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Colonial borders. Does Africa have a choice?

August 14, 2008

Lord Lugard, founder of Nigeria

The lines of Europe’s carve up of Africa were finally taking shape. On March 11, 1913, Britain and Germany agreed who got which bits of a swampy corner of the continent that few in either of the cold and distant countries had heard of.

Two states that did not exist at that time put the border agreement into effect again on Thursday with Nigeria formally handing over the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon.

That followed a ruling by the World Court in 2002 for which both countries supplied copies of yellowing colonial-era documents to justify claims to territory that had brought them to the brink of war.


Neither might have had as much interest had it not been for the expectation that there is oil there, but it again highlighted Africa’s commitment to colonial borders drawn without consideration for those actually living there.

Many people in Bakassi have made clear they would rather be in Nigeria than Cameroon. There have been recent attacks by groups very similar to those waging a different struggle further west in the Nigeria delta.


Nigeria said that by following the ruling it was showing its respect for international law, a demonstration of the change in the country since the end of military rule. On the other side of the continent, an international pronouncement on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border remains disputed.

Fights over historic borders go far beyond Africa of course, as the recent bloodshed in the Caucasus has made only too clear.

Does Africa have any choice but to stick with its colonial borders? There are several hundred ethnic groups in Nigeria and Cameroon alone. Would questioning borders mean the collapse of much of the continent in bitter disputes over who got what? Would it ease the ethnic tensions that poison many countries?


Questioning borders would not best solve ethnic tensions. It would just aggravate the situation and bring anarchy. We have enough wars and disputes . I am yet to come across a single subSaharan country that does not have the problems of improperly drawn boundaries cutting across ethnic groups. The solutions lies in the leadership of the countries involved accepting the colonial borders and enetering into bilateral agreements on free movement of the people involved and all aspects involved in a give and take spirit.

Posted by Cyprian Kambili | Report as abusive

why not carve up europe..and then make the people “accept” the borders?

Posted by ad | Report as abusive

The truth is before colonialism,the was no cameroon nor nigeria.The signatories to the treaty creating the OAU pledged to respect the inherited colonial boundaries. Africa has got to respect those boundaries even if they cut across ethnic groups. Must people in the same ethnic group be in the same country? Even Europe wasn’t calved based on ethnic group. The basque people live in France and Spain.

Posted by Jude Foleng | Report as abusive

oh so…eastern europe isnt being carved up….lets for fun’s sake divide france and combine it with germany and italy…let the games begin…

Posted by jake | Report as abusive

Respecting colonial borders for African countries would be the sane way out of a potentially messy political situation. However, one cannot use the “sanctity of colonial borders” as the blanket solution for all of Africa. In the case of Ethiopia, it is a well established fact that Ethiopia existed as an organized state LONG before Italy was invented in the 1860′s. It is a great insult to all Ethiopians and Africans for that matter to expect Ethiopia to “respect” borders drawn under duress by a “Johnny-come-lately” to the Scramble of Africa as if Ethiopia was “invented” by England and her lap-dog of the time…. the newly minted “Italy”. It is Ethiopia, the final colonial master of “Eritrea” that will decide where the border lies and what the former boot-lickers of Fascist Italy will get territorially. Also, in the Treaty of Addis Ababa, signed in October 1896, between Ethiopia and Italy, one of the articles of the treaty in effect recognized the true master of “Eritrea”, by stating that – in the event that Italy vacates its colonial territory of “Eritrea”, the territory will revert back to its original owner, Ethiopia. A very important treaty and article conveniently swept into obscurity by the enemies of Ethiopia, both from within and on the outside.

Posted by Alula Aba-nega | Report as abusive

Forget borders. What politics – money and greed as usual dictate everything! Politicians today are simply following what has come before….which does NOT amount to vision at all for a country in such phenomenal turmoil. Just goes to show that the more outsiders invade a country for whatever excuse they announce, the less freedom the local people have. Carving up land into “this is mine and that is yours” is so juvenile. Nomadic behavior use to be considered normal, like birds flying south for winter, like animals following streams of water. Why can’t human beings look to nature instead of their pocketbooks/politics for guidance like native people did long ago?

Posted by good day | Report as abusive

The European who curved once Africa are now who seat to arbitrate the dispute of many boarder quarrels in Africa. As ironic as this may sound, nowadays, Europeans hold the highest post in almost all of UN and international court and peace activities; Africa has no choice but to abide by it. The problem is not who curved what or who seats where any longer. There is international law supposedly governing them all. Europeans and USA in particular should be abide by it and enforce such laws fairly and equally, even if it contradict there own self interest at all times. Case in point: – If Europe and USA were to pressure Ethiopia to accept and implement the international ruling, not only Eritrea and Ethiopia would be at peace today, but the suffering of Somalia’s and suddenness would have been averted.


Does Africa has a choice ? The answer is big no.
Modern day colonialism is still well and alive. The five so called permanent security council countries manipulate border issues depending on their interests.
If we take the Ethio Eritrean case it is a clear and cut case, yet in spite of Ethiopia breaking international law, stolen elections, it is being diplomatically shielded by the very people who lecture Africa of good governance and rule of law and aid is given by the billions, yet isolate Eritrea as a pariah state but has moral and legal right on its side . ews/arms.php

AU (former O.A.U.) charter states as sacrosanct African borders that were drawn up capriciously by colonial officers. So please when you report, be accurate, there can never be a dispute. There is the colonial maps, and to clarify it, there is the international arbitration. Once past that stage, it is clear who is the aggressor, unless one has an ulterior motive.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

The issue around colonial boundaries in Africa remains a thorny issue that has seen Africa’s aspirations towards total emancipation and unity thwarted. Africa was carved into the current colonial boundaries as a result of the Berlin Conference of 1885-86, a conference whose articles have continued African decimation and remains unquestioned in the transition process to African independence in all African countries. The continued use of colonial boundaries have kept African people in constant mistrust of one another thereby stalling economic, social and political integration and cooperation amongst African citizens. Africans today remain ensconced in particular regions with the movement to a neighbouring country as difficult as going to Europe or the Far East. African leaderships need to start dismantling these structures that keep us subjugated and under-developed. The AU, SADC, ECOWAS, COMESA et al need to come together in dismantling colonial boundaries, allow the free movement of our people across the continent as long as they have valid and genuine travle documents. The dismantling of these colonial boundaries and their VISA requirement will be a major step toward total African emancipation, unity and development.

Posted by Shamba Shambamuto | Report as abusive

Interesting points. It is true that African leaders at the founding of the OAU were quick to pledge respect for colonial borders and that their successors have shown no interest in changing that. Might not any changes to borders put their own positions in doubt though?

Posted by Matthew Tostevin | Report as abusive

African people should not be forced to carry Visas, just because westerners do. African people should be free to travel wherever they like on the continent. Do Americans need Visas to travel between states? Why is Africa such a mess? Africa is a mess because westerners/Europeans keep interferring…

Posted by good day | Report as abusive

An interesting question, “does Africa have a choice” with regards to colonially directed sovereignty. As if it’s something of the past! From my perspective as one who loves to encounter Africa; the past as I see it never really was nurtured and allowed to progress into an independent present as promised. Yeah, many national machinations have taken place, new flags were sewn, wars have been fought, there are the renowned leaders, there are leaders who continue to be viewed as colonial lackeys and then others who are seen as hero’s whilst their people starve. Nope, I suggest just the opposite has happened,… the more people “Westerners – Europeans – now heavily returning Asian influence…the more they all have talked throughout the decades of having done the right thing by their exodus from Africa…the more they’ve actually dug in deeper. Africa “it’s wealth any way” in the end isn’t owned by Africans…which isn’t such a big revelation to anyone living in Africa is it….maybe it’s manipulated a bit by a few at the top for selfish gain, chopped up and bleed off by a few in the middle to take their slice at the expense of the masses below, but in the bigger scheme of things not really owned by Africans at all. Those colonialists everyone continues to talk about in such ancient term, they still call the tune and still own your pink slip. They still decide from afar what foreign policies will be accepted or not accepted “African foreign policies that is”…it’s just done a whole lot quieter and a lot less hands on than in years past. Some might even call it economic terrorism but that’s a whole other avenue beyond this historic-lines-in-the-sand ethnic/economic border and boundary’s issue, albeit very joined at the hip. So does Africa have a choice in this instance…?….as an outsider I suggest Africa needs to decide soon to unite and develop some hard and fast unity choices before it looses it’s hold on the future entirely, piece by piece. Africa’s wealth, no matter where the lines-in-the-sand have been drawn by others so many years past will eventually, like is happening today in Georgia and many other global regions of critically demarcated economic control… for similarly different reasons…will become a thing of desperate value to the owners. And when that fully happens, not too far down the road I fear…if Africa isn’t capable as a unified structure, to stand together…the battle will be waged between owners, with or without you, but it will be waged on your soil by those who presently lay claim to ownership and want more till the finish. Waged, openly and brutally, with little or no regards to those who claim this soil as home! Globalization…a brilliant piece of business that’s become a shameful word really….not much more than a new and improved form of modern Colonialism!

Posted by Doug | Report as abusive

Karma, what goes around comes around … there are higher beings in the cosmos who are watching everything unfold. Does Africa or Europe have a choice? No. True natures will be exposed, and time will tell. People who have exploited others will be forced to repay everything (including resources, culture, human lives,…) over time.

Posted by Jasper Seren | Report as abusive

i quote good day with the following comment African people should not be forced to carry Visas, just because westerners do. African people should be free to travel wherever they like on the continent. Do Americans need Visas to travel between states? Why is Africa such a mess? Africa is a mess because westerners/Europeans keep interferring…


Life would certainly sound easier without visas, but even when they are not needed in theory – for citizens travelling between the ECOWAS countries of West Africa for example – it can still take an age to get through borders guarded by officials who use them to extort bribes. Is a more fundamental change needed?

Posted by Matthew Tostevin | Report as abusive

The question isn’t really whether Africa should observe colonial borders, it’s whether a choice exists to do otherwise. I ask: what option exists? Even if by some miracle the lines on the map could be re-drawn, would we have each tribe be the master of its own country? Each and every linguistic group? Each and every religious sect? All national borders–as well as all states, provinces, parishes, canons, counties, cities, towns, and hamlets–are arbitrarily imposed by some group on another. With luck, they serve to unite disparate residents into a common cause that promotes and protects the greater good. What matters isn’t the borders or who drew them; it’s what good will lies in the hearts of the people within.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds


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