This post is a slightly modified version of the "Foreign Correspondent's Report" that I submitted for the "Border Town/Divided Cities" design studio led by Emily Horne, of A Softer World, and Tim Maly, of Quiet Babylon, which was held in Toronto over the summer. Many thanks to them for allowing me to participate. --MMJ
Perhaps the most often-repeated sentiment about modern African states and the borders that demarcate them are that they were devised by European colonial powers, either as arbitrary lines on a blank canvas of lands and peoples which were unknown, or imposed to divide mercantilist, extractive spoils, or also to intentionally split apart existing kingdoms, chieftaincies, nations, tribes, and peoples in order to weaken and rule over them.
And this is mostly true, although the most nefarious conspiracies of a sophisticated coordination of parsing up a continent are a bit apocryphal. It is also helpful to compare the evolutions of nation-states and the divisions between ethnic groups elsewhere, including Europe itself, as such lines, although less arbitrary, have been subject to periodic, irregular alternations, not least due to war, aggression, empire-building, and subjugation.
European ignorance of or disregard for meaningful divisions that existed previously, especially between cultural groups, continues to have detrimental impacts on the modern states and populations they contain, Briefly, this post tried to illuminate several of the unique aspects that political and ethnic borders in Africa possess at the present time, and examine some the interactions between these different limits.
The creation of many African countries shares similar traits. The formation of various African countries evolved from the earliest European incursions into tropical Africa through to the post-colonial period. Juxtaposing chronological maps reveal many additions, subtractions, mergers and reformations which suggest the sculpting of a shape by carving, although the scalpel in hand was that of European political and economic affairs rather than a more natural or indigenous progression [see images of Cameroon below].
The evolution of the shape of Cameroon, from the German protectorate of Kamerun in 1910 above, to Anglo-French to French colony, to independent state in 1960.
The rough-hewn shape, looking much like the profile of a duck-billed,
crowned Parasauolophus dinosaur, is always existent but changes over time.
Top image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Firstly, European sea powers established forts and trading centers along the coast. Coincidently, more intrepid European explorers began penetrating the interior regions both from the Atlantic and Mediterranean (trans Saharan) ports, following either trade routes or rivers. It was not until the 20th century that European nations had more fully charted colonial boundaries inland.
For France in particular, the historic Atlas shows a claim to an immense and unexplored zone stretching from the Mediterranean to the Equator. Earlier Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Portuguese trading posts along the Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast gave way to the British Sea superiority during the Victorian era; German possessions were surrendered to the French and British victors after World War I.
LANGUAGE & ETHNICITY
Again due to the colonial legacy, West Africa is a checkerboard of Anglophone and Francophone countries (with a single, tiny, Lusophone state, Guinea-Bissau, in one corner). The former French colonies are highly aligned, using a common CFA Franc currency with a single central bank, and with the whole of West Africa operating the regional cooperative body ECOWAS [below]. But in matters between former British and French zones, the barrier of language has stunted better regional integration, particularly in terms of cross-border trade.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
This is evident when looking at route maps of regional airlines. For example, there is at least one flight per day on various airlines between Accra, the capital of English-speaking Ghana, and Monrovia, in English-speaking Liberia. The two nations are close allies and economic partners. However, these flights cross over French-speaking Cote D’Ivoire, and both cities have only a few flights per week to Abidjan, although it is one of the most important cities in all of French-speaking Africa, and Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire are about the same size.
When looking at the border regions themselves, the already-profuse polylingual abilities of many inhabitants will include knowledge of the legacy language of the neighboring country. For instance, people in Westernmost Ghana, in addition to speaking their own language, perhaps a few other indigenous African languages, and English, will speak French as well, due to the proximity of Cote D’Ivoire. In northern and eastern Liberia, it is common for many (illiterate) locals to speak French as well as English and their own tribal language.
This atmosphere in these frontier regions is further enhanced by the presence of a common ethnic identity or language on both sides of a national border—sometimes a single group has two different names in two different countries, such as the Dan/Mande/Gio in Liberia/Cote D’Ivoire. The international boundary is often a much newer phenomenon than the ethno-linguistic landscape of the area. A grandfather might have grandchildren living in the same area but in two different countries, and clan, kinship and ethnic links often straddle borders in West Africa.
Such milieux have too often, unfortunately, not proven to be seams of regional stability, but have in recent decades (and recent months) become, and continue to be, zones in which insecurity, conflict and violence spill over borders. The clearest evidence of this is in Northeastern Liberia, especially in Nimba County. The first incident, in 1990, was the beginning of the two-decade long Liberia Civil War, with the crossing of the rebel warlord (and future elected president of Liberia; now in the Hague awaiting a verdict in his war crimes trial) Charles Taylor into Liberia from Cote D’Ivoire. This took place at the village of Buutuo.
Buutuo is also one of the locations of the second series of events, from this past winter and spring, as more than a million refugees fled political violence in Cote D’Ivoire, and sought shelter on the Liberian side of the border. Many of the villages, and even the very same families, which today host Ivorian refugees, were themselves refugees in Cote D’Ivoire in earlier years, fleeing the violence of the Liberian Civil War. There have been anecdotal reports this spring of Liberian families hosting the same Ivorian families which hosted them in previous decades.
The Ivorian refugee crisis, March 2011. ©2011 MM Jones
Conversely, family and clan links across borders make the spread of this same violence more fluid, especially in that it is easier to recruit rebel armies in these regions to launch hostile action in neighboring countries.
Liberia is unique among African countries. Aside from Ethiopia (which was briefly conquered by Italy) Liberia is the oldest sovereign state in Africa, declaring its statehood in 1847. Liberia was founded not by Europeans but by freed American slaves and their descendants. These families and individuals came from both the northern and southern United States in waves, intermingling with the local tribes as well as the arrival of Africans freed from slave ships arrested along the coast.
The early evolution of what was later to be modern Liberia, from an unexplored area called Malagueta by the Portuguese (from an 18th century Dutch map, top) to a series of various American settlements along the "Grain Coast" which began to organize into neighboring units, reaching independence in 1847. At bottom is a modern map of Liberia showing the original American settlement zone.
Liberia’s original American settlements were all along the coast. For its first decades, these arrivals only established any type of control over a narrow sliver of what Europeans had first called Malagueta or the Grain Coast (various types of grain pepper were traded with Portuguese ships here). Various arrivals from different parts of the United States formed unassociated settlements, which only later came to be unified into Liberia.
During the remainder of the 19th Century (top) and the early 20th century (above), the large inland claim of independent Liberia is slowly chopped away by European powers in their rush to control the continent.
Even after independence, these settlements exerted hegemony only a few miles inland, but by claiming control over the coast, Liberia was able to monopolize access to the interior beyond yet on the map Liberia extended its territorial claim deep into the Guinea Highlands—a temperate, almost Alpine region that is the source of the greater River Niger. Liberia was never able to gain actual control over much of this interior area, which eventually became part of French Guinea (now the Republic of Guinea). Modern Liberia is about the size of Pennsylvania.
Liberia in 2008, showing its 15 counties.
Liberia has evolved not only as a sovereign entity in relation to external neighbors, but also in its internal arrangement, especially in the legacy of its American settlements and the relationship between these “Americo-Liberian” zones and the indigenous African tribes in the interior.
After independence, this interior of Liberia was divided into districts called Frontiers, a distinction reflecting a lesser degree of administration, and control. It was not until after World War 2 that all of Liberia came to be made up of “Counties” which reflected both the original American settlements on the coast and the frontier areas. However, counties were and are still to this day governed not as federal units (like American states), but are entirely administered by the central government from the national capital.
Liberia's administrative districts in 1963. Compare with 2008 Map above.
Liberia's Chieftaincies in 1963.
Liberia's ethnic group areas in 1963.
These (3) reprinted from
Liberia's counties in 1970. Compare with 1963 and 2008 maps above.
New Liberian counties have continually been carved out from existing ones, most recently the creation of River Gee and Gbarpolu counties during the presidency of Charles Taylor from 1997 to 2003. In theory, these new subdivisions could lead to greater local autonomy and citizen empowerment, but on the other hand can also reinforce central government control.
Liberia in 1999, in the middle of Charles Taylor's presidency, in which two new counties were created (compare with 2008 and 1970 maps, above).
For instance, new counties need new appointed administrators and elected legislators, which give the central government and executive leader additional lucrative positions to distribute within its political party and support network. It is in this and in other ways that it is critical to note that the creation of arbitrary political boundaries did not end with the withdrawal of European powers, and continues to this day.
Compare the boundaries of Nigeria's increasing number of federal states
with the demarcations of its many linguistic and cultural areas.
A brief examination of Nigeria shows a similar continued proliferation of subnational prefectures, called States in Nigeria. These only roughly correspond to more historic boundaries of ethnic or religious division [compare images of Nigeria above]. It may be ironic that multiparty democracy and strong centralized control have sought to thwart ethnic identities by overlaying a series of borders. Conversely, perhaps a stronger national identity which de-emphasizes potential divisions based on language, tribe, or religion would lead to a better functioning state.
Unfortunately, recent episodes in African political affairs have proven that rival political groups will exploit divisions of identity for their own gain. Such were true of the Rwandan Genocide some 15 years ago which lead to an even larger conflict in the Congo that followed and more recently the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, East Africa, but also manifested in the civil war which has split Cote D’Ivoire in northern and southern parts, with corrosive xenophobia leading to this year’s post election conflict which can at least be defined as ethnic cleansing, if not outright genocide.
A major component of the xenophobia which has festered in Cote D’Ivoire splits the citizenry along a divide that is older than African states themselves: the frontier between the coastal groups, whose traditional religions gave way to European Christianity and more recently quasi-American Fundamental/Pentecostalism, and the Muslim North, which has very recently turned away from moderation toward a Saudi-style fundamentalism.
This is most evident in Northern Nigeria, which has long been one of the greater centers of the Islamic faith. The northern states of Nigeria have all adopted Islamic Sharia law, and are now suffering from the violent terrorism of Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for bombings in major cities in northern Nigeria and most recently on a UN compound in Abuja, the country's capital.
CROSSINGS AND CHECKPOINTS
Although the mandates of ECOWAS direct West Africa’s common borders to be open to the movement of ECOWAS peoples, border crossings are still choke-points for the movement of goods and people, and present a difficult for non ECOWAS passport holders, which need visas for nearly every West African country beforehand.
Extraordinarily for internal boundaries (which do not involve customs, but are merely marked with signage in the United States or European countries, including those between EU Member States due to the Schengen Agreement), there are passport controls between Liberian counties, which require individuals to pull off the road, and speak to a police official or even enter a police station to register. There are good reasons for this in a post-conflict situation, in a region where smuggling of goods and humans is rampant, but it also, like so many government procedures in weak states, creates an opportunity for corruption.
Experiences at these crossing points are certainly more pleasant than what might be encountered elsewhere, the arbitrary and often-times horrifically violent road blocks that chopped up Liberia during the war, or those that exist elsewhere in the region to harass commercial and personal drivers for bribes—a potentially unsafe condition which makes overland travel in several parts of West Africa risky for non-Africans. Due to this concern and the poor condition of roadways, infrequent air travel becomes the only viable transport.
A Map of obstacles along overland transport routes in West Africa.
Courtesy of the USAID West Africa Trade Hub, 2007.
That the modern countries of Africa are nearly all independent versions of territories formed by Europeans during the colonial period unquestionably undermines their viability as states, and challenges mutual stability, regional cooperation.
A map of visa/entry restrictions in Sub-Saharan Africa by country. ©2011 MM Jones
It is only decades after independence that the younger generations are beginning partake in a collective national identity (thinking of themselves as ‘Nigerian’ as much as ‘Yoruba’ or ‘Igbo’ or ‘Ghanaian’ as much as ‘Akan’ or ‘Ashanti’ Most normally, however, these fellow citizens are united not by a shared or borrowed African language, but by a common European one (the widespread use of Swahili in East Africa being the major exception to this).
Partly, this is due a newer component in the national landscape: the African diaspora. Emigrants to Europe or the United States, such as the Nigerian community in Houston, the Liberian Community in Minnesota, or the Kenyan Community in southeastern Massachusetts, identify more nearly with their common nationality than their individual ethnicity. As these families return back to their home countries, or interact within their own kinship groups, they influence the evolution of national identity.
The on-going era of strong-man politics of sub-Saharan Africa have a vested interest in maintaining the external sovereign borders. The fascinating exception of newly-independent South Sudan offers an imperfect path to greater self-determination; the unrecognized states of Somaliland and Puntland in Somalia less so [below]; the horrible war over the attempt by Biafra to secede from Nigeria proves the rule.
A Map of Somalia, showing Somaliland and Puntland, self-declared but unrecognized independent states. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
On the domestic stage, the central governments have an alternate object to achieve the same ends: manipulating internal political and ethnic boundaries for power, or ignoring local property or traditional land use by communities in order to facilitate large foreign investment contracts for mineral and resource extraction—the so-called New Scramble for Africa. It is within this atmosphere that the still-young states of Africa, and their youthful populations, continue to struggle to establish a stable, common identity which can be the foundation for a fulfilling, peaceful nationhood.
A map of north-central Niger, showing the lucrative uranium concession area
which ignores the existence of the greater cultural zone of the
Taureg/Tamazight nomads, leading to armed conflict.