Back to the Future: Nigeria, born in 1914. As 2014 begins, many have remarked on the similarities with a century ago, when the first major European war loomed, triggered by an unstable and highly competitive international system.
The status quo of 1914, was under immense pressure. New wealth and military might was creating new players yearning to rearrange the global power structure.
The most feared of these rising powers were Germany and Russia. Further away were Japan and the USA. The two dominant powers in the system, the UK and France, were nervous about their own status. Each of these competing powers sought to extend its sphere of influence, usually at the expense of other weakened and declining powers. So the US, for instance, chipped away at the last remaining Spanish areas of influence in the Americas and Philippines. For most of Europe, there was an imperial grab for a weakened Africa and the break-up of the “sick man” of the Ottoman Empire holdings through vast swathes of the Middle East.
There was also the strange Austria-Hungarian Empire at the heart of Europe itself, fragile and waiting to be broken up. Meanwhile in the Far East, rising Japan was eyeing a weakened China, Korea and the vast eastern Siberian holdings of Russia.
This mixture was combustible and all it needed was a trigger as each of these countries tried to outflank the other. A series of strange and sometimes contradictory alliances emerged. The UK for instance saw itself as being an off-shore balancer, preventing the emergence of any dominant European power, especially Germany, by creating a series of balancing alliances with France and Russia. Eventually, the war did come between 1914-1919, turning the world upside down but also leaving a lot of unfinished business. Russia underwent a radical revolution transforming it into a superpower, while Germany emerged weakened and bitter. The Ottoman and Austria-Hungarian empires disappeared, creating a number of small countries.
The US emerged as a key arbiter in European and global affairs, and Japan strengthened its presence in the Far East.In many ways this war was a dress rehearsal for WWII, where contours that were half-hidden in 1914 were now more defined. The USSR and USA emerged from the debris of the second war.
Germany and Japan were defeated, and would have to achieve the dominance that was evident half a century earlier, through economics not territory. The UK and French empires would gradually go the way of the Turkish and Austria-Hungarian ones, and like them, this would be accompanied by ongoing conflicts over the composition and borders of the new countries.
This order held until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when a major player that upheld the system collapsed. Since then the system has been increasingly unstable, as powerful new economic players, as in 1914, seek to assert themselves, and others visibly in decline try to hold onto a world where they have neither the military or economic power to do so. (The French and British veto on the Security Council is now actually a massively destabilising force in world politics.)
In response strange, panicky and sometimes contradictory informal balancing alliances are in the offing. US, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines – against China. US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey – against Syria/Iran. Russia, China, India, Brazil – against US economic hegemony. US, India – against China. China, Pakistan – against India. EU, NATO , Western Ukraine – against Russia. South America – against the US. US and various countries – against Al Qaeda.
The world has never felt so unsafe and one could well imagine a threat involving a country’s perceived vital interest, unleashing a new round of hell. Thankfully, Africa has largely remained unencumbered by these current alliances. However, 1914 was also important for Africa. Nigeria, its most populous country, was put together that year. Will this year’s anticipated sovereign national conference preserve the union? More on that next month.