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      Boundaries for a New Africa

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By Dr Richard A Griggs, Head of Research

[Originally published as "Boundaries for a New Africa," in Track Two Vol 3 No 4 pp 9-12, December 1994. Various revised versions published in Boundaries and Security Bulletin and Afrikaforum--see "African Boundaries Reconsidered," Internationales Afrikaforum, Vol 31 (1): 56-63, January 1995 and "The Boundaries of a New Africa," Volume 2, Number 4, pp 30-32, January-February 1994. This version is different again and includes additions and changes. All the original computer records for the other versions were lost although I still have reprints of all published versions as of 08 June 1995]

Contrary to common assumptions, rigid international boundaries may create as much instability as stability. No continent on earth has suffered more from bloodshed, war, and misery arising from territorial disputes than Africa yet on this large continent boundaries have changed relatively little since 1918. Figure 1 shows that out of 110 different boundaries, there have been about ten changes affecting a very small portion of some 80 000 kilometers of border. Of these, six involved a notable transference of territory: the British award of the British award of Jubaland from Kenya to Italian Somaliland and the compensatory westward expansion of Kenya into Uganda (1924), Angola's gain of the Diolo Boot from the Belgian Congo in 1927, the combination of British and Italian Somaliland in 1960 to form Somalia, the 1962 division of Ruanda-Urundi into Rwanda and Burundi, the 1964 union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to create Tanzania, and Namibia's independence to include Walvis Bay in 1994. Of lesser extent, were three boundary adjustments: one settling a boundary dispute between Algeria and Morocco (1960), another involving he border between Mauritania and Mali (1963) and between Senegal and Gambia (1975). Eritrea's independence in 1993 was a return to the 1918 map after some thirty years of Ethiopian occupation (Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1963 after a failed attempt at federation).

The Instability of Africa's Resilient Boundaries

The persistence of African colonial boundaries can be attributed in large measure to both European and African perceptions of boundaries. The European influence dates to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia when an anarchical state system was established in which each state was seen as supremely sovereign within its delimited boundaries: immobile lines in the dirt that act as containers of authority. Since the French Revolution of 1789 the ideology of establishing a world of nation-states complemented this conception of boundaries: "nation-states" attempt to build "national" identities that correspond to boundaries rather than building boundaries to correspond with identities (e.g. Sudan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia each embrace more than 100 old nations or tribes). Such ideas remained in evidence with the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. It was widely perceived that boundary modifications would lead to instability and conflict and therefore the OAU resisted any discussion of modifying the colonial boundaries that had been Africa's source of misery for some 100 years.

Consider the conflicts that have been associated with Africa's "stable" boundaries. Fifteen billion dollars a year are spent on military armaments by African states--not to defend their borders in state to state conflict, but to maintain internal security as old nations and new states clash over resources, culture, and development plans. Power struggles between ethnic groups for either state control (e.g., Hutu VS Tutsi in Rwanda) or for territorial secession (e.g., Katanga VS Zaire) have produced some of the world's longest and bloodiest wars (e.g. the secessionist struggle in Sudan has been ongoing since 1955). Other boundary-based wars in recent years (some still ongoing) include strife in Chad, Sudan, the Western Sahara, Nigeria, Angola, Somalia, Zaire, and Mozambique. Furthermore, conflicts that stem directly or indirectly from ill-designed boundaries have created instability such that: half of Africa's states are dictatorships; genocides have occurred frequently (e.g., Nigeria's 1967-70 genocide of the Ibos); half the world's refugees are concentrated on this continent (e.g. ten percent of Malawi's population are refugees); famines have occurred with regularity (hardest hit are those affected by these wars such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Angola, and Mozambique) and poverty has been accentuated (e.g., in recent years Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda have cut back on social welfare benefits while increasing spending on arms).

If Africa has the most rigid boundary maintenance regime on the planet and is yet riven with wars, coups, dictatorships, and various forms of conflicts, then fossilized boundaries do not necessarily lead stability. Rigid boundaries may even produce conflicts. Forces build for major boundary adjustments and then changes are rapid, violent, and less controlled. Consider Ethiopia. The Amhara-dominated regime refused to devolve a negotiated level of authority to ethnically based provinces resulting in one of the longest and bloodiest wars in African history, the collapse of the government, and the secession of Eritrea. Now, in the aftermath of millions killed by starvation and bullets, a federal system based on ethnic autonomy has finally been constructed. Would a negotiated boundary adjustment not have been better than thirty years of war? One might also ask if Nigerians benefited from a genocide that killed a million Ibos to stop Biafra from seceding? Nigeria's multi-ethnic make-up has left it in a constant state of explosive conflict and a legacy of coups (the latest coup is explained by a Yoruba being elected president) and dictatorships. Has Zaire benefited from its constant effort to stop Katanga from seceding? At this very hour it remains in danger of slipping into anarchy.

Other Geopolitical Pressures Affecting African Boundaries

Most of the violent conflict over boundaries has resulted from ethnic-driven secessionist movements but the "New World Order" based on the end of the Cold War, communications innovations, and a new global distribution of power is also a geopolitical force that is affecting boundaries. Just like feudalism gave way to the state system, many fine academics argue that state boundaries are slated to disappear within the context of larger regional organisations and trading blocs. It is commonly argued that the modern state (formulated in 1648) is now too small to cope with big problems (e.g. global pollution of the seas) and too large to satisfy the aspirations of local cultures and communities (e.g. the worldwide movement for self-determination). This is affecting Africa in the form of hundreds of emergent supra-state organisations such as the SADC or the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS). Regional organisations like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are becoming highly influential in the realm of development, debt, trade, human rights and defense (South Africa joined at the end of August).

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel-prize-winning political analyst recently called on the OAU to "sit down with square rule and compass and redesign the boundaries of African nations." Soyinka's metaphor suggests new encapsulated and competing states to replace the old ones. This misses the point that the era of autarchic cookie-cutter states has long passed. The spirit of the statement is better and suggests we need to get a fix on reality: it is highly unlikely that boundary problems will disappear by casting them in concrete because boundaries are the spatial response to a constant redistribution of power that will end only if time and history do. The refusal to acknowledge that boundaries change with time and circumstances leads to rigidity and violence. We could also refire our imaginations and consider the ways in which the new regional organisations and the modern movement for self-determination can be be bounded in ways that bring Africans together.

Perceiving Boundaries

Boundaries define spaces of authority and therefore reflect an existing set of power relations. A boundary line is that outer limit of authority that defines the bounded space of sovereignty within it. Borders and frontiers have a different meaning, A border is the area or zone of confrontation or transit between two bounded spaces. A frontier is a zone of expansion (e.g. Brazil's development of the Amazon). Boundaries can be distinguished by hundreds of types (e.g. service boundaries, legal boundaries, cultural boundaries) and are found at every scale of social organisation from the family (e.g. separate rooms in the home) to the United Nations. The variety and scale of boundaries tell us that they are indispensable to a well-ordered and peaceful world. Any notion of eradicating boundaries is a false and romantic one. There are either good boundaries or bad boundaries but there is not such thing as a world without boundaries because all order would be lost. This does not mean that boundaries cannot affect human populations adversely (e.g. the Apartheid State) but this is a problem of poorly chosen boundaries and not boundaries per se.

We usually devise boundaries in the same manner that we perceive them. One of the more common perceptions is that boundaries are like lines on a map: rigid and unyielding. This can be a recipe for conflict. Consider the personal scale. If we draw a line in the dirt and dare everyone to cross it, we are setting up the conditions for violent conflict. At the state level of authority we may very well be inviting the same kinds of troubles. Rigid perceptions of boundaries lead us into conflicts because it blinds us to the constant need to monitor, analyse, negotiate, and adjust them. Boundaries in reality are not the same as what we see on a map: they change, overlap, and are perforated by such factors as refugee flows, the movement of drugs, global capital, supra-state organisations (e.g. the International Monetary Fund), communications networks, pollutants, electricity grids, resources (e.g., wildlife) and human cultures (e.g., The Ewe nation overlaps the state boundaries between Togo and Ghana). Boundaries also shift in symbolic meaning over time such that the same bounded space might even be renamed (e.g., Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe) or for another example, we now speak of a "New" South Africa. The development of new federal and provincial systems (e.g., Ethiopia, South Africa) further illustrate that boundaries are hardly static entities. Boundaries have always been on the move (just thumb through the pages of a good historical atlas) because they are the spatial manifestation of ever-changing power relations.

Fresh Geographic Imaginings

Resolving Africa's boundary problems means addressing our perception of boundaries. Briefly, societies construct boundaries according to the possibilities perceived. At present there are some very rigid conception of boundaries in Africa that differs from the new philosophies regarding boundaries that are developing elsewhere in the world.

Resolving conflict over boundaries in Africa may very well begin by perceiving them as soft, flexible, and mobile rather than immobile lines in the dirt: more like membranes across which resources and people move rather than as rigid containers. African boundaries can be friendly, supportive, and flexible: not just obstacles to our movements. Simply becoming "unstuck" from limited perceptions of what boundaries can be opens the way for conflict resolution. For instance, it is quite possible to imagine concentric circles of sovereignty within Africa that give freer play to both local, regional, and global scales of human organisation. Another step in imaginative boundary-making is to involve all geopolitical actors in the negotiating process. Boundaries that simply work for administrators and other elites may not work on the ground (e.g. Nigeria has seen its centrally-planned three-state federation expand to thirty states over the last thirty years). In this regard, the "new" Ethiopia shows promise: new provinces with a high level of autonomy (including the constitutional right to secession) that correspond to the country's main ethnic groups.

Africa can also learn many lessons from around the world. For example, in negotiation with the Nicaraguan Government, the Miskito Indians along the Eastern Seaboard have been awarded a Miskito Coast Protected Area in which they manage marine and forest resources. The result is a scheme that protects the coast, allows cultural autonomy, and mitigates a long-standing and a previously violent armed struggle between the indigenous population and the state over development policy. German-speaking South Tirol in Northern Italy is another example of an autonomous boundary arrangement that works. This was a poverty-stricken and troublesome area of terrorist activity until it achieved autonomy in 1972. It then became one of the most peaceful and prosperous areas of Italy. In regard to a different situation, the European Union recently devised a set of concentric rings as boundaries to resolve disagreements among membership countries regarding the depth of integration. This left an inner circle of countries that sought very close union, an outer circle of states seeking involvement but a lesser level of integration, and finally an affiliation with Eastern European states which require economic development before they are ready for greater levels of integration. Another European boundary innovation is the principle of subsidiarity in which higher levels of authority only assume those tasks that cannot be handled by the most local form of government. This creates a set of overlapping boundaries that are determined by criteria under consideration rather than just turf.

Also Needed: Research Facilities

Changing perceptions and mediating boundary conflicts requires research and information. There does not exist within Africa a research unit devoted to the study of African boundaries. Since ill-designed boundaries have contributed greatly to Africa's wars, famines, coups, and genocides, it is sensible to fund research and provide information about how future boundary issues should be handled to avoid such crises. This means centralising scientific information on African boundaries, providing facilities for monitoring and researching boundaries, building educational opportunities for a better understanding of boundaries, and bringing geographers and peace researchers together for cooperative peace-based research. At the University of Cape Town we are seeking to affiliate an African Boundaries Research Unit with the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science.

The New South Africa provides one of fifty examples of African states with major boundary considerations at all scales yet there is a paucity of research into this critical transformation. At a global scale it has integrated into the Commonwealth and at the regional scale it is integrating into the SADC (South Africa joined in August). There are three regional organisations in Southern Africa including the SADC, the Preferential Trade Area (PTA), and the South African Customs Union. Eventually these organisations must be rationalised in a way that supports cooperation and reduces conflict between Southern African states. South Africa has just delimited nine new provincial boundaries that were hastily decided upon mainly for political purposes and with little regard for environmental, economic, and cultural considerations. This has already resulted in conflict over boundaries such that 14 specific areas are identified as contentious with a high likelihood that there will be future boundary modifications. Every metropolitan area in South Africa is undergoing a major debate on reorganising its internal political boundaries after a contentious debate on its external boundaries that may be renewed following the transitional period. It is hoped that by redefining the outer and inner boundaries of metropolitan areas that conflicts generated by great disparities in income between townships, informal settlements and wealthy suburbs can be resolved. By twinning poorer areas with richer ones, there is hope that the new boundaries will help redistribute wealth. These new lines on the face of South Africa are highly experimental and require monitoring yet there are only a handful of scientists seriously engaged in this research.


Boundaries are one of the most significant fields of research for resolving conflict in Africa. The starting point for this undertaking is to rethink the manner in which we commonly perceive bounded space. If we have a Metternich-like conception of boundaries, rigid and unyielding, we may invite conflict rather than resolve it. Africa has the most rigid boundary maintenance regimes on the planet yet it is riven with wars, coups, dictatorships, and various forms of conflict. Responsiveness to existing power relations and changing circumstances along with an exercise of the imagination is vital to avoiding and overcoming violent conflicts over territory, resources, and development plans. It is also important to focus attention and resources on education and research into the manner that space is bounded. Just as good fences can make good neighbours, appropriate and imaginative boundaries can prevent and resolve conflicts. Poor fences, of their own, seldom improve over time. A reconsideration of African boundaries in light of this understanding is long overdue.