Argument

Africa Needs a New Map

It’s time to start seeing the redrawing of the continent’s colonial borders as an opportunity, not a threat.

Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't exactly known for brilliant ideas on maximizing political justice; his own country, Libya, is essentially his private fiefdom. But a few weeks ago, he had a pretty good one: to partition Nigeria, "the giant of Africa," as he called it, in half. Religious violence along the border between the country's north and south seemed to have drawn a pretty clear battle line; Nigeria's massive and massively diverse population seemed to warrant separate states. After years of watching this oil-rich country of 150 million struggle to manage its obvious divides, Qaddafi just gave voice to what others must have been thinking: Time to split Nigeria up.

But in Africa, the declaration fell on deaf ears. Nigeria recalled the Libyan ambassador and firmly rejected the idea. Even for a continent accustomed to Qaddafi's antics, this time the Libyan leader went too far. Talking about redrawing continental borders -- which are today almost exactly as they were at the time of independence 50 years ago -- is something of a cardinal sin. But Qaddafi did not exactly repent. He had misspoken, he said: Nigeria should not be split in two, but perhaps into three or even four nations. 

Silence about borders has become Africa's pathology, born in the era of strongman leaders that followed decolonialization. Loath to lose any of their newly independent land, the continent's leaders upheld a gentleman's agreement to favor "stability" over change. Today, the unfortunate result is visible in nearly every corner of Africa: from a divided Nigeria, to an ungovernable Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to the very real but unrecognized state in Somaliland. Borders created through some combination of ignorance and malice are today one of the continent's major barriers to building strong, competent states. No initiative would do more for happiness, stability, and economic growth in Africa today than an energetic and enlightened redrawing of these harmful lines.

Like it or not, talk of a new map is echoing around Africa today for one very clear reason: Sudan, the continent's largest country by landmass, is scheduled to hold a referendum vote next January, in which the people of the country's autonomous south could decide to secede. Many see the prospect of instability as threatening. Yet there is no better time to rethink the tangled issue of African borders. If it works in Sudan, perhaps other countries should follow.

In fact, many thought the borders would change back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African nations broke free from colonial rule. "An aversion to the international borders drawn by the colonial powers, if not their complete rejection, has been a consistent theme of anticolonial nationalism in Africa," wrote the scholar Saadi Touval in 1967. He went further, pretty much summing up the problems that still persist today: "The borders are blamed for the disappearance of a unity which supposed existed in Africa in preolconial times; they are regarded as arbitrarily imposed, artificial barriers separating people of the same stock, and they have said to have balkanized Africa. The borders are considered to be one of the humiliating legacies of colonialism, which, according to this view, independent Africa ought to abolish."

Yet by the time Touval published those words, alienation toward colonial borders had given way to their embrace. In 1964, the Organization of African Unity (the forerunner to today's African Union) decided that sticking with inherited borders promoted "stability." Faced with a secession attempt by the oil-rich and Igbo-dominated region of "Biafra," Nigeria stuck with the old map, brutally putting down the revolt three years later. At a cost of 1 million lives, the Biafrans were defeated, and Nigeria -- a nation the British stitched together out of three distinct "administrative" pieces only in the 1950s -- was made whole again.

That fidelity to colonial-era borders coexisted with the emergence of dictatorships in Africa in the 1960s and 70s. Governments on the continent were failing to deliver even basic services, preferring to behave as "vampire states" that preyed burdensomely on their own people, none of whom they wanted to let out of their territorial grasp. To be sure, there were a few cracks. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, leaving both countries militarized along their new, grudgingly accepted borders. Other minor adjustments here and there also took place, but the creation of Eritrea is the only major change in African borders since they were drawn by colonial powers a century and a half ago.

The result has been conflict, which often looks ethnic but is really all about territorial control. Borders in Africa don't come close to following tribal lines, splitting some groups up and artificially joining others together. The Ewe of Togo would surely rather be united with the millions more of their people living across the border in Ghana. The Igbo in Nigeria continue to dream of their own nation -- their troubadour, novelist Chinua Achebe, openly proclaiming that his ethnic group is no less deserving than Swedes or Danes of their own nation-state.

Rethinking the borders could go far to quelling some of these conflicts. Countries could finally be framed around the de facto geography of ethnic groups. The new states could use their local languages rather than favoring another ethnicity's or colonial power's tongue. Rebel secessionist movements would all but disappear, and democracy could flourish more easily when based upon policies, rather than simple identity politics. On top of that, new states based on ethnic lines would by default be smaller, more compact, and more manageable for governments on a continent with a history of state weakness. (Though by European standards, many of these new African nations would still not be small when compared with, say, Slovenia or Slovakia.)

And it's not just Nigeria and Sudan that would benefit from the redrawing. The DRC is surely at the top of the list. (As Africanist Basil Davidson said in 1994, "The Congo never should have been one state. It simply suited Belgian convenience.") Its war-torn and benighted eastern region -- a geographically coherent area -- would stand a much better change of integrating with the economically thriving nearby region as an independent state. It is already geographically connected to Rwanda through the Congolese border city of Goma. And Rwanda, as part of the East African trade community, could serve as a hub for that part of Congo in regional economic affairs. If this sounds too rosy, one shouldn't shy away from asking the hard-nosed question: Since Eastern Congo is today one of the poorest, worst-run places in the world, how could independence make things worse?

A similar regional synergy could be envisioned for South Sudan, now trapped in a northern-oriented government where all routes lead to landlocked Kharoum. The south Sudanese already trade heavily with Ugandans to the south. And the government of Kenya is preparing to build a massive port at Lamu, near its coastal border with Somalia, in part to move goods back and forth to South Sudan.

And what of Somalia, a benighted nation stitched together out of three pieces -- bequeathed by two European powers -- only in 1960? Somalia is today effectively three nations anyway, two of which, Somaliland and Puntland, cannot receive international recognition despite providing relatively decent services to their residents. If they were true "states" by international standards, aid, diplomats, and security assistance from, for example, U.S. Africa Command, could pour in.

Of course, splicing up Africa's countries is no panacea for the continent's woes. You might argue, for example, that conflicts would not be stopped at all; they would just go from being civil wars to interstate conflict between two divorced neighbors. That may well happen, and of course no conflict is good news. But the international community has much stronger deterrents for such country-to-country spats than internal civil war. And new states would likely be reluctant to incur the repercussions of diplomatic and economic isolation. Others will wonder if new borders can really change the continent's record of abysmal governance. The answer is a certain yes: There is no better incentive to get your house in order than taking over a responsibility as huge as running your own state.

Many of these concerns are valid. But the redrawing of Africa may happen whether we will it or not. Next year's vote in Sudan could finally put to pasture the acceptance of African borders as unchangeable -- and put the engineering of new African states at the top of the international agenda. Qaddafi was crazy enough to tackle the issue head on. Now who will be brave enough to be next?

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

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