West Africa often makes international headlines, rarely with positive news. Recent stories include: French intervention in Mali following a coup and a separatist conflict; the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria; oil theft and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta; piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea; civil war in Côte d’Ivoire; and the devastating outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Adding to the list of woes, a coup in Burkina Faso on 30 October 2014 toppled the twenty-seven year regime of Blaise Compaoré. While it looks as though the political transition is being handled peacefully, concerns remain that the country could descend into violent conflict. It is important, then, to ask what effect such instability could have on neighboring states, particularly Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, and the region at large. The answer, however, is probably “none.”
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Considering both the chain reaction of the Arab Spring and the current range of problems across West Africa, it would be logical to fear that Burkina Faso’s recent coup could trigger a “domino effect” whereby a surge of violence and insecurity would spill over into other countries. Oddly, though, conflicts in West Africa rarely spread and, in many ways, the region has proved remarkably resilient. Its catalogue of troubles would be enough to send other regions into utter chaos and dissolution, yet few of its issues ever extend beyond their immediate locus. The only exceptions have been transnational crime, particularly trafficking, and maritime matters. Even Ebola has stayed relatively contained within the three primary countries, each of which is handling the response differently. In some ways a regional conflict ignited by a single source would be far easier to handle than a welter of discrete conflicts.
Pope Francis recently remarked that “…perhaps one can speak of a third [world] war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres and destruction.” This concept is apt for identifying the challenges facing West Africa. No one conflict or incident seems sufficiently influential to engulf the region, yet most of the region is already suffering from a diverse range of problems that, in turn, make a coordinated regional response virtually impossible. How are the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) and the other regional bodies supposed to prioritize their responses to conflict and instability within the region when most of the member states are struggling with distinct problems? Emergency triage is about as much as could be hoped for at this point.
By contrast, North Africa has had a different experience. Revolution swept across that region and the Middle East in 2010 to 2012, toppling long-standing regimes and forcing widespread change. Each uprising influenced the next. Ironically, spillover from the Libyan Civil War in North Africa had more of an effect on the conflict in Mali than problems in West Africa normally have on each other. So why does the ripple effect occur in one portion of Africa, but not in an adjacent area? West Africa may be a region by geography, comprised of states linked by various cooperation initiatives and regional organizations, but it remains far from homogenous. Officially, there are three different languages in West Africa – French, English and Portuguese – but Nigeria alone is home to 521 languages. Whereas the Arab Spring states all shared at least a degree of cultural, religious, linguistic and historic ties, West African states tend to have relatively little in common with each other. Even sub-regions within states in West Africa are more dissimilar from each other than the two most different states of North Africa. Poor transportation links – with deficient roads and different sized rail gauges – limit interaction across the region. While ideas no longer need roads or rail lines to spread, national and sub-regional rivalries further diminish the influence that events in one state might have on another. In fact, some states would actively avoid even the appearance of influence from certain other states in the region. So the toppling of a regime that lasted nearly three decades in Burkina Faso will almost certainly have no direct bearing on what transpires, for example, in Cameroon, where Paul Biya has been president since 1982.
Mali seems poised for a new wave of conflict, irrespective of Burkina Faso’s Coup. Côte d’Ivoire remains focused on stabilizing after its latest civil war and is unlikely to be distracted by current events in Ouagadougou. And other states in the region are too focused on their own distinct problems to be influenced by those in Burkina Faso. The concept of a West African regional conflict by piecemeal helps explain what is happening in the region and why the discrete conflicts are so hard to resolve. It also supports the conclusion that fresh eyes and diverse approaches are needed to address the various issues in West Africa. The coup in Burkina Faso is significant, but it is important to be clear what the implications of that coup are and are not.
Dr. Ian Ralby is Founder and Executive Director of I.R. Consilium through which he and his team work with governments and organizations on solving complex security-related problems. He has worked extensively with governments in West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans among others. He holds a BA in Modern Languages and Linguistics and an MA in Intercultural Communication from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a JD from William & Mary Law School; and both an MPhil in International Relations and a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge.