Africa’s Troubling Borders

One of the key reasons why the African continent seems perennially rife with tribal, ethnic, and religious conflict — more so within countries than between them — harkens back to borders imposed upon the diverse peoples of Africa by European colonials. Even a casual glance of a political map of Africa show how odd and idiosyncratic many of its borders are.


Note the way some countries have territories that seem to protrude into other ones, or how fragmented West Africa appears. That’s because these nations were carved up by third parties without knowledge nor regard for geography, historical boundaries, or demographics. Moreover, because the Europeans sorting out their respective territories often did not exercise much power in all the areas they claimed, they very often allowed borders beyond their immediate control (usually along the coasts) to remain undefined, leaving their suddenly free former subjects to figure it out. As The Economist explains:

Most pre-colonial borders were fuzzy. Europeans changed that, carving up territory by drawing lines on maps. ‘We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other,” mused the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, in 1890, “only hindered by the small impediments that we never knew where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” It took 30 years to settle the boundary between Congo and Uganda, for example, after the Belgians twice got their rivers muddled up. In 1964 independent African states, anxious to avoid conflict, agreed to stick with the colonial borders. But they made little effort to mark out frontiers on the ground.

Pity the bureaucrats who have to sort out this mess. Their quest begins with dusty documents, often held in European archives. Old treaties may refer to rivers which have changed course, or tracks that have disappeared. Then teams of GPS-wielding surveyors must traipse through rugged borderlands, erecting pillars, reassuring locals and in some places dodging landmines. Above everything, inevitably, is politics. Many borderlands are coveted for pasture or minerals: disputed lakes harbour oil, gas and fish. Climate change and population growth are putting pressure on resources, making conflicts harder to resolve. The contest over Abyei, on the relatively new international border between Sudan and South Sudan, is illustrative: its knotty history goes back to the drawing of provincial boundaries in 1905, and takes in ethnic conflicts sharpened by civil war, growing competition for grazing lands and oil fields that until recently produced a quarter of Sudanese output.

Europeans obviously did not anticipate that their future colonies would become independent countries, and thus did not create borders that could sustain a cohesive political unit. Ethnic and religious groups with no relation to each other other than being ruled by a foreign power suddenly found themselves part of the same country; by the same token, many tribal, ethnic, and religious groups were divided along multiple polities to which they had no sense of allegiance or identity. Hence why, as I noted earlier, interstate wars remain a rarity in the otherwise conflict-prone continent, yet border disputes and civil wars are far more common. The Guardian charted over twenty formal separatist groups across the continent as of 2012, although their degree of activity and prominence varies wildly; note that these do not include dozens more militias and armed criminal gang that ostensibly represent certain ethnic or regional causes.

To buttress The Economist’s point, The Atlantic’s Max Fisher provides an example of two African nations resolving a border dispute by referencing an agreement between their former colonial masters:

When the nations of Nigeria and Cameroon went to settle a border dispute in 2002, in which both countries claimed an oil-rich peninsula about the size of El Paso, they didn’t cite ancient cultural claims to the land, nor the preferences of its inhabitants, nor even their own national interests. Rather, in taking their case to the International Court of Justice, they cited a pile of century-old European paperwork.

Cameroon was once a German colony and Nigeria had been ruled by the British empire; in 1913, the two European powers had negotiated the border between these West African colonies. Cameroon argued that this agreement put the peninsula within their borders. Nigeria said the same. Cameroon’s yellowed maps were apparently more persuasive; it won the case, and will officially absorb the Bekassi Peninsula into its borders next month. [Note: the article dates from 2012 and this change has since come to pass.]
The Atlantic also has us consider the instructive and archetypical case of Angola, one of the oldest, and until relatively recently most troubled, former colonies in Africa.

In 1575, 100 Portuguese families and 400 Portuguese troops landed on the African continent’s southwestern coast at what is now the city of Luanda. They expanded from there, stopping only when they reached German, Belgian, or British claims. The Portuguese consolidated the vast, California-sized holdings into a single colony. The only thing that the people who lived there shared in common was that they answered to Portuguese masters, and in 1961 that they rebelled against that rule, which they threw off in 1975. They became the country of Angola, an essentially invented nation meant to represent disparate and ancient cultures as if they had simply materialized out of thin air that very moment. Today, as some Angolans are quick to point out, their country is composed of ten major ethnic groups, who do not necessarily have a history of or an interest in shared nationhood. This may help explain why there are two secessionist groups in Angola today.

Had pre-industrial-era Portuguese colonists not pressed so far up along Africa’s western coast so quickly, for example, then Africa’s seven million Kikongo-speakers might today have their own country. Instead, they are split among three different countries, including Angola, as minorities. The Bundu dia Kongo separatist group, which operates across the region, wants to establish a country that would more closely resemble the old, pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom, and give the Kikongo-speakers a country.

Granted, one could argue that many nations have borders that are to some degree or another arbitrary, resulting from past deals between authoritarian rulers, or through conquest and annexation. Only in the last couple of centuries have nation states, and the solid borders that define them, emerged into existence, and it is not as if any society has ever democratically decided on what their borders should like, let alone obtain the consent of those who would subsequent lose land or sovereignty as a result.

But unlike in most of Africa (and to a certain extent Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia), the borders of many countries did over time come to encompass particular geographic, political, and demographic realities. Even in the case of borders that resulted in war, enough time has passed for the territorial changes to be accepted and normalized. (Indeed, part of the reason Russia’s annexation of Crimea was so shocking was because of how rare it is for the international norm of territorial integrity to be violated.) In the case of Africa, these borders were carved up only towards the end of the 19th century, and the nations that would eventually inherited them only came into existence mostly during the 1960s and 1970s.

In much of the world, national borders have shifted over time to reflect ethnic, linguistic, and sometimes religious divisions. Spain’s borders generally enclose the Spanish-speakers of Europe; Slovenia and Croatia roughly encompass ethnic Slovenes and Croats. Thailand is exactly what its name suggests. Africa is different, its nations largely defined not by its peoples heritage but by the follies of European colonialism. But as the continent becomes more democratic and Africans assert desires for national self-determination, the African insistence on maintaining colonial-era borders is facing more popular challenges, further exposing the contradiction engineered into African society half a century ago.

When European colonialism collapsed in the years after World War Two and Africans resumed control of their own continent, sub-Saharan leaders agreed to respect the colonial borders. Not because those borders made any sense — they are widely considered the arbitrary creations of colonial happenstance and European agreements — but because “new rulers in Africa made the decision to keep the borders drawn by former colonizers to avoid disruptive conflict amongst themselves,” as a Harvard paper on these “artificial states” put it.

Of course, the actual practice of secession and division would be difficult, if it’s even functionally possible; Africa’s ethnic groups are many, and they don’t tend to fall along the cleanest possible lines. The debate over whether or not secession is good for Africa, as Zachary explained, is a complicated and sometimes contentious one. But the simple fact of this debate is a reminder of Africa’s unique post-colonial borders, a devil’s bargain sacrificing the democratic fundamental of national self-determination for the practical pursuits of peace and independence. And it’s another indication of the many ways that colonialism’s complicated legacy is still with us, still shaping today’s world.

Given the bad hand dealt to the continent — not only by foreign overlords but also by geography (poor soil, difficult climate, rampant disease, etc.) — it is remarkable that there isn’t more fighting between its 54 nations. Africans have displayed considerable pragmatism and restraint in mostly abiding by the often disadvantaging borders imposed upon them. As it stands, it is unlikely that this arrangement will alter in any substantive way, especially as most African nations continue to develop strong institutions, economies, and national identities. As with all nation states, it may only be a matter a time before the population of various African nations settle into their still recent nations.

What are your thoughts?

One comment on “Africa’s Troubling Borders

  1. The convenience factor must be mentioned also. Before the world was as connected as it is today, a small tribe (or even a large one) had to way of participating in the huge amount of information, education, scientific advancement, and trade possibilities available to someone who spoke English or French or Portuguese. Now, these same tribes have those possibilities, and can forge new solidarities to continue to increase them as part of the Francophonie, the Portuguese nations, etc. (this is the Esperanto-effect that Dr Zamenhof was hoping for when he created the international language) The European lingua francas also produce the possibility of equality and cooperation between various groups and helps them to put aside their old animosities.

    Even in the tiny Spanish ex-colonies: Equatorial Guinea, if Spanish was not official, would descend into hostility between the Fang majority and the other groups who resent their greater numbers, and Western Sahara would have little solidarity against the Moroccan invasion. Today, Saharans send their over-achieving kids to Spain and Cuba to get high quality education and become doctors, etc. and have made their national plight public thanks to this

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