Bordering on War

The clear marking of boundaries between African nations can help prevent costly and debilitating border conflicts.

Observers of African history and politics have long decried the "artificial" nature of African borders, arguing that such boundaries are a source of constant tension, even war. In his 1992 work The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, historian Basil Davidson argued that "colonial partition had inserted the continent into a framework of purely artificial and often positively harmful frontiers." Yet, almost all boundaries are in some sense artificial, with the straight-line U.S.-Canadian border a particularly striking example. The problem in Africa is not so much the nature of the lines but rather their uncertainty on the ground. Disputes over the physical location of boundaries often catalyze violent conflict. Indeed, had boundary demarcation taken place, debilitating border wars between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Mali and Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania, and Nigeria and Cameroon would have been much less likely to break out.

History shows that boundaries tend to be more stable when they cross low-population areas and thus divide fewer people; that is why mountain ranges and their crests make better boundaries than rivers, which are often the arteries of populous economic regions. Only a small percentage of Africa’s boundaries follow crest lines because the continent’s mountains tend to come in clusters rather than ridges. Perhaps as few as a fifth of all boundaries on the continent run across sparsely populated deserts without obvious geographic features, so stable divisions are provided by the most unnatural of boundaries: straight (geometric) lines. Many other borders, such as the one dividing Rwanda and Burundi, follow precolonial political divisions. In most cases (including Rwanda and Burundi), ethnic groups intermingle, and a boundary that includes all of one group also includes portions of many others.

However, given the colonial origins of most African boundaries, they are artificial in that one narrow, yet important, sense. The challenge for Africa today is to "Africanize," and thus legitimize, its existing boundaries. World history knows only two means to legitimize borders: military force or diplomatic negotiations.

The military path has not worked well in Africa. Countries in the region have gone to war over their boundaries many times: Conflict erupted between Morocco and Algeria, Dahomey (Benin) and Niger, and Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1960s; Uganda and Tanzania and again Ethiopia and Somalia in the late 1970s; Chad and Libya in the early 1980s; Senegal and Mauritania in the late 1980s; and Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Mali and Burkina Faso fought border wars at different times during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, while Nigeria and Cameroon warred over boundaries in the 1960s and 1980s. None of these wars resulted in changed boundaries.

Border diplomacy between African states has fared somewhat better. Multilateral efforts began in 1963 with Article III of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Charter, which made territorial integrity a basic norm of inter-African relations. The OAU reinforced this position the following year with the Cairo Resolution, reaffirming the blanket acceptance of inherited colonial boundaries. Some countries made bilateral agreements reaffirming their existing lines; in rare cases pairs of countries rectified their borders slightly (Mali and Mauritania in 1963) or established a line where there was none (Morocco and Algeria in 1972) in order to fit the realities of human geography.

However praiseworthy, such diplomatic efforts mean little until the borders are in fact marked on the ground — until actual demarcation occurs. Three decades ago, four out of every ten African boundaries were defined on paper but not demarcated in practice. Most of these borders separated states previously under the same former colonial ruler, so demarcation had been considered unnecessary. Since then, some of those lines were demarcated while relations were good to reduce the danger of future conflict. For example, Algeria has made it a policy to demarcate its lines with its neighbors — especially across the difficult terrain of the Sahara — and has had no wars with its newly demarcated neighbors. The rest of Africa should follow Algeria’s example and attempt to settle border issues during times of relative stability. The United States and the United Nations General Assembly can help by urging the OAU to declare a Year of Boundary Demarcation in Africa. Developed countries and multilateral agencies should offer technical assistance — such as surveying equipment and satellite technology — where necessary to help get the job done. Last March, the United Nations Security Council extended the peacekeeping mandate of the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea by an additional six months, into September 2001. The council’s resolution explicitly linked the extension to "the completion of the process of delimitation and demarcation of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, which is a key element of the peace process."

Those who lament the artificiality of Africa’s boundaries have never proposed a more "natural" alternative. Even if new states appear — as was the case with the emergence of Eritrea in 1993 — the boundary question is likely to endure. Indeed, the 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was absolutely predictable, given the undemarcated nature of their shared boundary. It is just as certain that Sudan and Southern Sudan will have a border conflict if Southern Sudan becomes independent without first settling and marking its territorial limits.

Demarcating borders alone will not prevent conflicts in Africa. Indeed, with many boundaries cutting across populated areas where people travel and trade, demarcation that results in excessive fortification could spark renewed hostilities. But even in regions where nations are pursuing integrationist projects, such as Western Europe, the process of integration would have been impossible without the prior existence of distinct and mutually recognized lines on the ground. By establishing clearly marked yet permeable borders, African governments can reduce the likelihood that low-level human activity across borders will provoke high-level conflict between states. Good fences — with gates — make good neighbors.

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