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West Africa: Forecasts for insecurity and conflict in 2014

by Gustavo Plácido dos Santos

West Africa has experienced a chequered history since independence.

A small number of regimes have been well governed and entrenched democratic values over the past two decades. But the high prevalence of coups d’état during the second half of the twentieth century has ensured that the military retains a presence in the national politics of many West African states, undermining the emergence of truly accountable governments. West Africa is also known for its abundant natural resources, including timber, fish, oil, gas and minerals, which make the region significant for global business. But widespread poverty endures across the region, despite this natural wealth.

Poverty and social and political exclusion have given rise to self-determination movements and prolonged insurgencies, such as in the oil-rich Niger Delta and the Sahel. International jihadist movements have capitalised on this and have been able to destabilise countries such as Mali and Niger. The transnational threat has been multiplied by the involvement of these groups in smuggling and maritime piracy. West African states will have to tackle the root causes of insecurity in order to avoid further instability and possible spill-overs to other countries and regions.

Conflict and insecurity is a product of a combination of volatile factors. Some narratives have painted West Africa as a region where conflict and insecurity occur naturally due to ethnic tensions and porous borders; in reality, the underlying sources and drivers of instability are critical to understanding events. This study from Open Briefing attempts to avoid generalisations by analysing specific factors and identifying forecasts for individual countries in the region.

The drivers that are examined range from those influencing ongoing events to more structural long-term factors. Hence this report draws on a number of themes, including: levels of poverty; socio-political instability; the democratic deficit; incomplete transitions from autocracy to democracy; the role of the armed forces; youth bulges; post-conflict environments; the bad neighbourhood factor; the quality of governance; the impact of natural resources; border disputes; Islamic extremism and insurgencies; narco-trafficking; and small-arms flows. These factors are analysed with the purpose of understanding the weight that they have in shaping the country’s recent history and its likely future.

Over 50 carefully vetted sources of qualitative and quantitative data were used throughout this study, with numerous other local sources used for each individual country. Statistics and profiles from sources such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Economist Intelligence Unit and the annual African Economic Outlook, helped to identify the main features of a country. News articles from the BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters, Africa Confidential and local media, provided a descriptive element that contributed to a better understanding of the dynamics of insecurity along the time frame covered by this study. Intelligence and risk companies, such as Control Risks and red24, provided up-to-date, on-the-ground security overviews. And civil society organisations, such as the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, Global Witness and local NGOs, provided background information on many of the factors outlined in the previous paragraph.

The forecasts set out in this synthesis report derive from the application of the cone of plausibility method, which consists of isolating the main drivers that shape events in a country and enables the formulation of fair assumptions. From these assumptions, three types of scenarios for 2014 have been developed: the baseline, which is the most likely outcome; a plausible alternative, which is possible but less likely; and wildcards, which are possible but unlikely, and usually bring about dramatic outcomes. Each of the scenarios is built around different assumptions for the same drivers, which allowed for the generation of differentiated but not impossible scenarios. These variables were applied according to specific features within a country. Also included are brief country overviews and short analyses of the origins of current insecurity in each case.

This synthesis report focusses on those countries whose drivers and internal volatility are likely to create substantial levels of insecurity and conflict over 2014. Stable mainland states such as Ghana, Benin, Togo and the Gambia are therefore excluded, as are the prosperous island states of Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe, and the wealthy oil exporters Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This report outlines the key findings for Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

This briefing paper is the first in three planned reports on insecurity and conflict in West, Central and Southern Africa during 2014.

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