West Africa rarely figures prominently on the global agenda. So it is clear that something very serious is happening when it dominates the news headlines and political debate around the world.
The seizure of Northern Mali by an al-Qaeda franchise and the terrible events in Algeria have awakened international attention to the extremist threat to the region and the impact it could have on the wider world.
We must hope the joint military operations now underway are successful but they cannot obscure the roots of this crisis and the threat posed not only for Mali, but the region as a whole. They are threats which seriously risk reversing the real progress we have seen.
West Africa may be one of the poorest parts of the world, but the recent story has been remarkably upbeat. After a violent and chaotic period in the aftermath of the Cold War, it has clocked up impressive growth on the back of a raw materials boom, sounder macro-economic management, human investment and debt relief.
As one of the world’s major sources of valuable commodities such as gold, uranium, oil, gas, diamonds, cocoa and coffee, West Africa’s strategic value is growing in step with its economies. The United States alone is set to depend on the region for up to 25 percent of its oil imports by 2015, bringing new investment and more diplomatic attention.
But there are also less positive trends as Mali – until the coup, something of a donor favourite – has highlighted. In that sense, Mali must be a loud wake-up call.
One of the most potent dangers to West Africa’s stability is the massive surge in drug trafficking and other criminal activity over the last decade. The region has become the major conduit for narcotics from Latin America to Europe, while opiates from Afghanistan and Pakistan arriving via East Africa are sent on to the United States from West Africa after being cut and packaged there.
The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that at least 60 tonnes of cocaine pass through the region each year. West Africa is also a transit route for human and small arms trafficking, as well as diamond smuggling, while piracy and kidnapping have emerged as relatively new avenues of criminal activity. The profits from these illegal activities help finance extremist groups, warns the UN agency.
Governance, poverty and geography have conspired to make West Africa particularly vulnerable to transnational criminal activity. Institutions are weak, borders are porous, coastlines are under-patrolled and underpaid officials are vulnerable to bribery.
Armies and law-enforcement agencies, ostensibly the major defences against insurgency and organised crime, respectively, are sometimes part of the problem. Often kept deliberately weak to minimise the threat they pose to their own governments – an understandable concern given the history of the region – they are not always capable of effectively playing their respective roles: guarding the state and protecting its people. The dismal failure of the Malian army to defend its territory underlines the point.
What’s worse, some security forces are actually complicit in these illegal activities. The April 2012 coup in Guinea-Bissau, the most dramatic example, has been widely ascribed to the army’s ambitions to take control of the lucrative drugs trade transiting through the country.
These problems are exacerbated by a population growing at rates among the highest in the world. A young population can be a huge asset, of course, but not if there is a severe shortage of schools or jobs. Unskilled, unemployed young men without a future are particularly vulnerable to the siren calls of drugs, unscrupulous politicians, radical ideologies and crime.
While the region’s economies are on the rise, job creation is below par. Most of the growth comes from capital rather than labour-intensive industries like oil and mining. The result has been a growing divide in wealth and opportunity between a narrow elite benefitting from the commodities boom and the majority, further fuelling popular discontent, especially among the young.
In short, I want to stress that the security threats that Mali has exposed are symptoms of deeper regional problems that need to be addressed in full. A military intervention in Mali, unavoidable as it has proved to be, will not solve the underlying drivers of instability in West Africa.
West African governments must plough the benefits of growth into security sector reform, infrastructure, agriculture, vocational training, education and family planning if we want to keep the region on track towards fulfilling its promise.
Because I am deeply concerned about these problems, I have called on a diverse group of eminent West Africans to join a commission to examine, and propose solutions to tackle, the menace of drug trafficking and its insidious impact on the security, governance and development of West Africa.
This Commission, which former President Obasanjo of Nigeria has accepted to chair, aims to raise awareness of the dangers that drug trafficking and organised crime represent and to propose practical action to contain the problem. We need to look at the problems of West Africa holistically and not just focus on one danger, no matter how serious it is.