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The African border curse

Opinion & Analysis
Most African countries became what they are today after the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 which led to the partitioning of pre-colonial States and empires — when the colonialist imposed new borders based on their economic interests.

Tapiwa Gomo THE lion is much stronger than humans and yet humans have been able to push lions into game reserves and cages. The king of the jungle’s day consists of hunting and fighting with various wild animals in the wild and one strike with its powerful paw is enough to cripple any human, but still they have not been able to break the fences and cages which enslave them.

Why is that? Maybe because the fences are stronger and electrified or their minds have been conditioned to obey the fences and cages. It is part of the art of conquering other social groups that humans have adopted since time immemorial. Different forms of power including religious, political, economic and military have been used to conquer nations enabling conquerors to amass land, wealth and build empires.

Why have the influence of the conquerors — or colonisers in the case of Africa — often lived on long past the demise or departure of the conqueror and sometimes transform the course of history? Why does the legacy of some conquerors remain intact even after the conquered nations have seemingly liberated themselves? Is it the case of lions being controlled by the fear of the electric fence or the strength of iron bars on the cage? Or it is just that the mind has been conditioned to remain loyal to the borders, rules and norms of the former conquerors?

Most African countries became what they are today after the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 which led to the partitioning of pre-colonial States and empires — when the colonialist imposed new borders based on their economic interests.

Some historians want to convince us that the borders were not drawn with much attention or understanding of the dynamics of people already living on the continent.

Some studies also show that the colonialists unilaterally drew arbitrary international borders in ignorance of local conditions. It was in 1890 that the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury remarked: “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”

Even though, there is a school of thought suggesting that the colonialists had little or no knowledge of the terrain or populations they were apportioning, there are indications that the borders, just like the electrical fences caging the lion, are sitting on strategic resources. They made some of them strategically contentious thus limiting the ability of the neighbouring countries to exploit them for economic development. For starters, colonial borders divided people, kingdoms and limited access to strategic resources such as water bodies, mineral deposits and other underground resources, land, mountains, historical sites and several other vital resources.

It is for the same reason that African borders, just like the electrical fence, are plagued by a myriad of problems that have caused conflict among neighbouring countries as well as an inability to explore resources that can potential contribute towards development.  Border disputes in Africa, estimated to be roughly 100 cases, remain a threat to regional integration, co-operation and stability among States.

Let’s look at few examples. In southern Africa, there are questions around the Zambezi River, Lake Kariba and the mighty Victoria Falls and if the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in South Africa is not supposed to be part of the Great Zimbabwe Kingdom. There are also unresolved disputes around that same Zambezi Valley area between Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia borders. The Zambezi Valley is worth billions of dollars per year in economic activities such as water supply, commercial and smallholder agriculture, fisheries, energy, tourism and entertainment, wildlife, forestry and timber and carbon sequestration.

Perhaps one of the oldest border disputes in the world is between Namibia and South Africa over the Orange River. The Okavango River is a potential source of tensions between Namibia and Botswana, while there are unresolved border issues between Swaziland and South Africa. There are also tensions about rights to Lake Nyasa/Malawi between Tanzania and Malawi. The lake is a source of fish for both domestic consumption and export to neighbouring countries with the fishing industry employing nearly a quarter of a million people. In pre-colonial Africa, borders were not necessary in these areas as they fell under the same kingdoms enabling people to use them without restrictions.

While southern African countries have managed to maintain peace, even when some of the border issues curtail economic development, the same cannot be said of other regions. Border disputes between Sudan and South Sudan and between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the Badme territory have resulted in military conflicts. There are also tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia after the latter built the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam along Nile River.

There are also unresolved border disputes between Sudan and Kenya over the Ilemi Triangle, between South Sudan and Kenya over the Nadapal boundary and between Kenya and Uganda over the Mingino Islands. There is an ongoing maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya. The disputed part of the Indian Ocean is thought to be rich in oil and gas. Again, all these border disputes are remnants of colonial borders centred around major strategic resources.

West Africa has its own fair share of border disputes. Some of these include land and maritime disagreements between the Cameroon and Nigeria; dispute over the Island of Mbanié between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea; the Burkina Faso-Niger and the Benin-Niger border disagreements. There are also several border tensions in north Africa.

Again, most of these fell under the same kingdoms before colonisation which means these disputes would have risen. Regionalisation may be one of the ways to address the impediments caused by colonial borders.

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