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The border-making process in Africa

Published on 16 October 2012
Updated on 04 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

When I first mentioned to a diplomatic friend my intention of writing a blog entry on ‘diplomats without borders’, I was met with incredulity. ‘Diplomats are the peacetime gate keepers at the border! You can’t have diplomats without borders.’

Are borders ‘vital’?

An interesting question, and one which is worth a short visit to Africa and its history, for Africa emerged from its past without borders. Ahmood Mamdani, of Makerere University and Harvard, has written an interesting and arresting analysis of the border-making process in Africa titled What is a tribe?. As the article is not in the public domain, I’ll quote extensively here.

Mamdani writes, ‘Unlike Europe, precolonial Africa did not have a history of the absolutist state: authorities were always in the plural, legislating conventions in various domains of social life – clan committees, women’s groups, age cohorts, craft guilds and so on.’1 Mamdani is correct: acephalous social structures, i.e. without kings and high priests, prevailed in Africa until first contact with ‘absolutist’ civilizations.

Africa -  Ethnic Homelands
and National Borders
Left: Spatial distribution of African ethnicities at the time of the European colonisation in the late 19th and early 20th century. Right: Ethnic homelands and national borders. (National Bureau of Economic Research)

Let’s look at the inland Niger delta. The ecology of the place is so complex that specialisation was necessary for survival – fishermen, herders, and cultivators lived next to each other, relying on obligatory cooperation. City-like settlements emerged. Such ‘complexified’ settlements had no delineated borders. Did it work out? The outcome over such a length of time may be surprising. As John Reader wrote in Africa: A Biography of the Continent: ‘What distinguishes the delta throughout its 1,600 years of archeologically recorded history is not the frequency of conflict, but the maintenance of peaceful and reciprocal relations.’

When the coloniser arrives

Now back to Mamdani: the coloniser has arrived, and having ‘acquired’ a colony, the colonial power went on to ‘distinguished the West from the non-West, universal civilisation from local custom and, crucially, the settler from the native, thereby laying the groundwork for a theory of nativism. […] The result was a reinvention of “the native”, whose agency and legal personality would henceforth be regarded as tribal by colonial scholarship and determined as such by colonial power. Tribalism is reified ethnicity. […] Native tradition, it followed, was a triumph of locality over time.’ The main preoccupation of the occupier was spatial organisation (national and regional borders), and consensual shifting of locality was replaced by fixity.2

Just as ethnicity was reified, so custom was reified into law. ‘Law was central to the management and reproduction of difference: the identities of colonised societies were not simply consensual (traditional), they were also enforced from above. In this sense law was not external to consensus, but an instrument with which to shape it. […] A system of internal discrimination came into existence, enforced by the state, which nonetheless claimed the mantle of tradition. The colonised majority was effectively fragmented into so many administratively driven political minorities. In Africa, the political minority was called “the tribe”.’

French caricature (from 1885) German chancelor Bismarck divides the African continent among the colonial powers.
French caricature (from 1885) German chancelor Bismarck divides the African continent among the colonial powers.

Traditions were ‘invented’, as in Europe3, and ‘the colonial state became both the custodian and the enforcer of tradition. In this sense, colonialism enacted one of the first “fundamentalisms” of the modern period, advancing the proposition that every colonised group had an original and pure tradition, whether religious or ethnic, and should return to that condition as a matter of course or be obliged to do so by law.’

‘The native tribal identity conferred three distinct privileges unavailable to the non-native. The first was right of access to land. The second was the right to participate in the administration of the native authority. Chiefs in the native authority could only be appointed from among those identified as native to the tribal homeland. (It was only at the lowest level of administration – the lowest tier of the native authority – that one could find village headmen from resident non-native tribes.) The third pertained to the settlement of disputes, which every native authority approached on the basis of “customary laws” that favored natives over non-natives.

This regime of inequality between supposedly original residents and subsequent immigrants led to mono-tribal administrations ruling over multi-tribal societies. […] One distinctive feature of the colonial experiment was that the native authority system tended to widen inequalities between peasant and pastoralist tribes, creating a three-tier society of peasants, semi-nomads and nomads.’

The problem of ‘borders’ was born on a continent where, at the time, borders had little meaning or were maladaptive to the local ecology. Mamdani goes on to apply this analytical framework to Darfur. Others, like Gérard Prunier in his book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, have applied it to Rwanda. The foreign-initiated imposition of order and border reverberates well after the colonial powers have left – with horrific consequences.

Borders are not a historical inevitability

We might want to reflect on the conjecture that borders are not so much a ‘historical inevitability’, as the necessity for the absolutist state to administer its empire (or witness to its inability to manage its relations with neighboring powers).

The Peace of Augsburg (1555) and then the Peace of Westphalia (1648) were all about the delineation of the geographical limits of external coercion: the border was the boundary delimitating the internal and external fields of force. This boundary was physically protected by the army, and administered by diplomacy. The diplomat was in a sense the ‘peacetime keeper of the gate’ who would determine which, and under what conditions, external ‘interferences’ would be allowed to constrain the state (mostly on reciprocity).

Borders were the bulwark of the autocratic state’s absolute autonomy and the diplomat its agent. The question is whether ‘absolute autonomy’ of the state is still a viable construct in making the social world under today’s globalised conditions.

There are no borders in a village, though extended families and clans may have separate and shifting spheres of influence, which facilitate communal undertakings – not unlike the complexification of the Niger river delta. So what is the new role of the diplomat in a global village? This will be subject of my next blog entry.

1.  I would not have used the term ‘legislating’ which denotes fixity and principled coherence. It is a term that signifies ‘reification’, when traditions were ‘living’, and no more than general directions for action, which framed its ‘consensual’ application in accordance with circumstance. See Frederick M. Bailey’s book The Witch-Hunt: Or, the Triumph of Morality.

2. In other areas of Africa, with ample land compared to population, shifting cultivation was the preferred pattern of production because it yielded the highest return on effort (rather than surface). Consensual shifting of ethnic groups over the savannah allowed them not only to reap good yields over time while sustaining a complex social system, but was also the best available collective defense against sleeping sickness. See John Ford’s The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology : A Study of the Tsetse Fly Problem.

3. The literature on the invention of communities is huge. For simplicity sake, I’ll quote Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, as well as The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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