East Africa in 2050: Nations will die, new borders will emerge

Sunday December 18 2011

Borders are likely to be remade out of a dire need to survive. Countries threatened with extinction because they have run out of water or energy, will have little choice but to attack those that have a lot of it – and secure future supplies through conquest.

Borders are likely to be remade out of a dire need to survive. Countries threatened with extinction because they have run out of water or energy, will have little choice but to attack those that have a lot of it – and secure future supplies through conquest. 


The wider East African region is special – and even notorious – in Africa. In the past 18 years it has produced more new or wanna-be-new nations than all of Africa combined. In 1993 Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed a mutual and happy divorce. The good vibes didn’t last; they became bitter enemies and fought after it happened.

In 1991, after the Siad Barre regime was overthrown, Somalia plunged into chaos. A few years later Puntland hived itself off as a semi-independent nation. Somaliland too jumped ship. Unlike Puntland, which is open to joining a future, peaceful Somalia federation or confederation, Somaliland is determined to be independent.

In February this year, South Sudan voted by nearly 100 per cent to secede from Sudan, and in July formally became Africa’s newest country. That is four major border remakes in less than 20 years. How many new countries have arisen in the rest of Africa as a result of a break-up of existing countries (Saharawi Republic doesn’t count)? ZERO!! Precisely because secessionist and breakaway demons roam the wider East Africa, the feeling is that over the next 20 to 50 years, we shall see more nations breaking up or being swallowed as others grow.

For anyone interested in the future borders of what is sometimes called the Greater Horn of Eastern Africa (GHEA) – comprising Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo – two studies are recommended. The first is a popular piece of work “Fluid Borders: Integration, Federation, and Fragmentation”, by the Society for International Development (SID) which was published in its journal Greater Horn of Eastern Africa Outlook (November 2010).

The second was by one of Africa’s leading border experts, Wafula Okumu, who now works with the African Union’s Border Programme. His “Resources and borders disputes in Eastern Africa”, published in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies is a fascinating look at how Africa’s borders were made. Okumu argues that contrary to the dominant view, not all colonial borders were arbitrarily drawn. There was a lot of logic to the madness. Colonial powers, according to Okumu, drew borders on the basis of some cold logic; to secure known mineral wealth, and to control rivers and lakes – one reason why natural features became border makers.

Secondly, he argues, after the British were routed in the Second Anglo-Boer war, they studied the reasons for their defeat and reached the kind of conclusion African generals and politicians wouldn’t – they lost because of the poor quality and lack of detailed maps for the British military. They formed the Colonial Survey Committee to draw up maps of Africa – and the exercise was largely done by the military. “To the military, a map of features could be more important than a detailed and accurate demarcation of a boundary,” he writes. But one of the most eye-popping gems in the articles, is the citation that, “For all of Africa, only 200,000 square miles of territory had been surveyed in detail by 1914, when some 3.8 million square miles remained unexplored by Europeans.”

I’ll dwell on two of the many implications that can be drawn from this. First, because the focus of colonial borders was more on dividing up mineral and natural resources, it can be expected that future border conflicts in Africa – as both the GHEA Outlook and Okumu note – will come from disputes over resources. Secondly, because most African borders were based on a military and resource logic, not much social engineering went into them. We can confidently predict, therefore, that a future cultural remake of our borders is inevitable.

There is, for example, talk among Luo revivalist nationalists in northern Uganda, northeast DR Congo, South Sudan (and indeed Kenya) of the re-creation of a greater Lado Republic (in 1912 the Lado Enclave stretched from Sudan to a large part of northern Uganda). This would see bits of northern and northeastern Uganda and South Sudan forming a big Luo nation.

In Rwanda during the war that eventually ended after the 1994 genocide, in which over one million people were killed, at one point there were Tutsi hardline purists in the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front who were pushing for a “two-state” solution; a Tutsi one in the east, where they would never have to endure torment by the majority Hutu, and a Hutu one in the rest of the country. The idea was eventually discredited. In Kenya, apart from the Somali secessionists in the northeast, in more recent times a secessionist movement has emerged in the Coast. This would be a kind of Swahili-Arab East African Republic that, according to some of its militant advocates, would include Zanzibar Island – which would swim away from mainland Tanzania.

There was a time when Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was wont to talk about an East and Central African mega state built on the basis of “Bantu commonality”.

One country that must be lucky to still be in one piece is DR Congo. Ten years ago there was a real fear that the vast and rich, but thinly and badly governed country, would be carved up into at least three. One, to the southeast, would be a Rwanda dominion, probably controlled by the Banyamulenge. The other to the east would be run by a Ugandan puppet regime. And the West would be left to the dominant Kinshasa elite.

On the other hand, closer home, Tanzania is thought by some observers to have become “too big” for the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) to manage – or that the country can be managed easily, but CCM has become too unimaginative for the task. And that as its hold on power slips in the year to come, Tanzania could be vulnerable. All these and more scenarios could still come true. However, the exact forces that could determine this are likely to play out from what we can foresee today.

We think borders are likely to be remade out of a dire need to survive. Countries threatened with extinction because they have run out of water or energy, will have little choice but to attack those that have a lot of it – and secure future supplies through conquest.

The GHEA Outlook and Okumu did not, for understandable reasons, examine what countries that achieve technological superiority might do to turn it to their advantage. Some GHEA countries might fail as states, while others will succeed as powerful democracies, redistributing power and conferring the ability to redraw borders on the successful ones. Within the next 30 to 50 years, East Africa borders could be very different.

What is the full range of these creative but disruptive forces that might redesign the region, and what might the new borders that will grow out of the process look like? Here are possible scenarios

*Additional reporting and research by Christine Mungai.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s Executive Editor for Africa & Digital Media: [email protected] & [email protected] The scenarios he paints here represent his personal views, and are in no way endorsed by NMG.