Muammar al-Qaddafi isn’t exactly known for brilliant ideas on maximising political justice. His own country, Libya, is essentially his private fiefdom.
But a few weeks ago, he had a pretty good one: to partition Nigeria, “the giant of Africa,” as he called it, in half. Religious violence along the border between the country’s north and south seemed to have drawn a pretty clear battle line; Nigeria’s massive and diverse population seemed to warrant separate states.
After years of watching this oil-rich country of 150 million struggle to manage its obvious divides, Qaddafi just gave voice to what others must have been thinking: Time to split Nigeria up.
But in Africa, the declaration fell on deaf ears. Nigeria recalled the Libyan ambassador and firmly rejected the idea. Even for a continent accustomed to Qaddafi’s antics, this time the Libyan leader went too far.
Talking about redrawing continental borders — which are today almost exactly as they were at the time of Independence 50 years ago — is something of a cardinal sin. But Qaddafi did not exactly repent. He had misspoken, he said: Nigeria should not be split in two, but perhaps into three or even four nations.
Silence about borders has become Africa’s pathology, born in the era of strongman leaders that followed decolonialisation.
Loathe to lose any of their newly independent land, the continent’s leaders upheld a gentleman’s agreement to favour “stability” over change.
Today, the unfortunate result is visible in nearly every corner of Africa: from a divided Nigeria, to an ungovernable Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to the very real but unrecognised state in Somaliland.
Borders created through some combination of ignorance and malice are today one of the continent’s major barriers to building strong, competent states.
No initiative would do more for happiness, stability, and economic growth in Africa today than an energetic and enlightened redrawing of these harmful lines.
Like it or not, talk of a new map is echoing around Africa today for one very clear reason: Sudan, the continent’s largest country by landmass, is scheduled to hold a referendum vote next January, in which the people of the country’s autonomous south could decide to secede. Many see the prospect of instability.
Yet there is no better time to rethink the tangled issue of African borders. If it works in Sudan, perhaps other countries should follow.
In fact, many thought the borders would change back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African nations broke free from colonial rule.
“An aversion to the international borders drawn by the colonial powers, if not their complete rejection, has been a consistent theme of anticolonial nationalism in Africa,” wrote the scholar Saadi Touval in 1967.
He went further: “The borders are blamed for the disappearance of a unity which supposedly existed in Africa in precolonial times; they are regarded as arbitrarily imposed, artificial barriers separating people of the same stock, and they are said to have balkanised Africa.
The borders are considered to be one of the humiliating legacies of colonialism, which, according to this view, independent Africa ought to abolish.”
Yet by the time Touval published those words, alienation toward colonial borders had given way to their embrace.
In 1964, the Organisation of African Unity decided that sticking with inherited borders promoted “stability.”
Faced with a secession attempt by the oil-rich and Igbo-dominated region of “Biafra,” Nigeria stuck with the old map, brutally putting down the revolt three years later.
At a cost of one million lives, the Biafrans were defeated, and Nigeria — a nation the British stitched together out of three distinct “administrative” pieces only in the 1950s — was made whole again.
That fidelity to colonial-era borders coexisted with the emergence of dictatorships in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
Governments on the continent were failing to deliver even basic services, preferring to behave as vampire states that preyed burdensomely on their own people, none of whom they wanted to let out of their territorial grasp.
To be sure, there were a few cracks. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, leaving both countries militarised along their new, grudgingly accepted borders.
Other minor adjustments here and there also took place, but the creation of Eritrea is the only major change in African borders since they were drawn by colonial powers a century and a half ago.
The result has been conflict, which often looks ethnic but is really all about territorial control.
Borders in Africa don’t come close to following tribal lines, splitting some groups up and artificially joining others together.
The Ewe of Togo would surely rather be united with the millions more of their people living across the border in Ghana.
The Igbo in Nigeria continue to dream of their own nation — novelist Chinua Achebe, openly proclaiming that his ethnic group is no less deserving than Swedes or Danes of their own nation-state.
Rethinking the borders could go far in quelling some of these conflicts. Countries could finally be framed around the de facto geography of ethnic groups.
The new states could use their local languages rather than favouring another ethnicity’s or colonial power’s tongue. Rebel secessionist movements would all but disappear, and democracy could flourish more easily when based upon policies, rather than simple identity politics.
On top of that, new states based on ethnic lines would by default be smaller, more compact, and more manageable for governments on a continent with a history of state weakness.
Many of these concerns are valid. But the redrawing of Africa may happen whether we will it or not.
Next year’s vote in Sudan could finally put to pasture the acceptance of African borders as unchangeable — and put the engineering of new African states at the top of the international agenda.
Qaddafi was crazy enough to tackle the issue head on. Now who will be brave enough to be next?
Foreign Policy Magazine