The tricky issue of Africa's boundaries

A membership card of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a Kenyan secessionist movement. The continent continues to witness territorial agitation. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP. 

Up to 11 Kenyan fishermen have died following recent attacks by suspected Ethiopian militia, while fishing on Lake Turkana which is shared by the two countries.

The incidence, just like several others in the past, has forced residents to flee from the area, fearing for their lives.

This indicates the complicated nature of African borders. Then there is the politics of secession.

Those who understand secession warn that the move, as a means of resolving intra-state conflict is demanding, but resolving the borderline political geography can be the most divisive issue holding a poisonous Pandora's box.

This is a poignant lesson from South Sudan’s protracted effort to delimit the Sudan-South Sudan border, around the Abyei region and was also a poisoned chalice in the aftermath of Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia in 1993. Then the two countries fought a bloody and costly war, between 1998 and 2000, over the Badme boundary line in the Tigray region, despite the leadership of both countries then sharing a rich history.

Today, the menace of secession continues to loom over the continent with other groups such as the Mouvement pour l'Autonomie de la Kabylie in Algeria agitating for an independent state of Kabyle and Barotse Patriotic Front seeking an independent state of Barotseland in Zambia.

The Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC) and Forças Armadas de Cabinda (FAC) in Angola have been fronting for an independent Republic of Cabinda, there is also the Bakassi Peninsula disputed by Cameroon and Nigeria with claims for autonomy in both countries, while in Ethiopia there are the Gambela, Oromia and Ogadenia autonomy claims.

Elsewhere in East Africa, there is the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) in Kenya and Zanzibar Island sections of whose population is claiming independence from the union with Mainland Tanzania.

There are also other protracted cases such as the Polisario Front fighting for an independent Western Sahara (Saharawi Republic), the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance in Senegal pursuing an autonomous Casamance region and a more recent case of the militant National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad seeking an autonomous Azawad state from Mali.

Political marginalisation

While the above list is not exhaustive, a significant question to ask whenever a group seeks to secede, is why?

It is instructive that some of these secessionist groups have lingered on for years.

In most cases it has to do with deep-seated grievances relating to history, for instance a feeling that a given people were either wrongly clustered together or broken up by colonial boundaries or a sense of socio-economic or political marginalisation.

Napoleon Bamfo, a political scientist, makes an interesting observation that when assessing “whether a region’s threat to break away is real or illusory, it is essential to consider its location relative to other regions of the country”.

He adds that anecdotal evidence, which seems to hold true for most of the above cases, points to the fact that regions that have attempted to secede have often been situated in the outer fringes of a country.

In other words African governments have a propensity to concentrate power at the centre, thereby creating peripheries that are poorly served in terms of development.

Looking forward, the increasing interest in Africa’s extractive industry especially in some of these peripheries like Turkana in Kenya is likely to compound the secession claims, where they exist.

If oil or other natural resources are, for instance, found in these peripheries, the secessionist groups will think they stand to gain greater benefits by breaking away than staying with a central government that is likely to take away their resources.

This is the logic that informs Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) whose members believe there resources in Kenya’s coastal region are largely benefiting people from outside the region, thus one of the reasons they desire to secede.

What this suggests is that unless African government find ways to devolve resources or ensure fairness in their distribution, we are likely to witness the Niger Delta, Katanga, Cabinda and MRC type secession claims.

The above revives the questions of delimiting and demarcating African borders. Dr Wafula Okumu, a Senior Officer, with the African Union Border Program, says Africa has about 109 international boundaries that are approximately 28,000 miles.

Of these boundaries, less than ’25 per cent’ are demarcated. He talks of the presence of general boundaries where the precise line of the legal boundary between adjoining land portions is still undetermined.

Secessionist claims

Delineating or changing the status of such borders will always carry grave risks, as the new triggers for violence.

Conventionally the question of delimitation and demarcation of borders of states created through secession was often lessened by the existence of a natural boundary such as a river or a mountain range between the seceding region and the parent state. This however is not the case with majority of the cases seeking secession, which means most of the session claims in the future will most likely end up costing blood and treasure as attested by the Abyei question.

For Abyei, there is no natural boundary and while the issue of resources (actual and speculative oil deposits, fertile land, grazing fields and water resources) are among the overt reasons motivating the long drawn out stand off, there are also other latent factors especially the symbolic value attached to Abyei by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), since a number of their key leading figures come from this area.

In other words, the next frontier for disputes in Africa will be mainly resource based especially in the border areas. Sub Saharan Africa is currently home to nine oil exporters – Nigeria, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and Sudan.

Several other countries ranging from Mauritania, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Niger and Uganda and Kenya, are among those expected to join the list. Already, there are emerging concerns about territorial disputes relating to oil resources on the continent between Kenya and Somalia, Uganda and DRC, Tanzania and Malawi, Nigeria and Cameroon, among others, all linking to the presence or possible discovery of natural resources.

Therefore, while there has been appreciable progress in moving the continent away from armed conflict in countries such as Angola, the DRC, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, with the increasing prospection of resources, new forms of conflict in relation resources in the border areas are likely to increase.

Overall, to manage existing or avoid the emergence of more secessionist claims, African states need to deal with their root causes, which as observed earlier could be historical, socio-economic or political. Inclusive governance seems to the best protection against secession claims surfacing, and turning violent, in the first place.

Dr Kisiangani works for the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.

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