Africa. Urban Conflicts Scenarios.

Analysts said that in the future conflicts (especially internal wars) will be fought more and more in urban areas. How are governments, international institutions ready to answer to these new challenges? How will urbanization impact on security in Africa?

On a geopolitical level one of the major ongoing trends worldwide is urbanisation. And that is true especially in African countries. Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, is one of the most relevant examples, but also Cairo, Kinshasa and Accra are frequently mentioned. At this moment Bamako, Mali’s capital, is the city with the fastest growth rate in Africa (+5.5% every year).

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This phenomenon will have a wide range of effects on African societies. We will examine the consequences for security, and we will use an essay written by David Kilcullen in 2013 (‘Out of the mountains’) as a magnifying glass.

A deep change with unknown effects

According to data provided on 19th March 2017 by the French weekly Jeune Afrique, one billion   men and women will live in African cities in 2040 (nowadays 500 million of people live in urban areas in Africa). The moving of thousands of people from small towns, peripheral areas and rural zones to big cities will deeply change the economy, but also the social structure, of several nations. Traditional rulers and habits will in general lose their grip on society in favour of some new order that is still difficult to define. But it is already possible to forecast that many African governments will not be able to manage these flows.

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Nowadays, according to the president of Urban Thinktank Africa, Alioune Badiane, only 12 out of 54 African countries have a draft of an urbanization plan. Therefore, the development of mega cities will be difficult if not impossible to manage. The problem is that new neighbourhoods are (and will be) springing up without a plan, especially as far as transportation, water, power and sewage management are concerned. At this moment, 60% of the urban population in Africa lives in shanty towns (known also as ‘bidonville’). Probably, already weak states will not be able to provide public services in an efficient way (or at all), and this vacuum of power will be filled by armed groups of different nature, maybe criminal, maybe terrorists, maybe both.

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In theory, the birth of these new agglomerates could create new possibilities for the economy, opening new and bigger markets with new demands for businessmen. But, as noted in a report from the World Bank (‘Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World’, published on 9 February 2017), the way these cities are structuring themselves is actually creating hurdles to economic development. Urban areas in African are expensive in terms of rent, transportation and food. Workers tend not to move very far from their houses because there is (almost) no efficient and cheap public transportation. Often land ownership is not clearly regulated and this can lead to legal disputes. Due to these and others causes, entrepreneurship is not supported and this leads to a downward spiral of underdevelopment.

The rise of a new order

According to Kilcullen, a former military officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, the more likely scenario is that of a contested space, where a competition between different subjects for the control of the territory takes place. The governments that we used to know will probably be only one of these players. Government institutions will have to compete with structures (created by religious movements, criminal groups, political parties, etc.) to rule the new areas. There is a high probability that this competition will be based on the use of force.
If we analyse case studies such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, we note that armed groups succeed in winning people’s hearts and minds because they are strong enough to impose a sort of social order that guarantees some level of security and stability to the population of an area.  According to Kilcullen, they become popular because they are strong, not vice versa.

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Popularity is a sort of ‘force multiplier’, something that strengthens something that is already powerful. The social order these new formations can impose will be made both of rewards and punishments, which are distributed as a consequence of people’s behaviour. Examining what happened, with the Taliban as an example, Kilcullen notes that this group at least in a first phase, projected itself as a defender of the people from the abuses of warlords. And it was praised for that by a population that cared more for security than ideology, and thought it could deal with Mullah Omar’s supporters. It was only after they took power that the Taliban showed their authoritarian side.
A pure use of strength and violence by an armed group (or even by institutions) on a population will guarantee a short term gain in terms of control of a territory. But the group’s grip on the people will in reality be weak and a kind of revolt could happen in any time. The more likely scenario is that of a competing group that enters the scene and chases the former ruler with the support of the people, as happened in Afghanistan. Neither the ideology of the group nor the content of the rule it is trying to enforce are a priority for the final recipients. Kilcullen explains that consistency and predictability are the elements that will build consensus.

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The people will choose the group that is actually capable of imposing clear rules. Rules that lead to behaviour patterns that are predictable and therefore bring in certainty, no matter how demanding they are.
On a general level, according to Kilcullen, in the future, conflicts (especially internal wars) will be fought more and more in urban areas, since war is fought where people are. Therefore, African and Western security forces will have to develop their urban warfare skills and equipment to confront the emerging threats.

Change the face of Africa

We have tried to analyse a phenomenon that is ongoing, and on a global level. We have tried to synthesize something that will be different from country to country. But we think it is useful to focus on possible security scenarios that could change the face of Africa as we know it.This trend will interact with others like the penetration of information technologies in the lives of the Africans. It will also be influenced by the ups and downs of the economy (both on a local and on a global level).
It is too early to say if African (and Western, Asian, etc.) governments will be able to deal with this new reality. The first step is however to be aware of its existence.

Andrea Carbonari



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