-term success are among the heterogeneous countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A realist would have to say that there is a chance that some of the countries that have experimented with democracy to date will end up looking more like Iran than Turkey.

Implications for Sub-Saharan Africa

As the MENA continues to convulse with political change, contagion in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been conspicuously absent. The region has its fair share of rulers-for-life, but none has to date hinted at granting concessions in an attempt to appease their political opponents. Given the number of highly indebted poor countries in SSA, the region would appear ripe for similar uprisings, yet meaningful protests have initially erupted only in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon and Zimbabwe, and have been scarce since, and the protest movements failed to attract broad-based popular support.

Both regions have leaders who have remained in power for decades and become accustomed to abusing power without opposition. While North Africa's longest serving leaders have been in power ranging from 22 to 40 years, eight countries south of the Sahara have leaders who have been in power for 17 years or more: Equatorial Guinea (33), Angola (33), Zimbabwe (32), Cameroon (32), Uganda (25), Burkina Faso (25), the Gambia (19) and Rwanda (18). In addition, Congo-Brazzaville's President Sassou Nguesso has been in power for 28 of the last 33 years, and Gabon's Omar Bongo and his son have ruled since 1967 (45 years).

Many of the statistics regarding health and welfare of citizens in SSA are more severe than those in MENA, and many of the longest-standing regimes in both regions are among the world's most repressive. Why then have the populations of SSA's poorest and most repressed states failed to rise up against their rulers? One reason is that they undoubtedly see the instability and chaos that can result. The crisis in the Ivory Coast appears to have focused minds in the region. Also, much of North Africa boasts an ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic homogeneity that contrasts sharply with SSA's vast diversity, which helps explain why SSA has not seen popular uprisings on the same scale as MENA.

A sense of unity and commonality of purpose between protestors of different socioeconomic strata and ideological, religious and political views brought Islamists side by side with secularists, with Muslims and Christians praying together in Cairo's Tahrir Square. By and large however, most Arab states -- and those of North Africa in particular -- have relative cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious homogeneity, which cannot be said of most sub-Saharan states. This shared identity has contributed to a greater sense of national identity amongst North Africans that can transcend political boundaries. In comparison, south of the Sahara, where ethnic, religious and cultural differences have contributed to numerous civil and cross-border wars since the 1960s, this common sense of identity is often subordinate to tribal and ethnic loyalties.

A good example of this is the role played by national armies in North Africa. Largely independent of politics and ideology, the armed forces of both Tunisia and Egypt were praised for their independence and restraint during their respective crises. In many nations in SSA, this type of (largely) neutral military is often not present. Militaries are more often than not loyal to the strong man -- who is often drawn from the same ethnic group -- and not the nation per se. Militaries and indeed police are often seen as sources of instability and violence, rather than protection. Since it is unlikely that the ethnic group of a president would be protesting, soldiers have been known to fire indiscriminately on protestors. The fear of military brutality may also have been augmented by the response of the Assad and Gaddafi regimes -- something that was debated by Western governments in relation to their willingness to intervene.

The proximity of the North African revolts to Europe impacted the relative swiftness of responses from European governments, as did the impact of European responses to the unrest among the Tunisian and Egyptian populations, which are more connected to the continent than their SSA's counterparts. The familiarity of MENA's population with social media stands in stark contrast to their southern counterparts, who are much more accustomed to relying on independent voices from the diaspora population living in Europe and the U.S. Such technological constraints have made it difficult for ordinary Africans to calibrate the power of a united and determined people. Higher levels of urbanization also played a role in the success of the MENA movements, with an average of 52 percent of North Africans living in cities, compared with 37 percent of citizens of SSA.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that any small protest movements in SSA will escalate on the scale necessary to force some of the region's longest serving rulers to step down. If protests were to escalate, it is likely that they will be met with violence and repression, given the West's reluctance to put boots on the ground in countries that are neither resource rich nor otherwise strategically important to the West. The outcome of any spontaneous uprisings in SSA may ultimately depend on the relative importance of the countries to the developed world, either by virtue of their natural resources or strategic positioning.

Implications for West Africa

al-Qaeda clearly sees Africa as fertile ground for expanding its reach. While the world's attention has been focused this year primarily on Iran and Syria, groups such as Boko Haram (BH), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other splinter terrorist organizations have made substantial progress in either heavily influencing or controlling significant swathes of territory in some countries in West Africa. The west of Libya, northern Nigeria and northern Mali are all experiencing extreme levels of violence at the hands of BH and like-minded Islamic militant groups. Northern Mali fell to al-Qaeda-linked militants earlier this year, and their influence soon spread to Niger and Nigeria.

A primary reason West Africa is experiencing so much violence and upheaval from so many Islamist militant groups is that the area is so expansive, and local governments are incapable of exerting control outside of major population areas. As with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, FARC and the LTTE, BH, AQIM and MUJWA are not willing to negotiate. Even if they were, their end goals are not compatible with those of the national governments which they are battling, or the international community. The number of splinter groups are too numerous, and the swathes of territory they operate in too large to be effectively countered. In addition, the region's military forces are stretched thin, and much of the developed world has neither the inclination nor money to do much about it.

A larger issue is that the region's governments too often view the rise of these groups as merely security issues, failing to grasp the poverty, economic underdevelopment, and failure to provide adequate government services as root causes of the problem. In addition, the battle against them has become politicized, as politicians use the fight to promote their own political causes, and the region's militaries use the fight to secure greater government funding.

Although BH's stated objectives to date have been relatively obscure -- a stricter application of sharia law and greater equality for Muslims in the region -- more radical elements ultimately seek secession in Nigeria. If the government cannot turn things around in a meaningful way, the tide may turn against the government, which is in the end probably incapable of providing for the basic needs of the majority of its citizens.

It is hard to imagine that the region's governments will now all of a sudden be successful in meeting the basic needs of their people -- particularly outside major population centers -- after decades of neglect. Corruption, nepotism, and pure neglect are the greatest enemies of both the region's people, and its governments. While the world's attention remains focused on other places, there is little reason to believe that West Africa's growing movement of radical Islamists will be less successful in achieving their objectives

Lessons Learned

The average citizen in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen may well have been better off without the Awakening; they wouldn't have suffered the violent repression that ensued, economic chaos as entire economies have ground to a halt, and a less physically secure environment in which to live. The primary concerns of average citizens prior to the Awakening have resurfaced, and are now foremost in the minds of the majority of Arab citizens. There is little reason to believe they will be addressed in any meaningful fashion in the near- or medium-term by governments that are themselves finding their footing and determining the right mix between reform and repression.

Under the weight of expectations, and restrictive influence of low or negative growth, instability and discontent will remain foremost on the Arab street for the medium-term as these countries grapple with failing economies and come to better understand what is implied by living in 'democracies.' For the rest of Africa, it seems likely that in due course, many of these countries will experience their own Awakening and regime change. West Africa is in the cross hairs at the present time, but the winds that are blowing across Africa will very likely impact at least some of the countries in SSA. Let us hope that BH, AQIM, and the other splinter groups of al-Qaeda are not as successful in influencing the course of events as they have been in Mali and northern Nigeria to date.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consultancy, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk."