“West Africa” should really only be a geographical label, not a geopolitical one. It is a place riddled with ethnicities overlapping tribes cut by religion bisected by language. There is nothing simple about West Africa except in the minds of long-dead imperial geographers.
That hasn’t stopped Nigeria from deciding to reorder the whole region to its liking. But for once in geopolitics, this reordering has not only been largely successful but is also incrementally pushing West Africa to better governance and stronger states.
And Abuja just had a stunning success in The Gambia, a tiny river-republic that just tried and failed to hold onto the Bad Old Ways of West African politics.
West Africa: The huge, super diverse, Niger-bound, resource-specific, post-colonial geopolitical space still trying to find its proper footing.
If there is a spine to the region, it’s the bending Niger River, which begins in Guiena and curves into the desert, then shoots downwards into the Nigerian river network, connecting most of West Africa’s states. This provides cohesion to an otherwise disparate area. Otherwise, there’s little that unifies the landscape geographically.
West Africa is overrun with human diversity that organizing it into nation-states seems like a mad task. None of the region’s countries qualify as complete nation-states: they are states grafted onto an assortment of budding nations, transnational tribes, and disparate ethnicities.
This is because of the unique history of West Africa. Below the Sahara Desert, West Africa, like all sub-Saharan Africa, had trouble gaining access to the ever-important trade routes between China and Europe, from which technology and goods flowed back and forth, enriching and empowering both. There was a sizeable desert trade, especially with the Arab world, but the difficulties of desert crossings kept that trade volume far below that of the Silk Road.
So if we are to think of human civilization as arching in a single technological direction, sub-Saharan Africa grew slower than North Africa, which was connected to the Silk Road via the Meditteranean. It’s no accident that Morocco sent troops into West Africa, and not the other way around.
This isn’t to say West Africa was a primitive backwater: by the 17th century, it had sizeable kingdoms and empires that were just behind Europe. Unfortunately, by that time, Europe began colonizing West Africa and using its states to fuel its New World slave trade. West African elites trade slaves for guns and goods their own economies couldn’t produce.
This was corrosive for a few reasons: first, it depopulated the whole region by many millions, and then it sparked huge slave-centered wars between states that might otherwise have left each other alone. This churned up the human landscape, empowering small political entities that focused on local identities rather than big states that might have started to fashion African nations.
African elites also had no incentive to develop their own industries to build guns or European goods: since at first Europeans came to Africa not as conquerors but as slave traders, African elites didn’t see them as a direct threat. They figured they had a limitless supply of slaves, and thus a limitless supply of European technology.
Of course, that backfired. Once slavery was abolished in the 19th century, Europe stopped trading with West African elites, whose power shrank and then collapsed. When European imperial powers then realized West Africa had a huge base of resources perfect to accelerate their industrial revolutions, they were able to use their old slaver bases to surge into the region and conquer it in just a few decades.
The sins of empire
West Africa was dominated by France and Great Britain, both of whom needed the rubber and timber of the region to support their imperial economies. The Gambia was a former English slave fort on a river that slid into the desert. While France was more than willing to grab up huge swathes of desert, Britain was more conservative and used the Gambia as a splinter in the side of French West Africa.
Since West Africa was colonized late in the imperial period, Britain and France approached it far differently than they did the New World. They were not interested so much in settlement: the pace of industrialization meant they needed as much labor as possible at home. Unlike the early era of settlement in the Americas, British and French lower classes weren’t clamoring to start new societies in West Africa.
Moreover, because France and Britain took over the region in just a few decades (from roughly 1870 to 1900), both powers ruled over large, diverse populations that they had shocked and awed into treaties and surrender. Much as they had with slavery, the imperial powers relied on West African tribes and royal elites to govern their colonies and provide the labor to siphon resources back to Europe.
To maximize efficiency, Paris and London trained cadres of West African elites in the art of statehood. French schools catered to African colonials who were meant to speak and think French and return home to Africa as Frenchmen. France, for its part, never intended on giving up its African empire: these elites would spread their French worldview among the locals until West Africa was just as French as France itself.
Britain took a different view, preferring to turn its colonies into dominions that gave preferential trade to Britain but otherwise managed their own affairs.
Of course, both powers drew colonial borders in opposition to one another, and not because of anything that made sense on the ground. That made all the sense in the world to them: if their mission was to change Africans into good little French and Englishmen, what did tribal boundaries matter?
Except training locals in nationalism backfired
After World War II, anti-imperial nationalism, fanned by the Cold War, convinced all these good little French and British African elites that they’d be banned off sans empire. It happened even faster than the original conquest: from total domination in 1950, both empires had vanished by 1965.
What was left was an upper spectrum of Western-trained elites, thinking they ruled nation-states, with a huge population of tribes, former kingdoms, sultanates, imamates, and other local forms of pre-national politics. While early West African pioneers tried to forge democracies, socialist paradises or whatever flavor of pan-Africanism pleased the leader, restive people underneath the top echelon of society neither understood nor particularly wanted their states to forge them into nations.
Which had two results: either each West African state suffered brutal periods of civil war, dictatorship, and political bloodshed, or it had quiet but politically ossified periods of rule by strongmen capable of playing rival groups off one another. The only way to shake the system was through a coup or civil war, and West Africa had plenty from 1965 onward.
Worse, outside powers tipped the pot as they saw fit, particularly France. French support was responsible for the long, cold rule of Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, who enjoyed 33 years of power until he was pushed out and retired comfortably to France. France cobbled Mali back together after a northern Tuareg uprising nearly broke the country in half in 2012-13, sending an expeditionary force to crush the rising. And in 2013, France was instrumental in bringing to a close a short but bloody civil war in the Ivory Coast.
Yet something was happening between all these crises: the maturing of a West African political elite in Nigeria who were determined to reorder the region.
Nigeria: the linchpin of West African geopolitics
Nigeria has many of the same problems as every other West African state: too many ethnic groups overseen by an elite trained to rule a nation. For decades, this resulted in conflict. The brutal Biafran Civil War left a huge body count. Democratic leaders would come along, then reveal themselves to be tribal flunkies or corrupt strongmen, and get overthrown by a military that disliked having to share the spoils of the state. Sunni supremacism slipped into its northern territories, culminating in Boko Haram, the girl-stealing boogeymen of Africa, now a pledged province of the Islamic State.
But within Abuja, Nigerian elite were also learning hard lessons. Repeated military rule did not give way to mass executions: elites could survive the oscillations between democracy and military dictatorship, gaining a better understanding of the limitations of both in Nigeria. Oil money slicked the machinery of state, preventing it from collapsing during periods of stress. While no one could say Nigeria was an easy place to rule, neither did it fall into a morass of civil war as Congo did.
In 1975, using the language of pan-Africanism and the technocracy of the budding European Economic Community, Nigeria’s elites helped put together the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. Initially intended to unite the economies of those states that were linked together by the Niger and move West Africa away from the Cold War, ECOWAS over the years morphed from a trading apparatus to a geopolitical vehicle for Nigeria.
Nigerian elites, both military and civilian, concluded they couldn’t allow West Africa to always fester in endless strife: such fighting had an ugly tendency to spread to Nigeria itself or to upend Nigerian economic development. A tough enough place to rule, no one in Abuja saw civil wars in the region as a good thing.
In tandem with ECOWAS, Nigeria started to take the lead to put down the revolving door of civil war. It was wobbly work: sending troops to Liberia in 1997 did not end the civil war that then consumed Sierra Leone. But it built operational capability and a political will to intervene in ECOWAS states to bring about democratic stability.
That the United States was quietly pushing Nigeria and ECOWAS helped: a key arms supplier, Nigerian elite need American cooperation to keep their military running. But as the 4th Nigerian Republic was founded in 1999, Nigerian elites, now dominated by democrats, saw the mission of regional democratic stability as one of self-preservation as well.
Rather than stirring up civil wars, Nigeria through ECOWAS put them out: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and the Ivory Coast would all have burned a lot longer and a lot hotter without ECOWAS support. French, UN and U.S. troops were all key to ending these civil wars as well. But imagine if Nigeria had decided to arm the Revolutionary United Front, whose hand-chopping exploits inspired Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation? Nigerian elites, rather than seek regional domination through force, figured their huge population and economic weight would turn them into the Germany of West Africa.
Like Germany, Nigeria has increasingly sought to be responsible. That leads us up to the Gambia.
Where an old school strongman just came up against the interests of a new Nigeria.
Yahya Jammeh was just another African strongman who used politics as a means to an end. Never really intending to leave power, he was a stereotype, right down to his claim that his rule would last “a billion years.”
As African strongman are wont to do, Jammeh didn’t feel elections were particularly binding: he could always reject or annul the results should he dislike them. This is partially because African politics has been tribal since independence. Viewing the state as nothing more than an extended tribe, African leaders have long stuffed their states full of kinsmen while hoarding wealth for themselves. A leader who approaches politics that way expects the next leader to do the same: if I’ve plundered the treasury dry, why shouldn’t the guy who replaces me? And more importantly, if I’ve already stolen all the best stuff, why shouldn’t the next leader steal from me?
It goes darker than that: if I’ve spent my whole regime arresting, torturing, and murdering my sworn enemies, there’s no reason to expect the next regime won’t do the same to me.
This is the essence of violent honor-bound politics. It’s a big reason why democracies struggle in places where it takes root. If you’re in charge, you’re entitled to do what you like: dole out gifts, or keep them for yourself, while dealing with your enemies generously or cruelly. You are bound by no law, but by custom and personality. Which means you can’t predict what the next regime will do to you, and for all strongmen who spent their rule plundering, this is scary as hell.
Jammeh’s rule was not nearly as bloody as Uganda’s Idi Amin or Zaire’s Mobutu, but it was a traditional kleptocracy. When Jammeh lost the election, he initially said he’d accept the results. Then, realizing his successor might steal back his ill-gotten wealth, he went back on his word.
This ran up hard against the new Nigerian elite in Abuja. Having watched West Africa convulse under strongmen-centered civil wars for 20 years, and grappling with a strongman-heavy Boko Haram insurgency, Abuja had a powerful geopolitical incentive to do something. To leave Jammeh, as Nigeria had left other West African dictators, would be to open the door to yet another civil war, which had an ugly tendency to slide over borders and spread chaos, as Liberia’s civil war had mutated into Sierra Leone’s in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Thus through ECOWAS Nigeria made it clear that it preferred a short war for democracy to another round of strongmen civil war. The colonial legacy mattered here yet again: Britain had never intended the Gambia to be particularly defensible. For the natives of the river country, any invasion would last just hours.
Jammeh gave way, but with preconditions: his successor would leave his spoils alone, and Jammeh could enjoy exile without fear of international prosecution. That alone breaks the cycle of violent honor-bound politics: Jammeh doesn’t need to stir up trouble at home to survive, ensuring a peaceful, if sullied, transfer of power.
The future of West Africa
Nigeria’s own democracy is wobbly, and could succumb to a military dictatorship again if its army cannot make serious gains against Boko Haram, or if energy prices sink so badly as to cut into the economy. That would transform ECOWAS from a vehicle of democracy to one of stability, and strongmen who promised stale peace would be preferred over democrats who might shake rickety political trees too much.
But that is not today. Abuja has now enjoyed four presidents and one swap of ruling parties since establishing its 4th Republic in 1999. That’s a powerful run, and is building momentum within Nigeria to make democracy a norm. Democratic rule in West Africa will go a long way towards breaking the murderous cycle of civil war, which keep setting back stability and prosperity.
That the Gambian crisis was solved almost entirely by ECOWAS is encouraging as well. While the Ivory Coast and Mali civil wars had to have French troops on the ground to ensure democracy won out, Gambia was small enough to allow ECOWAS’s local muscle to do the job. That’s true sustainability, and a lucky break as the West is now turning inwards after Brexit and Trump. While the West is busy taking steps backwards, West Africa is leaping forward. Let’s hope the momentum holds.