In a COVID-altered landscape of global security threats, economic opportunities and strategic change, Africa is seizing center stage. Africans form the world’s fastest-growing population and national economies. Violent crises, democracy movements, extremist threats, international investments, human displacement and strategic opportunities all are rising. The coronavirus pandemic underscores both Africa’s risks to global stability from fragile states—and the overlooked potential of a continent now outperforming wealthier regions in containing the public health crisis. COVID is the latest reminder that “Africa’s deepening vulnerabilities and its rising capacities will shape global realities whether we prepare for that or not,” according to scholar Joseph Sany.

Young Sudanese rally for democracy at Sudan’s military headquarters in 2019. The nonviolent ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir is one of many citizens’ movements demanding more accountable governance across Africa. (Declan Walsh/The New York Times)
Young Sudanese rally for democracy at Sudan’s military headquarters in 2019. The nonviolent ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir is one of many citizens’ movements demanding more accountable governance across Africa. (Declan Walsh/The New York Times)

In worrisome and promising ways, Sub-Saharan Africa is growing explosively. The region’s 1.3 billion people will double by 2050, accounting for more than half of the world’s population growth in the next three decades while North American and European populations remain static. The region is the world’s most impoverished—home to 27 of the 28 poorest nations in recent years—but is growing economically at twice the rate of developed nations. A continent-wide free trade agreement promises to accelerate that growth. Outside powers—China, Russia, Turkey and Arab nations—compete for resources, investments and influence. Yet incidents of violence—armed clashes, riots and others—have spiked in 2020. Of the world’s record 80 million people displaced by violence, 29 million are from Africa.

So, for a continent poised to be perhaps the ultimate influencer of global security for the next generation, what will determine which way it tips? “The defining question is how African nations will manage conflict and prevent violence,” Sany said in an interview. “Africa shows us both problems and progress. It’s in the nature of news that we hear mostly about the problems—and less about the successes, for example, in a country like Ghana. But violent conflict will turn any country from development to dysfunction. You cannot make any broad progress until you can manage conflict nonviolently.”

Africa is Central, the Reasons Are Basic

“Fragile” states are unable to manage conflict nonviolently—often because of corrupt or authoritarian rule or a lack of popular legitimacy. “This problem of fragility exists worldwide,” notes Sany, but it is prominent in Africa. “When a state cannot meet people’s needs for security and justice, people begin seeking the solution in extremist ideas and organizations,” igniting violence and breeding transnational threats such as Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region or the Somalia-based al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. For more than a decade, Sany and other development specialists have been researching the problem of fragility and the risks it poses to international stability, economic growth and national security even for the United States.

“For ordinary Americans, fragile states still seem somehow like a distant problem,” said Sany. “But the world is interconnected and interdependent, and we ignore that to our peril.”

U.S. policymakers now focus on fragile states as a national security threat. In 2017, Congress instructed USIP to help develop “a comprehensive plan to prevent extremism in the Sahel, Horn of Africa and Near East,” leading the Institute to convene a bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. The task force’s recommendations are reflected in the 2019 Global Fragility Act, passed by Congress to revamp U.S. efforts to stabilize violent regions of the world.

“The U.S. economy, business community and job markets also suffer from poorly governed states that may be an ocean away, because you know, you can export your goods and services only to stable, prosperous countries,” Sany said. “For the next generation, the biggest growth in markets will be in Africa. That is why you see the Chinese, Arab nations and others investing so heavily there. For America, it will make good business sense and good stability sense to partner with African countries.”

Making Africa a Priority

Notably after years of military intervention and warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Americans rightly understand that it is difficult and costly to somehow impose stability in a distant country,” Sany said. “But the good news for protecting our security and our future economy is that we can target modest investments over time. We can support courageous local people—conscientious governments, civil society groups, and especially women and youth and local communities— to address issues together and meet their own peoples’ needs in an inclusive and sustainable way.”

“This is what we call peacebuilding, and it achieves maximum impact at a very low cost by nourishing the natural desire and energy of people to build safety and justice in their own homes. You can use the analogy that peacebuilding is to international security what drip irrigation is to a farmer. You are going to harvest a tremendous achievement in the future in the most cost-effective way—from tiny but steady investments.”

One example of that efficiency has been international support to African governments and the African Union in building and training African peacekeeping forces to take an increasing role in managing and solving violent conflicts on the continent. That is a change that Sany promoted in the past decade, helping to develop a USIP program that has trained more than 7,000 peacekeeping troops from 21 African nations for service across the continent. “We emphasized the need to protect civilians and manage conflict nonviolently,” Sany said.

This fall, Sany rejoined USIP to lead an initiative that will strengthen the Institute’s work across Africa through a dedicated Africa program center that he will head as a USIP vice president.

“From a distance, it is easy to see only Africa’s problems and not its promise,” Sany said. “Our role is to see the critical strengths of Africans, present even in countries facing violence, and do the ‘drip irrigation’ that strengthens their good work.” Africans’ responses to the COVID pandemic—and the current protests against violent policing in Nigeria—reflect “a growing demand for accountable governance,” he said. “People are becoming more civically engaged in ways that will force improvements in governance.”

USIP has been finding and supporting that civic engagement. In Nigeria and Kenya it helps growing networks of local women activists who create programs to prevent the spread of violent extremist ideologies. These networks now are beginning to expand across East and West Africa. Among nations of the Sahel, the Institute has led grassroots dialogues—among civic and communal leaders, police and government officials in strategic locales—that have helped communities resist the spread of violent extremist upheaval in the region.

In Sudan, where a peaceful citizens’ movement last year overthrew the decades-old authoritarian regime, USIP has helped train hundreds of local civic leaders to help strengthen a continued, nonviolent transition toward democratic rule. The Institute supports citizens’ peace movements working to end South Sudan’s civil war. It helps Kenya train its border police in ways to reduce violence, one of several USIP programs that is expanding regionally in East Africa. Working regionally is vital, Sany says, to make the solutions as transnational as the problems they are addressing.

A Peacebuilder’s Journey

USIP works in any given country both “from the top down,” with governments, and from the ground up, with civil society. Sany’s focus on rooting peacebuilding efforts at community levels reflects his own origins. “I grew up in what you would call a slum community on the outskirts of Douala,” the main port city of Cameroon, Sany recalled. “The neighborhood was rough, and sometimes violent. . . . My mother always told me the only way out of this place will be through education,” he said.

Good grades and a scholarship to a boarding school offered the first step toward a career focused on international educational exchanges, and then development studies. In a first visit to Liberia, shattered by its years of civil war, “when I saw the devastation, it hit me emotionally as well. But the victims of that war were working to bring a recovery—and I saw how the right kind of intervention, well crafted, could help them succeed.”

Decades later, Sany says, he carries in mind an image of a nameless woman, not unlike his mother. “She works with determination to survive and to care for her children, day by day. And the work that we do is to help ensure that she can sleep safely at night and wake up the next day, with the relief that the war that once ravaged her community is now behind them, and her children may have a better future.”

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