David Andelman: With 1 billion people in 54 countries sprawled across 11 million square miles, Africa has more red lines than any other continent. Centuries of colonial conquest and occupation only intensified this toxic web. For Africa is where all the world’s conflicts are converging in an intensely overlapping tapestry. It’s here that major world powers, Sunnis and Shiites, and terrorists of every stripe, are all doing battle for the hearts and minds of Africa. And, of course, its vast mineral and agricultural wealth.
I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.
Today, in episode 8, we’re in Africa, the world’s fastest growing region, with more nations and more red lines than anywhere else on the globe.
Africa’s people, as diverse as all of humanity, have fought many bitter wars. These conflicts led to the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, slave wars that stretched across West Africa and deep into the interior, fueling the American slave trade and reverberating today. Later on, there were the Boer Wars in southern Africa. There were genocides from Idi Amin’s Uganda to the Congo, where six million died; and Rwanda, where a million people were slaughtered in just three months. Today terrorist groups have established a presence in a dozen or more African countries.
All major world powers have significant interests in establishing red lines to protect and access what is important to them. For China and Russia, it is raw materials like diamonds and rare earth minerals. For the United States and Western Europe, it is oil and gas. But to understand the roots of these overlapping interests, we must travel back far into the past. Most historians and anthropologists believe that the first homo sapiens were African. Christopher Ehret, one of the world's great African historians at UCLA is quite direct:
Christopher Ehret: "50,000 years ago, the ancestors of every single human being alive today lived in eastern Africa, the eastern parts of Africa. And world history to that point was African history. But just because a few Africans left the continent and began to expand across the rest of the globe, history did not come to an end in Africa.
DA: It is hard to see anything resembling lines or boundaries before the first thousand years of the Common Era. But eventually, some key nationalities, or at least major tribal groups, did begin to appear.
In many respects, Africa is unlike most of the other regions we’ve examined. Here, red lines were defined early on by geographic and climate zones more than any political or military reality. Across much of Asia, eastern Europe, and the Middle East, climate and environment are relatively uniform across each region, on both sides of any red line. But you'll recall Chad, from Episode One, is almost perfectly bisected into desert and jungle. On the north, across the Sahara, is the desert. That stretches into the savannah as vegetation begins to appear, then the tropical zone where many of today’s principal populations lie—from Nigeria to the two Congos, on to Kenya, and Tanzania. At the beginning of the Common Era, none of these nations existed.
One reason for the stunted development of early red line networks was nomadism. In the early days, when urbanization was only just beginning, tribal defensive lines would have been the first primitive use of such devices in Africa.
What especially marked the evolution of Africa, at least pre-colonialism, was a constant sense of expansion, contraction, and division. Often, organized communities would, amoeba-like, suddenly split apart as part of the population established a new community. These new communities would eventually split again.
Only quite recently have large stretches of Africa become densely populated. The entire continent is once believed to have had only 35 million people, less than the current population of California. Only in 1700 did it reach 100 million, which is less than a tenth of its present size. There is now twice that number living just in Nigeria.
The entire continent remained largely hunter-gatherers for at least 4,000 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, populations were decimated by the theft of slaves to America and Europe. Without that, the population might have tripled.
Throughout, there were red lines that formed, were defended, dissolved, then re-formed again along the entire length between desert and jungle.
Improving weapons, like iron-tipped arrows and spears, allowed the emergence of the first defensible African red lines. One of the earliest and most powerful surrounded the kingdom of Mali. Mali eventually stretched from the Atlantic across the Niger River into the heartland of Africa, peaking in the fourteenth century. It was during this period that Islam arrived on Berber caravans crossing the desert west from the Red Sea.
More contested frontiers led to a greater need for defense. Archaeologists have concluded that Benin’s colossal defensive earthworks, dating from the 11th century, were the world’s largest of its kind. Twice the length of the Great Wall of China, they were built with a hundred times more material than the Pyramids of Egypt.
Beginning in 1000 AD, from the Congo to Mozambique, and in the southern stretches of Nigeria, states emerged. They had important stocks of cattle to protect and border lines to defend. And many of these borders were religious.
First slowly, then ever more rapidly, Islam was making its way across the continent. Often spread by determined disciples, it sometimes grew through force of arms. It would eventually encompass nearly 250 million people in the sub-Saharan region alone. By 2030, it's projected to reach nearly a third of the continent’s population. In West Africa, Muslims already constitute a majority. And it is here that jihadist terrorism is putting down roots today.
Through at least a millennium, Africa had the seeds of a unique web of red lines. Often, these lands were prey to wild swings in climate. Water especially required large-scale movements of people, many of whom brought with them their red lines of protection. Others sought to protect valuable minerals or trade routes. The great Kingdom of Zimbabwe had a bold red line, guarded by 36-foot tall fortifications. It tied together one of the continent’s most lucrative trade routes in gold.
The first colonial interlopers in the 15th century were the Portuguese. Led by Prince Henry the Navigator, they worked their way up the Congo River into the mainland of Africa. Over the next century and a half, the Portuguese expanded their involvement in the Kongo. The Dutch followed the Portuguese and built forts down the west coast of Africa. In the 17th century, the British arrived, then followed by the French, who began establishing trading posts. Belgium would also become an important force in Africa, particularly in the Congo.
The earliest colonizers sought to work with the African leaders. The colonizers were interested in land, gold, and eventually slaves, ruled over by African arms and defended by red lines. By 1750, at least 10,000 slaves a year were passing through the port of Luanda in Angola—a treasure to be maintained at any cost. For nearly three centuries, the slave trade played a major role in the first networks of centralized states and the red lines that delineated them. This formed the basis of colonial empires and ultimately the modern Africa of today.
This all led eventually to the “Scramble for Africa”—a narrow but intense moment in the continent’s history, from 1881 until the First World War. When this period began, barely 10 percent of the continent was under substantial European control but in less than 40 years, some 90 percent of Africa had fallen into the grasp of a European nation. In this period, a succession of firm, carefully delineated lines was created. Their creation began with the Berlin Conference of 1884. None of the African parties was invited to contribute a single thought to its outcome.
But every major European power was in attendance, plus the United States. America ultimately did not subscribe to the document or take any physical foothold on the continent, beyond its role as a customer during the centuries of the slave trade--a role that evaporated with the end of slavery.
The result of the Berlin Conference was a dangerously ignorant redrawing of a place that few remotely understood or had even visited. Immediately after the conference, Britain and Germany divided East Africa between them. France moved into western Africa.
Diplomats, military officials, and commercial travelers were all involved in this erratic and violent scramble. “We have behaved like madmen,” lamented the French President Félix Faure in 1898. By the opening salvos of World War I, Africa had become a neatly drawn plaid of many colors, reflecting a host of red lines defended by European powers and African chieftains.
Examine the map of any other continent. None will have the geometrically straight lines that mark many of Africa’s borders. These artificial lines were laid out with little understanding of the tribes, linguistic groups, or heritage of the people who live between them. Today’s terrorists are effectively returning Africa to pre-colonial times, with little incentive to uphold the current red lines.
Many of the treaties that defined Africa’s present boundaries were questionable, some utterly fraudulent. Many of the explorers who established them were quite literally out of their minds with alcohol, drugs, and khat, which they chewed with abandon. Treaties were presented to African rulers who rarely understood what they were being asked to sign. Still, the rulers had carefully calculated the price of maintaining their lines of authority and defense. An agreement with a military power that could offer protection and prestige, not to mention guns and ammunition, would be very much to their advantage. The mineral rights they were signing away were a small price to pay.
But, when European armies arrived to claim territories allocated to them in Berlin, they were not always met with a warm welcome. French, British, Italian, and Portuguese forces were met with long wars of attrition. And after World War I, many of the colonial red lines began to disappear. New nations began to emerge with very clear ideas of sovereignty and boundaries—quite apart from the British Empire.
The current map of Africa largely emerged between 1950 and 1980—the great period of decolonization. By that time, Africa was changing dramatically, particularly its urban areas. Lagos grew from a population of 300,00 in 1950 to 14 million today. And it's still only the eighth fastest growing city in Africa. Each nation needed to fend for itself, guaranteeing its own borders—perhaps the most stinging legacy of the colonial period. Between 1950 and 1980, 51 African colonies won their freedom—a staggering number, causing unprecedented turmoil. Each country was now responsible for maintaining its own frontiers against neighbors and internal forces unhappy with the existing colonial structures.
At the same time, outside powers anxious for a new foothold, made their first significant appearances during the Cold War. Russia and China were especially anxious to slide into vacuums left by Western nations. A pattern developed here, affecting political, diplomatic, and military lines across Africa long after the Cold War had ended.
When it came time for these post-colonial regimes to establish their own red lines, they turned to many of the same military forces used by the colonizers. Now their security was overseen by African officers trained by colonial advisors. Eventually, the most imaginative of these officers recognized the value of their deep understandings of the workings of power. Many moved into positions of influence in their countries. Some took short-cuts to the top. Between 1946 and 2019 there were 78 “successful” coups in 39 different countries in Africa. Nigeria alone has had six successful coups and nine more that failed.
Just one example from Nigeria. In December 1983, relations between Nigeria’s military and its president, Shehu Shagari, had reached a breaking point. Finally, one military officer, General Mohammedu Buhari, led a coup against the president. The coup plotters came to unseat him at the presidential villa, and when the president’s Brigade of Guards defended, blood was shed.
I was in Paris at that moment, but CBS News hustled me onto a chartered jet with a producer and camera crew, bound for Lagos. After refueling in the Algerian desert, our pilot received word that Nigerian airspace had been closed. We diverted to neighboring Benin, where we found that all land borders to Nigeria had also been sealed. But Buhari was well-positioned as an authority figure. Twice he would become president of Nigeria—this first time through a coup, then again 30 years later through a more conventional presidential election.
Beyond attempts to seize power in these countries, there were repeated efforts to redraw ancestral red lines. Sometimes, the goal was to reestablish ethnic or tribal boundaries. Other times, it was simply to hive off profitable natural resources.
Among the most lethal of these attempts was in Congo. It won its independence from Belgium in 1960 and promptly faced a mutiny by its armed forces. When UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld flew to negotiate a truce in 1961, he was assassinated - his plane shot down. A powerful American-backed army officer, Joseph Mobutu, eventually seized power and ruled the Congo for three decades. His legacy continues to destabilize the entire region.
Many of these coup leaders arrived in power with commendable aims - to improve the lives of their people, while defending the boundaries established by their colonial predecessors. But most morphed quickly into vicious kleptocrats that held their people hostage. Africa has known a large number of horrific leaders, from Idi Amin in Uganda to Jean-Bédel Bokassa in what he called the Central African Empire. He was ultimately deposed in an elaborate coup engineered by Alexandre de Marenches, leader of the French secret services.
Marenches described the coup to me when we were writing his memoirs: A planeload of his agents landed at the airport in the dead of night. They pulled out a wad of cash to pay the military guards, then waited while a second plane landed. That plane carried the nation’s previous, elected leader. The contingent waited until dawn, when he'd been officially re-installed in the presidential palace, then flew off quietly into the sunrise.
A succession of French presidents immersed themselves deeply in African politics. They stationed French troops throughout their former territories to make sure leaders remained firmly in the French camp. The problem across the continent is that the European colonies had little natural coherence, so the boundaries they established enclosed states with little national unity or pride. The result is that many are desperately vulnerable and barely stable.
As I said before, the African continent is growing faster than any other region of the world. It also has 35 of the world’s 50 most impoverished nations. In other parts of the world, terrorism and red lines have thrived for religious reasons or lust for territory. But in Africa, these barriers are often a desperate cry for existence under horrific conditions. Vast stocks of weaponry have also found their way to Africa, often falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
What this means in Africa is that red lines are as much targets and battle lines as firm boundaries. Many rebel groups established “liberated zones,” enclaves that often cross national frontiers and whose boundary lines are viciously protected. Today’s terrorists have replaced yesterday’s freedom fighters.
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The major colonial powers were rarely induced to give up their colonies until well into the 20th century. Nor did many conquered territories concede and accept the new lines of power. Some of the earliest terrorists were self-styled independence movements. Many represented ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious groups that formed their own carefully delineated zones. In some cases, lines were drawn to defend critical resources like access to water. Many were effectively states-within-states, with their own red lines and ties to foreign powers that supplied arms and training. For decades, African nations have grappled with the question of just what constitutes a terrorist.
In 2009, the Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre identified 171 terrorist attacks with 541 fatalities across Africa. In 2018, nine years later, the number of attacks and deaths had mushroomed 10-fold. Hardly a single African nation has been immune, as terrorist groups roamed the continent. The deadliest groups are linked to Middle East units. They have found new sanctuary in sparsely populated stretches of Africa—especially Al-Qaeda franchises. Some have effectively formed sovereign territories that straddle multiple frontiers.
But most modern terrorist activity here has been concentrated in a natural band reflecting the spread of Islam, stretching across the midline of Africa south of the Sahara. Islam first arrived in Nigeria in the 11th century. Today, it has the largest Muslim population in West Africa. This population is mostly Sunni, but has a significant Shiite population in the north of Nigeria that operates under their own form of sharia law. Here are the Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden.” Early Boko Haram militants flew the flag of the Afghan Taliban. The scope and intensity of Boko Haram’s attacks rose exponentially as they began to cooperate with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Qaeda was expanding to neighboring nations, linking up with Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State, rampaging across Syria and Iraq.
In both cases, these radical Islamic leaders established red lines within nations that those nations could not penetrate. Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of Boko Haram’s growing power was its 2014 invasion of a girl's school in Chibok, kidnapping 300. A video showing the girls seated, shrouded in black from head to toe. The narrator claimed all had been “converted” to Islam and “married off” to Boko Haram fighters.
Archival tape, translated: We have indeed liberated them. We will never release them until after you release our brethren.
DA: By 2015, air strikes from Nigeria and Chad drove Boko Haram out of some of its strongholds. This touched off prompt retaliation by Boko Haram across the Chadian basin. By that time, its caliphate had ballooned to the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Home now to some 30 million people, Boko Haram rebranded itself as “Islamic State’s West Africa Province." While ISIS has been forced underground, its red lines in the Middle East destroyed, this is its new incarnation. This deadly reality today is approaching two decades and growing.
This is not to say that there haven’t been consequences. America’s State Department added Boko Haram to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. President George W. Bush created a joint Africa Command, unifying all American military operations on the African continent.
Eventually, Donald Trump disclosed that he would pull American forces out of West Africa, ending American aid to French forces struggling to stop terrorists in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. This was hardly an appropriate approach to the growing network of red lines surrounding terrorist-held territory across central and western Africa. The U.S. military on the ground was opposed to this blanket withdrawal. AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend testified before a Senate committee:
General Stephen Townsend: We cannot take pressure off major terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. These groups and many others remain an inconvenient reality in Africa. While we should not try to confront each one, we should remain resolute in confronting those who threaten Americans and the American homeland, like Al Shabab, the largest and most violent of Al Qaeda's branches.
DA: And there were new, terrorist-inspired red lines and their overseers fanning out across the region. Al-Qaeda began a major push through the southern Sahara into Mali. While none of these local terrorist bands wanted to proclaim a caliphate, their mounting land grabs suggested major territorial ambitions. In each of the territories they've seized, locals who fail to observe their medieval laws face harassment, torture, andexecution—all lifted directly from the ISIS caliphate’s playbook.
Take Al-Shabab —long affiliated with al-Qaeda. Its roots trace back to the 1993 Black Hawk Down massacre of a US Delta Force unit in Somalia. Osama bin-Laden claimed responsibility for training the Somali gunmen who took part in the attack. From its beginning, al-Shabab has maintained the same mission as other leading African jihadists—to control territory and build a society based on rigid sharia law.
Al-Shabab has remained particularly determined. In January 2019, it seized a 5-star Nairobi hotel and surrounding buildings, holding at least 700 people hostage for 19 hours. 21 ended up dead. In its statement, al-Shabab said this was “a response to the witless remarks of U.S. president, Donald Trump, and his declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Today, al-Shabab controls vast stretches of Somalia, with an entire government and economy based on extortion and illicit trade in charcoal and sugar.
Beyond Somalia, the most frightening red lines are maintained by 130 insurgent groups across northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. They spill across porous borders into Uganda and Burundi. This stretch of territory may actually be the most lethal in Africa. It was the source of the Ebola pandemic, which spread unchecked as medical personnel were attacked by armed insurgents.
Finally, not to be ignored, is a non-Islamic terrorist movement whose red lines are as pernicious as any. The Lord’s Resistance Army was formed by an utterly mad preacher and spirit medium, Alice Lakwena. She attracted a 10,000-strong armed cult, calling on witches and evil spirits who came to her in visions. Succeeding her as leader was Joseph Kony, a former altar boy at the local Catholic church. The enemy was Uganda's dictator.
Over the next quarter century, the LRA has become one of the most enduring and lethal plagues in any region of the world. Its rule has been marked by mass executions and torture. 30,000 small children have been impressed as fighters, sex slaves, and porters. The LRA has been fueled by a lucrative trade in gold, blood diamonds, and ivory from the mass slaughter of elephants in eastern Congo.
There had been a small American force devoted to combating the LRA. They were withdrawn in 2017. If this is a spectre of what is to come, it would be a dangerous precedent. Any substantial American pullout from Africa would eviscerate AFRICOM, which the African Union has come to rely upon for sustaining their lines of authority and security.
These American maneuvers are especially shortsighted given the rationale—to refocus America’s priorities on its primary military challenges: Russia and China. But with American withdrawal from Africa would come a vacuum, open for Russian and Chinese influence to come rushing in. General Townsend, commander of AFRICOM, testified before Congress in January:
ST: Africa is key terrain for competition with China and Russia who are aggressively using economic and military means to expand their access and influence. I believe Africa offers a competitive edge over China and Russia and we should take advantage of it.
DA: Both major powers have lusted after Africa for decades and sought any toeholds, alliances ranging from the smallest terrorist groups to entire nations with anti-Western tendencies. China, in particular, has a huge presence across Africa. It has built large dams and other infrastructure projects in exchange for access to valuable mineral resources.
China had established some African toeholds in the Cold War era. Zhou Enlai made a grand tour of sympathetic African nations in 1966.
In the post-Cold War era, Russian and Chinese relations with Africa deepened. They now represent political and military challenges to western dominance in much of the continent. China has sought to build trade and financial bridges across Africa, passing the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. They have tied each country in a debt spiral, beholden to China. And China has quietly begun to stake its own red lines across Africa.
In Djibouti, at a strategic choke-point entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, China persuaded the government to turn over the main port facility, giving China its first overseas naval base. Russia too is eyeing a strategic naval base location on the African continent - just down the coast in Somalia.
An American withdrawal could not happen soon enough for both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. A number of African nations, hedging their bets in case the U.S. pulls out, have appealed for military help from Russia. While Trump never made a single visit to Africa, Putin hosted a lavish African summit at his Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2019. He invited 40 African heads of state to preview advanced military hardware. This hardware would be available for a simple exchange of oil, gas, diamonds, and a host of precious minerals.
Not to be outdone, Xi Jinping invited high-ranking military officers from 50 African states to Beijing for a China-African Security Forum. He has also visited six leading African countries personally.
What all this adds up to is simple: China and Russia both clearly see Africa as central components of their future security and prosperity. Meanwhile, the Trump administration set itself in a less appropriate direction. In 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s stunning new Africa policy:
John Bolton: Under our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities in the region. All U.S. aid on the continent will advance U.S. interests and help African nations move towards self-reliance.
DA: In short, the antithesis of Russia and China’s themes: what’s good for America is good for Africa. No outside power may ever be able to build permanent red lines on this continent. But those who are able to help Africa maintain their own barriers against destabilization will have made a huge step toward securing the resources and friendship of the world’s fastest growing region. It's vital for the United States to remain deeply involved. America must help create and maintain a system that could be a model as we continue our tour of red lines around the world.
Especially as we turn in our next episode to Afghanistan, itself a toxic enterprise.
Thanks for listening. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."
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Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael de Aloia and Gerardo Orlando.
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