When the Europeans colonised Africa, they cared only about one thing, profit. Whether it was gold from Guinea, rubber from the Congo or diamonds from South Africa, the goal was to extract resources from the hinterlands and send them back home through the continent’s long coastline. This led to the drawing of African borders in an unnatural pattern.
There is a theory in geopolitics that holds that the most stable, natural countries, are formed along longitudes, not latitudes, and the reason is climate. Before technology changed the way that people worked and lived, moving within the same lines of longitudes made sense. The climate was broadly the same, so the adjustment was easier. This aided the formation of states along those similar climatic zones, and this applied in Africa as well. The great empires of the ancient world (including those on the continent) tended to follow these zones. The Roman Empire was largely one built around the Mediterranean climate, the Islamic Caliphate was largely a desert empire, the Mongol Empire was strongest on the steps of Central and East Asia. Even in Africa, the great empires of Mali, Shongai, Sokoto and Benin, as examples, did not have major climatic variations within their borders.
The borders that the Europeans drew in Africa discarded this natural law and ran along latitudes, simply because they were designed for extraction, not for development. This resulted in cohesive nations such as the Masai of East Africa, being divided between British Kenya and German East Africa, an area which later became known as Tanzania. The bigger the nation was, the more divided it often became, so the Yoruba nation today, straddles English Nigeria, French West Africa (Benin) and German Togoland (now French Togo). Directly north of the Yoruba is the Hausa (or Fulani) nation, which was divided in half between English Nigeria and Ghana, and French West Africa. This is not to mention smaller nations that were split. A colleague of mine from today’s Akwa Ibom has cousins in South-West Cameroon, which is today rebelling against the government in Yaounde. Imagine someone coming into pre-EU Europe and creating a country that is half of Spain, half of France and throws in a bit of Belgium and the Netherlands. That is a simplified version of what Nigeria and most other African countries are.
In the worst cases, these borders created a mess of civil wars within many African countries as the people try to better align their countries to their nations. Following artificial border designs, African communities have not moved freely in their daily activities and nomadic practices, which has inflicted economic hardship and social inconvenience. The mass reordering of the lifestyle and structural systems of African communities that colonialism brought negatively affected traditional life, administrative structures, and economic well-being. This deprived African borderland communities of economic opportunity by hindering their movements, and forcing them to live differently than their traditional life. For example, many African ethnic groups are pastoralist and nomadic people that need vast land for grazing and water. However, artificial borders limited borderland people to herding on limited land and forced them into resource competition and confrontation due to limited mobility with other borderland peoples. These problems, often expressed in resource conflict and elaborate smuggling operations, still exist as reminders of just how impactful lines on a map can be. Or cannot be.
Nigeria’s borders have, officially at least, been closed since August 2019. But increasingly, the evidence is showing that the border closure is, in reality, an annoyance for formal businesses and people in the headline border crossings where the Nigerian state can muster total control of the levers of coercion such as Seme and Idiroko. In other places such as Jibiya, Dorofi and Ekok, it is (almost) business as usual, and goods and people are still moving through. The ancient nations are still very much alive, while the artificial countries are suffering from internal stress through sticking incompatible peoples with each other.
That basic human instinct to make a living and provide for themselves and their loved ones is alive and well. A 2019 Brookings study showed that the informal sector throughout West Africa represents approximately 50 percent of GDP (70 percent in Benin, in fact) and 90 percent of employment. A significant proportion of that regional trade is Nigeria-bound. While policymakers in Abuja crow about the success of the border closure (which is hard to measure), it is worth noting that Benin’s dependence on Nigeria is not apparent from official trade statistics, as the country’s reported trade with Nigeria accounted for only 6 percent of Benin’s exports and 2 percent of Benin’s imports in 2015-17. These official statistics are very misleading, however, as they do not reflect the vast, centuries-long informal trade along a border in which one predominant ethnic group, the Yoruba, live and work on both sides. It is safe to stay that the odds are stacked against Customs officials who clearly do not have the geographic and cultural knowledge that the residents of these communities possess and utilise.
The great thing about borders and what these disasters prove is that borders are just that. Lines on a map that can be changed. So, if we now know that the present borders don’t work for Africa, we have to ask ourselves a truly searching question, can the borders of Africa be fixed?