‘We have a prediction problem. We love to predict things – and we aren’t very good at it.’ These are the words of the statistician superstar Nate Silver, one of the few men in the world who actually does not have a prediction problem: he correctly forecast the results of the 2012 US presidential election in all 50 states.
Each December experts are asked to predict events around the world for the coming year. Many of these are blindingly obvious – or just plain wrong. According to Silver, one of the reasons for this is the Web, which allows bad ideas to circulate until they become conventional wisdom.
In the following pages Chatham House experts look at some of the notable surprises of 2012, and ask why no one predicted them, and what we can learn.
The sudden collapse of Malian state control in the north of the country in March came as a surprise to international analysts, who viewed the country as a model of democracy and development.
France had expressed concern about the government’s inability to tackle Al-Qaeda. A French research team had begun to detect widespread northern discontent with the government.
But few imagined that worrying long-term trends could so rapidly translate into a coup and a rebel takeover of the north, including the ancient city of Timbuktu.
Perceptions were mostly still shaped by the image of President Amadou Toumani Touré as the hero of the peaceful putsch that had paved the way for Mali’s adoption of democracy two decades before. International partners failed to appreciate how corruption and inefficiency had undermined a once impressive grassroots development programme.
There was another contributor to the crisis that not even the most acute observers of the Malian scene could have foreseen – the impact of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow.
This triggered the sudden return to Mali of the thousands of Tuareg fighters that Libya had recruited since the 1990s. The disintegration of the dictator’s security forces flooded the Sahara with weaponry, easily affordable by Al-Qaeda and its allies who were flush with income from drugs trading and hostage ransoms.
In their planning to support the Libyan revolution, Western powers appear to have neglected the impact on its sub-Saharan neighbours. This gap in thinking may reflect the institutional gulf in foreign ministries between sections focused on the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya, and the entirely separate departments that deal with tropical Africa.
Putting right this oversight will be expensive and fraught with risk. An African intervention force is set to join national troops to tackle the jihadist rebels who have begun to trash the Islamic heritage of Timbuktu and imposed a brutal version of Sharia. But even if the radical Islamists are pushed out of key towns, restoring security and creating a new social and political deal for the region will be a huge challenge.