The Scramble

The international borders of Africa are notoriously contrived.  To quote Martin Meredith in the Introduction to his book The State of Africa:


“The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognito.  When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground.  Nearly one half of the new frontiers imposed on Africa were geometric lines, lines of latitude and longitude, other straight lines, or arcs of circles.  In some cases, African societies were rent apart: the Bakongo were partitioned between French Congo, Belgian Congo, and Portuguese Angola; Somaliland was carved up between Britain, Italy, and France.  In all, the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups.  In other cases, Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language, or religion.  Nigeria, for example, contained as many as 250 ethnolinguistic groups.  Officials sent to the Belgian Congo eventually identified six thousand chiefdoms there.” 


A few sentences later, the author mentions a particularly insidious and damaging effect of the carving up: “Kingdoms that had been historically antagonistic to one another, such as the Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda, were linked into the same colony.  In the Sahel, new territories were established across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south – Sudan, Chad, Nigeria – throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility.” 


For a little meaningful color, he includes a quote from Lord Salisbury, the former Prime Minister of Britain: “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.”


“By the time the Scramble for Africa was over,” the author concludes, “some 10,000 African polities had been amalgamated into forty European colonies and protectorates.”


And, pointedly: “Thus were born the modern states of Africa.” 


Defining dysfunctional states like Congo, Sudan, and Somalia, and promising countries like South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya, these colonial boundaries still exist, and they still confound.


In another remarkable text, John Reader adds explanation and consequence to his description of the Scramble.  The ambitious scope of the work is aptly suggested by its title, Africa: A Biography of the Continent.  The author suggests that “It was Africa’s misfortune…to have been colonized at a time when the concept of the ‘nation state’ was firmly entrenched as a primary determinant of the historical process,” a time when Europe itself was experiencing “convulsions of nation-building.”  The European colonial powers forced the idea of the nation state on their colonies in Africa, no matter how wanton or painful the process.  The effect of this amalgamation of ethnicities into centralized states is clear and tragic more than a century later: “Virtually all the wars that have flared up in Africa since the colonial period have been fought within national boundaries.”


Just as Europeans didn’t know where they were putting Africa’s borders when they put them there, many Africans still don’t know where their borders are today.  Somali refugees often claim that the date they fled from Mogadishu is the date they departed the whole of Somalia, even if they then spent several days, weeks, months, or even years in the country before crossing a recognized international border.  Oddly, however, Somalis in the refugee camps near Dadaab, firmly and deeply inside of Kenya, often believe that they are still living in Somalia.  Similarly, Somali refugees in the camps of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia make the same claim, that they are, to this day, in Somalia.  Without realizing their error or their wisdom, the refugees are making a fair and legitimate point.  Northeastern Province in Kenya and Ogaden Province in Ethiopia are almost entirely Somali.  The whole of Djibouti, tiny though it may be, is Somali.  It is understandable that Somali refugees in these familiar communities might not realize that they are no longer in Somalia itself.  Ethnically, they are still in Somali lands, even if politically they are in Kenya or Ethiopia or Djibouti.


Refugees from Rwanda make the same mistake when describing their escape to Tanzania in 1994.  Almost all of them say that they left Rwanda one day, crossing the international border at Rusumo which leads only and inevitably to Tanzania, yet, they say, they arrived in Tanzania a few weeks later.  Comically, and annoyingly, they are unable to say exactly where they were in between.  It is impossible to convince them that the day they leave one country is necessarily the day they enter the next country.  It is impossible to convince them that the day they left their hometown is not the day they left the entirety of Rwanda.  On the other side of the border, it is impossible to convince them that they day they finally settled in a refugee camp is not the same as the day they entered the country.  It would seem that in their minds, time spent traveling is time spent neither here nor there.  With all of Africa’s nomads and rebels and refugees and migrants, at any given moment a vast number of people would seem to be nowhere at all.


The creation of Eritrea is the only reconfiguration of the political map of Africa since the independence era.  Previously, it was the northernmost province of Ethiopia.  For decades, rebels in Eritrea and Ethiopia fought simultaneous and occasionally coordinated wars to overthrow a Marxist regime in Addis Ababa known popularly as the Dergue.  They were finally victorious in 1991, at which time the new government in Ethiopia granted a friendly and congratulatory independence to its rebel allies in Eritrea.  It was a remarkable concession on the part of Ethiopia, which immediately and voluntarily became the most populous landlocked country in the world.


The African Union strongly discourages any alterations to the political map of the continent.  African politicians like to say the policy is meant to minimize ethnic warfare by discouraging any hope in the outcome.  The unspoken and more ulterior reason is that the Big Men of Africa and their tribal cronies are always seeking to protect their own personal fiefdoms.  They rightly worry that the next region to secede might be the one which contains that valuable diamond, bauxite, or cobalt mine.  Though their motives are selfish, it is possible that their policy to maintain the status quo in Africa is the best of the options.  It took former allies Ethiopia and Eritrea all of six years to crash back into what became the most militarized war in the history of Africa.  Another war along their border is generally considered to be inevitable.


Though colonial capriciousness created the problem, the larger concern today is that governments in Africa view their borders as little more than a delineation of the spoils – my fence contains that which is for me to plunder as opposed to that which is for my neighbor to plunder.  There is little sense of responsibility for the people who live inside these borders.  It is for this reason that ethnicities take to war.  It is not because certain tribes are unwilling to live within the same international border as certain other tribes; it is because throughout Africa certain tribes are perceived to be reaping all the benefits of government and economy, happily leaving nothing for certain other tribes.  Governments not only allow this, they facilitate it.


Blame it on destructive European colonizers, blame it on corrupt African politicians, or just blame it on greed: like an egg, Africa got Scrambled.