West Africa's uneasy divide sows instability

Posted in Africa | 30-Dec-03 | Author: Chris Hennemeyer| Source: International Herald Tribune

North vs. South

ROSSLYN, Virginia It's one of life's ironies that some of this planet's most agreeable people live in some of its most disagreeable places. The rare tourist who strays from the pleasant West African coast to the Sahel a few hundred kilometers north confronts a land of baking heat, choking dust and myriad flies but finds people who display a generosity and hospitality unknown in the economically advanced world.

This is the land of the Hausa, the Fulani and the Mandingo - herders, traders and artisans, religiously Muslim and culturally conservative. Their home includes the northern third of a band of nations stretching from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, some 2,700 kilometers, or nearly 1,700 miles, to the east. Increasingly these "northerners" find themselves isolated from their countries' political and economic power centers. It is, as Robert Kaplan wrote, a place "where political maps are so deceptive - where, in fact, they tell such lies."

The northerners' lot has been one of routine marginalization since colonial times, an injustice they have usually accepted with an almost fatalistic equanimity. But things are changing fast in this swath of semi-desert scrub land, and some of the changes are already shaking the foundations of West Africa's modern states.

The most significant and important example is Nigeria, Africa's mega-nation, a key ally of the United States and a major source of oil. Nigeria is rapidly becoming two very distinct states, which have less and less in common with each another.

The south, from the Niger delta to the capital, Abuja, is bustling and chaotic, with abundant natural resources, a ballooning urban population and a cultural stew of revivalist Christianity, rap music and sharp-toothed capitalism.

In the north, though northerners have ruled Nigeria for most of its post-colonial history, states like Zamfara and Katsina, with their grinding poverty and exhausted ecosystems, have few links to the global economy and offer their people little except an uncharacteristically harsh interpretation of Islam, manifested in the worst stereotypes of sharia, or Islamic law. Understandably, people who have been excluded from the future tend to grip tightly to what they are told are the certainties of the past.

Nigeria is not alone in having abandoned its northern citizens. Other coastal states, like Ghana and Benin, have to varying degrees done the same, investing the lion's share of their energies and finances in their verdant southern regions and leaving northern areas to their own devices.

In Ghana, ruled for the first time in decades by an open and democratic government, some of these grievances are coming to the fore. Ethnic warfare last year between the rival northern Mamprusi and Kusasi groups, while little noted in the West, sent shivers up the spines of most Ghanaians.

Of most immediate concern, however, is the situation in Côte d'Ivoire. Long touted as a model of prosperity and tolerance, it is today a tragic example of de facto partition between north and south. After a bloody civil war, the northern third of the country is ruled by militias allied to a disenfranchised, largely Muslim minority, many of whom are originally from Burkina Faso and Mali, while French troops keep the relatively rich and developed south safe from harm. Not coincidentally, the most recent peace emissaries to Côte d'Ivoire have been the leaders of Nigeria and Ghana, who well understand the consequences of a permanent north-south split.

The widening schism across West Africa between the economic engines of the south and the arid savannahs of the north matters for several reasons.

First of all, several countries, notably Nigeria and Cameroon, are huge producers of oil and natural gas, and others will come on stream in the next decade, a fact of great concern to the United States, which gets an ever larger share of its petroleum from coastal West Africa.

Second, in this era of muscular humanitarian interventionism, it is inconceivable that the West would refrain from stitching back together a place as important as Nigeria were it to unravel. Clearly, the costs of such an undertaking, in both men and materiel, would be immense.

Third, West Africa is fast becoming a major source of new immigrants to the United States and even more so to Europe, with both positive and negative ramifications.

Finally, an area largely ignored by its own rulers and by the international community inevitably creates a vacuum that others will not hesitate to fill. For years, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Libya have been using money and missionaries to spread their particular brands of influence in places like Niger and Gambia. Although West Africa has yet to produce its own suicide bombers, within a few months of Sept. 11 Osama bin Laden T-shirts were for sale in marketplaces throughout the northern regions.

West Africa is by no means a lost cause. For every ethnically manipulative politician like Côte d'Ivoire's Laurent Gbagbo, there is an enlightened leader like Ghana's John Kufuor who sees a regional future of integration and solidarity. Unfortunately, the involvement in the region of the United States and Europe, critical to the future, is spotty at best. The Bush administration tends to focus on oil, while the European Union's interest has waned as European integration has accelerated.

There is still time to help bring the northerners of West Africa into the world community, but it will require significant financing, long-term vision and commitment, and a multilateral approach, three elements in very short supply these days.

The writer is director of International Relief and Development. He spent 19 years working in sub-Saharan Africa with Catholic Relief Services.