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The Stability of African Borders and its Meaning for the Strength or Weakness of African States

Essay 2018 7 Seiten

Afrikawissenschaften - Kultur und Landeskunde



Are borders in Africa borders for Africa?

The strengths of African states

The weaknesses of African states

International dependencies



Does the stability of African borders since independence reflect the strength or weakness of African states?

Spatial boundaries have ambiguous features: they divide and unite, bind the interior and link it with the exterior, are barriers and junctions, walls and doors, organs of defence and attack, and so on.

Figure 1: Africa’s borders were chartered before World War I

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This famous quote from Strassoldo (1989: 393) astutely illustrates the contrasting functions of boundaries.1 What he fails to highlight, however, is the multitude of factors that can be considered to demarcate one country from another. The final choice of borders can therefore appear arbitrary when they are vastly neglected.A prime example of arbitrary borders, inherited by the former colonizers who neglected many social and natural factors during their drawing, is Africa2 (Herbst 1989: 674). Nevertheless, since the late 1800’s its arbitrary borders remained virtually untouched (Ibid.: 673) and are still recognizable today, as Figure 1 (World Bank 2009: 284) demonstrates.

More than five decades ago, when most African states gained their independence, the appearance of strikingly stable, arbitrary African borders was already recognized (Kapil 1966: 662-663). One might weigh to what extent this reflects either the strength or weakness of African states. In this essay, however, I argue that one must go beyond this dichotomy and, in addition, consider the crucial factor of international dependencies. For this purpose, I will first shed light on the role of borders in Africa. Before examining the role of international dependencies, the discussion will consider arguments for certain strengths and weaknesses of African states. The essay briefly concludes with an outlook on the stability of African borders.

Are borders in Africa borders for Africa?

In Africa as elsewhere, borders are a relatively new phenomenon of how societies define their territory. It can be assumed that in precolonial Africa the concept of boundaries, understood as precisely defined lines of demarcation, were completely unknown: states were rather separated by zones of varying width (Akinyele 2008: 259). These kinds of boundaries showed how far states could extend their power and were therefore constantly changing. In the colonial epoch, however, this understanding was replaced by the belief of rulers how far their power should be extended (Herbst 2000: 252).

In essence, Africa’s colonial borders were drawn to demarcate the colonising states’ competing spheres of authority (Nugent and Asiwaju 1996a: 2). This was the main concern of the Berlin Congo Conference which set a precedent regarding the exclusion of other states’ interferences (Herbst 1989: 683-685). Drawing on empirical evidence this can be further consolidated: In the early 1960’s, 44% of all African borders had the shape of parallels and meridians, further 30% were straight or other mathematical lines and only 26% considered topographical features (Barbour 1961: 305). Consequently, it seems obvious that the interests of ethnic and linguistic groups were almost not considered and hence the borders appear arbitrary – not only for the directly affected.

Some scholars argue, in contrast, that for both colonial and postcolonial leaders the present boundary system was a rational response to the continent’s constraints (Herbst 1989: 673). Whilst precolonial African states were neither in need nor capable of ruling large territories due to their low population density and levels of technology (Englebert, Tarango and Carter 2002: 1095), in the colonial epoch larger states were constructed in areas with low trade and population density to save costs (Green 2012: 229). Instead of saving costs, however, some African states paid a high price for maintaining the colonial borders in terms of weakened internal sovereignty and political stability (Englebert, Tarango and Carter 2002).

The strengths of African states

Despite these findings ‘ the African [ state ] model […] is dramatically at odds with traditional western accounts of state-building ’ (Herbst 2000: 272). What then, can explain the stability of Africa’s borders?

Firstly, it can be argued that the Organization for African Unity (OAU), since the 1960s, has played a crucial role in consolidating young postcolonial states. The OAU not only recognized the sovereignty and territorial integrity over the former colonial boundaries in its Charter and Resolution 16 (1), it also established mechanisms to preserve the existing colonial borders (Herbst 1989: 687-689). The latter principle, also known as ‘ uti possidetis ’, was and still is continuously applied by the international society, ‘ whether its origin was lawful or not ’ (Allott 1969: 17), and thus externally strengthened these states as well.

The young postcolonial states were further strengthened by ambitions of the United Nations to maintain their independence (Jackson and Rosberg 1986: 2) and by the increasing attention of the superpowers during the Cold War. Although their relationship was mainly characterized by both the US’ and the Soviet Union’s neglect of Africa, this has radically changed since the late 1960’s. Within only ten years, the annual average value of weapons imported was skyrocketing from some $150 million to the peak of $2,500 million (Clapham 1996: 153), strengthening the military of the importing countries vastly in the short term (Ibid.: 155).

Lastly, identity is another factor that helps strengthen a state and hence stabilize its borders. When examining identity, it is striking to consider that most African nations were created by boundaries rather than creating the boundaries themselves (Clapham 1999: 54). Since nation-building must be understood as an ongoing process, it can be argued that identities were already shaped before independence (Nugent and Asiwaju 1996a: 9). Following independence, national currencies and citizenship regulations increased the salience of boundaries (Herbst 2000: 252) and strengthened the feeling of belonging to a state by acting as active agents of boundary reproduction (Englebert and Dunn 2013: 58). Finally, boundaries can even lose their reputation as being ‘artificial’ due to shared historical experiences (Clapham 1999: 62) and consequently demarcate mental spaces (Englebert and Dunn 2013: 10), thereby creating a common identity in turn.

The weaknesses of African states

So far, I have argued that African borders are stable due to several reasons that strengthened national states. In this section, however, I will argue that their stability also stems from conflicting interests among different actors.

First, to stay on the state level, ‘ secessionist conflicts ’ – understood as ‘[ acts ] of demand by a group for sovereignty over a territory’ (Englebert and Hummel 2005: 403) – are an important type of inner-state conflicts in Africa. On the one hand, between the 1960s and 2005 only ten out of 48 states experienced a secessionist conflict. On the other hand, until 2014 their number increased further, as Table 1 shows (Williams 2016: 146). Moreover, their relative rarity (Englebert and Hummel 2005: 399) needs to be seen in the context that it is partially the result of the comparatively much higher frequency of other forms of conflict (Ibid.: 402).

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Table 1: Africa’s secessionist conflicts, 1990-2014

This includes territorial conflicts as an extremely common form in Africa (Englebert, Tarango and Carter 2002). Between 1960 and 1999 57% of all cases of territorial dispute brought to the International Court of Justice were from Africa, although only 33% of all bilateral boundaries lay there. Of these cases, 34 were border disputes, overall involving two thirds of all African countries (Ibid.: 1101). The constant presence of both secessionist and territorial conflicts speaks for the weakness of African states rather than their strength. Similar arguments can be made for interstate wars which, although mainly minor and brief, most often arose from territorial and cross-border issues (Department for International Development 2006: 6).

Finally, in weak but internationally recognized states, elites face multiple incentives to exploit state resources and can therefore be assumed to have an interest in stable borders (Englebert and Hummel 2005: 411-415). From the very beginning of independence, African leaders claimed that maintaining the colonial borders would be the only possibility (Herbst 1989: 676). Due to their insecure positions and the strong international norms of territorial integrity and uti possidetis, preserving these borders were in the leaders’ interests and not necessarily in those of the population (Ibid.: 690). Lastly, to refer back to the increase in armament since the late 1960’s, in the short-term they made African rulers proceed even faster with establishing a monopoly state. In the long-term, these armaments weakened their states instead of strengthening them (Clapham 1996: 156).

International dependencies

So far, this essay has repeatedly highlighted the point that it was not solely on the African states to make the decision as to whether they want to preserve their inherited borders. On the individual level, one might argue, the borders have little impact on citizen’s day-to-day lives (Griffiths 1996, Nugent and Asiwaju 1996b, Gberie 2005). On the state level, however, the redrawing of borders is subject to numerous restrictions.

Firstly, by accepting their inherited colonial borders, African states had the guarantee of being internationally recognized as sovereign states – an active rather than passive instrument of international relations (Anonymous 2002: 247). This is crucial to receive larger international support, to stop exterior powers from interfering in a state’s internal affairs and to secure more international influence. Moreover, international recognition facilitates foreign direct investments and allows regimes to receive official development assistance in the first place (Englebert and Hummel 2005: 411-415).

The international recognition of African states, in turn, relied on the maintenance of the principle of ‘ juridical statehood ’ (Jackson and Rosberg 1982: 12). This allowed African rulers to ‘[ acquire ] rights of sovereignty regardless of the political or socio-economic conditions or prospects of the colonies they inherited’ (Jackson and Rosberg 1986: 9). While juridical statehood has been constant in Africa, ‘ empirical statehood ’, understood as ‘ independent political structure of sufficient authority and power to govern a defined territory and its population ’ (Jackson and Rosberg 1986: 1), is highly variable (Jackson and Rosberg 1982: 3). Thus, the authors conclude that juridical statehood was much more important than its empirical counterpart for the stability of African states (Ibid.: 21). Furthermore, in some cases such as Zaire, the enforcement of juridical statehood by the international society may have even undermined attempts to achieve empirical statehood (Ibid.: 22).

Thirdly, it can be argued that the right to self-determination was gradually replaced by uti possidetis as dominant doctrine, both by the OAU and the international society (Rudincová 2017, Herbst 1989, Herbst 2000) and thus lowered the probability of international recognition for new emerging states. Although Eritrea (1993) and South Sudan (2011) gained independence and international recognition, others such as Somaliland did not – although it fulfils all criteria of the Montevideo Convention as one of the best known minimalist definitions for what ‘states’ are and achieved further state-like targets (Rudincová 2017: 187-188).


In this essay I argued that it is not sufficient to discuss reasons for the stability of African borders only in terms of their strength or weakness. Instead, one also needs to consider the importance of international dependencies as a factor influencing both. Since the arguments presented here are located on different levels of analysis, the following can be derived: The stability of Africa’s borders results from the interaction of certain strengths and weaknesses of the state as well as international dependencies.

Nevertheless, it appears that the weaknesses of African states in interaction with international dependencies are more important for explaining the relatively stable borders than the states’ strength itself, especially since the latter was mainly externally maintained. Finally, current secessionist movements in South-East Nigeria and the nearby anglophone region of Cameroon (Iyare and Essomba 2017) let us infer that borders and the feeling of belonging to a state are fluid concepts, whose legitimacy is often and repeatedly under scrutiny.


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1 The terms ‘ boundaries ’ and ‘ borders ’ will be used synonymously, despite their etymological differences, depending on each referred publication.

2 What is nowadays uniformly called ‚ Sub-Sahara Africa ’ earlier had different names (e.g. Jackson and Rosberg 1982, Kapil 1966: 661; Barbour 1961). For that reason, ‘ Africa ’ will be used alternatively.


Institution / Hochschule
University of Edinburgh – School of Social and Political Sciences
Borders Colonialism state stability




Titel: The Stability of African Borders and its Meaning for the Strength or Weakness of African States