Piece on Mass Atrocities for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft

At the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, I wrote this week about mass atrocities in the Sahel. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

Amid the final push for a new Africa strategy, what the Sahel needs from the United States is not grand strategies but rather day-to-day efforts to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and to hold perpetrators of violence to account. Bluntly, each successive administration’s “Africa strategy” tends to reshuffle the one before it, with nods to abstract priorities such as “democracy,” “development,” and “security.”

Such lists of priorities give little guidance for how to help local Sahelian communities and their governments, much less the entire continent, move toward greater stability and inclusive governance. Meanwhile, there is a risk that substantial U.S. government energies will be consumed by processes that are really about optics — a major new strategy will be rolled out with great fanfare, but it is likely to collect dust. In that connection, there is hubbub around an “African leaders’ summit” in this fall, but it will likely prove just as empty as the summit under Obama in 2014. Biden appointees should measure their success not by whether such Washington-focused events go smoothly, but by tangible accomplishments improving lives on the African continent.

Family Planning Legislation in Nigeria?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made headlines – and caused controversy – this week by saying that his country may need “birth control legislation,” potentially along the lines of China’s one child policy. Nigeria’s population currently stands at an estimated 160-170 million people, and is projected to grow so rapidly that Nigeria may have over 400 million people by 2050. Jonathan has recommended that the newly formed National Population Commission pursue a campaign of “advocacy” and “sensitization” to promote birth control and the idea of child spacing.

This is not the first time someone influential has proposed such a policy for Nigeria. Last year, American economist Jeffrey Sachs suggested that “Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family,” an idea that also drew criticism and debate.

Nigeria’s massive population has sometimes been the subject of gloomy, even apocalyptic commentary, as in the New York Times article “In Nigeria, a Preview of an Overcrowded Planet.” That article pointed out that “for two decades, the Nigerian government has recommended that families limit themselves to four children, with little effect.”

Critics said that the NYT article’s attention to families’ choices about children distracted readers from other ways of looking at the country’s problems, especially in terms of the failure of the state to provide services to its people. Obadias Ndaba wrote to the NYT,

Economic prosperity isn’t driven by population size but rather by how a country invests in its human capital and manages its resources. Nigeria has deeper issues, such as corruption and poor governance, to deal with. Fear-mongering based on erroneous Malthusian population theory must stop.

If one embraces this argument, Jonathan’s talk of family planning could also be seen as a distraction technique, a way of displacing blame for Nigeria’s problems from the government to the people. One of the Christian leaders quoted in VOA’s article on the topic makes essentially that argument: “The population of Nigeria cannot stop the progress of Nigeria…If our leaders can stand on their obligations and apply the wisdom of God and the fear of God, we can make it and succeed also in Nigeria.”

Politically, Jonathan’s suggestion may play poorly in many areas of the country, including much of Northern Nigeria, where his popularity already runs low.

Does that mean family planning efforts are doomed in Nigeria? Not necessarily. Muslims in Northern Nigeria are often depicted as exceptionally conservative when it comes to dealing with issues related to sex and health, but at the grassroots level, VOA and USAID have reported some successes with family planning programs in the region. In 2009, VOA reported:

In Zakarai village, about 50 kilometers from the main city of Kano, a community-based outreach project is helping low-income families get the education and contraceptives they need to act responsibly.

Community volunteers, with technical support from the Community Participation for Action in the Social Sector, COMPASS, a USAID-sponsored project, are helping women avoid unwanted and often high-risk pregnancies.

COMPASS is a five-year integrated community-driven project with nine implementing partners, including the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association and the Nigerian Medical Association.

The project, which started in 2004, seeks to improve the health and education status of 23 million Nigerians in three northern and two southern states.

COMPASS field officer in Kano, Mohammed Gama, says putting the community in the driving seat was the catalyst for the program’s success in one of the most conservative communities in Nigeria.

For more, see this USAID report on COMPASS activities in Nasarawa State.

It would be deceptively simple to say that the solution to the issue of family planning in Nigeria is to go “bottom up” instead of “top down,” and US government sources have a clear interest in describing US-backed programs as successes. But at the very least, I think Jonathan’s top-down style proposal will have difficulty getting much traction, and will be an easy target for his various opponents. The larger issue also remains: is family planning even the right place to start in addressing problems like poverty, food insecurity, and crime? What do you think?

Africa Blog Roundup: Drones and Yemen, Somalia Pirates, USAID, and More

Yemen (I know Yemen is not in Africa, but what happens there is relevant to what happens in the Horn): Aaron Zelin and Gregory Johnsen discuss the advantages and disadvantages of conducting drone strikes against AQAP in Yemen. Gregory:

The idea that the US can carry out a war in Yemen, even a remote controlled one, and not pay the price for it is foolish. If the US treats the country like a war zone it will get a war. There is, simply put, no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP in Yemen.

Somalia: Modern Day Pirate Tales looks at a record ransom paid to Somali pirates, and Foreign Policy has a photo essay on anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.

South Africa: Matthew Tostevin covers South Africa’s application to join the BRICs.

Nigeria: Shelby Grossman points out some interesting details about the arms shipment seized in Nigeria last month.

USAID: The Project on Middle East Democracy flags an article at the Center for Strategic and International Studies “describing the decline of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) over the past four administrations.”

Colonialism: Chris Blattman, Joshua Keating, and Olumide Abimbola discuss the relative merits of British colonialism.

Feel free to use this as an open thread.

Somalia: TFG One Year Out, AU One More In

Hard to believe it’s been a year since Ethiopia withdrew its forces from Somalia, after an occupation of roughly two years. I agree with Adam Serwer that, for many reasons, the invasion was a mistake – but the past year has not been easy on Somalia either.

Somalia coastline

The Transitional Federal Government celebrates its one-year anniversary today. “Celebrating,” actually, is probably the wrong word. Despite confident statements from some officials in Mogadishu, the TFG effectively controls very little territory. Recent victories against Islamist rebels al Shabab were won not by government troops, but by a pro-government Muslim group called Ahlu Sunna. That may be encouraging for some in the  TFG, but it does not signal the government’s own capacity to establish order. And the fighting, though nearly constant, has yet to produce any clear victors.

That’s why the AU, which deployed troops in Somalia in March 2007, will be keeping its forces there for another year. They protect the government that, AFP writes, “has owed its survival largely to AMISOM,” the AU’s peacekeeping force. And that’s why the US will continue pumping millions of dollars into Somalia. Foreign backing can keep the government in existence. But so far, that backing has not succeeded in expanding the TFG’s reach.

2010 has opened in Somalia with stalemate still in effect. Will it hold? Perhaps Ahlu Sunna can not only repel al Shabab’s attacks on its territory, but also push the Islamists back and seize control of southern Somalia from them. But I doubt we will see al Shabab’s defeat soon, or at least not without greater foreign involvement – and given the disastrous consequences of Ethiopia’s occupation, hopefully policymakers in Addis Ababa and Washington would think twice before committing to such a course of action for a second time. As for a successful al Shabab offensive, we may see it – but that would make Ethiopia and the US very nervous, likely prompting some kind of response. Thinking through the potential outcomes actually starts to feel a bit cyclical, after a while.

In other words, no easy solutions present themselves, but at the same time the risks are increasing that some nasty terrorist incident will come out of Somalia – whether in a nearby country, such as Yemen or Kenya, or in the United States itself. If that happens, all bets are off. So while the continuities from this time last year are striking – what, fundamentally, has changed politically? – it’s impossible to predict what might happen in Somalia in the rest of 2010.