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, which really ought to be enough, but in a few years there could be 60.
Ethiopia could actually go over the brink this month. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempt to force the northern state of Tigray into obedience began easily in late 2019, when federal government troops occupied it against only minor resistance, but the Tigrayans were just biding their time.
The Tigray Defence Force (TDF) came down from the hills last June and swiftly drove federal troops out of the state. Then it pushed south into the neighbouring state of Amhara along Highway One, which links Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with the only port accessible to the landlocked country, Djibouti.
In July the TDF stopped at Weldia, still in Amhara state and about 400 km. from Addis Ababa, to await the much trumpeted Ethiopian counter-attack – which didn’t start until about 10 October. It takes time to organise tens of thousands of half-trained volunteers, which was about all Abiy had left after the June-July debacle.
The battle raged for two weeks, with the Amhara militia and other volunteers being decimated by the experienced Tigrayan troops. A week ago the Ethiopian troops broke and fled south. The TDF has already captured Dessie, Kombolcha next stop.
Will the Tigrayans actually go for Addis itself? They’re arrogant enough, and they may be strong enough. If they do, that’s probably curtains for a united Ethiopia.
Nigeria is not so close to the edge, but the signs are bad. The huge gap in income and education between the very poor Muslim north and the mostly Christian south is a major irritant. The desperate lack of jobs for the young is destabilising even the south, as last year’s failed youth rebellion clearly showed.
In the north-east, the jihadist Boko Haram has become the local authority in some places, collecting taxes and digging wells. In the north-west, bandits are kidnaping dozens of schoolchildren for ransom almost every week, and one gang recently shot down a military jet.
In the ‘middle belt’ of states, farmers and herders are almost always at war somewhere. In the southeast, Igbo secessionists are raising the call for an independent Biafra again. Along the coast piracy is flourishing, and Shell Oil is pulling out of Nigeria due to insecurity, theft and sabotage.
“This is an exposure that doesn’t fit with our risk appetite anymore,” said Shell CEO Ben van Beurden. Nigeria, like Ethiopia, is full of clever, ambitious young people with the education and skills to transform the country if only it was politically stable, but that is asking for the moon.
It would be a catastrophe if these two countries, containing a quarter of Africa’s total population, were Balkanised, but that may be coming. If the Serbs and the Croats can’t live together happily, why should we expect the Igbo and the Hausa, or the Tigrayans and the Amharas, to do so?
The old Organisation of African Unity rule said the former colonial borders must never be changed, because otherwise there would be a generation of war and chaos. Recently, however, the rule has begun to fray: Somaliland, Eritrea, South Sudan…who’s next?
Will the dam burst if Ethiopia breaks up into three or four different countries? Nobody knows, but nobody sane wants to find out. Better the borders you know than the borders you don’t.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.