Redrawing Colonial Boundaries: Africa in the 21st Century

By Glenn Ashton · 4 Feb 2011

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Picture: USAID Africa Bureau
Picture: USAID Africa Bureau

The borders of Sudan, Africa’s biggest country, are about to change, provided all the players in this grand game stay the distance. This could be the most significant redrawing of the colonial boundaries of Africa since the colonial transition that saw the departure of the European colonial powers, abandoning their "places in the sun."

The partition of Africa into its present illogical and arbitrary boundaries took place just over a century ago, during what is now known as the "scramble for Africa." This colonial divvying up of the continent was decided at the Berlin Conference of 1885-6, where powers of the day – France, England, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium - shared out the spoils of the "dark continent."

These boundaries were arbitrary because they ignored geographical features, tribal distributions, religious beliefs, local sensitivities and historical realities. The consequences were tragic, the result of decisions by distant, uninformed and indifferent colonial overlords.

While Africa had few formal boundaries before the colonial land grab, those that were imposed have since become broadly recognised. Even the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) chose to formally accept these colonial boundaries upon its founding.

Many prominent Africans have railed at this colonial legacy. In response to the tragedy of Rwandan genocide Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said "We should sit down … and redesign the boundaries of African nations." The ongoing death of millions in the Congo can largely be laid at the door of colonial planning. Somali instability can trace its roots to failed attempts at unity and consequent partition. The same goes for the Western Sahara dispute that has dragged on for decades. Much – though not all – of West African instability can be laid at the door of this legacy.

Africa must certainly take some responsibility for its own problems. The pragmatic OAU decision to recognise colonial boundaries supports the argument that Africans must become involved in settling these disputes through its own internal mechanisms. The African Union has established a forum meant to provide clarity in these matters which appears moribund, or at least incapable of enhancing harmony between estranged neighbours.

The almost inevitable partition of Sudan into two nations is a case study in realpolitik, swayed by both historical and contemporary influences. The recent positive referendum in the south is simply another step in the process.

Britain consciously divided the Sudan, which was actually founded by the then Ottoman run Egyptian Caliphate during the late 19th Century, into two sections, determined only along arbitrary lines of latitude. The Muslim Arab population was kept to the north and the primarily animist African population in the south. The blame for the north–south rift in Sudanese history can be found within the twin tinderboxes of religion and ethnicity, which can in turn be laid at the door of those arch-colonisers, the British.

Britain encouraged Christian missionaries in the southern section to counter the spread of Islam from the north. This was reprised in the late twentieth century with an influx of US evangelists which influenced US intervention into the present fray. The role of these recent evangelists was clouded by the malign influence of oil. 

Oil is a well recognised driver of US neo-colonial geopolitics. Significant reserves are located in southern Sudan, as well as along the presently proposed boundary between north and south Sudan. The Chinese also have made significant investments into the Sudanese oilfields. 

Were it not for this notable mineral wealth it is unlikely that half a million people would have died in this benighted and otherwise poor region. The dirty Darfur conflict, where the government backed Janjaweed militia has been blamed for atrocities serious enough to have Sudan President Bashir indicted in The Hague for human rights violations is just one manifestation of how oil – and consequently neo-colonial interests - have impacted the local population. 

All of these influences have conspired to end this colonially hatched conflict. The untimely death of the uniter of south Sudan, John Garang, in a helicopter accident, failed to halt the process. It continues to be propelled by diplomatic and economic pragmatism, led by the major powers like the US and China. The old colonial players remain engaged, as do AU interests, all realising that things just cannot continue as they have.

While a reported 99% of those living in southern Sudan have approved the referendum for partition, its realisation remains elusive. One obstacle is the oil-rich border area of Abyei, where the referendum was postponed because of oil interests and other disputes between nomadic pastoralists and local tribes, which remain largely unresolved. Another is the final agreement and conditionalities required by the Khartoum government to facilitate southern autonomy.

If all of these problems can be ironed out - and there is no real reason that this should not be the case - the division of the vast Sudan (bigger than Spain, France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden combined) has significant ramifications, not only for north and south Sudan but for the entire continent.

French scholar Roland Marchal, a Sudan specialist, sees this partition causing uneasiness for two reasons. Firstly, that boundary inviolability is being challenged and secondly, that this is being engineered under neo-colonial US pressure. Marchal feels that, “this is seen as if it were a Berlin II, with the colonial powers carving up Africa again." He also sees precedent being created for other secessionist movements in the continent.

Is there any reason that other nations cannot be divided? Could the problems in Ivory Coast be solved by partition? What about Nigeria? Perhaps the colonial monster that is the Congo can be broken into more homogenous and manageable sized states?

These suggestions stimulate distinct frission amongst the African – and international - body politic. In reality, change is generally slow to come. The Sudanese north – south divide has bubbled away for at least a century. Equally, local power plays hold the potential of any real change at bay in places like the Congo.

Yet there is another colonial tendril insinuating itself into the continent. This is the neo-colonial thrust pursued by both corporate and private interests, along with various wealthy but food insecure nations. These entities have purchased vast tracts of land across the continent, ostensibly for food production, during the past decade.

Madagascar has seen massive leases by the Korean chaebol Daewoo; Swiss multinational Addax Energy is making biofuels in Sierra Leone. Even in south Sudan New York investment firm Jarch Capital has leased over 1.5 million acres which they claim will create jobs and uplift the local economy. This pattern is repeated around the continent.

So just as one colonial problem appears headed towards resolution, a new (for that is what the prefix ‘neo-’ means) colonial wave, driven by the continued wealth disparities between the global North and South has raised its head, promising a whole new set of consequences and problems. 

It is not that these problems are entirely new. After all, the reformist leader of Egypt, instrumental in annexing and creating Sudan on behalf of the British, was eventually deposed through predatory European lenders calling in their debts and expelling him in order that a more compliant leader could be installed. 

The more things change, the more they remain the same. While the old colonial powers have lost their place in the sun, other emerging, capital rich sun-seekers are repeating history in subtly different ways. Even if boundaries are redrawn, neo-colonial interests will continue to carry significant weight.

African exploitation continues, not just through external influences redrawing the boundaries, but by the continued displacement of Africans through the agency of neo-colonially influenced oligarchs. These are in turn motivated by neo-liberal arguments of efficiency, which argue that Africa has vast tracts of land which are inefficiently utilised. 

The reality is that this is simply a continuation of the enclosure of the commons by the wealthy. The activist Indian Vandana Shiva has predicted this new thrust will create more conflict and political instability by uprooting cultures and impacting local food security. 

It appears we may have embarked on repairing one old problem while simultaneously creating a novel, perhaps even more intractable one. So while Africa shakes itself free of the colonial yoke, neo-colonialism’s malign influence remains as immediate as it has ever been.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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