Youthful Clusters of States: The Future of Revolutionary Conflict

Youthful Clusters

Have you ever noticed that shifts in the world political order are clustered in time and geographical location? For example, the late-1980s and 1990s, economists and political scientists were caught off guard by the economic rise and a series of political reforms among the East Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia), quickly setting them apart from the rest of the developing world. The Tigers’ successes were followed in the early 2000s by an unheralded burst of liberal democracy among Caribbean and Latin American states (including Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago).  Then, beginning in 2010, came the Arab Spring, during which Tunisia’s attainment of liberal democracy caught regional political experts completely off guard.

However,  demographers were less surprised (see 2008/09 article predicting the rise of a democracy in North Africa). The states of these regions were entering the demographic window–a period during the age-structural transition when states typically progress economically and often undergo political changes.

Similar temporal and geographical clustering arises where progress in the age-structural transition has not occurred; i.e., among youthful clusters of states that are “stuck in age-structural time.” Today, the vast majority of revolutionary conflicts (insurgencies that are focused on overthrowing the political system or altering the central government, as indicated in the latest (2017) version of the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Data Set) occur in youthful states—those with a median age at or below 25.5 years.  Youthful states typically appear in clusters, and these conflicts tend to spread across their borders, typically stopping at the borders of non-youthful states.

In the following 6 regional tables (South Asia & the Pacific Rim; West & Central Africa; East & Southern Africa; the Middle East, North Africa & Central Asia; the Americas; and Europe), I’ve divided the world into 21 clusters of states. In 1975, 18 of those clusters were dominated by youthful states–countries with a median age of 25.5 years or less.

A lot has transpired since then. I track the cluster to 1990, and 2020 (a very short-term projection), and finally a projection to 2035 (using the UN Population Division’s medium fertility variant). As the years progress, states experiencing fertility decline advance to the next phase of the age-structural transition (the intermediate phase, between a median age of 25.6 and 35.5 years). These drop out of the cluster until, as in 3 cases, the youthful cluster disappears (see Table 1, below).

Table 1

However, 16 clusters still remain.  Four situated along the midriff of Africa (West Africa Coastal Cluster, the Sahelian Cluster, Central African Cluster, and South Central African Cluster), within the tropics, persist just as they did over 40 years ago. These are Western and Central African clusters likely to be significant sources of revolutionary conflict and other forms of political instability throughout the rest of the century.  Another 7 clusters (in the Middle East, other parts of Asia, and Africa) have gone through minor and major changes also generate ongoing as well as future risks. However, according to the UN Population Division’s demographic projections, these may gradually fade over the coming three decades.

The final 5 clusters of states are “in transition.” The states in these groups are experiencing fertility decline and shifting to the intermediate phase of that age-structural transition. These youthful clusters may disappear over the coming two decades.

Spillover Conditions

Conditions for Spillover Conflicts

Intra-state conflicts that spillover into adjacent states, and sometimes across the region, tend to occur under similar demographic conditions.  First of all, the state where the original intra-state conflict begins is typically has a youthful population (median age less than 25.5 years). Secondly, the adjacent states to which the conflict spreads are also youthful. Thus, expansion is typically confined to pairs and clusters of youthful states. Examples include: Pakistan-Afghanistan (Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaida-affiliated groups); Iraq-Syria (ISIS); the Sahel (ISIS, Al Qaida in the Maghreb, Boko Haram); Uganda-DRC-Rwanda-Burundi (Lord’s Resistance Army, FDLR, M23); Somalia-Ethopia (Ogaden)-Kenya (northeast counties).

While the ease and low cost of recruitment of young men likely plays a part in the vulnerability of youthful states to the spread of these conflicts, clearly demography is not a direct cause. However, the geography of spillover conflicts is striking in that the armed conflicts characteristically stop at frontiers of countries with more mature populations (e.g., in the intermediate phase).  For example, ISIS has not made very little headway into Lebanon, Turkey or Iran in the Middle East, or into Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in the Maghreb.

From the perspective of political demography, the lengthy, contiguous youthfulness of the Sahel region leaves it highly vulnerable to the spread of conflict. For the past two decades, the political and demographic cleavage has been growing between Nigeria’s Muslim north and mostly Christian south. In 2011, I spoke in several venues on the Sahel and warned of a spill over conflict emerging from Nigeria’s northern states, and published the following, previous to the growth and territorial expansion of the Boko Haram insurgency (R. Cincotta, “Africa’s Reluctant Fertility Transition“, Current History, May 2011, 184-190).

And if the region breeds militancy, elements of the state may encourage regional leaders to use their groups’ militancy to or to take their anger elsewhere—that is, to spill over into the surrounding region, or further. This is not a pretty picture, and it could be the dead end street into which Nigeria is heading. Nigeria’s 2008 Demographic and Health Survey estimated that, on average, Nigerian women bear 5.7 children. All evidence of a fertility decline comes from the country’s Christian-majority south, whereas across the Muslim north, fertility remains above 7 per woman. The adoption of Islamic law a decade ago by the 12 northern states provides a clue to the deteriorating reach of the Nigerian state and the politicization of Islam. However, the most salient threat to national and West African stability may be the chronic youthfulness of Nigeria’s population (now topping 160 million and growing by leaps and bounds), coupled with the government’s inability to keep up with jobs, education, health care, or infrastructure, despite windfall petroleum profits. (pp. 188-89)

Beyond the danger to the stability of Sahelian states themselves, spreading conflict in the western Sahel presents two external challenges. It threatens the religiously diverse states of coastal west Africa with insurgency and urban violence. In the Maghreb, to the Sahel’s north, the expansion of conflict is likely to stimulate refugees flows into the southern cities of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco–and perhaps beyond.






Whither the Demographic Arc of Instability

Read “Whither the Demographic Arc of Instability?“, an essay by Richard Cincotta featured on the Stimson Center Spotlight, November 2011.

One map that quickly garnered the attention of strategists outlined the world’s weak and politically fractious states – a pattern that came to be known as the “arc of instability” (Map 1, for 2000). Inside the arc, authoritarian governments ruled with little regard for law, insurgencies undermined economic hopes, and militant organizations capable of international terror, some linked to Al Qaida, were equipped and trained. Outside the arc existed a world of modern industrial and service economies, globalized communications, and trade.

Download “Whither the Demographic Arc of Instability? ” here …