Two African dictators, who between them ruled 85 million people, were ousted from office last month. This was no coincidence. The popular unrest that dislodged Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is part of a wave of conflict engulfing northern Africa and posing grave risks to stability in the region and beyond. The discord is likely to produce major new refugee flows and increase the potential for a dramatic expansion of Islamic State and Al Qaeda in northern Africa.
It’s not that this region hasn’t known conflict before. But even during the Arab Spring, which rocked states large and small, only small states experienced the kind of total collapse that can usher in major transnational threats. There was the 2011 revolution in Libya, for example, which removed the government and spawned a civil war that continues today. But Libya’s total population is just 6.5 million.
Libya’s destabilization contributed to a rebellion and coup in neighboring Mali (population 19.7 million). Combined with the long-term crisis afflicting Somalia (population 15.6 million), that sounds like a full-blown regional crisis. But these three states together are barely the size of one of the two states now in danger of collapsing, Algeria and Sudan.
The U.S. administration is turning away from Africa at a time when more engagement is crucial.
Six weeks of massive demonstrations in Algeria (population 42.7 million) forced the longtime president to step down on April 2. Protesters are now seeking to dismantle the country’s entire corrupt system. The protests have been peaceful so far, but the situation is fraught—the army may take control, and many potential trajectories are violent. A turbulent Algeria would be hard-pressed to remain the bulwark it has been against chaos from neighboring Libya and Mali.
Change has also reached Sudan (population 42.5 million), where the army deposed the longtime president on April 11 after four months of protests and crackdowns. This military coup is likely the preamble to internal conflict and continued unrest. Sudan, though known for its history of conflict, has been stable in recent years compared to several of its neighbors and has made some progress on counter-terrorism. These gains will reverse if it dissolves into chaos.
None of this is to say the people of Algeria and Sudan do not deserve change. They have endured decades of poor governance and repression. By taking to the streets, they have shown yet again that unresponsive strongman regimes have an expiration date. The danger comes in failed transitions — when leaders grasp desperately for power, infighting overtakes progress, or other states superimpose their power struggles and proxy wars. Algeria and Sudan are at risk for all of these.
The convergence of crises puts the stability of additional states at risk. Take Niger, which faces Al Qaeda- and Islamic State-linked insurgencies on three sides: in Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Lake Chad Basin. Or Niger’s neighbor Chad, which shares the Lake Chad Basin threat and also has a rebel movement based in neighboring Libya. Also at risk is Tunisia, the lone Arab Spring democracy, which is pinned between Libya’s civil war and an Algeria in transition.
A total collapse in Sudan would carry even larger dangers. For starters, it would place more pressure on Egypt (population 101.2 million), a country already strained by its shared border with Libya, economic stagnation, internal insurgencies and domestic repression. A destabilized Sudan would also spill over into Ethiopia (population 109.6 million) — an East African powerhouse facing its own domestic unrest and sharing a border with war-torn Somalia. Also at risk is the giant Nigeria (population nearly 201 million), which faces political turmoil, a shared border with unstable Cameroon and multiple insurgencies, including Islamic State’s largest affiliate.
The effects of potential state collapse on this scale are massive. Syria has a population of just 18.5 million, yet its civil war spurred a massive migration crisis in Europe that frayed the social and political fabric. Many more people may soon be on the move.
The worst-case scenario has one clear set of victors: Al Qaeda, Islamic State and their Salafi-jihadi brethren. Algeria and Sudan are longstanding areas of focus for Al Qaeda: Algeria as the birthplace of the group’s franchise in North Africa, and Sudan as a supporter of Islamist armed groups and onetime home of Osama bin Laden. More broadly, the Salafi-jihadi movement that includes Al Qaeda and Islamic State has undergone a dramatic expansion in Africa since 2011. These groups exploit conditions of societal breakdown. Potential state collapse across so much of northern Africa could put tens of millions more people into conditions that favor Salafi-jihadi groups.
The U.S. administration is turning away from Africa at a time when more engagement is crucial. Northern Africa is undergoing a second tectonic shift less than a decade after the Arab Spring. Chaos is a ladder—and if the worst happens, Al Qaeda and Islamic State will climb it.