In Nigeria, it is Boko Haram, with what have lately become almost constant attacks in the predominantly Muslim north, that have brought that country, at least episodically, to the world's attention. "There are few countries as large as Nigeria that are so underreported and misunderstood outside their shores," wrote Michael Peel in the introduction to his excellent 2010 book, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria's Oil Frontier. He might have added, underengaged by the United States and others. Within days of Nairobi's Westgate mall attack, at least 60 people were slaughtered by Boko Haram on the campus of an agricultural college in Nigeria, provoking an incomparably smaller international reaction.
Nigeria, Africa's largest country by population, has been bouncing along near the bottom of any reasonable scale of state performance for decades and has been constantly haunted by the threat of disintegration. Boko Haram, however worrisome, is better understood as a symptom of the country's persistent dysfunction, perhaps even merely an incidental one. Nigeria has already fought a bloody civil war and is subject to many forces of disintegration. Given the persistent incompetence and corruption of its weak federal government, one of these is the slow centrifugal drift of some of its regions to fashion a more responsive polity for its people. This process is being led by Lagos, soon to be one of the world's two or three largest cities. Nigeria's population is projected to increase from a present day 180 million to 900 million by century's end, and assuming today's political map of the continent holds until then, all of those people will somehow have to fit into a territory a mere 1.33 times the size of Texas.
If that sounds worrisome, there are other parts of the continent that present even more frightening prospects. The violence in Mali is best seen as a likely harbinger of generalized upheaval in an arid, environmentally fragile region known as the Sahel, which stretches across the continent from the northern borders of the wet, tropical coast of West Africa to the southern fringe of the Sahara. There, countries like Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso will see population growth even faster than in Nigeria, leaving them with 500 million people (compared to 70 million today), if the U.N.'s median projections are to be believed. These are all landlocked states with some of the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in the world, and it is simply hard to imagine them remaining viable under the present geopolitical arrangements. This could mean explosion into a menagerie of small states or their absorption into other, more prosperous coastal states, or simply outright state failure and political confusion. What would seem almost certain is ecological devastation of marginal farm and grazing lands, water crises, large-scale hunger, and immense refugee and emigrant population outflows.
Throughout history, the nation-state has been defined, in large part, in relation to neighboring states. Its borders, its identity, the legitimacy of its leaders, and its very viability have all been determined, to a significant degree, in a competitive yet ultimately symbiotic intercourse with its neighbors.
It is in this reality that the most pertinent lesson of the Kenya attack lies. If the international community is serious about the African nation-states it insistently recognizes, it must do much more to contribute to their viability. This includes working much harder to increase the administrative capacity of African states and improving education. It requires involving rising powers like China, India, and Brazil much more deeply in the task of national construction. Perhaps above all, though, it means doing much more to strengthen African neighborhoods. This means forging vastly stronger commitments to mutual security, but it also means deepening a shared sense of prosperity, out of a recognition that for any country, economic success is only likely in a neighborhood that is advancing.
Fighting terrorism only gets at a tiny piece of this. Kenyan stability and prosperity, like that of any of its neighbors, cannot be secured in isolation but rather depends on the quality of the neighborhood, and restoring functional statehood to Somalia is the biggest project on hand.