*Michel Foucher "African Borders." CNRS editions (MF Geographer, diplomat and essayist).
The border is an institution that defines the perimeter of a state, the exercise of sovereignty inscribed in space: it is the geopolitical object par excellence, necessarily arbitrary, because all borders are arbitrary; it is the result of the long history of relations between nations that have become states. A frontier is not an abstract layout but an institution, inscribed in law and structuring, carrying conflicts and treaties, negotiations and decisions. Crossing it does not cancel it out. To abolish borders is to make states disappear. A world without borders is a barbaric world.
En droit international public, « un État ne serait pas considéré comme un État si la majorité de ses frontières ne sont pas définies ».
In international public law, "a State will not be considered as a State if most of its frontiers are not defined".
It is not a surprise that Africa is a conglomerate of races and languages that the imperial Europe of the 19th century closed within the framework of artificial borders that almost never took into account natural reasons, whether they were ethnic, linguistic or simply economic.
The changes that took place in Africa in the period 1880-1935 occurred at great speed, but the most tragic and transcendental were in between 1890 and 1910, which was precisely the period characterized by the conquest and occupation of most of the African continent by the powers of the empire and later by the establishment of the colonial system. The period after 1910 was basically characterized by the consolidation and exploitation of this system. In 1914, with the sole exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, Africa as a whole was subject to Europe and divided into colonies of different proportions.
Africa was the last continent Europe conquered. The amazing thing about it was the speed and relative ease with which the European nations with a coordinated effort occupied and subjugated a continent of such proportions. An unprecedented event in history. The speed of the conquest can be explained by the fact that the colonisers were not faced with a global resistance as there was rarely any solidarity among the African peoples.
The African continent today has some 83,500 km of political land borders, drawn up in a short quarter of a century (1885-1909). These chancellorial borders were established by Europe on unrecognizable maps and, above all, without prior field survey. The states that participated in drawing these borders were, in order of influence, France (32%) and the United Kingdom (26.8%), that is, almost 60% between them. Next are Germany (8.7%), Belgium (7.6%: the mention of Belgium includes those companies ruled by Leopold II) and Portugal (6.9%), that is, nearly 82% for these 5 states named. Ottoman Turkey (4%) Italy (1.7%) and Spain (1.5%) complete the African border map. The Europeans made maps of the African geographical contours and began to draw lines and write names on them which they called countries. Africa is the third largest continent with a surface area of 30310000 km2 and more than 7,000 km2 between its extremes east-west, north-south1, in which 54 independent states coexist, including 48 sub-Saharan states, and it therefore has 54 different governments and regulations.
In this document I will try to make a very brief review of the history of African colonisation and then talk about the still burning border issues which moreover, are closely linked to the particular geography of the continent at its distances, and the political and commercial repercussions that this represents.
The Berlin Conference, November 1884-February 1885, and the events which followed were aimed not only to establish the present frontiers of Africa, but also an attempt to integrate Africa into the European concept of the frontier nation state. The Berlin conference only came to regulate the imperial process of reclaiming territory. These demands were naturally accompanied by fierce competition between the European powers for, at that time and more so than before, the concept of the actual occupation of territory was a factor to be taken into account. It was in this context that the frontiers imposed on Africa were designed to be exclusive and to separate one sovereignty from another. They were supposed to be a reflection of the nation-state borders of Europe with its dual characteristic of being an instrument of peace and war as represented by Lord Curzon (1907) in a famous quote: “Frontiers are indeed the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations”.
Most African frontiers were established at the beginning of the 20th century, announcing the configuration of the next states. These were the words of Lord Salisbury: “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod; 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 were.” In the early years of African independence, one of the main concerns of the founding fathers was the question of how to shape the borders left by colonization. It was posed in these terms: should the colonial route be questioned and open the way to uncertainty and instability, or should it be accepted so as to establish a serene and peaceful climate in inter-state relations? The Organization of African Unity (OAU) response was:
"All Member States are guided by the principle of the respect of borders existing on achievement of national independence". Uti possidetis juris. Africa's borders remain intact from their colonial legacy2.
Even though the colonial regime has disappeared, we know that the consequences of the partition are still there. Let us say that, in a political sense, today's Africa was created by the Europeans of that time. In 1880 Africa was beyond the reach of any interest in expansion on the part of European forces. The priorities were different and European expansion was going down other roads: those of the New World and Asia in terms of trade and exploitation. It was only from that date onwards that Europe began a process of taking over and dividing up the continent in not much more than 30 years. The most shocking thing about the partition of Africa was not what was done, but the lightness with which it was done.
When compared to Europe and North America, Africa is relatively new to the Westphalian concept of borders. However, this does not mean that borders did not exist in Africa before exposure to foreign influences. Borders have always existed as a social phenomenon governing relations between people and communities. Likewise, pre-colonial African socio-political structures and institutions have their own functional categorizations that can be assimilated to the borders we know today. There are about 110 borders between African States and several inter-State borders that cut across the entire African continent. The origins of these borders date back to the later nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial and empire period. Therefore, the legal basis for the frontiers has been treaties, agreements, exchange of notes and protocols between the different colonial powers.
Let's start from the beginning...
The cast of Africa. When it started, how it was done, and the reasons why it took place.
Let's say that between 1880 and 1914 (34 years) the largest percentage of the distribution of the African continent by Europeans took place. There are theories that hold that the distribution began in 1879 with the French expeditions to Senegal, others that 1881 is the date with the expeditions to Tunisia by Ferry and Gambetta (The Treaty of Bardo, which established a French protectorate over Tunisia on May 12, 1881). The English justify the date 1882 with their incursion into Egypt and 1884 as the date when Bismarck and King Leopold of Belgium appeared on the African scene. The corresponding reasons for the beginning of the distribution belong to each. There is a lot of literature on this subject, as well as whether it was "partition" or "scramble" what occurred there. In any case, we could say that the cast took place on paper in the 1880s and the partition on the ground in the following years.
As to how the history of the partition was carried out, the maps were the graphic representation of the distribution and the fragmentation of the African terrain. What maps? What could be seen on these maps? Just what the European powers artificially decided in their respective chancelleries. Treaties were concluded and borders were fixed, and this was the opposite to that in Europe: first you conquered and then you saw it reflected on a map; in Africa, it was the other way round, first you drew the map and then you saw what to do with it. The geographical reality, the reality of the land, was not taken into account; it was shown to be a mere invention of those who designed it artificially. In any case, and not only for Africa, the borders are not decided by nature but by power and politics3.
Why did it take place, what were the reasons... These were very different from one country to another. Let us not forget that we are in the midst of imperialism and this was a consequence of capitalism, as Hobson says in his study of this phenomenon4. The struggle for the markets to invest and the exploitation of raw materials (the history of Africa has evolved very little in this sense), but also strategic and political motives: each nation had its own; see the examples of the United Kingdom in Egypt with the Suez Canal (the rights of the shareholders had to be safe and that is why the canal had to be defended) or the Fashoda incident in Sudan5.
Not all parties were guided by the same motive. European countries had different interests, politicians had very different ideas and each African region had a different meaning. We can argue that England considered West Africa interesting for commercial reasons, South Africa for financial reasons, and East Africa for strategic reasons. According to France (from 1870 to 1914 French foreign policy revolved around the dilemma of "le pays devait-il jouer un rôle continentale ou bien ultramarin? (should the country play a continental or an overseas role?). In the end, continental issues predominated, but in spite of this France achieved a huge colonial empire, the second largest in the world, and its role was very prominent in the partition of Africa. As for Belgium, what about the Congo (one of the smallest countries in Europe took over one of the largest and richest colonies on the continent)?
Let us not forget that the Belgian government had no interest in colonial expansion, but Leopold, true to his idea, changed his methodology and decided to act as a private individual based on his prestige as a sovereign and on his family fortune without taking into account his country's parliament. In other words, he was a sovereign within Belgium and a businessman outside it. By the way, Leopold never travelled to the Congo6 (see notes: literature on the colonisation of the Congo).
We cannot fail to mention the German colonial movement. "No one can prove that the colonies are useful for the Empire, but neither can I prove that they are harmful" (Otto von Bismarck Chancellor of Germany 1 April 1815 - 30 July 1898).
The first German colonial empire in Africa was born on April 24,1884, when Bismarck proclaimed the Reichsschutz (protection of the empire) over "Luderitzland"7. This gave birth to German South-West Africa, which was later followed by Togo and Cameroon and, one day after the end of the Berlin conference (27/02/1885), the German region of East Africa.
The origins of the conference come from the German side when Bismarck, after speaking with the French ambassador in Berlin, let him know that Germany would be willing to consult with other countries, with France in particular, on colonial affairs more precisely on the Anglo-Portuguese treaty. Germany was seeking France's support against England's invasion policy and this treaty was another example. Bismarck sought support from other countries, as he did not confront London directly, and the best way to do so was to make the problem international. Portugal therefore began to sound out possible reactions to the holding of a conference, which led Bismarck to say that a bilateral treaty should be ratified internationally, that a waterway such as the Congo River should be internationally controlled and that free trade should be guaranteed in that territory in order to end the commitment to respect formalities in the new occupations on the coasts of Africa. This was perhaps the most critical of the issues dealt with, due to the British delegation's attempt to introduce rules for the inner part of the continent.
Both the Germans and the French objected to this, because how is it possible to establish rules for a hinterland of the continent that was absolutely unknown? Where did the coast come to an end in order to become a hinterland? And where did it come to be considered a coast again? This would require a new inventory of the various claims to sovereignty and the measurement of the various territories. Hence the partition of Africa was born, but on the condition that it was in European harmony and cooperation. Therefore, Article 34 of the Geberal Act of the Berlin Conference states: “that any European nation that took possession of an African coast, or named themselves as “protectorate” of one, had to inform the other powers of the Berlin Act of this action.” If this was not done then their claim would not be recognized.
This article introduced the “spheres of influence” doctrine, the control of a coast also meant that they would control the hinterland to an almost unlimited distance. Article 35 determined that in order to occupy a coastal possession, the nation also had to prove that they controlled sufficient authority there to protect existing rights such as freedom of trade and transit. This was called the doctrine of “effective occupation” .
The delimitation thus carried out was not due to a requirement of tribal coherence or any historical legitimacy of the pre-existing kingdoms, so that the 177 African peoples or ethnic groups were divided among various territorial entities, while others known for their visceral hostility towards others established them in the same territory.
Those among the military, diplomats or indigenous officials who established the administrative boundaries of future African states were compared to "a mad tailor who would not have paid any attention to the fabric or design of the patchwork he was assembling and his work to the ramblings of a surveyor who went mad.
The only restriction imposed on the powers that signed the Berlin Act was the imperative not to invade the area of influence of others and to develop their territorial lot according to their own military and strategic needs. In other words, the European powers had their hands free to shape Africa's borders as they saw fit.
After independence, Africa was thus faced with a Cornelian dilemma in terms of borders: to maintain the borders inherited from colonialism, burying the destabilising arbitrary borders in more or less short periods, or to open the "Pandora's box", at the risk of provoking fratricidal wars. With regard to principles, it should be noted that the constitutive act of the conference preferred not to repeat the reference to "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence" and replaced it with "respect, the limits existing at the time of independence". For the history of Africa, this was the essential outcome of the conference.
« À l’heure de l’intégration, rien ne justifie le fait que les frontières soient sources de conflits. Elles doivent plutôt être facteur de paix et d’échanges entre les populations des différents pays concernés ».
N’Faly Sanoh, Directeur du département libre circulation de la CEDEAO.
"When it comes to integration, nothing justifies the fact that borders are sources of conflict. On the contrary, they should be a factor of peace and exchange between the populations of the different countries involved".
N'Faly Sanoh, ECOWAS Director for Free Movement and Tourism.
Since independence, borders inherited from colonization have been a recurrent source of tension, conflict and even crisis among several African countries8. African leaders have taken a number of political and legal measures to address Africa's border issues. These include: "the 1st Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), held in Cairo, Egypt, in July 1964 and article 4 (b) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), which adopted the principle of respect for borders in the State where they were located when they gained independence".
Also as a point of reference, it is worth noting the Conference of Heads of State and Government of July 2002 in Durban, South Africa, which called for the delimitation and demarcation of borders in Africa, where they had not yet been carried out, and the recommendation to continue the boundary-setting and demarcation exercises as factors conducive to peace, security and economic and social progress. Finally, the 8th Ordinary Session of the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the African Union held in January 2007 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which adopted the declaration encouraging the Commission to continue its efforts to prevent structural conflicts, in particular through the implementation of the African Union Border Programme (KFP/PFU).
Example of some progress of the AUBP:
The completion of the demarcation of the remaining 413 km of the Burkina Faso-Mali border; the completion of the delimitation of the maritime border between Comoros, Seychelles and Tanzania; the reaffirmation exercises between Mozambique and Zambia (330 km); the implementation of the reaffirmation exercises between Zambia and Malawi (805 km); the ongoing reaffirmation exercises between Mozambique and Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi, and Mali and Senegal.
Without going so far as to identify all the territorial disputes that have taken place in the history of contemporary African relations, we will limit ourselves to recalling the most notorious ones, distinguishing between those that have a secession dimension, those that have taken place between African States and those that are subject to arbitration or judicial settlement.
Conflicts of secession: In Angola (Cabinda between 1991 and 1994, between 1996 and 1998, between 2004 and 2007 and 2009), in Comoros (Anjouan 1997), in Ethiopia (Eritrea, Ogaden, Afar, Oromia), in Mali (Touaregs in 1990 and between 2007 and 2009), in Namibia (Caprivi Band 1999), in Niger (Touaregs 1992, 1994, 1997), in Nigeria (Biafra and Niger Delta in 1990, 1997, 1998), in Senegal (Casamance), in Somalia (Somaliland) and in Sudan (Southern Sudan 1990-2004 and independence in 2011).
Inter-state conflicts: Mali-Mauritania (1961-1964), Morocco-Algeria (1963), Somalia-Kenya (Northern Kenya) (1967), Uganda-Tanzania (part of Tanza) (1972-1979), Mali-Burkina Faso (Agacha area) (1974 - 1987), Libya-Chad Aouzou Band (1973-1994), Somalia-Ogaden Region in Ethiopia (1977-1978), Nigeria-Cameroon Bakasi Island (1994), Ethiopia-Eritrea (1998-2000).
Border disputes submitted to arbitration or to the International Court of Justice (ICJ): Tunisia-Libya Continental Shelf Case (1982), Guinea-Bissau-Senegal Case (1984), Burkina Faso-Mali Case (1986), Libya-Chad Case (1973-1994), Cameroon-Nigeria Case (1991), Botswana-Namibia Case (1995).
From this non-exhaustive list, we must distinguish two situations that led to the creation of sovereign states: Eritrea, born of a separation from Ethiopia in 1993, and Southern Sudan, which separated from the North in 2011. Unfortunately, this secession phenomenon is far from disappearing, as demonstrated by the unilateral declaration of independence of the national movement for the liberation of Azawad, made on 6 April 2012 and withdrawn on 14 April 2013.
That is why, in order to curb this dangerous trend, the African Union adopted in 2007 the Border Plan to facilitate and support the demarcation and marking of African borders, to develop cross-border cooperation and to strengthen the capacity of member States in managing their borders. To implement this plan, the African Union requested the support of the former European powers - France, Belgium, Germany and Portugal - the first two of which provided digitized copies of the treaties covering the period 1845-1956 to some twenty countries in the northern, eastern and western regions of the African continent by 2013.
At a time when nationalisms and identity claims are growing worldwide, African borders are at risk of undergoing profound changes. They may take the path of integration on the basis of conflict resolution and economic complementarity or that of disintegration as a result of the unbridled application of the right to self-determination.
The leading role of the African Union should be decisive.
A comment on the launching of the Continental Free Trade Area in July 2019: it may be seriously affected by the coronavirus epidemic and may be on its way to putting everything back on track9 (Read " ACCORD PORTANT CRÉATION DE LA ZONE DE LIBRE-ÉCHANGE CONTINENTALE AFRICAINE ")
It is true that the coronavirus could represent a threat to this continental project, but leaders can also see it as an opportunity to strengthen collaboration. If leaders accelerate certain policies, it could also be an opportunity. Benefits could be achieved quickly by consolidating regional integration initiatives already in place.
Border closures, for example, can be seen from a different perspective. When the leaders of neighbouring countries close their borders, as Portugal and Spain have done, it is a symbol of partnership in the fight against the pandemic. Reducing the flow of people by keeping the borders open to goods is a recognition of the importance of economic and commercial activities in enabling people to continue their daily lives. In Africa, this partnership will be crucial, especially for the sixteen landlocked countries of the continent. The African Union has already said that Africa will be stronger if countries are more united by the birth of the African Continental Free Trade Area. Such a strong commitment to joint action by the continent's leaders would certainly also benefit the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences for Africa.
Thick borders in Africa make trade costs very expensive. The costs associated with transport and logistics for the transfer of goods are part of this border thickness and this is precisely what weighs on a given region of the continent. The animation of African borders is fed by the exchange of basic products, more or less licit traffic, and fraudulent flows, as well as institutionalised smuggling. A whole world lives on these border asymmetries (traders, transporters, customs officers and the military) and tens of millions of inhabitants live on these borders. For all these reasons, I wonder about the veracity of the official statistics, if we consider the economy as it works, and not just the formal economy, since there are many areas where trade is mocking the borders10.
Trade data and statistics are essential for the exchange of goods and services across borders, as the difference in price and quality must be sufficient to offset the cost in terms of time and transport. Modern business information systems around the world provide decision-makers, importers, exporters, retailers and investors with up-to-date and profitable information that helps improve globalized trade. The lack of up-to-date and reliable trade data and statistics has been recognized as one of the factors contributing to the low level of official intra-African trade (estimated at about 14 per cent for imports and 18 per cent for exports in 2015), as well as Africa's limited share of world exports (about 2.6 per cent) in 2017. There are situations where goods and services, which could be provided by other African countries, are imported by African countries.
The issue, therefore, is not the layouts, but their control and the proper use of what surrounds the frontier as a hinge in the process of regional integration.
«Le période postcolonial est terminé également sur le plan politique. Il est impératif qu’une doctrine de règlement négocié des contentieux politiques s’impose, de l’intérieur, condition de la transformation de la croissance et du développement ». Michel Foucher (African Borders).
"The post-colonial period is also over on the political agenda. It is imperative that a doctrine of negotiated regulation of political content be imposed from within as a condition for the transformation of growth and development"
Justification of Quotations and Sources
1. African territory is vast, but maps rarely do it justice.
2. Organization of African Unity (OAU) July 2014 Conference on the Settlement of Border Disputes between African States, adopted by the Conference of Heads of State and Government meeting in Cairo on 17-21 July 1964 Article III, paragraph 3 of the 1963 OAU Charter.
3. Les frontières ne sont généralement pas déterminées pour la nature, mai par le pouvoir, c'est-à-dire par la politique. "Le partage de l'Afrique, Henri Wesseling/folio histoire 1991.
4. "Imperialism: A Study" is the title of a political-economic discourse written by John A. Hobson in 1902.
5. The conflict of interests between France and Great Britain led to frictions that almost resulted in armed conflict. One example was the incident or crisis in Fachoda (now Kodok), a town in Sudan, where the French and the British agreed on the construction of a railway to link part of their respective African colonies. In order to clear the way and defend their positions, the French sent an army from the West under the command of Major Marchand, while the British did the same with troops incorporated from Egypt under the command of General Kitchener. The retreat of the French in the face of the numerical inferiority of their troops allowed the British to control the region of Sudan, thereby achieving almost uninterrupted domination of the territories that linked North and South Africa. Cecil Rhodes' wishes were thus almost satisfied, since only the East African territories under German sovereignty stood in the way.
6. Henri Wesseling le partage de l'Afrique. Pierre-Luc Plasman Léopold II, POTENTAT CONGOLAIS. L'action royale face à la violence coloniale, LÉOPOLD II LE PLUS GRAND CHEF D'ETAT DE L'HISTOIRE DU CONGO Jean-Pierre Nzeza Kabu Zex-Kongo, Du sang sur les lianes : Léopold II et son Congo, Daniel Vangroenweghe, The dream of the Celt, Mario Vargas Llosa, etc.
7. Lüderitz is a port city of Namibia, located in Karas, the southernmost region of the country. It has a population of 12,900. It was founded in 1883 by Adolf Lüderitz, after the purchase of Angra Pequeña and surroundings, from a local Nama chief. The city began as a factory with activity in fishing and collection of guano. It was the main city of the Colonial Company of the German Southwest Africa.
8. With regard to the stabilizing effect of the principle of the intangibility of borders in Africa, it suffices to mention that more than 61% of African populations have suffered a war since 1963, which is the same percentage of time that the United Nations Security Council has dedicated to African conflicts and that 57% of the border disputes that are presented to them are of African origin. To realise the very limited impact of the principle of the intangibility of borders on peace, security and neighbourly relations in Africa. In fact, more than half a century after the OAU adopted the principle of respect for borders inherited from colonialism, reality shows that the problem of borders remains the central cause of inter- and intra-state instability and violence on the continent.
9. Paul Kagame, the Rwandan President who was the Chairman of the African Union is responsible for putting into orbit the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), the embryo of a single market on the African continent, in 2018. The goal is to establish an integrated market of more than 1.2 billion people for goods and services, including the free movement of people and capital. 22 national parliaments have ratified it. This agreement is the culmination of a long history, born with the pan-Africanism of independence, Kwame Nkrumah's dream of a "Union of African States". If actually implemented, the CFTA would be the largest in the world. In successive periods, this initiative could become a binding and functional agreement.
10. Los desafíos de África de Rafael Gómez-Jordana Moya (Thomson Reuters Aranzadi. Las relaciones internacionales del siglo XXI: Transformar el mundo. Capitulo IV pág. 137-153)
- A legal and Diplomatic Encyclopedia by Ian Brownlie.
- Le retour des frontières et les frontières africaines de Michel Foucher.
- Atlas historique de l’Afrique de Bernard Lugan.
- La partage de l’Afrique Henri Wesseling.
- Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshal.l
- L’Afrique défis, enjeux et perspectives en 40 fiches, Philippe Hugon.
- L’artificialité des frontières en Afrique subsaharienne Turbulences et fermentation sur les marges, Christian Bouquet.
- Délimitation et Démarcation des Frontières en Afrique, Commission de l’Union Africaine, Département de Paix et Sécurité, Addis-Abeba, septembre 2013.
- Los desafíos de África SEI, Rafael Gómez-Jordana Moya.
- L’Afrique depuis 1940, Frederick Cooper.
- L’Afrique pour les nuls, Jean-Joseph Boillot et Rahmane Idrissa.
- L’Afrique noire est-elle maudite ? Moussa Konaté.
Portraits of explorers in Africa