How Will Radical Islam Affect Development In Africa?

Written by Andrew Friedman

According to the AP, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on Tuesday U.S. President Barack Obama announced $14 Billion USD in investment commitments from U.S. companies including such heavyweights as General Electric, Marriott and IBM.

Even with this massive announcement, former President Bill Clinton went out of his way to point out that this investment, along with other U.S. investments, had “only barely scratched the surface” of Africa’s economic potential.

These grand pronouncements by the president and former president feed into an ongoing narrative of “Africa Rising,” a continent moving past historical problems to become a major player on the world economic stage.

There are significant indicators that support such a narrative.

In 2013 sub-Saharan Africa was home to 4 of the world’s top ten growing economies in South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ethiopia.

According to African Economic Outlook, a collaboration between the African Development Bank, the U.N. Development Program and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Center, the region as a whole grew at 5 percent in comparison to a 3 percent average growth rate for the world economy.

When South Africa, already an economic force, is excluded the growth rate jumps to 6.1 percent, more than double the growth of the global economy. Projections for 2014 are similarly robust, at 5.8-to-6.8 percent when South Africa is removed from the data.

There is one significant impediment to such growth that, if unchecked, will make the Africa Rising narrative an unfulfilled pipe dream. Poor governance, political violence and instability.

An argument has been made, for instance by Bloomberg, that civil wars and violent coups are on the decline continent-wide, and while Islamist violence is on the rise, it does not pose the same threat to stability, making development fears of instability and poor governance a thing of the past.

While there is significant evidence that civil wars and violent coups are on the decline, that Islamist violence poses less of a threat to stability is less proven.

To start, there are far less coups and civil wars in today’s world than there ever have been in the past.

Slate’s Joshua Keating analyzed coups across the globe in the wake of Thailand’s 2014 extra-legal regime change and found that in 2014 Thailand is (to-date) the only one, in comparison to an astounding 12 in 1964.

This is the continuation of a trend worldwide and the African continent is no different. While African states regularly top the lists of potential coups from Political Scientist Jay Ulfelder, coups as a whole are so far down that the likelihood of any individual country having a coup, even if it is among the world’s most likely, is far lower than it would have been decades ago.

A Continent Aflame

The same is true for civil wars. Even while acknowledging several major conflicts, the Economist noted last year that “What is remarkable is how many African civil wars have ended since the fall of the Berlin wall. A map showing African conflicts two decades ago would show the continent aflame.”

What is less clear is whether the growth of Islamic militancy will not be similarly problematic for development and stability. While evidence is limited, anecdotal situations seem to show Islamic radicalism having a major negative impact on stability in countries where it is prevalent.

Take, for example, Mali. While the country recently completed a landmark framework agreement for movement toward peace, the conflict stemmed from a potential coup that allowed Islamic radicals to take control of much of the country’s North. It would take French intervention to remove the Islamists.

Similarly in Nigeria, battle with Boko Haram is increasingly problematic as the group becomes more aggressive and the conflict is looking increasingly like an insurgency/civil war than the standard threat of Islamic radicalism.

Boko Haram’s ever increasing audacity could result in a governance gap or an unwillingness of Nigerian parents to educate their children, as the group has recently attempted assassinations on political leaders and their family members in Cameroon and, famously, kidnapped a great number of Nigerian girls from school.

The ability of Islamic radicals in Mali and Nigeria to effect governance and development in a way that looks more like a traditional civil war casts serious doubt on the assertion that Islamic radicalization is somehow less dangerous than previous insurgencies.

The same is true in other countries with a greater history of Islamic radicalization such as Iraq, where estimates have Islamic State (Formerly ISIS or ISIL) controlling a significant portion of the country.

As Vice President Joe Biden told the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, “Africa possesses two incredible resources: an overwhelming abundance of natural resources and the resource of its people.” These resources are invaluable if Africa is to rise.

However, they cannot by themselves create a boom on the world’s poorest continent. People and natural resources must be combined by good governance, rule of law and stability.

While much of the continent has seen remarkable growth in all of these areas, the threat posed by radical Islamic must not be ignored. Those who do, do so at their, and Africa’s, peril.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.