Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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How to improve the role of the West in Africa’s stability 14 Sep 2023

African countries have relied on the West for aid and other interventions in times of crisis for decades. However, the impact of the interventions has often been mixed. Successes have been recorded side by side with spectacular failures.

Evidently, Western countries have always considered their own interests before offering assistance in the continent to resolve conflicts and address humanitarian needs. This is why the West often watches from the sidelines, assessing the issues that can result in large-scale violence. In many cases, it has intervened in favour of bad actors, only to withdraw support when the situations become quite tough to handle. This has been the case since at least the 1960s when most African states gained political independence from the Western colonial powers. Political conflicts in Africa had emerged with the independent African states.

Before the political crisis between Nigeria's Northern and Eastern regions rapidly changed into an all-out civil war in the country in mid-1967, the international community was indifferent until 1968. Britain and the United States, for fear of losing their influence over the country, following Soviet military aid to the Nigerian government, decided to support the federal government.

In the decade that followed, Idi Amin's brutal regime in Uganda presented a series of unique and complicated dilemmas for American policymakers. Despite stating its commitment to the cause of human rights, President Jimmy Carter's administration opposed imposing economic sanctions on Uganda, which ultimately led to the war with Tanzania.

As if that was not enough, the build-up to the first Liberian civil war saw the West's unalloyed support for Samuel Doe's government at the start of his totalitarianism. The US only withdrew its support when it was no longer tenable. It led to a war that defined the country for much of the 1980s and 1990s, leading to regional instability, which ECOWAS had to step in to address.

The Rwandan situation was even more tragic. Western lethargy, caused by their commitment to the US and its coalition’s Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, ensured that the international community was unresponsive to the conflicts between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda – a conflict underpinned by Belgian colonial legacy. The killing of over 800,000 people in the second quarter of 1994 eventually ushered in a flurry of belated international interventions. Unfortunately, the interventions ended up supporting one bad actor (the Patriotic Front) and shaping the country according to the image of its leader, Paul Kagame, whose anti-democratic actions have been routinely ignored for the sake of stability.

Over and over again, “the international community” has kept looking away from getting neck-deep in Africa's conflicts as long as its interests remain secure. It was so with Chad. The international community had a golden opportunity to get Chad on the path of democratic rule. Still, French support for General Mahamat Kaka Déby (son of former President of the country Idriss Déby) meant that the recommended constitutional line of succession was abandoned for French security and energy interests.

As it was with Chad, so it was with Egypt and Somalia. At present, the coup in Niger, which ousted elected President Mohamed Bazoum's government on 26 July 2023, is shaping up to follow in a negative direction – despite the smokescreen of support for restoring democracy in Nigeria’s neighbouring country. Unfortunately, Sudan follows in that unenviable direction.

Since April 2023, Sudan has been caught up in the violent conflict between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF accused the military of not giving it enough power in the new government, while the Sudanese military, in turn, accused the RSF of trying to take over the country.

The RSF is a paramilitary group controlled by the former Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. It was originally set up to fight rebels in Darfur but has continued somewhat independently after al-Bashir was overthrown and attempts to integrate it into the Sudanese military were unsuccessful. It has since become a de facto second army headed by leaders who are fascinated by the idea of using this capacity for organised violence to take over control of the Sudanese government.

The ensuing verbal back and forths have escalated into a widespread violent conflict that is devastating the country. Thousands of Sudanese have been killed, and millions of people have been displaced. With soaring inflation and widespread food shortages, the economy has also been hit hard.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the international community has been slow to respond to the crisis. For starters, the international community has been a tad distracted by Russia's war with Ukraine, a crisis that, for much of the Western world, is closer to home and presents a much more significant challenge to their own interests. The United Nations has called for an end to the violence in Sudan but has not taken concrete steps to intervene. However, it has not escaped the notice of many Africans that after Western citizens were evacuated from Sudan, it fell off the headlines in the Western media.

To be fair, several reasons make it difficult for the West to intervene in Sudan. From a broad perspective, the West’s ability to intervene in a conflict effectively depends on some factors, including the nature of the problem, the resources available, and the cooperation of the countries involved.

Narrowing this down to Sudan, the oil-producing country is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and located in a strategically important region at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa. The country has a history of conflict that is difficult to understand. Previous Western intervention attempts had failed, leaving Western countries and even African neighbours reluctant to get involved in sorting out the problems. Also, Sudan's poor economy provides little incentive to motivate Western countries to embrace the cost of investing in humanitarian aid, infrastructural development or military intervention that comes with the risk of casualties.

Nonetheless, the West can provide humanitarian aid to the millions of people displaced by the conflict. It could also impose sanctions on the warring Sudanese factions and foster collaboration between the relevant players and the United Nations to create a political transition plan to a civilian-led democracy.

But despite these capabilities, it helps to consider how the West is burdened, making it hard for it to intervene productively and proactively. The sheer number (54 or 55, depending on who you ask) and complexity of African countries make it difficult for the rich world to intervene when these countries have problems.

The African Union comprises 55 countries with a combined population of about 1.3 billion people. Expecting the United States of America, France, and other leading Western nations to understand the nature and dynamics of the situation in African countries with massive populations is unrealistic. This is coupled with the fact that members of the rich world often have goals and interests that differ from those of the countries they are expected to help.

Against this backdrop, there has been a growing movement in Africa to promote self-reliance. Africa's reliance on the West has made her vulnerable to the Western governments’ interests and discouraged her from developing self-sufficiency. This has perpetuated the perception of Africa as a continent that always needs help.

African countries can become more capable of handling interventions on the continent by investing in state capacity and developing strong institutions capable of keeping their societies stable. This includes building a strong bureaucracy, independent judiciaries and legislatures, and competent diplomatic structures providing the avenues to intervene in fellow African countries proactively.

The role of the African Union (AU) in wanting to foster stability in the continent must be considered. The AU has been involved in some crises on the continent, though, with varying degrees of success. While it played a key role in the peace process that led to the end of the Sudanese Civil War in 2005, it failed in its peacekeeping mission in Sudan's neighbour, Somalia. Although the AU lacks the technical and financial resources to play its role on the continent, by developing its capacity to accurately analyse the social, political and economic conditions of its member countries, it can assist in improving the West's capacity to intervene correctly in the continent.

As Africa develops the strength to manage troubling situations within its continent, the West can employ its capacity and global influence to do better in Africa's conflicts. This can be achieved by forging stronger partnerships with African countries, providing increased financial and logistical support to African peacekeeping missions, promoting good governance and human rights in Africa, making substantial investments in Africa's development, and ensuring that perpetrators of human rights abuses are held accountable.

By embracing these strategies, the West can assist in preventing violent crises in Africa, thus impacting the lives of Africans positively and contributing to creating a continent marked by peace and prosperity.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.