boko haram

How Can Boko Haram Sell Girls Into Slavery? The Answer, Dear Friends, Is All About State Power

Think back to your school days (or, if you’re still in school, think back to yesterday).  In every social organization with enough people, there must be at least one complete and utter dick.  He or she is the least pleasant person in the world to be around, amasses power through intimidation, violence, or manipulation, and is widely despised.  Thankfully, if you’re in school, you’re generally in a country with a strong enough police force that keeps their nasty habits in check.  This person can only do so much damage before they are jailed or killed.

But in some places, there are few cops.  Nigeria is one of them.

Nigeria’s a place too complicated for itself, and chaos has been its word of the day for over fifty years

Nobody has quite worked out why sub-Saharan Africa missed out on developing advanced civilizations along the same time as North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, despite the fact that our species probably came from there.  There are guesses; for our purposes, what matters is not the how it happened but that it did.  Society prior to colonization in West Africa was based upon proto-kingdoms, clans, and tribes, with the environment conspiring against centralization.  The network of Nigeria’s rivers, its thick jungles, and its wide open northern frontiers that form part of what’s known as the Sahel made any would-be conquest extremely difficult.  Coalitions of tribes formed into kingdoms; these kingdoms were organized along natural geographical lines, using jungles, rivers, and deserts as borders.

When the British came, that was all swept aside.  With better organization, superior technology, and a willingness to lie like none other, Britain, one by one, conquered the kingdoms and lumped them into something they called “Nigeria.”  Nigeria was, for Britain, just a gigantic resource base to be exploited at will.  Britain applied its Indian model successfully for nearly 60 years in Nigeria – co-opting local elites into their colonial administration, giving political way when way had to be given, and eventually decolonizing in a hurry when it suited them.

Like India, the Nigerian colony was too diverse to become a nation-state peacefully.  The How-To of Decolonization took effect, and as soon as the British left as ringleaders, different ethnic groups started to compete violently for power.  With so many potential factions and a geography that gave minorities the ability to fight off a central government, Nigeria’s alternated between democracy, civil war, and military dictatorship since 1960 with varying degrees of killing.

Major ethnic groups combined with the direction of Boko Haram attacks. There’s no strategy here, just chaos.

Like all colonial hangovers, Nigeria’s still setting order to itself

Nigeria’s primary problem is its tribalism.  This tribalism corrupts democratic politics, encourages the military, the only reliably non-tribal force, to overthrow corrupt governments, and increases the likelihood of secession, sedition, and protest along ethnic lines.  Each time a government is overthrown or a protest turns violent, the civil society Nigeria needs to prosper as a democracy, as well as harness its vast oil reserves, gets set back a notch.  Quite frankly, Nigeria has too many people with too many identities to be governed easily.  The state-led process of building Nigerian nationalism is by its nature a slow one, but is harmed further during the bad times of civil war and violence.

Nigeria is without a doubt the most powerful state in West Africa and can field a military effective enough to hold the state together.  But while essential for holding the borders, the army can’t do much to change Nigerian culture out of its tribal mode and into a more national one.  Thus regions that would have split long ago are held in by an army that doesn’t want the humiliation of a shrunken state.

The army can keep neighbors from stealing territory and would-be warlords from making new countries, but it can’t be everywhere at once.  Thus while it can keep Nigeria’s borders intact, it can’t stop the bubbling cauldron of tribal-charged chaos from occasionally overflowing.

What in God’s name is going on with Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a human phenomenon you understand quite well in your local terms.  They are your local hicks; your racists; your backwoods, sister-raping hill billies; they are the scum you try to avoid standing next to in line because they clearly did a lot of meth last night.  They are badly educated, either because they hated school or because their local town lacked a decent one, and they are universally men who think the world owes them something.  Boko Haram is a different cultural expression of the same kind of assholes you avoid at the bar and silently wish would get hit by a bus when they leave (and you do so silently because you know they’d like nothing more than a fight).

Unlike your local situation, however, there’s almost no one to keep Boko Haram in check.  Imagine those group of assholes deciding to smash up the bar.  You do what’s natural and call the cops.  In a well-ordered society, the cops show up, crack skulls, and restore order.  Now imagine how much damage they could do if no police ever arrived.  Imagine what that neighborhood would swiftly look like, and the horrors they’d inflict on others.

The guys you pray like mad don’t show up to your house party, because, once they do, you know you can’t ask them to leave.

Do yourself a favor and divorce Islam from Boko Haram’s actions

Islam is not the reason Boko Haram kidnapped those girls and is now threatening to sell them into slavery.  Boko Haram did that because they are the cocks that every society has; the difference is they live in a country that cannot always control them.  The fact that they claim they’re doing all this in the name of Islam is irrelevant; bad guys find excuses for their behavior, and those excuses are most commonly rooted in some kind of perversion of local culture.  Boko Haram is Nigeria’s equivalent of America’s KKK, with many of the same behaviors and psychological motivations.  The primary difference is that Boko Haram can get away with their crimes, while the KKK must restrain itself or face annihilation at the hands of a well-trained and efficient police force.

So how do you rid yourself of such nasty people?

The short answer is that the country must develop a civil society that puts the nation-state ahead of personal interests.  That’s incredibly hard to do and is a generational process.  Nigeria has a start on it with its armed forces and its growing middle class, but in a country of 168 million people, division is not only inevitable but expensive, slow, and dangerous to bridge.

For a country like Nigeria, destroying Boko Haram will not end the behaviors exhibited by it.  Some other ethnic group will do much the same so long as Nigeria lacks a modernized citizenry.  Rather, Nigeria’s most effective institution – its military – must end up managing terrorist psychopaths that will continue to have breathing space within the country’s borders.   Much as police try to manage murder rather than wholly prevent it, this is the best that Nigeria can do for now.

Over time, in twenty-five to fifty years, as Nigeria’s economy grows, wealth spreads outwards, and a middle class emerges to be the dominant force in the country, such groups will run out of oxygen.  The path to such growth is paved by good governance, democracy, and civil peace.  But that path is easily lost in the thicket of tribalism.  Nigeria has a long time to go before monsters like Boko Haram are boxed away in the realm of nightmares.  With some luck, good leaders, and help from the outside world, that day can come sooner rather than later.



Somalia, Al Shabaab, and How Geography Screwed A Country

The odds are good you’ve seen Black Hawk Down, where the story of the disaster that was the battle of Mogadishu is told rather well.  With such a baseline of knowledge, you’re aware that, at some point in the recent past, Somalia was a mess.  Things haven’t changed much.

Somalia is the king of Failed States – a title that involves having no real government, warlords, pirates, drugs, and pretty much every war crime, human rights violation, and general barbarism that you can imagine.  It’s The Road but not as cold and with less necessity for cannibalism.

Then there’s Al Shabaab – Arabic for “young men,” who, while made up mostly of young men, are also consummate assholes. Throw in Captain Phillips, the Kenya Westgate Mall butchery, and the occasional piracy stories that pop in the news and Somalia’s well-deserved reputation as World’s Worst Country is fully established.

But Somalia was not always such a basket case.

Somalia’s been geographically screwed since the Ice Age

Somalia is not all that far off from what Arabia would been if oil was never discovered.  With little water, low rainfall, open plains that allow invaders to come and go as they please, and no forests, jungles, or canyons to hide in, Somalia was a strategic liability for the only pre-modern indigenous state in the region, the empire of Ethiopia, who, with their highlands and better rainfall, set up a powerful state that tussled with Somalia nomads over the Ogaden desert.

That was more or less Somalia’s history up until the coming of the Italians.  Being unable to feed itself, Somalia never advanced beyond tribalism, with warlords fighting over the same turf forever.  Arabic and Islam made their way to the country by way of trade and pious missionaries, but Somalia, being Somalia, quickly morphed both into local forms, since without a central government no single version could be imposed.  (Somali Arabic is foreign enough that, here in Qatar, the pirates of Captain Phillips still required Arabic subtitles).

Dry and generally unpleasant.

Until the day the Italians got interested, but only because there wasn’t much left on the plate

In the Scramble for Africa, Italy got a late start.  Italian nationalists sought great power status, which included colonies, but the best parts of Africa were already grabbed by the French, British, and Belgians.  So Italy took what it could get, included the arid coastline of Somalia, where they slowly set up a colonial state by playing local warlords off one another.  (The other choice piece of real estate Italy grabbed was Libya, where no oil had yet been found and which was a liability even in Roman times).

Somalia was held as a matter of national pride and never paid for itself, but came in handy as a base for the 1936 invasion of far more valuable Ethiopia.  During World War II, the Allies ran a sideshow campaign to liberate Ethiopia and conquer Somalia from the Italians.  After the war, it was held as a UN trust under Italian administration until independence in 1960.

These experiences pretty much set the stage for the collapse that happened in 1991

Italy put a lot of effort turning this otherwise unremarkable piece of real estate into a productive colony.  Because of the harshness of the environment, productivity could only be maintained so long as an outside power was willing to dump money into the country to bribe clans, set up companies and businesses that stood a snowball’s chance in Hell of becoming competitive in the short term, and keep a government running.  Italy was willing to do this up until World War II because Somalia served as a beacon for nationalist pride in addition to being a base to strike at rivals throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.

After the war, the UN kept the money flowing as part of its decolonization scheme to bring freedom too early to Africa.  The tribes were happy and the peace was kept.

Up north, in British Somaliland, the situation wasn’t much different, with the British even less interested in running a productive colony.  Somaliland, for Britain, was a base to keep the Suez Canal open between Britain and India.  With Aden in Yemen to the north, it ensured no power could easily blockade the Red Sea and prevent British trade.  Of course, once India gained independence, British interest in both colonies rapidly waned.

When the “Winds of change” rolled through Africa in late 1950s and early 60s, Somalia was one of the least prepared countries for it

Much of Somalia’s peace was due to outsiders running the show, bribing locals, and keeping them busy with various development projects.  Little was invested in a Somali civic society, and, like many African colonies, the early years of the country followed the How-To Guide to Colonization.  Democracy was promptly set up and promptly became a mess.  Clans jostled for power while elites in Mogadishu talked highly of all kinds of things that were irrelevant to a country that couldn’t figure out what to do with its nomads.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, who by 1960 was rolling in oil money, Somalia didn’t have the money to bribe people into compliance.  Democracy died in the 1969 coup, which established a military dictatorship that put many of the country’s demons into a Somali Pandora’s box.  Through brute force and hefty doses of nationalism, Siad Barre ruled the country with as iron of a fist as he could afford.

So he went trolling for someone, anyone, to help him keep that fist up to date

Like many post-colonial societies, Barre saw socialism and communism as the answer to the tribal nightmares that plagued his country.  So he promptly joined the Reds and went to work using their ideology to end tribal identity.  As part of the Cold War, the Soviets and Chinese saw Somalia as a nice little piece their networks of African clients, with Ethiopia being the prize of East Africa.  Like the Italians, it was a lovely place to pressure enemies all around the rim of East Africa.

But in his war on the clans, Siad Barre relied on a newly-minted Somali nationalism that sought to bring all Somalis under a single flag.  When he actually tried to do that in the Ogaden War, the Soviets and Cubans rode to Ethiopia’s rescue and wiped out Somalia’s army.  Siad Barre retreated, tail between his legs, to the lower rungs of power, and shortly thereafter switched sides to the Americans, who were happy to bribe him on the cheap as they sought to turn Somalia into a base to take down Red Ethiopia.

Greater Somalia. Hard to take, harder to hold, for anyone trying to build an empire from dry Somalia.

Such was the glue that held Somalia together

Nobody should have been under the illusion that Somalia had changed.  Nomadism was still popular and the only thing that kept society from returning to its roots was the army, bought and paid for by the United States.  That lasted until the end of the Cold War, when the aid promptly stopped.

It was impressive how fast Somalia fell apart.  Unable to bribe, with nationalism discredited by the failure of Ogaden War, Siad Barre had no leg to stand on.  Being a dictator without an army is a bad place to be; when the time came to start the shooting, he had nobody but his clan on his side.  Ironically, Barre had spent much of his life trying to undo the one thing that ended up saving his life.  Meanwhile, Somalia as a state collapsed and people returned to their pre-modern ways.

The UN mission of 1991-95 never had good odds since few were interested in fixing this raggedy edge of humanity

With no strategic resources and no great power competition jostling for control of the Suez, Somalia had dropped back to its place as worthless.  The UN got involved in the mistaken belief that, with the Cold War over, it was now the time to sort the rest of the world’s problems.  But the UN humanitarian mission that crescendoed in Black Hawk Down died as soon as outside powers realized building a state in Somalia would be hard, long, and very unlikely to pay them back.  The international community abandoned Somalia to its fate by 1995 and the warlords, once kept in check through bribery and outsider-supported institutions, returned.

Every movement since then has attempted to build a state out of the maelstrom

The Al Shabaab movement came out of what was called the Islamic Courts Union, a pan-Islamic movement that tried, much like Siad Barre, to use a foreign ideology to erase tribalism in the country and get the state moving again.  Unlike Barre, the ICU used local religion.  Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they were harsh but predictable in their meting out of justice, and they gained support often because they stopped the shooting.  2006 was the height of their power; that was the year they held Mogadishu.

Alas, they came of age during a War on Terror, and their overtly Islamic overtones could not be tolerated by either the U.S. or nearby Ethiopia, who also worried about Islamic extremism.  In 2006, the Ethiopians invaded.  Somalia’s geography betrayed it yet again; the invasion was swift and resulted in an Ethiopian occupation of key regions.  Meanwhile, African states, led by rising African power Uganda, decided on another international mission to attempt to set up a government in the shattered country.  Without the West’s cash, they could move only slowly, but because of that slow movement have been more successful in putting pieces of the state back together.

Now, Al Shabaab have split from the ICU and gone insane.  Openly affiliated with al-Qaeda, they seek to bring about the same world destruction that they think will bring about a world caliphate – dominated by them, of course.  As state power slowly expands into their territory, they grow more desperate and radical.  They are outgunned, but remain capable of striking targets that one wouldn’t normally think of as a military target – think a shopping mall or some dudes cheering for their favorite football team.

Note the growing blue. Good on the AU.

So the pattern continues

The central government of Somalia is once more propped up by outsiders, but weaker and poorer outsiders than ever before.  Somalia itself doesn’t have the natural resources necessary to build a state and both the West and its many enemies see no advantage in dumping funds into this particular desert.  Somalia has become an African problem and has tested the African Union to its limits.  So far, they have held firm.

Such poor places need long spaces of peace to turn themselves into something useful.  Somalia has not yet had that.  If the AU can hold the line, in another decade or two, the situation will calm and the hard work of building an economy and effective government can begin.  But history has shown outsiders lose interest in Somalia easily.  Poor people don’t hold much attention for long.

What the hell happened in South Sudan? (You can blame tribalism)

Off I go on holiday and suddenly there’s a civil war in South Sudan.  What, exactly, went down?  Well, there are specifics – and they are better detailed elsewhere – and there are the generalities, which carry the grand geopolitical sweep of things.  Like many of Africa’s conflicts, South Sudan suffers the effects of rapid and incomplete decolonization (the effects of which are spoken of here), and, like many of Africa’s conflicts, this civil war is just another tribal war gone national.

South Sudan wasn’t well-prepared for governing itself, though it wanted to believe it was

Sudan’s rump state to the north is already horribly run, governed by varying degrees of nationalist, Islamist, and genocidal regimes since Britain cut it loose in 1956.  The problem for Khartoum was a country split between too many culture groups.  Along the Nile River, Sudan’s long been tied up with Egypt – and when Egypt went Arab, so too did much of Sudan.

With South Sudan all kinds of crazy colors, what did anyone expect would happen?

This part of Sudan was comparatively easy to run – at least the locals agreed they were Arabs and Muslims, and wanted to stay that way. Alas, the southern reaches were not Arabized, not Muslim, and not happy to be ruled by either. Thus began a series of civil wars.  Worse than that, the southern portions have never been part of a centralized state before, and therefore haven’t undergone that process of cultural standardization and myth building that underpins modern nations.  It’s pretty much every tribe for itself.

Here’s another great indictment of tribalism as a form of organizing society

Tribalism is fantastic under very specific circumstances.  Otherwise, it’s garbage.  Why then does it survive to this day?  Human beings naturally tribalize – we do this to a harmless extent at work, at school, and in wider society.  We link ourselves to people of similar social outlook, interest, or, sometimes but increasingly rarely in modern states, to kinship.  We do this as a survival method, but in a functioning state, we don’t take it much further having a few beers with the bros.

That’s because in a modern state, if we bros decide to tear up the bar and take it over, invariably the police will arrive and put us all in prison.  If we resist, they will beat us and, if we fight hard enough, kill us.  Moreover, while we may be greatly heroic and kill many of them, they will be replaceable cogs in a system capable of calling in more and more powerful reinforcements.  This is why, in Grand Theft Auto, you can never take over the entire city through mass violence even with the cheat codes on.

But in a state that’s lacking a police force with enough recruits, or an army with reliable commanders, such things break down.  What happened in South Sudan only happened because people on both sides realized they could fight and beat state institutions.

Not that anyone  has an interest in chaos

Few powers, even Sudan to the north, want to see South Sudan fail.  Uganda has gone so far as to send troops alongside UN ones to prop up the central government.  With nearby Central African Republic also going to pieces, the feeling is that there’s a corridor of insanity running from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo down south.  Along that axis lies a potential threat of instability.  From Ethiopia to Kenya to the United Nations and China, most would prefer to see South Sudan put itself back together and get on with the necessary business of supplying oil.

But this is proof positive of how little power outsiders have in Africa

Since the end of decolonization, the only thing that outsiders have done well is prop up badly run governments and ensure that borders stay the same.  Other than that, from development aid to intervening in civil wars, outsiders have been unable to shape the continent’s destiny.  African states still have to face down the ugliness within their tribal societies, something that starts with simple things, like reliable roads, electricity, and water supplies, and ends with really complicated things, like modern education systems, corruption-proof governing systems, and peaceful transfers of power.  South Sudan hasn’t yet sorted that first set; there’s the simple problem of logistically building such systems after nearly sixty years of on and off civil war.

Unlikely to be the last round of this, alas

Until South Sudan breaks tribalism, it will suffer the corroding effects of it.  Sooner or later some other scumbag will take a stab at the presidency through violence, knowing his tribe will back him.  It doesn’t have to be that way, of course.  South Sudan might establish an uneasy peace and gradually wear away at the tribal blocs, turning them into a single community.  But that day’s a long way off.

5 Leaders Who Really Mattered

Human systems often are too large, and too complicated, for single leaders to have undue influence.  We often like to think that human history would have changed had we added a good leader here or shot up a bad leader there.  But killing Hitler would not have changed the security challenge faced by a rising Germany.  It certainly would not have solved Europe’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, nor stopped the Soviets from wanting to take Eastern Europe.  Europe’s political and social systems were used by him, but few of the things he attempted – unification of Europe under a single continental power, racial purity through violence, military terrorism as the means – were novel, and would have probably been tried by someone else.

But while leaders rarely create trajectories, they can nudge them.  Leaders often have hinge decisions in their hands – the choice whether the inevitable change they face will be violent or peaceful, fast or slow, efficient or inefficient.  They cannot stop the choice from coming; geopolitics ensures that human systems evolve towards certain outcomes based on geography, demography, and culture.  But they can shape how that choice is made.

For our purposes, I’ve chosen leaders who made logical geopolitical choices – who went with the flow instead of trying to change the river.  Hitler and Stalin won’t make it, as a result, because both tried, through terror and sheer will, to overcome the geopolitical shortcomings of their states.  At the end, neither of them succeeded (though Stalin got to die thinking he did).

Here are five leaders who truly mattered.

Deng Xiopang

Deng inherited Mao’s massive nightmare of a totalitarianism.  Totalitarian systems are expensive, unwieldy, and, despite their outward appearance, unstable.  One crack in the fear wall can cause the whole thing to come crashing down.  Deng understood this well enough and knew that Chinese communism would not survive long if they didn’t shore up the system to be more in line with human nature.  His capitalist reforms acknowledged a geopolitical reality – communism could not deliver the economic growth needed to sustain such a large and populated nation-state.

Time Magazine is right every once in a while.

But it was in 1989, at Tienanmen, that Deng was given a choice that was truly a hinge one.  Instead of negotiating or allowing the protests to spread, he ordered his tanks to crush the student protests and thereby reinforce the fear that’s held together Chinese systems since ancient days.  In 1989, remember, the Soviets were failing to make use of their own military forces to shoot their way to stability, and by the end of the year had lost Eastern Europe.  Deng played the old emperor’s card – he made his subjects bow at the end of a bayonet and thereby delayed the inherent instability that comes with a nation-state as large and diverse as China.

It’s likely he just bought time; China tends to go through phases of madness.  But imagine the world today if Chinese communism had gone under just like the Soviet version.

Richard Nixon

Wait, what the fuck?  Yes, even crooks can make a difference.  Nixon’s got two crowning achievements for making this list – ending the nonsensical Vietnam War and using China against the USSR.

The Vietnam War was unwinnable minus outright colonization and population replacement.  Lyndon Johnson thought, like Hitler and Stalin before him, that he could just bomb his way to victory by killing enough of the enemy.  But short of following the Roman tactic of creating wildernesses and calling them peace, this strategy was never going to work.  Moreover, an empty Vietnam would have just ended up being swallowed up by China, and nobody was about to suggest Americans move to Vietnam to replace the slaughtered Vietnamese.

Nixon understood this; North Vietnam could not be broken traditionally, thanks to lavish support from China and the Soviets.  He also understood Vietnam didn’t have the power to spread communism much beyond Indo-China – and hence rendered the Domino Theory moot.  In fact, after the war, Vietnam got stuck in its own Vietnam by invading Cambodia, fighting a ten year war against fellow Marxist guerrillas (and never quite succeeding).  So he ended the war; Vietnam and Laos went red, but the Cold War was won anyway because Southeast Asia was never to be decisive.

So there’s a Nixon Goes to China musical.

Nixon also knew that geopolitics trumps ideology.  The Chinese and Soviets were supposed to be communist bedfellows, but were actually nation-states built on the ruins of imperial systems.  Mao and Stalin got along well enough, but once Stalin exited stage left, Mao grew increasingly worried that Moscow wanted him under its domination, as well.  Rivalry was inevitable when both believed they were destined to rule Asia.  Nixon exploited this to the hilt and forced the Soviets to suddenly worry about their eastern flank.  Not bad for a man who had to resign the presidency.

Harold Macmillan

Following Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez adventure, Britain’s Conservative Party understood that a natural limit had been reached on imperial power.  Under Prime Minister Macmillan, who spoke of “the winds of change” sweeping through Africa, Britain rapidly – and sometimes irresponsibly –  decolonized virtually all of its African empire.  Africa had been a boon to industrializing Britain, providing cheap natural resources at a time the country really needed them.

Understood it was better to stay home.

But by the 1950s and 60s, Britain no longer needed monopolies on these resources like before.  It’s economy was quite different and the world was coming under American economic domination that valued open borders and freer trade.  Holding onto African possessions was largely a matter of protecting its colonial communities and prestige rather than providing easy growth back home.  In fact, continued occupation was increasingly becoming a drag on growth and the treasury.

Macmillan’s government chose to go with the flow rather than fight the inevitable.  Britain might have held onto certain colonies much longer that it did, but saved British lives and cash by pulling out in the early 60s instead of fighting colonial wars like Portugal and France.

Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan

Who in the hell was this?  Certainly he was smarter than the average tribal despot.  The ruler of Abu Dhabi from the 1960s until his death in 2004, this Persian Gulf sheikh understood early on how weak his position was and acted accordingly.  First, he used his oil cash to bribe the six other ruling families of Trucial States to join a federation that he called the United Arab Emirates.  Rather than attempting conquest like his Omani and Saudi neighbors, he co-opted local elites through bribery and incentives that led to a peaceful union (the only successful Arab federation in history).

Sheikh Zayed spent a lot of his life being pleased with himself.

But that was hardly enough to secure his position.  His borders were drawn up to please his bigger and more violent Saudi neighbors, cutting off direct access to Qatar, while he himself stayed close to the British government.  Moreover, he used his oil wealth to purchase influence and weapons from the UK and United States, inviting both to set up military bases in his country that ensured that neither Saudi nor Iran would attempt land grabs.  He then spread his oil revenues all over the place, building farms and cities from sandy deserts, costs and environment be damned.

The result was a cult of genuine personality where people were not terrorized into worshiping him.  After all, who doesn’t love a dude who throws money out of Landcruisers while driving through the desert?

Nelson Mandela

Pretty sweet moves there, bro.

Pretty sweet moves there, bro.

Oh, sure.  Had to throw that in there, huh?  But Mandela deserves massive credit for not going down the road of revenge so many other African leaders danced down. To be fair, Mandela had to learn the hard way that violence was no way to preserve South Africa’s stability and state power.  But once he did, he understood that cooperation based on nationality rather than race or language was the surest way to ensure South Africa’s position as the most powerful state in Africa.

It was a legacy of apartheid that the best trained segments of South African society were still behind their gated white communities.  But rather than go all Mugabe on their asses, Mandela kept them running the essential parts of the state and economy and avoided the civil wars, economic collapses, and massive inflation of his neighbors.  That was a choice that saved South Africa from decades of misery and perhaps even disintegration.  Not bad for a man who spent a good chunk of his life in prison.

Any others? Who do you think made the right choices geopolitically?  Who saw the reality and went with it rather than absurdly scream, “Iraq will be a democracy” over and over again?  Let me know in the comments!

The How-To of Decolonization

So you wake up one day and you realize something – you’re about to be leader of a country.  For a long time, some foreign power’s been running the show, but they’re about to skip town and leave you to your devices.  Never mind how you got there – your idiosyncratic journey doesn’t change the challenges ahead.

Your former overlords haven’t done much for you, either, in regards to setting up government, schools, hospitals, etc., and when they drew the borders of your country they didn’t ask any of the locals.  Your so-called “people” are a mass of individuals with little to no notion of commonality and who are only dimly aware there’s something called a “capital” with a “leader.”  For them, the city you reside in is just the biggest place where they can occasionally go and exchange goods before returning to their real lives in the hinterland.  What happens there and who claims control is more or less irrelevant to them.

But that’s all about to change.  You’ve got problems – and you intend to tackle them head on.

Problem number one: Fending off the neighbors

Cuba might be not be your first choice. But remember: beggars can’t be choosers.

Your now-departed masters had some form of colonial administration and defense force, but never had to put too much effort into guarding borders because the entire neighborhood was run by fellow imperialists whose strategies for domination involved large armies back home but just picket forces abroad.  While some native-run kingdoms and states did exist nearby, all of them knew that the best way to stay decolonized themselves was to avoid picking fights with imperial powers who had access to superior technology and militaries.  But those days are gone and you’re left with whatever gendarme or colonial scouts the colonizers left.

You’ve got two options to preserve your borders – build up a native-run military force capable of defending yourself or ally yourself with some foreign power that’s willing to do that for you.  The former takes time, decades even, to properly train an officers corps professional enough to do the job while also amassing the proper equipment that can go toe-to-toe with neighbors.  The easiest route is to have a ‘special’ relationship with your former colonizer – but failing that, you could always do with running to your colonizer’s greatest adversary, who’ll relish the opportunity to win a new friend at their expense.

In the real world, most decolonized nations secured themselves by entering into good relationships with their former masters.  Canada, Kenya, and in fact most British colonies did just this and were kept safe by Britain’s military.  Many other colonies did this too, but those that didn’t either jumped into some enemy’s camp (like Vietnam and Algeria, who in various ways aligned with the Soviet Union) or struggled against their neighbors  (like Congo and antebellum United States).

Problem number 2: establish internal security

It was way easier to get your borders set than to buy off all the rival groups within them.  None of your people had ever been asked about colonization to begin with, let alone where the capital was going to be and who was going to be in charge of it.  Your colonial masters probably divided and conquered their way to control or, in some cases, just replaced natives wholesale with their own.  In either case, you’ve got to ensure everyone knows who’s in charge.

You’ll need to choose some kind of power base.  The best ones will be those educated and trained in imperial capitals or, failing that, are part of some existing social structure.  They’ll probably be elitist and rich and will want to stay that way, so you’ll have to set up a bargain whereby that continues.  This will help neatly divide your country into a Rich vs. Poor dynamic, which is a lot easier to manage than the immediate alternative.  You can, after all, always pay one half of the poor to kill the other half.  Persian Gulf states have done this quite well, keeping traditional tribal structures intact and enriching their top leaders in exchange for support.

Ruling so many colors isn’t easy.

That worse alternative will be populism, trying to attract as wide of swathes of your population as can do by promising them all kinds of impossible things.  You’ll have to draw on uneducated, untrained bits of your people for administration because doing this will probably piss off your elite, who will want nothing to do with you (and probably will conspire to get rid of you).  If you go for the race or religion card, anybody not part of that said group will want to bolt early on.  Both Nigeria and the Congo’s first leaders learned this the hard way with the Biafra and Katanga secessions respectively.

By either buying off the right people, or killing off the the wrong ones, you’ll eventually get your system of government accepted in most places.  Even the United States’s Federal government had to fight a civil war (and several Indian ones) to get its writ accepted in the places it called its own.

Problem number 3: Jobs, jobs, jobs

Your colonizer left you with a wholly alien form of political organization – a nation-state.  Had they pulled up stakes and let you return to your pre-colonial political system – whether that be a tribal village, a slave-sacrificing empire, or an agricultural common market – you’d be able to say piss off to modern technology as well as the modern world in general.  But nation-states require proper education, infrastructure, military and police forces, and legal systems to run.  You’re not about to vote yourself out of a job by letting go of the political system that’s put you in charge in return for some mythologized pre-colonial past.

To do all this you need a proper economy.  Worse, all your neighbors are doing the same in a race for power.  You can’t sit back and expect them to not interfere with your nation if you get too weak.  So you get to work.

You might have the resource curse, which will seem really great at first because it’ll let you buy all kinds of stupid things with minimal effort.  But it’ll rot your human capital and make you only appear to be modern.  You might even swamp yourself with foreigners come to run your country while your native peoples seclude and anesthetize themselves with newer and newer toys.

Or you’ll have to find some way to trade up into a developed economy.  Some kind of local resource will have to do; maybe your former overlords set up a few industries here and there, but none of them will be big enough to run your country just yet.  You’ll have to focus heavily on the handful of things that made your country attractive as a colony to begin with.

South Africa was arguably one of Africa’s most advanced nations when it was decolonized, but even today a large proportion of its national income is derived from its gold and diamond mines, which have been used to invest and improve its economy.  Other nations, like Ghana, focused on their colonial-era exports (coffee specifically).  Over time, you might, like the United States, trade up into a modern economy using these commodities.  Or, if you keep changing your mind about what you want to export or try to develop too fast, you’ll end up like Ghana, which was one of West Africa’s best colonies until its government ran its advantages into the ground.

Problem number 4: Who the hell are you?

Once you’ve at least got a start on your first three problems, you need to start building a common identity among your peoples.  The likelihood your people are all one culture, language, and religion are low.  Even if they are, the tendency of colonial systems is to allow segments of society to atrophy and others to prosper as part of their ruling strategy, and so some kind of divide has come about by now (such as America’s differences in its 13 original colonies).

The best choice here is to work your way towards a new, common culture that draws from threads around the country. The odds are good your initial support base that you’re using to build up your nation have some stuff in common, and their traits can become the “essence” of your “timeless” people.  You can just make shit up too; why else do you think Americans spell ‘neighbor’ differently?

“Hey guys, did you hear we’re all going to wear all the same clothes, all the time, from now on?”

But you may not have that option.  You might have a diverse group of peoples who historically don’t get along, and who the colonizers used against one another in order to keep the countryside divided.  You might skillfully buy off key members while stalling the bigots within your own ranks – something few countries have ever managed.  More likely, you’ll double down on the prejudice card, riling up your supporters against their perceived enemies – just like the colonialists did – to subdue your foes.  This won’t always work so well; Africa is full of civil wars that came about because of this strategy, but under the circumstances few African leaders had much choice minus allowing those bits of their countries to split off and form new ones.

You’ll want to rally people around national symbols, mythologized leaders, distorted histories, and other feel-good bullshit which will make people believe that their particular nation is unique and worthwhile and not just another set of human beings organized by an elite for that elite’s enrichment.  If you can play the Messiah card, go for it!  Just be prepared for the irony if you’re overthrown.

Problem number 5: After you, what?

Now comes the final, most tricky part.  You’ve got the building blocks of a nation going.  But you’ve got to write some kind of social contract that works between your government and your people.  Fat good all this will do when you’re dead and everything comes apart because you were the linchpin holding the thing together.

You don’t have to be nice.  You can set up a one-party state that will turn you into a god and that will shoot, torture, and terrorize its way to stability for years to come.  You can turn your little nation into a monarchy and pass power on to your son.  This option works best for placating your elites, who will then clearly know who can and can’t be king.  But it won’t thrill your poor.

Try to avoid this.

You can try democracy too, but if you’ve done a bad job building a nation that’s just going to descend into factionalism, corrupt parliaments, and probably a civil war or two.  Remember that a democratic system imposed on peoples who are not a unified nation will result in immediate regionalism and other antagonisms coming right up front, since they’re suddenly allowed to express how different they are and how much they hate the other ethnic or religious groups within your country’s borders.  Iraq’s a fine example of this, but so too are the Caucasian republics, all of whom were ill-suited to be decolonized so suddenly by the Soviet Union.

‘Cuz pimpin’ ain’t easy but it’s necessary

You can opt for some kind of third way to avoid all this, but you’ll fail.  Nobody’s ever found a way to avoid these problems following decolonization.  Fail to secure the borders and your nation will probably stop existing.  Don’t sort your internal security and your best case scenario is mayor of your capital city (and worst case is being hanged in the city square).  Fuck up the economy and you won’t be able to afford to do either of the first two (and might get yourself booted as well).  Fail to build a common national identity and you’d better buy up your country’s marshmallow supply to roast on the inevitable civil strife’s widespread fires.   And if you can’t figure out how to make it all last after you, well, what’s the point?

Good luck!  Have fun!  And remember, if you fail, you and your whole family will probably be executed.