Africa's Outdated Colonial Boundaries Must Be Redrawn [Plain Dealer]- 9/94

Africa's Outdated Colonial Boundaries Must Be Redrawn [Plain Dealer]- 9/94

The Plain Dealer September 26, 1994 Monday, FINAL / ALL

"We should sit down with square-rule and compass and redesign the boundaries of African nations. If we thought we could get away without this redefinition of boundaries back when the Organization of African Unity was formed, surely the instance of Rwanda lets us know in a very brutal way that we cannot evade this historical challenge any longer."

So argued recently Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel-prize-winning writer and political satirist. Soyinka, no romantic about Africa's own often-bloody pre-colonial past, was recoiling at the horrors of Rwanda's genocidal slaughter.

But Africans elsewhere are coming to the same conclusion. In Nigeria, Yorubas, cheated of power by northern generals, talk openly of secession for their southwestern region.

In Sudan and Angola, civil wars rage over seemingly irreconcilable differences of faith or tribe.

If different groups cannot live peaceably together within colonial borders, Africans reason, perhaps they should stop trying, and redraw borders along ethnic lines.

On the face of it, the case for refashioning Africa's frontiers, by blessing the principle of secession, seems reasonable. The borders inherited at independence, drawn up in the staterooms of Europe, mismatched peoples and borders from the start.

Since then, they have neither stamped out tribalism nor, in many places, fostered much sense of nationhood. Nevertheless, many Africans have long argued that these frontiers, however unsatisfactory, ought to be respected: To tamper with them would probably only provoke greater conflict.

Even talk of tribe was taboo under some leaders, who were distrustful of its whiff of primitiveness and anxious to spread a national glue across their young states.

Nigeria paid a high price to stop Biafra's Ibos seceding in 1967-70: as many as 1 million people died. Yet many Africans approved of Nigeria's ferocious stand.

Now things have changed. A new generation of Africans is more confident of its ethnic identity, less suspicious of tribal labels. This, by and large, is a good thing.

There is little to be gained in the long run, as Europe has discovered since the collapse of communism, from the suppression of tribal loyalty. The challenge is how to grant it peaceful political expression.

It is hard to draw general rules, but the desire of peoples to run their own affairs should, on the whole, be treated sympathetically. Need that go as far as sanctioning secession?

If a group shares a common identity and common territory, and if a majority wishes to break away and can do so without forcibly driving others from their land or hogging all the parent-country's wealth, then it probably has a case.

Africa, unlike Europe, has bred only one state through secession since colonial days: Eritrea, which divorced Ethiopia last year after a 30-year guerrilla war and a referendum that demonstrated overwhelming support.

Eritrea not only passed the general tests, but had been a separate state, under Italian rule, before World War II. It was born, not from a redrawing of colonial boundaries, but from a return to them.

Few other African would-be secessionists have such a good case. The closest is Somaliland, the northern bit of Somalia, which declared itself independent in 1991.

While the rest of Somalia has sunk back into the lawlessness that prevailed before the Americans intervened there, in Somaliland President Mohamed Egal has established a working administration and a (fragile) peace.

Somaliland too had a separate colonial history; it was ruled by the British, Somalia by the Italians. The two merged only in 1960.

The United Nations, the Americans and the Europeans all refuse to recognize Somaliland's independence. Yet if a majority supports independence, outsiders should offer swift recognition, and give Somaliland its chance.

Other places might, in future, become candidates for secession. Southern Sudan, whose Christians and animists have been fighting the northern Islamist regime for years, is not demanding to secede, but could someday make a case for it.

Yet such examples are few. In a continent packed with perhaps 2,000 tongues and tribes, ethnic groups seldom live tidily apart. In Rwanda, Tutsi and Hutu lived cheek-by-jowl on the steep hillsides.

With perhaps one-third of Rwandans now driven out of their country by fear, remaining Hutu and Tutsi have not distilled themselves into neatly divisible regions. Partition, were it even desirable, would be the messiest and bloodiest of affairs.

Rwanda teaches another lesson. Its boundaries, as with those in next-door Burundi, are pre-colonial: Both kingdoms were forged several centuries before the Europeans showed up in these central African hills.

Europeans are partly to blame for Rwanda's tragedy; their borders are not.

Were Africa's big countries to divide into quasi-ethnic ministates, Rwanda and Burundi show what Africa might look like - a prospect as politically alarming as it would be economically nonsensical.

Is there a way for Africans to bind their different peoples together within government to avert the sort of grievances that drive secessionist demands?

There can probably be no universal model, least of all one imposed by outsiders. But for the first time Africans are experimenting with homegrown ways of arranging multi-ethnic states.

Some are trying federalism. Others, such as South Africa, are entrenching power-sharing as a way of tying in minorities and giving them a stake in future stability.

The Western concept of loyal opposition has little resonance in much of Africa; for the vanquished, especially a minority tribe, the price of defeat can be high indeed.

South Africa's version of power-sharing was the child of its troubled history. But the principle of inclusion, and the hazards of politics in which the winner takes all, are things that Africans ignore at their peril.

From: MSA 
Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 6 Oct 1994 00:24:02 -0400 (EDT)

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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