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Dowden Richard, International Heral Tribune - 9 gennaio 1995
Africa: the border's question


by Richard Dowden

SUMMARY: The author shows that the fact of redrawing Africa's borders will do nothing to solve the continent's problems.

(International Herald Tribune, 9 January 1995)

The search for the cause of Africa's woes - and an appropriate response to them - is becoming increasingly a non-debate between two groups of fantasists. On the one side stand the economic doctors from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund who repeat the endless mantras that their medicine is working and things will get better. Behind them stand the Western governments who control them, calling for "good governance" and "sustained economic adjustment", pausing only to wring their hands at yet another disaster.

On the other side is an alliance between unreconstructed Marxist academics, many of them Africans living in exile, and the politically correct here who want to believe that Africa would have been a paradise if it had not been for European intervention. Their solution is for the West to pay billions of pounds of "compensation" for slavery, imperialism and economic exploitation. The two groups live in their own fantasy worlds and do not talk to each other.

Africans living in Africa will change and perhaps save Africa. But they could be greatly helped by outsiders were it not for this polarisation of the debate - in which both sides are far removed from Africa's realities.

Take, for example, their analyses of the supposed cause of political instability: Africa's borders. The accepted view among Western politicians is that it is the inevitable consequence of tribalism. The other side blames the borders that were drawn by the imperial European powers. Several leading African thinkers, including Professor Ali Mazrui of Kenya and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel prize-winning playwright, have recently called for them to be redrawn.

In fact, daft and disruptive as they were, these boundaries have rarely been the source of war or political instability in Africa. Since independence 30 years ago, African heads of state have agreed that the borders are inviolable and would not be challenged. By and large they have kept that agreement. Apart from Somalia's invasion of Ethiopia in 1977 and Tanzania's invasion of Uganda in 1979, Africa's wars have not been between states or about borders. They have been internal conflicts.

The question is: would Africa be any more stable if the borders were redrawn? But that raises the question of what Africa was like before the Europeans came and what it would be like had there been no imperial intervention.

In the mid-19th century, Africa contained between 6,000 and 10,000 political units, usually kingdoms, based on linguistic, cultural or ethnic groups. In only a few cases were there permanent institutions that survived the death of the ruler. Most cannot be called states, and they were in a constant flux of conquest and absorption, domination and disintegration.

It is hard to see how, within 100 years, thousands of such societies would have evolved any more peacefully into modern states.

The centralised nationstates bequeathed to Africa by Europe are now under pressure from above and below. From above, the West has imposed radical economic changes on African states. Their currencies have been floated and the urban élite the professionals on whom any state depends - have been impoverished by the subsequent collapse in their salaries. State enterprises, sources of almost endless political patronage that brought some stability, have been sold or closed down. The boss can no longer use the glue of state patronage to keep a nation together.

Meanwhile, as a new generation becomes disillusioned with a failing political system, there are calls for democracy and freedom. Shorn of any ideology or meaningful national rallying cry, they tend to forge alliances on ethnic or regional grounds. The re-emergence of these ethnic alliances is threatening to tear Africa to pieces as Somalia and Liberia have been destroyed. But does that mean that the state boundaries should be redrawn, taking account of these atavistic ethnic divisions?

There have been two cases recently where new states have been carved out of the independence boundaries. One is Eritrea - a country whose sole historical claim to statehood was based on its once having been an Italian colony. Far from resurrecting an ancient African state or kingdom, Eritrea was purely colonial in its origins.

The second is Somalia, where the northern clans recreated Somaliland, another colonial border. Somalia is also the only country in Africa with a single ethnic group, culture, language and religion. The examples of neither Somalia nor Eritrea suggest that a redrawing of Africa's boundaries is a solution.

Wars elsewhere in Africa in Uganda, Angola and Liberia, for example - have by secessionist movements; they are the result of winner-takes-all politics whereby an ethnic group that failed to win an election and felt excluded, waged war to bring down the winner. In Zaire, there has recently a secessionist movement in the south, but it seems to derive from personal hatred for President Mobutu, not from a genuine desire to be a separate state. A similar hatred for the Thatcher government resulted in the sudden rise in support for Scottish independence in the late Eighties.

In Rwanda and Burundi, the Hutus and Tutsis have never in-habited separate territories, so boundary redrawing is irrelevant. They lived on the same hills, in the same communes which is why civil war turned into genocide. War in such circumstances is not about defending territory but about removing the other people completely - extermination. In this, Rwanda and Burundi are unique in Africa; nowhere else do two peoples live locked into the same society and land.

The idea that a group of wise men can solve Africa's wars by wandering around the continent with maps and pencils and shifting a few boundary markers is as ludicrous as it sounds.

What may happen, in fact, is that the boundaries simply melt. As the state weakens in Africa, powerful barons are emerging who command the allegiance of their regional or ethnic group. In some areas it is the traditional rulers who are re-emerging. Far from being swept away by the march of (Western) progress, these families have begun reasserting themselves. Their sons and daughters, educated as accountants, lawyers and businessmen, are bringing together the old and the modern and forming new networks of power and influence.

In Uganda, the recently reestablished court of the Kabaka is resurfacing as a political power base. In Nigeria, the Obas and Emirs and other local kings, always discreetly powerful, are now becoming more open and public in their exercise of influence. In South Africa, following the restoration of power to the Zulu king, there are a host of other kings and chiefs stretching their political muscles.

The problem of these informal states is that too often they depend on a single man. Because of the nature of the extended African family, when a man dies scores and sometimes hundreds of relatives descend for their cut - and are paid off. It is exceedingly difficult for a financial empire or a political one - to be handed down to a single successor. In some African kingdoms, the death of the king was followed by chaos in which the potential successors fought each other until one killed or drove out all his rivals.

Central governments will have to deal with these new power bases. They may fight them or they may establish written or unwritten agreements with them, but in a few years' time, when a stranger travels through Zaire, for example, he may need not only a visa from central government, but he will also need the blessing of the local chief, warlord or king. A company that wishes to do business in Africa will pay tax not only to the central government but to the local chief as well. It will be messy and complicated but in many places it is already happening. Only companies who know how the system works, modelling themselves on Tiny Rowland's Lonrho, will be able to operate there.

Without investment, economic development will have to emerge from within. This may not be the obstacle it sounds, since many of the families who are carving out empires for themselves in Africa are very rich indeed. At present, however, they prefer to put their money in banks in Europe because of instability at home. The stability they might themselves provide could induce them to bring back some of their funds as local investment.

Alongside these new power bases, trading patterns are developing which appear on no World Bank statistic. Some are old routes suppressed by the imperial borders, others are new; but Africa's hidden market makes the continent far richer than the official figures suggest.

Many of these new informal states and trading routes cross the state boundaries. How will that affect them? Sierra Leone, for example, might have ambassadors posted throughout the world, even though the government in fact controls little more than Freetown. It could also be that when one crosses the border from Sierra Leone into Guinea, there would be a man with a stamp who checks your passport and takes money. Whether that money goes into his own pocket, or to a local baron, or to the central government, would depend on local political circumstances. With other countries, the borders may simply melt away as new trading and travelling routes make them irrelevant.

This certainly seems the most likely outcome in West Africa, where Liberia and Sierra Leone have already evolved along these lines. Cameroon and Togo are waiting to go the same way and there are similar rumblings in Nigeria and Ghana. Only the national armies are preventing this. But as states become poorer and weaker, the loyalties of national armies are thrown into doubt. They, too, may find other allegiances, either as a unit or fragmented.

In East Africa the conditions exist for a similar evolution, depending on what happens in Kenya. The exception, for the moment, is southern Africa as long as South Africa remains strong, single and stable. If it does, it will establish a political, economic and military hegemony in the region and may even extend its influence as far as southern Zaire.

In the rest of the continent, though, the nation-state may be in terminal decline. New networks of power and wealth are emerging. These new networks, growing out of the ruins, may have deeper foundations and may create more truly indigenous structures than the imperial heritage. They are the realities outsiders must recognise and respond to.

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