Border Zone Trade and the Economic Boundaries of the State in North-East Ghana

By Chalfin, Brenda | Africa, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Border Zone Trade and the Economic Boundaries of the State in North-East Ghana


Chalfin, Brenda, Africa


For the concept of society as a closed unit, a sort of thing distinguishable from like things in the same way as one house from another or one animal from another, we must substitute the concept of society as a socio-geographic region. We must substitute a relative and dynamic concept for an absolute and static one. If we look at the area of Voltaic culture as a whole, we can imagine innumerable currents of social life flowing through it in all directions. There are major currents and tributary currents. They intersect in all sorts of ways. [Fortes, 1945: 231]

Focusing on north-east Ghana, the very region where Fortes pursued his work among the Tallensi, this article explores the implications of border zone trade for the institution of state power. Although written over half a century ago to address the issue of ethnic boundaries and stateless societies, Fortes' remarks provide a valuable framework for comprehending the nature of national boundaries at the end of the twentieth century. With Fortes' ideas regarding motion and contingency to the fore, it becomes possible to challenge conceptions of the border as a singular expression of administrative order imposed by state agents and policy mandates--that bold line drawn on a map--and to offer an alternative vision of political efficacy. As the case of north-east Ghana makes clear, border zones are key sites where social actors come to imagine and instantiate state sovereignty in both its regulatory and its territorial dimensions. From this perspective, the border, far from being geographically fixed or functionally stable, can be understood as a site of on-going negotiation between society and the state--a space always `under construction'.

Today the border zone of north-east Ghana, a tri-juncture spanning Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso, is characterised by the extreme mobility of persons and things on the one hand and extreme state surveillance on the other. Numerous layers of state personnel--police, border guards, customs agents and army officers--occupy this site with the aim of regulating trade. The inter-determination of state, society and market occurring here is evident in the patterning of cross-border trade. This article examines the commercial trajectories of three commodities enmeshed in the border zone trading system. Representative of the range of commerce circulating in the area, they are cloth, an industrial manufacture, beans, an agricultural staple, and shea butter, an indigenous manufacture derived from a wild tree crop.

Such an investigation of commodity pathways builds upon Appadurai's assertion that `even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context' (1986: 5, italics original). The approach pursued here develops and departs from Appadurai's insights in two ways: first, by concretising his notion of commodity paths through a focus on the geography of trade, and second, by replacing his notion of politics as any situation of differential interest with a focus on political institutions, namely the state.

Guided by these concerns, an examination of the commercial trajectories of cloth, beans and shea butter makes apparent the central role played by cross-border trade in shaping what may be called 'the economic boundaries of the state', a term encompassing the administrative and geographic reach of the state as well as the spatial organisation of the national economy overall.(1) Despite the tense and temporary coherence of these trading patterns, they establish a modus operandi for state agents stationed at the border. This occurs as border zone traders contravene government restrictions in predictable ways and, in the process, invite the assertion of a limited array of sanctions alongside regular forms of collusion with representatives of the state. Indeed, in a polity where the circulation of state agents is the norm, border officers are especially dependent on local residents to learn the trading conventions of an area, whether or not they are in accord with official policy (Nugent and Asiwaju, 1996: 7). …

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