Monday, November 27, 2006

Countries at the End of the Earth

Rebels are apparently trying to seize the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. Again. Several months ago they had a similar drive, only to be thwarted near their goal. What is the fight about? The usual international-relations suspects depict this as the spread of "instability" outward from the Darfur region of Sudan. This would not be the first time this happened in Africa; instability launched in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s ultimately spread out to Liberia, Guinea, and other countries in that part of the world. But ascribing it to instability simply begs the question of why any particular region has instability to begin with.

It certainly isn't a question of grand ideology either. While the rebel groups may crank out press releases or tell BBC journalists that they are fighting to end oppression by the current government or some such nonsense, no one imagines that this is a war over national purity, social justice, or any of the other gigantic ideologies that loomed so large in Western warfare in the twentieth century.

Rather, this is a part of the world where government is everything. Most obviously, he who controls the mightiest army and uses it to staff the embassies overseas and the ministries in-country is the one who gets his hands on the flow of wealth from oil or diamonds or foreign aid or whatever it may be. And so this is a war about money – the money that comes from being the mightiest gang in town, in many respects no different from the battles among drug gangs for control over access to the US market. Economists call it the “natural resource curse” – the notion that resources that lie under the ground are the ones that generate the most conflict and corruption, because unlike the resources contained in people’s brains (human capital), natural resources can never leave if they are abused too much. Control of the ground under which they sit is crucial to control over a huge stream of income deriving from consumers and the rest of the world who need these resources.

Some of this may also involve one of mankind's most essential urges – the desire to separate himself from his fellows on the basis of physical appearance, religion is necessary, language if neither of those criteria works. Sociobiologists often argue that we are preternaturally driven to tribal conflict of this type, and one of the most profound challenges of the modern era is how to create social institutions that work against this tendency.

And when both natural-resource abundance and tribal diversity are in place at the same time, and combined further with a state that is historically and culturally weak, yielding no sense of common citizenship among the people nominally under its control (at least in the eyes of the world's legal rules established under the traditional nation-state system), this kind of trouble is difficult to avoid. Very few people born in what is called "Chad" or "the Democratic Republic of Congo" – nations whose borders were drawn arbitrarily by some colonial power desperate to exit – feel that the "Chadian citizen" or "Congolese citizen" part of their identity portfolio is a very big part, certainly compared to their tribe or other prenational identifier. There is no sense of common citizenship. Combined with the extreme centrifugal pressures that already beset these nations, they simply represent collapses waiting to happen. And there is probably little that the political scientists and economists can do to help them. Robert Kaplan once wrote a book called The Ends of the Earth, in which his travels through much of Africa and Central Asia had convinced him that the very idea of the nation-state in these regions was unrealistic, and they were on the verge of collapsing now that the Cold War was over. The thin veneer of civilization, manifested as a United Nations seat in a state-owned airline, would be blown away in what more people are calling re-primitivization. Mr. Kaplan is better than most at predicting the future (he also pointed out well before the rest of us knew it that newly installed democracy, without the benefit of civic traditions, the rule of law, and ordered liberty, was not going to work), and the endless warfare going on in places like Chad and Sudan is evidence that he may be right yet again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Africa indeed suffers from the "natural resource curse", from AIDS and now from persuasion of Radical Islam. Groups sent in to stabalize certain area inevitably are corruptied. What do you think it will take to stop the massacre and bring some stability to the people?

12:40 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

A miracle. They happen - Botswana and Mauritius, despite AIDS in the first case and a significant Muslim population in the second - have turned good economic policy into the chance of a better future. But many of these countries are artificial (Mauritious, tellingly, is an island), so there is no sense of nationhood. It's my personal belief, which I express often on this blog, that promoting free commerce and ending special state privileges of all kinds gives people more incentive to work together and less to fight. But easier said than done.

12:27 PM  

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