In the early aftermath of the siege of Nairobi's Westgate mall by the Somali-based extremist group al-Shabab, it was to be expected that the media would remain fixated on the spectacular spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa.
Reporters have often strained to emphasize links between al Qaeda and groups like al-Shabab or the Nigerian extremist organization Boko Haram, with many of them taking a speculative leap to speak of African Muslim movements, as if they existed as some cohesive whole.
Make no mistake, the spread of al Qaeda -- or even merely of its values -- in Africa represents a serious challenge for the continent, but people who focus excessively on this aspect of African instability do so at the expense of more fundamental problems.
The biggest challenges facing Africa have little to do with religion, per se, and even less with global terrorism. Fundamentally, what unites groups like al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and the Islamist rebels who nearly took over Mali earlier this year is not radical Islam, but an even deeper reality: the gradual erosion of the basic institutions of the state across much of the continent.
This may seem surprising on the face of it, because although Somalia has been famously ungoverned for most of the last two decades, during which time it has become the very symbol of the failed state, Nigeria and Mali, like a great many other African states, have been pluralist and formally democratic for some time. The economy of sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than it has in years, faster indeed than any other continent. Here and there, middle classes are sprouting rapidly, and life expectancy and other health indicators are improving.
But as the old cliché goes, African states are almost without exception artificial creations, defined, if never fully forged, in the experience of European colonialism. Their borders tend to have little to do with pre-existing African realities on the ground, whether political or cultural. The institutions of government that Africans inherited upon independence, meanwhile, were wholly imported from Europe and plunked into place in societies that had little to say in their adoption and were woefully ill-prepared to make them work.
The modern African nation-state has survived since then in large part because the international community has insisted on its relevance. In practice, what this has meant is that the United Nations has accorded countries recognition, treating their existence not just as a juridical fact, but as entities that must be propped up and supported. This, in turn, has created an extraordinary opportunity for local political elites to game the international system and collect lucrative rents while doing just enough to maintain the fiction of statehood.
Some African countries have managed the challenge of constructing nations better than others, building a real sense of identity and belonging among their citizens. Countries like Ghana, Malawi, and Zambia, to name just three, increasingly have seen political parties alternate in power after peaceful, competitive democratic elections. Other countries have seen even more robust institutions take root. More broadly still, a period of brisk and generalized African economic growth has lent a hopeful patina of modernization and newfound dynamism to many parts of the continent.
What the recent spate of terrorism and insurgency should alert us to, however, is that without even more dramatic progress, the juridical fictions of many African states will not be robust enough for their people to prosper in during the years ahead and perhaps may not even survive as the familiar entities that appear fixed on today's maps. To be sure, security -- which is the centerpiece of much American attention to the continent -- is important, but in many African states the biggest shortcomings lie elsewhere, notably in the provision of other basic services, from essential utilities to education.