Something is going wrong in Africa. Nigeria and Ethiopia, the two most populous countries on the continent, are both stumbling towards disintegration. There are now 54 sovereign African countries, that should be enough, but in a few years it could be 60.
Ethiopia is closer to the brink, so close that it could actually pass this month. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to force the northern state of Tigray into obedience started well in late 2019 when government forces occupied it against little resistance, but the Tigrayans were just biding their time.
The military occupation of Tigray did not last. The Tigray Defense Force (TDF) came down from the hills last June and evacuated federal troops from the state practically overnight. Then it moved south along Highway 1 to the neighboring state of Amhara, which connects Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Djibouti, the only port in the inland.
In July, the TDF stopped in Weldia, still in the state of Amhara and about 400 kilometers from Addis Ababa, to await the great Ethiopian counterattack – which did not begin until October 10th. trained volunteers, that was pretty much all Abiy had left after the June and July debacle.
The battle raged for two weeks, with attacks by Amhara militias and volunteers from elsewhere against the trained, experienced Tigrayan troops failing. About a week ago, the Ethiopian forces collapsed and fled south, although you probably didn’t hear about it because Abiy began bombing the Tigran capital, Mekelle, to divert your attention.
The TDF has already captured Dessie and is advancing on Kombolcha, which is halfway from Mekelle to Addis Ababa. Will the Tigrayans actually go to Addis themselves? It is not impossible. They are arrogant enough and they can be strong enough.
Nigeria is not that close to the edge, but the omens are bad. The huge gap between the very poor Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south in terms of income, education and easy literacy is a major nuisance. The desperate lack of jobs for the youth is destabilizing even the south, as the failed youth uprising last year clearly showed.
In the northeast, the jihadist Boko Haram has become a local authority in some places that collects taxes and digs wells. In the northwest, banditry has gotten out of hand, with dozens or even hundreds of school children kidnapped almost every week to extort ransom. The region is flooded with weapons, and a gang recently shot down a military jet.
In the “middle belt” of the states, peasants and shepherds often wage war, and in the southeast Igbo secessionists are again calling for an independent Biafra. Piracy is flourishing along the coast and the oil multinational Shell is discharging its Nigerian oil reserves onshore in the face of insecurity, theft and sabotage.
“This is an exposure that no longer fits our risk appetite,” said Shell CEO Ben van Beurden, and most large investors, foreign and Nigerian, see it that way. Nigeria, like Ethiopia, is full of bright, ambitious young people with the education and skills to change the country if only it were politically stable, but that calls for the moon.
It would be a disaster if these two countries, which contain a quarter of the total population of Africa, were Balkanized, but that could come. If Serbs and Croats cannot live happily together, why should we expect this from the Igbo and the Hausa or the Tigrayans and the Amharas?
The old rule of the Organization of African Unity said that the former colonial borders must never be changed, no matter how arbitrary they were, or there would be a generation of war and chaos. That is why there were 50 African states for a long time and no more, but recently the rule has crumbled. Somaliland, Eritrea, South Sudan … who’s next?
Will the dam break if Ethiopia splits up into three or four different countries? Nobody knows, but it would be better if we didn’t have to find out. Better the boundaries you know than the boundaries you don’t know.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.