African instability and its geopolitical consequences


Let's go back to Africa, a continent whose political and economic importance is constantly growing, especially for Europe, so geographically close to that continent.

Africa has a great geographical, demographic and economic diversity. Made up of 54 states that occupy an area of ​​more than 30 million square kilometers (three times Europe and 20% of the total surface of the land), today it has about 1,2 billion inhabitants, equal to about 16% of the population. world. Some estimates predict that it could reach 2,5 billion inhabitants by 2050 and 3,5 billion by the end of the XNUMXst century.

The African continent still today is an area of ​​marked political instability where wars, of whatever origin and intensity, represent the most visible part of the widespread difficulties it is going through (read article "A look at sub-Saharan Africa"). It is an extensive and continuous instability that has been going on for decades and that has its roots in the past, in which the struggles against colonialism first and the disputes related to the Cold War have given way to other factors of conflict: internal, ethnic, religious, economic, regional and interstate.

A study of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), entitled "A Journey through extremism", already in 2017 highlighted how marginalization and the lack of prospects for many young Africans are at the root of anti-system choices, right where government structures are most fragile, for example in the Sahel. In fact, African peoples, especially young people, feel alone. Alone in front of the mechanisms of international politics and economics, which passes over their heads, and alone in front of their elite, who have contented themselves with carving out for themselves the exclusive role of business intermediaries between the foreign world (extraction of raw materials, foreign direct investments, economic subjects interested in the development of infrastructures) and their territories, obtaining a rich income invested abroad .

From an economic point of view, in fact, African growth from 2,3% (2016) improved to 3,7% in 2017 up to 4,1 in 2021, with a small decline to 3,4% in 2019. Out of 54 countries , 29 recorded a growth of 3,7% and at least 10 countries a growth of 6%. Few countries have experienced negative performance. Nonetheless, African economies still exhibit gigantic differences with Western economies.

It is therefore a continent of immense natural resources which, however, fails to "take off" due to the effect ofinstability caused by the presence of organized crime, terrorism, illicit trafficking, irregular migration, corruption, various types of armed conflicts, etc ..., which often have their roots in poverty, lack of culture, marginalization, serious economic inequalities and social fragility.

Wars and jihadist terrorism

Since the period of decolonization, the African continent has been crossed by numerous conflicts whose causes have been the most varied. It can be said that war characterizes the history of contemporary Africa, so much so that some observers believe that this is the region of the world most defined by armed struggles or by political crises that lead to armed conflicts. From 1960 to the end of the Cold War, for example, thirty major conflicts (by extension and severity) were recorded on the continent.

The multiple origins of the instability and conflict that characterize that tormented continent are to be found in the colonial past but also in endogenous causes such as tribal and ethnic rivalries, in the imbalance of the availability of natural resources, in poor literacy, in the penetration of radical religious ideas. Not to mention the destabilizing role of some non-African actors who, for their own sake, prevent the development of truly independent and effective policies and economies, favoring the corruption of the ruling classes. This makes the position of the African continent extremely vulnerable within the international relations system.

A positive sign in this sense, however, is the entry into force (30 May 2019) of the agreement establishing theAfrican Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). On the basis of this agreement, the largest free trade area in the world was established on 1 January 2021, involving all of Africa (except Eritrea, which has not yet joined). A market of over one billion people with a total GDP potential of US $ 2.500 billion. This could represent a real turning point in development for the African continent, even if it is foreseeable that for years more poverty will be a recurring factor in the African crises.

The Secretary General of the United Nations underlined how "... there is no security without development, there is no development without security and you cannot have security and development without respect for human rights ...", noting that, according to the 2000 report of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), nine out of ten countries among those at the base of the classification of the human development index experienced violent conflicts in the 90s. Indeed, there is no doubt that poverty and inequalities bring with them privations and precariousness, which cause identity stiffening and extremization, giving rise to social ferments and conflicts.

In this context, claims of an identity character, through ethnic and religious factors, represent a powerful vector of violence and conflict. In some cases the perception of an ethnic division of the population has, unfortunately, been favored by some colonial administrations, generating an interethnic hatred which represents the controversial legacy of that period. An obvious example is the heated rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi, which led to the drama of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Before the Belgian occupation, in fact, the only differentiation was of a socio-economic nature. During the colonial period, ethnic distinctions were introduced, which also entailed the possibility of reaching some level of power. This led to incurable divisions and inter-ethnic hatred which led first to lengthy persecutions against the Tutsis and then to genocide.

This type of conflict is characterized by the denial of state authority in favor of community-based ethnic logics. By calling into question the links with the state, in fact, they give rise to conflicts such as the one just described, but also of Senegal, Biafra, Nigeria. An issue that turns out to be even more delicate when it comes to nomadic populations, therefore spread over the territory of several states, becoming a transnational phenomenon, like the case of the Tuareg in Niger or Mali.

Speaking of transnational issues, the phenomenon of terrorism is also in Africa jihadi in recent years it has become one a major security threat. In fact, until the 90s, terrorist activity in Africa was limited to particular areas, as it was linked to nationalistic claims, such as in Algeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Uganda. Today, however, the terrorist organizations operating on African territory mainly refer to the extremeization of religious ideology which refers to a literal and uncompromising reading of the Koran. In this context, the terrorist group known as Boko Haram, of Salafist origin e jihadi, formed in Nigeria in 2002 and now affiliated with Al-Qaeda, has caused more than 20.000 deaths and about 9 billion in infrastructure damage, including homes, schools and hospitals, according to Nigerian vice-president Osinbajo, as well as forcing about two million of Nigerians to leave their homes. To the numerous groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda, which operate in the Sahel and Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Burkina Faso, were added groups of the Islamic State, mainly subjects coming from the Syrian-Iraqi area after the end of ISIS, which operate independently and often in conflict with Al-Qaeda groups.

In short, an extremely chaotic, fluid and widespread situation over vast territories that sees the populations hostage to the violence perpetrated by murderous fanatics, which even the military departments of the various States struggle to oppose due to the difficulty in identifying the target, tremendously elusive and mobile.

The issue of migrants

The intensification of migratory flows across the Mediterranean that we have been experiencing for some years now mainly see wars and terrorism jihadi the causes of migrations that cross the African continent.

To these violent events are added further reasons, such as the exceptional demographic vitality and hunger, rather widespread especially in countries where there are armed conflicts, which generate an important migratory flow that affects Europe, the countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Middle Orient. As a result of this disproportionate demographic growth compared to the possibility of subsistence of the population, at present the Africans who enter the labor market every year are many more than the approximately 5 million jobs available to them in Africa. The situation is such that, even if the overall population growth were to decrease drastically, it would not be sufficient to allow the employment of the masses of young people seeking employment. Employment, therefore, is a crucial issue in this context, given that the lack of economic prospects generates discontent, resentment and hostility towards institutions in young people. The consequent migratory drive towards Europe also finds an additional motivation if we consider that in Africa we have an average income of 3.000 euros, while it is around 35.000 euros in the old continent.

In this context, as can be seen from the map, one of the crucial areas for the transit of migratory flows directed towards the Mediterranean is precisely the Sahel, torn apart by conflicts and terrorism, which seriously destabilize the whole area and make it extremely permeable to illegal trafficking in people… and illicit business (weapons, drugs, etc…). Towards Europe in recent times have been added the migratory flows from Afghanistan, returned under the yoke of the Taliban, with all its heavy implications related to democratic conduct and civil liberties.

In the old continent this causes a certain discontent and hostility in the populations, who already have to fight with the health and economic effects of the pandemic, and provides arguments for extremist and populist politics to attack the approach of some governments, forcing them to daring acrobatics, to everything. to the detriment of the effectiveness of political action.

On the contrary, the pro-immigration press continually highlights the pitiful and spectacular aspects of the thousand events that make up the phenomenon, which move and affect the general public but which do not help to clarify the terms of the problem, which has become too important to be left to the special effects of small-scale political propaganda. As a result of the permanent electoral campaign to which Europe is condemned by narrow-minded politicians, in fact, most of the debates on the subject end up taking on radical tones, exacerbated by immediate partisan interests, or characterized by total disinterest and the desire to don't get caught up in the "problem".

Yet it is a phenomenon that has important implications in the fight against trans-national crime, which extends its ramifications also in Europe. These thousands and thousands of desperate people from all over Africa, ready to cross the central Mediterranean, pay staggering amounts to smugglers, supplying criminals with rivers of currency to invest in illegal activities in European countries.

The phenomenon also has relevant geopolitical aspects, even if the dimension of the problem has not yet been fully understood by some. It affects the whole of the southern Mediterranean, with the exception of the Israeli coasts, that is, all the coasts that do not belong to the European Union, the coveted target and arrival terminal of these flows of desperate people.

In the medium-long term and if an effective and shared solution is not found, the migratory phenomenon will unbalance demographic relations, creating considerable social tensions throughout Europe, also because the introduction (often clandestine) of a multitude of subjects belonging to different civil, religious and social contexts that often show they do not want to enter the system of the host country could have potentially explosive effects.

The safety of sea routes

While current events lead us to focus attention on migratory flows from the African continent and on issues related to religiously motivated terrorism, we risk forgetting other effects of the instability of the African continent, which have complex and global consequences, such as the security of supplies.

For Africa too, maritime dominance represents the lifeblood of the economy. A situation substantially similar to that of any other country in the world, whether on the coast or landlocked. International trade is, in fact, constantly fueled by an incredible volume of trade, which occurs mainly by sea. It is no coincidence that the expression was coined "no shipping, no shopping", to underline the impact that maritime trade has on our way of life.

As for Africa, at the moment the situation sees a relatively small number of commercial ports used for foreign trade, whose usability is also limited by the fact that many of these ports do not have sufficient depth for the transit of large transport ships, effectively reducing the volume of trade.

In addition to the needs of its ports, the continent is affected by the main maritime communication lines between the East and Europe (mainly) but also towards the east coast of the American countries.

In this context, piracy remains the main threat to freedom of navigation. This is a varied threat, which no longer provides only for the boarding of the merchant ship and the subsequent request for a ransom, but which may include the possibility of using remote-controlled bomb ships to threaten the shipowner "remotely".

Taking control of the merchant vessel, through the penetration of the target's electronic security and navigation system, represents a further dangerous novelty, which requires careful updating of the countermeasures adopted so far, in such a way as to increase the IT security of the edge.

Added to this is the fact that many of those responsible for the acts of piracy along African routes are also engaged in other criminal activities on the seabe it coal smuggling, arms, drug trafficking or other illegal activities. These activities, although often of predominantly local interest, do not fail to negatively affect the safety of maritime trade routes and, therefore, the national economies of Africa and the world.

Indeed, any restriction on the freedom of navigation has a direct effect on a global level, not only in the short but also in the medium term. The Suez Canal Crisis, for example, (read the article "The economic and geopolitical importance of the Suez Canal") proved how much the current supply chains are dependent on the free usability of maritime communication lines, through which 80% of world goods travel, according to data from the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It is a huge traffic of goods that travels these liquid highways on a daily basis.

Due to its enormous dependence on the procurement of resources and raw materials, Italy is particularly exposed to any actions that interfere with the free accessibility of maritime communication routes. In 2018, for example, 79,3% of Italian goods exported to the world traveled by sea, a percentage that rises to 95,9 if only countries outside the European Union are considered (read the article "The protection of national interests on the sea"). A situation that can also be found (with varying intensity) for the rest of the world and, in particular, for all industrialized countries which, without the possibility of importing raw materials and exporting the manufactured goods by sea, would suffer a domino effect that would lead to their respective economies to a serious crisis in a very short time.

In this context, it should be emphasized how the Gulf of Guinea area, important for oil traffic with coastal terminals, is known as one of the most dangerous areas in the world for commercial shipping.

To give the dimensions of the phenomenon, according to theInternational Maritime Bureau (IMB) in 2020 in the Gulf of Guinea alone there were assaults on merchant units that led to the kidnapping of 128 crews, held hostage to ensure the payment of the ransom. And that only refers to 25% of boarding in the area. Here the assaults are particularly dangerous because in 80% of cases the pirates are heavily armed and, over time, have increased their ability to carry attacks even quite far from the coast. Boarding, in fact, now takes place on average over 60 nautical miles from the coast, but there have been cases of attacks even 200 miles away.

As a preventative measure, the IMB has advised freighters to stay at least 250 miles from the coast whenever possible. This implies, to come to Europe, a significantly longer route and an increase in transit times, with consequent repercussions on costs.

The sensitivity of the issue is such that some countries have launched joint naval operations to ensure freedom of navigation also along the African coasts.

In addition to the already known operations in the Red Sea, Horn of Africa, South-East Africa / Madagascar, today the military ships operate in activities to combat piracy and armed crime also in the Gulf of Guinea. However, this is a particularly difficult patrol activity, given the vastness of the area of ​​operations and the intensity of the merchant traffic that passes through it. Nonetheless, significant successes were not lacking, such as the intervention of Nave "Martinengo" which, in November 2020, thwarted two assaults against the Singapore tanker “Torm Alexandra” and the Liberian freighter “Zhen Hua7”.


From decolonization onwards, Africans have not been able - or been able - to find the way towards a "general will" capable of bringing together peoples and cultures arbitrarily put together by the borders drawn at the Berlin congress under the direction of Bismarck. On the part of the various collective subjects of African society there was therefore a fallback reaction towards the only social forms that have never betrayed individuals, i.e. the social forms of ethnic belonging, hence the careful and almost obsessive management of leadership. of African ethnicity as a function of the conquest and maintenance of power.

But Africa will never be able to aspire to a more relevant international role until it has found greater internal equilibrium, which pass through greater economic and political development, through the stabilization of institutions, the spread of democracy, the elimination of corruption, the harmonious and inclusive development of populations. These are indispensable premises so that shared and widespread solutions can be developed to the plagues that afflict the continent such as hunger, illiteracy, diseases, which offer fertile ground for underworld, discontent, migration and violence.

In this context, the growing migratory pressure from Africa, dictated by despair, the lack of prospects, underdevelopment, social anarchy, wars and scenarios of increasing violence related to the advance of religious extremism deriving from a fanatical and radical reading of the Koran, could trigger destabilizing dynamics in Europe, which would add to the dissatisfaction with the growing social inhomogeneity, the result of the various economic crises of the last fifteen years. A problem that should not be underestimated, but tackled with seriousness, competence and open-mindedness, leaving aside small-scale interests and finally acknowledging that the impoverishment of the African continent is also favored by certain unscrupulous neo-colonialist policies, which still today do not numerous centers of power in industrialized countries, both western and eastern, are foreign. In fact, to realize their intentions, they make use of restricted and corrupt local factions, which are then those who formally hold power in numerous African countries, with methods that are almost always predatory, dictatorial or autocratic.

Incoherent behaviors should also be avoided, such as those that Europe has implemented in recent years, with which, for example, it has preferred to pay a good 6 billion euros to Turkey to "control" migrations across the Anatolian peninsula and directed towards the Balkans and Europe, while the European development plan for all of Africa did not exceed 4,5 billion euros. Moreover, many observers have expressed doubts about how Ankara may have really spent those funds, suggesting that they could have been used to strengthen the Turkish military instrument and industry (and make the Mediterranean area more unstable) rather than being used for the intended purposes.

In recent times, Italy has intensified its traditional dialogue with the African continent, trying to reconcile on the one hand the need to find answers to "emergency" phenomena, and on the other the opportunity for a more in-depth and far-sighted vision of the situation of the various areas, taking into account both bilaterally and within the framework of the European Union, the root causes of the instability, threats and mass exodus we are witnessing. The action of our country aims at a dialogue and cooperation with Africa that are multidimensional and inclusive, articulated on several levels: political, economic, social and cultural, in order to aim at a human development of which African countries are the first, responsible protagonists.

It will be important to continue with continuity and constancy (perhaps our major handicap), having in mind the role that realistically we will be able to play not only in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, but in the broader process of African integration and stabilization. It will also be important to understand that no actor alone will be able to stabilize (even if only for his own interests) such a vast and complex area. The role of the international community, therefore, remains relevant in encouraging Africans to exercise cooperative responsibility, abandoning the competitive or even conflicting logics that have guided them up to now.

However, of all the challenges, the first and most complex to solve is the political-economic one. There can be no fight against poverty, unemployment and social inequality without an acceptable, democratic and widespread economic well-being. A challenge that also involves the defense of fundamental elements such as the freedom and safety of maritime shipping lines that affect the African continent. Indeed, even the safety of maritime trade has significant geopolitical and economic repercussions, the repercussions of which are not limited to the economies of African countries alone, but affect all the industrialized countries of the world.

For African countries, being able to guarantee the regular flow of goods and the departure of raw materials means, in fact, enriching themselves and being able to significantly improve the living conditions of their populations. For industrialized countries, the safety of maritime traffic that travels around Africa is equivalent to creating new opportunities to establish better relations on that continent and to promote economic initiatives capable of producing well-being both in the homeland and in those areas, in spite of the and depth of the problems that afflict the African continent.

But to do this, in parallel with the national and European diplomatic and economic initiatives, the indispensable resources must be guaranteed to ensure sufficient operation of the aeronaval instrument even in the so-called "Out of Area" operations, in line with national interests and with the level of ambition determined. from our policy. In this context, Italy should have the capacity to act even unilaterally to safeguard its own interests, at the same time encouraging other international actors to seek multilateral solutions.

In an ideal world, what would be needed would be to be able to count on one greater coherence of support policies for Africa and a more accentuated stability of the resources assigned to Defense.

Will our politicians be able to meet such a challenge?

Renato Scarfi (CESMAR)

Photo: Armée française / Open Arms / web / International Maritime Bureau / Irish Defense Forces