Africa’s Borders: porous, unprotected and blocking trade and economic development – By Keith Somerville

Africa's borders - artificial, obstructive and a block on trade and development.

Africa inherited its borders – they were not created by those who live within them, are divided by them or who cannot easily trade across them.  The many straight lines on the map (or even the wiggly ones that follow rivers or other features) are one of the banes of the continent.  On the one hand they artificially lump together peoples whose histories were not the same and who, while not naturally or primordially hostile, would have chosen different paths to nationhood. On the other, they divide peoples across two or even a multitude of states.

These borders were set by colonial rulers but then sanctified at its formation by the Organization of African Unity in 1963 and later reaffirmed by the African Union (AU).  They created multicultural, multilinguistic and multiethnic nation states – just like the treaties after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires created the artificial and doomed state of Yugsoslavia and those in eastern and central Europe whose borders are still bones of contention.  Africa is the same.

There are over 100 continuing border disputes between states in Africa – from the Ethiopian-Eritrean border (constantly in danger of setting off a new conflict between uneasy neighbours) to the current Malawi-Tanzania row over the demarcation of the lake border between them (exacerbated, as are so many global conflicts, by the lure of oil).  Borders are also blocks to economic development, bringing with them border controls, tariffs, customs arrangements (COMESA, ECOWAS and other regional groups notwithstanding).

Africa’s share of world trade is tiny””only 3 percent in 2009, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, but trade between nations is miniscule, making up only 10 percent of total trade. This stands in stark contrast to 22 percent between countries in South America, and 50 percent between those in Asia.  Borders and pointless bureaucracy, combined with the corruption that goes with them, inhibit inter-African trade.

Africa’s borders are even more problematic than those in contested areas of Europe, Asia and Latin America.  Whilst they are usually porous and almost impossible for weak state institutions, small armies and poorly funded police forces to control, they often divide peoples (especially nomadic ones like the Tuareg) and form huge obstacles to trade. Also, corruption and the desire of people to buy and sell goods across borders create endless opportunities for smuggling, tax evasion and cross-border crime – not just problems in themselves, but often providing the funding for insurgency and revolt.

Mali is a perfect example of this.  From its independence in 1960 it has had to accommodate the aspirations of peoples with different languages, cultures, economic and social lifestyles who are geographically separated by huge distances, but are citizens of one state. From its birth, Mali and its neighbours had to accommodate or crush the aspirations to autonomy or statehood of the Tuareg – split across Mali, Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Libya.  The Tuareg lived by trade across the Sahel region and across the Sahara to North Africa.  No one state could, even if they had wanted to, provide an autonomous homeland within an existing state, given that the Tuareg are widely dispersed and their aspirations not limited to the populations within a single state.  The Tuareg repeatedly launched rebellions in Mali and Niger.  These were defeated, but the spark of resistance was never fully extinguished.

The Tuareg were used by Gadaffi in Libya as part of his Islamic Arab Legion, which fought and was defeated in Chad in the 1980s and was made part of Libya’s armed forces – effectively mercenaries helping keep him in power and interfere in the affairs of neighbouring states. Libya under Gaddafi backed rebellions by the Tuareg in the Sahel – armed them, financed them and trained them.  When he fell, they and other non-Libyan fighters were among the major targets for the militias who, with Western help, overthrew and killed him.  The foreign fighters fled – many Tuareg to Niger, where most were rapidly disarmed.  Others went back to Mali and kept hold of their weapons. They linked up with Islamic groups including many Tuareg who lived by smuggling in the unpoliced north of the country.

The Tuareg launched their rebellion seeking to establish an independent state – ‘Azawad’ – through the MNLA movement, aided by the Libyan weapons they had brought with them.  The rest, as they say, is history.  The MNLA had initial successes, was then dominated and marginalized by Islamist movements and those movements are now being pushed back into the desert by French, Malian and Chadian troops.  But they will just melt back into the arid, remote and thinly populated Sahel/Sahara with a wealth of porous borders to cross and re-cross to avoid counter-insurgency operations and establish new bases.  Mali has a 1,376 km border with Algeria, 1,000km with Burkina Faso, 2,237km with Mauritania and 821km with Niger.  Even with French support, US drones and the cooperation of neighbouring states they cannot police this whole area.

The openness of borders and the security issues they raise are huge. No solution to the Tuareg issue and the future of Islamist movements (whether linked to al-Qaeda or not) will be possible without cross-border cooperation and security, but that is almost impossible to achieve even if all states were willing to cooperate.  And this then creates all sorts of tangled links between different conflicts.  Islamist fighters from Mali have already been reported as reaching as far as northern Darfur in their search for a new haven.  Northern Darfur borders the Central African Republic, where a peace deal has temporarily ended fighting, but where elements of the rebel movement funded their military campaign through access to gold mines near the border with Darfur.  Resources like this and the possibility of shifting alliances with local groups are another lure for stateless military groups able to traverse borders with ease.

This lack of border controls, security and policing not only lead to major problems for governments (insurgency, smuggling etc) but also for local peoples.  The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony has been pushed out of Uganda and moves between Central African Republic, DR Congo, South Sudan and Uganda killing, looting and abducting people to serve as soldiers, porters or sex slaves.  It survives through these depredations and has now, as have the Janjaweed in Sudan’s Darfur province, moved into the lucrative ivory poaching business.  The LRA and Janjaweed are said to have killed elephants in DRC, CAR and Cameroon and transported the ivory to Sudan for smuggling abroad – so environmental damage can be added to the list of problems caused by weak African borders.

There is clearly no easy, fast or obvious solution to the border issue.  States may have strongmen in charge but they have weak institutions and limited power over remote areas. They cannot police huge borders which are often the focus of conflict, irredentism, separatism and smuggling – especially when they often lack legitimacy in these areas through political and economic policies which marginalize them.  What is necessary is a continent-wide approach to borders, for the African Union to go beyond treating the symptoms of conflict through intervention forces, peacekeeping or attempts at peacemaking and look seriously as the body representing the continent at the long-term future of borders and people constrained, split or made almost stateless by them.  A massive, holistic approach is necessary but sadly the will is lacking, as proved by the way that the African Renaissance and NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) came to nought after the initial fanfare.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teachers at the University of Kent and runs the Africa – News and Analysis ( website.

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10 thoughts on “Africa’s Borders: porous, unprotected and blocking trade and economic development – By Keith Somerville

  1. Pingback: Africa’s Borders: porous, unprotected and blocking trade and economic development | Africa – News and Analysis

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking article – good to draw more attention to these important issues. Cross-border dynamics are a key consideration in the work of Conciliation Resources, an international peacebuilding NGO. There’s much to be learnt from past initiatives – what’s worked and what’s less effective – and we analysed some of these in our Accord series issue 22: ‘Paix sans frontières: building peace across borders’

    Armed conflicts are neither defined nor confined by national borders, so peacebuilding strategies need to ‘think outside the state’ – through regional diplomacy and cross-border civil society networks, and by strengthening the social contract in conflict-prone borderlands.

    While Mali is mentioned in this article, elsewhere in West Africa the Mano River Union region continues to experience post-conflict problems of poor governance and corruption affected people in borderlands. A 20-min docudrama seeks to give a voice to local people’s concerns: We also continue to support local communities affected by the LRA conflict who work to build peace across borders – more info here:

  3. Pingback: Further reading: don’t bank on it | beyondbrics

  4. Keith,

    I applaud you for this article, which raises issues which long have seemed a taboo. But in my opinion, the problem is not so much with the fact that these borders are long or porous. The problem is with the fact that they always were and remain to this day artificial. In other words, the peoples who live in the countries that are defined by these artificial countries feel at best only a very limited loyalty to the country they are supposed to live in. There are other borders thinkable that would make more sense.

    This has always been a taboo subject in the debate about Africa. To a large extent, this is because the changes in borders that took place in Europe since 1880 were only achieved at great cost. Changes to African borders, it is feared, might be just as costly.

    However, we no longer live in 1880 and I believe that a more peaceful change might be possible and very necessary. Contemplate what damage the status quo has done and is still doing – it is time to start to think about an alternative. The first step is to pose the question and to start the debate.

    Your post may be one of the first signs of such a debate starting, and for that I would like to thank you.

    For more information about my ideas on this topic, see .

  5. Thanks for the article, your knowledge on the topic is certainly illuminating.

    Out of interest, how do refugee flows factor in to your analysis? Do you conceptualise them as a problem or an inevitable consequence and how do they affect your interpretation of borders?

  6. Steve, the problems of borders that divide people and borders that are disputed makes the refugee issue an important one. Conflict, drought, famine and fear of persecution all lead to people becoming refugees. The relative openness of borders at least enables refugees to escape what they fear, but it them creates massive problems for the host nation – as in northern Kenya and the way that Hutu extremists prompted a flood of refugees in what was then Zaire and used the refugee camps as bases for incursions into Rwanda. The failure to solve the issue of who was a refugee and who was a fighter was a tough one and was never solved leading to the Hutu role in the suffering of people in eastern Congo and Rwanda’s policy of incursions and support for rebel groups across the porous border there.

  7. I am not sure there is anything new here. This has been widely discussed in undergraduate circles since at least the eighties, and this article does not progress the debate any further. Indeed, the debate has moved on. Aside from resource disputes, which are universal whether the resource is old or new, the discussion now is whether after a century of colonial and post-colonial rule these borders are mutable. Secondly, will the emerging supernational economic zones reduce the importance of national boundaries. Thirdly, with the decline of the age of dictatorships, and with a potential shift to new forms of civic structuring and demographic representation might there be a change in the status quo.

  8. Thank you for the clear analysis – which is much needed. I understand the position of Peter H., though would add the difficulty with ‘knowledge’ of roots and current dynamics of the situation is simply not being used in most of the current news and gov. accounts that I’ve reviewed. Dissemination, most unfortunately, remains amongst a small coterie of persons.

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