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.