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A look ahead to 2014: The question of stability in Mali and Nigeria

The link between the state and organised crime must be addressed if the process of rebuilding a unified Mali and countering Islamic militants is to succeed.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Angela Merkel.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (L) speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 11 December, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

There are likely to be many flashpoints of political violence erupting in 2014 – such as sectarian rumblings in Iraq, not to mention ongoing conflicts, most notably the brutal civil war raging in Syria. However, the political risks and concomitant violence likely to break out in Nigeria, Sahel and North Africa next year will not only keep international media outlets busy with news of the devastation wreaked by the violent upheavals, but will negatively impact businesses, local and global, operating in these regions. This volatility could have the knock-on effect of hampering intra-African trade, something vital to securing long-term stable growth across the continent, and possibly destabilise its neighbouring states – a contagion that could have far-reaching consequences.

Political risk and political violence in Nigeria will worsen in the second half of next year. The 2014 primaries and early 2015 general elections will fuel regional and sectarian tensions in a context where President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern, is an increasingly polarising figure in the north. The ruling party, which has prevailed since 1999 by holding together a national political umbrella against regionally-based opposition parties, now faces a unified opposition coalition (APC) that has the advantage where the PDP is weakest, including much of the north and the economic heartland around Lagos in the southwest. Should the PDP's splinter faction hold together as a third-way alternative-and especially if it gains more defectors - the Jonathan administration will find itself increasingly on the political defensive in the north as it carries out a controversial and bloody counter-insurgency against Islamist militants Boko Haram.

Terrorist attacks will rise as Boko Haram exploit this dynamic and step up its attacks in the north, the restive middle belt states (a likely swing region in the elections where sectarian and ethnic tensions run high) and if possible in the capital Abuja and economic capital of Lagos.

Further polarisation along regional lines is not inevitable but the rising polarisation, winner-takes-all political culture, and armed rebel movements pose a threat to the overall investment picture. Elections provide the most direct link to outbreaks of political violence across Africa and Nigeria’s contested gubernatorial primaries and elections are another source of potential unrest, with some candidates likely to enlist support from armed allies to gain an edge.

Terrorism in the Sahel and North Africa will increase in 2014, with the French draw down of troops in Mali. While the activities of Islamic militants in the Sahel and Sahara has grabbed the attention of Western governments, too little attention has been paid to the criminal networks, smuggling groups and historical trade routes across the region in which al-Qaeda and other groups have embedded themselves and which have enabled them to flourish. State complicity in organised crime enabled the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was a driver of the conflict in northern Mali.

Sahel governments use organised crime as a political resource by allowing their allies to benefit from such activities. Changing this dynamic will be a slow process as there are few alternative sources of income in the region and none that generate wealth at the rate of organised crime. The crisis in the region is about more than the activities of jihadists, it is about rivalries over the control of smuggling routes, the complicity and involvement of government officials and the willingness of Western governments to pay hostage ransoms that fuel the kidnapping industry.

While there is no quick way to break up deeply entrenched criminal organisations, the link between the state and organised crime must be addressed if the process of rebuilding a unified Mali and countering Islamic militants is to succeed. In the absence of this, 2014 will prove to be a profitable year for the regions’ smugglers, kidnappers and terrorists.