A Question of Boundaries: Political Divisions and the African Union

By Ford, Neil | African Business, September 2001 | Go to article overview

A Question of Boundaries: Political Divisions and the African Union


Ford, Neil, African Business


Africa has been dogged by border disputes both on land and, increasingly so, over maritime boundaries. Will the AU act as a more cohesive agent than the OAU was?

It is common knowledge that economic development in Africa is pitifully slow and geographically disjointed. The continent attracts less inward investment per head than anywhere else in the world, while most African states continue to trade more actively with their former colonial rulers than with their neighbours. There are many reasons for this, but cross-border political instability and boundary disputes are undoubtedly a major factors.

This was recognised by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as the continent's most pressing problem, when it was founded in 1963. As its first act, the OAU chose to guarantee the territorial sovereignty of its member states, in an attempt to avert the disorder that a realignment of Africa's boundaries would surely have prompted. Four decades on, and for better or for worse, the continent's boundaries remain virtually unchanged.

While the boundaries are the same, they remain obstacles to trade but not to conflict. One of the greatest challenges facing the new African Union (AU) will be to maintain the internal and external sovereignty of its member states. While the plans for a continental central bank and parliament may be welcomed, the real challenge for the new organisation will be to bring stability to the most troubled of continents.

A continent divided

The main problem with African international boundaries is that the very notion of dividing territory with lines was imposed on the continent just over a century ago. The concept of linear boundaries did exist in Africa before partition, but it was merely one of a number of ways of dividing political space.

In general, African pre-colonial polities were far more fluid than European states. In order to cope with the harsh natural environment, flexibility proved to be a far more effective method of political organisation than fixed Western-style states. Where drought or disease struck one ethnic group, a state of any size was able to contract or even move itself wholesale. Political authority tended to follow trade routes, as with the Swahili in East Africa, and sovereignty was invested in people rather than land.

The colonial division of Africa removed this flexibility and eventually led to the creation of almost 50 new African states, which were defined by fixed international boundaries. All such constructs are intrinsically artificial, but as the political map of Africa is relatively recent, those stresses and strains are bound to exert themselves in international relations. Europe realigned its borders again and again over the centuries, working out these stresses and strains, but at a terrible cost in human lives.

Investment difficulties

Partly in order to avoid such bloodshed and partly to protect their own positions, African leaders agreed at the dawn of independence to maintain the existing colonial boundaries. This they have done - with one or two notable examples - but this has not prevented disputes between neighbouring states. The often haphazard way in which the boundaries have been delineated and demarcated helps create an environment in which border disputes are bound to arise.

As a result of poorly delineated boundaries, mining investors, for example, may sign an agreement with one government - sometimes with the government in question acting in good faith - only to discover that the exploration rights lie in another territory. Contradictory agreements have been signed over many of Africa's international boundaries, so it is difficult to determine the rights and wrongs of every case without an exhaustive legal study of the borderland.

One of the industries most prone to boundary disputes is the oil and gas sector. Much of the Gulf of Guinea oil industry is located offshore and is therefore be considered comparatively sheltered from the vagaries of African international politics. …

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