How did the borders of Africa come about?

Berlin Republic The debate magazine

The borders of the state in Africa

Christoph Marx - Clearly defined external borders, homogeneous exercise of power within - that is what defines the European state. This constellation often does not exist in Africa. Anyone who wants to solve the continent's problems must take this into account

One of the greatest problems in Africa is generally considered to be the interstate borders drawn by the colonial powers regardless of ethnic groups or historical context. The latter is undoubtedly correct - the European powers often knew neither the regions nor the population groups there that they divided up among themselves in the late 19th century. But the problem of African national borders goes far beyond their artificiality. After all, which state boundaries anywhere in the world are not artificial? Conversely, talk of “natural borders” was and is always motivated by nationalism. The problem of African borders only becomes clear when asked what is meant by borders in general and which claims are implied by them.

In today's understanding of the state, it is assumed that the power of a functioning state extends to its borders and that state power is just as intensely represented on the edge of the territory as it is in the capital. In modern states, this presence at the border is visible through state symbols such as flags and the presence of police, customs officers or soldiers. At the same time, the modern state is an exception in terms of world history. There is no such thing as the “normal case” of political order, as human history has been shaped by many highly different forms of political organization. The spectrum ranged in Africa from small groups of no more than 20 hunters in the Kalahari to huge centralized empires, from the highly heterogeneous chiefs (chiefdom) to agglomerates of city-states like the Haussa or Yoruba in Nigeria.

Colonialism only lasted a short time

It is often overlooked that the colonial history of most African countries was very short and in many cases barely lasted more than 90 years; In fact, the Europeans exercised their rule in many regions for an even shorter period of time. The new institutions that they brought to Africa, including the European model of the land-based state, therefore had little time to establish themselves. The pre-colonial political traditions, on the other hand, survived colonial rule and have mixed in many ways with the requirements of modern statehood. Much of what is perceived as corruption in the West can also be explained with family structures and loyalty networks, with clientelism and old forms of solidarity.

Modern states are not only characterized by clearly drawn borders as a spatial mark of sovereignty, but also generally tend to homogenize power. The Freiburg historian Wolfgang Reinhard was able to show this basic tendency in the history of European states in a major study. The constant waging of wars and the need to finance them have continuously expanded the power elites' access to the population since the early modern period; over the centuries they homogenized and centralized this access by abolishing privileges and leveling legal inequalities. The resulting state model of the 19th century was exported to Africa during the colonial period. However, the colonial state neither had the resources of the European model, nor was it able to gain new legitimacy through democratization, since it was based on foreign rule. Because the colonial state was a weak state, it always remained a particularly violent entity.

The African welfare state and its limits

When the welfare state prevailed in Europe in the 20th century, this model also found its way into the African colonies, albeit with some delay and also only in a weakened form. In the course of this modernization, the colonial powers began after the Second World War to involve the African educated elites, whom they had previously neglected, into the administration and to involve the traditional authorities as pillars of their rule (indirect rule) to push away. African officials strove to adopt the welfare state, the fragmentary structure of which they had actively contributed, as their own model of the state. That is why the African independence movements, which were essentially initiated and led by the educated elite, promised a social welfare state - a state that would benefit the poor and bring prosperity to the population at large.

Indeed, in the 1960s and early 1970s, African governments did a great deal in building up a comprehensive education and health system until the 1973/74 world food crisis caused them to fall into debt and subsequently become dependent on international donors. Above all, these demanded the dismantling of welfare state institutions, although they represented the essential basis of legitimation of the post-colonial order. This triggered a legitimation crisis of the post-colonial state, which intensified in many countries in the following decades and has to do with the present-day borders of the territorial state.

Africa's national borders remained fairly stable

Despite all pan-African rhetoric, the power elites of Africa, which emerged during decolonization, were soon able to agree on the foundations of a new post-colonial order of the continent, which subsequently led to an astonishing stability in the drawing of borders. Significantly, it was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia who in 1963 ensured that the borders were generally accepted. Ethiopia in particular benefited from colonial borders like hardly any other country, as it had considerably enlarged its territory in the late 19th century. The empire was therefore confronted with separatist movements whose support from other countries it wanted to prevent. In the following decades there were occasional attempts to shift borders. These included, for example, unsuccessful attempts to expand by an irredentist Somali nationalism, which Siad Barre wanted to use in his war over the Ethiopian Ogaden. The secession of the southeastern province of Nigeria under the new name of Biafra also failed.

Ultimately, borders could disappear through the merger of neighboring countries, such as Senegal with the enclave-like Gambia, which, interestingly, was unsuccessful, although at first glance it seemed a sensible measure. The merger of Lesotho, which is territorially surrounded by South Africa and economically dependent, with its larger neighbor was not realized, although it was at least conceivable after the end of apartheid. Here, as elsewhere, self-interest has grown in the meantime - in the case of Lesotho, a strong self-confidence as a monarchy.

Whenever attempts were made to split off, the separatists oriented themselves towards colonial provincial borders, as in Katanga in the early 1960s, or towards former colonial borders, for example when Somaliland was separated, a former British colony that was merged with the former Italian part to form Somalia in 1960 . The only really successful split that was recognized internationally was the founding of South Sudan in 2011 - which by no means ended the previous internal conflict with the north. On the contrary: A massive ethnic conflict broke out within South Sudan, which at times threatened to take on the dimensions of genocide. Here - as in the border war between Ethiopia and its temporary province and colony Eritrea - it was about mineral resources, i.e. tangible economic interests.

These few examples show that attempts to redraw borders in Africa have increased over the decades and are causally related to the impoverishment of the continent and the delegitimization of African states and their power elites. In the 1990s, Africa experienced a wave of democratic movements that went largely unnoticed in Europe, although it affected significantly more states than the Arab Spring, which began twenty years later. In some countries these movements were even quite successful: Mali had had a basic democratic order since 1992, but this did not find any noteworthy support from the West. The same applies to other democratic new beginnings in the course of which dictatorships were ended, such as in Benin, Kenya or Zambia. In many countries, however, parts of the power elite seized the movements and involved the states in civil wars, some of which lasted for years.

Power imbalance between the center and the periphery

The demarcation of borders also played an important role in this development: while small African countries such as Rwanda or Burundi were able to develop an intensive form of statehood, not least because of their even population distribution, the large countries in particular show striking differences in the distribution of their population. The states with many desert areas (e.g. Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Namibia or Botswana) are particularly hard hit by this unequal population density. But tropical countries also show massive divergences, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the megacity and capital Kinshasa, which is located far to the west and is surrounded by comparatively sparsely populated areas, while the east of the huge country has a high population density. Such countries are particularly prone to instability from civil wars, as the American political scientist Jeffrey Herbst has found.

This has to do with the fact that the Africans agreed not only on the inviolability of the state borders, but also on the fact that the government that controls the capital was considered legitimate. In view of the importance of the capital in many African countries as the largest city by far, this is understandable. However, this doctrine triggers a momentum of its own, which makes the capital even more important and further increases its attractiveness for internal migrants. In addition, there are limited administrative options, which in many African countries are reflected in the limited territorial reach of the state. A problematic power imbalance arises because the government often only controls the capital and its immediate surroundings, but at the same time becomes more politically dependent on the growing urban population. The range of state power then decreases the greater the distance from the capital. This means that one of the most important normative properties of modern statehood is lost, namely the claim to the homogeneous exercise of power.

The ambitious climbers from the periphery

If the unequal population distribution also has a strong ethnic component, i.e. if the groups living in the periphery feel neglected by the concentration of economic, cultural and political life in the capital, this is the ideal potential for ambitious politicians who are looking for power strive They can calmly build their own power base in the fringes that can hardly be controlled by the state. Regime changes often began on the periphery through civil wars before they reached their destination in the capital. Yoveri Museveni was the first to practice this in Uganda when he started a guerrilla war against the brutal repressive regime of Milton Obote in the early 1980s and created "liberated zones" on his march through Kampala. Laurent Kabila imitated this in 1997 when he marched from Eastern Congo to Kinshasa and eliminated the Mobutu regime; Charles Taylor, convicted of crimes against humanity in 2012, did something similar in Liberia. And finally, both the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi from Benghazi and the temporary seizure of power by al-Qaeda in northern Mali can be traced back to the same mechanism.

In view of the spread of terrorist groups operating from such peripheral areas, the West is primarily trying to rebuild state structures. In many countries, however, this has only met with moderate success. One should understand this as an indication that the model of the modern European land state is not universally valid. In the future, more political imagination will be needed to solve Africa's political problems.

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