Borderlines during the colonial period turned into current national borders without change

Currently there are 55 nations and regions in the African continent. Borderlines of colonies drawn by the European powers which advanced into Africa in the 19th century have remained as their national borders without being changed.

Political Community did exist in Africa as well before the advancement of European countries, but they covered very small areas like villages and did not have the size of those which could be regarded as countries.

Some were called a kingdom, but they also did not have the size that could be called a country when compared with Southeast Asian countries at that time.

Thus, European powers first gathered the small-scale political communities together to make larger areas and then proceeded with their colonialization. Therefore, sometimes communities which had no mutual exchange were gathered in the same unit, or one ethnic group was split into separate units.

Thus, such borderlines indicating the colonial areas became national borderlines without change when African countries aimed for independence after the Second World War.

That is to say, they did not go back to their original political communities but instead they became independent countries in accordance with the colonized areas. Moreover, in the early 1960s an agreement was made to prevent such national borderlines being changed.

In fact, those borderlines remained unchanged with the exceptions of two instances when Eritrea spun off to be independent from Ethiopia and when South Sudan spun off to be independent from Sudan.

Doesn’t this sound quite incredible? In short, the origins of the countries are completely different from other parts of the world.

For instance, in Europe, city states made a sudden rise, and then, there were wars between the city states. Some won and some lost, then the territories repeatedly expanded and reduced. As such the concept of the modern state came into being and present nations and international order were formed.

Asia also went through such a process. Asia also has a history of being colonized and becoming independent. However, before colonialization, they already had some form of political community which could be called a country or something similar to country.

Africa does not have such history of country formation. Certainly, there is a history of conflicts and wars between the former political communities in Africa. However, they did not expand their territories just because they won the conflict.

For instance, their main purpose was to enforce a certain order of subordination over the residents of the community, such as making them abide by the rule of the victor’s side concerning the usage of the water sources. Therefore, they did not lead to forming any national-scale territory.

Japan also has a history of civil war, when territories expanded or reduced through victory or defeat in battle. In other words, a sense of value concerning territory exists in Europe, Asia and Japan, but this is almost never seen in Africa.

Therefore, it was recognized as acceptable to turn the colonial borderlines made by the European powers into national borderlines without any change. Also, their awareness of such national borderlines is different from those in Europe and Asia.

Loose border control

In Africa, where the concept of territory used to be tenuous and governed areas of political communities were vague and obscure, the relations between such communities were also very much relaxed and non-interventional.

While they had such relations, suddenly the European powers drew borderlines for their own convenience, and moreover, African countries became independent in accordance with such borderlines. However, this did not mean that the conventional sense of value or awareness in Africa changed overnight.

For instance, if an agreement has been made to prevent the change of borderlines, we intuitively assume that those borders will be strictly controlled. However, in reality, border controls were very lax.

Arterial roads connecting the countries have customs and immigration facilities. But in some cases, in the forests and bushes that are some kilometers away from such arterial roads, there are paths where anyone can freely come and go, or sometimes they have an endless borderline in the desert where setting up immigration facilities is difficult in the first place.

In fact, for people who live around the border, rather than bringing their products to the market in a town in the central part of their own country, it is more convenient and easier to sell them at the market in a town nearby the border in the neighboring country.

Sometimes the ethnic group in the central part of their own country is different from their group, while there are many people from similar or close ethnic groups in the neighboring country.

That is why the residents freely come and go using the unregulated paths. This is called porosity, but basically it is a loose attitude.

In recent years, because of this loose border control, drugs, weapons, and stolen goods have been freely transported, and abductions of children for the purpose of human trafficking have been rampant. In addition, in West Africa, jihadist groups (Islamic extremists who commit acts of terrorism) are increasing and are active in the border regions.

Therefore, there is a movement to tighten border security and controls. Certainly, it is necessary to do that, and such a tendency is seen not only in Africa but worldwide, including the United States and Israel.

However, for African countries, tightening border controls does not always stabilize politics or lead to economic growth.

Free trade zone being created through unique African-style process

Africa has lots of mysteries which we cannot imagine with our “common sense”. One of them, for example, is the fact that very few inter-state wars have broken out. 

Many people seem to have the impression that Africa is a region under constant conflicts. However, most of them are a civil war between government forces and anti-government forces or a conflict between different ethnic groups within the country.

In short, conflicts in Africa are happening within the borders, and inter-state struggles are rare. One of the factors for this is thought to be the loose attitude of borderline controls.

For example, certainly African people also have their own national identities. Sometimes they come to the forefront. At the same time, they have Black Africa consciousness, so-called African consciousness, and ethnic group consciousness as well. Such a loose attitude and this overlap are also something unique in Africa.

Introducing the global standard of tightening border controls, which would emphasize national identity, might upset the delicate balance which was formed out of their loose approach. Moreover, in the first place, considering the enormous length of the borderlines, it would be difficult for Africa to accept the idea itself.

Namely, it is difficult to evaluate Africa with a global “common sense”. For instance, in recent years, the conception of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has been promoted. This aims for free trade within the whole of Africa, just like the EU and AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Area).

However, on the other hand, some people argue that the economic strength of African countries is immature and to proceed with economic integration is difficult.

Indeed, for example, arterial roads, which should serve as the distribution infrastructure, are undeveloped. Even if we suppose that such roads were developed with global support, they do not have any valuable products that are worthy of trading, especially in the landlocked countries, where many are impoverished. So, even if the arterial roads are developed, they cannot be well maintained and might deteriorate.

In African countries, the agricultural products they can make are quite similar throughout anyway. In fact, this is also influenced by the monoculture during the colonial era, when they tried to make the same products in all areas.

Taking this infrastructure development issue and industrial structure into consideration, it seems that we will have to wait for quite some time before a development like the EU and AFTA will happen.

Having said that, the EU and AFTA are not necessarily the absolute model of success. Africa might have its own original scenario.

The history which Africa has followed is fundamentally different from that of Europe and Asia. The underlying unique loose nature of Africa might create its own way to development.

In fact, in Africa, people have a very good impression about Japan, and they have high expectations for Japan. In response to this, there was a time when various Japanese companies advanced into Africa, but nowadays such cases are in a decreasing trend.

However, some people say that by the end of this century, African people will account for one third of the worldwide population. Considering its productive power and its market size, Africa is no doubt an important region.

It is important also for Japan to build a new better partnership with the region.

When doing so, it is important to value Africa’s originality and spontaneity instead of trying to mold it in the success models of Europe and Asia.

* The information contained herein is current as of October 2020.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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