In a territorial dispute between Libya and Chad, Judge Ajibola quoted Lord Salisbury’s 1890 statement on African boundaries which says, “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”
The Berlin Conference is known for having been the meeting about Africans without the Africans. White men with an unjustified title to African land sat and made decisions that are still affecting the continent more than 100 years later.
Author A.I. Asiwaju in Artificial boundaries rightfully wrote, “The Berlin conference, despite its importance for the subsequent history of Africa, was essentially a European affair: there was no African representation, and African concerns were, if they mattered at all, completely marginal to the basic economic, strategic and political interests of the negotiating European powers.”
A map of African countries betrays the European nonchalance in marking boundaries. It has straight lines that sometimes follow latitudinal and longitudinal lines as if there was a method to the madness of the colonialists yet the contrary is true: this was an arbitrary exercise. They do not call it a scramble The only considerations were economics and politics leaving out the all-important social aspect which now haunts the continent. A lot of African blood has since been shed on the altar of the imperialists’ arbitrary borders.
“Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity” – Patrice Lumumba.
The apportionment of spheres of influence among colonialists completely ignored the Africans who lived on the land that was to be shared. Legally, the Europeans considered the land as res nullius: property belonging to no one. African land, home to millions of native inhabitants was regarded as belonging to no one and it was up for the taking. The African was therefore not a consideration when the land was demarcated into spheres of influence since he was a “no one”. What followed were grave mistakes which have resulted in massacres and genocides in contemporary Africa. Achille Mbembe in Nationalism and the African State wrote that, “The haphazard demarcation of states resulted in mergers of disparate social groups into single polities that have tended to be highly unstable, fluid and even irrelevant in some cases.”
Whereas pre-colonial Africa had its own borders, Europeans ignored them and superimposed their own which had no rational basis. Some societies were torn apart by the imposed boundaries that became invisible chasms between people supposed to be one. On the other hand, these borders purported to unify people different ethnicities but what unity could Europeans bring when they had destroyed the social order?
It was a ticking time bomb and almost hundred years later, the bomb exploded in Rwanda where the Hutus and Tutsis collided resulting in a genocide. Rwanda is only notable for the scale at which people died but many other countries have had to deal with secessionist movements, ethnic violence on smaller scales, military skirmishes among many other many other manifestations of political instability. The Conversation says there were approximately 58 potential secessionist territories in 29 African states as of 2015. In addition, it lists conflicts between Sudan and Kenya over the Ilemi Triangle, Kenya and South Sudan over the Nadapal boundary, Eritrea and Ethiopia over the Badme territory, Cameroon and Nigeria over maritime boundaries among many others.
It becomes apparent that peace is not a default setting where borders were forced upon people. Incompatible people who neither liked each other nor understood each other’s culture were forced to form nations together. The utopian expectation is that they all live together in peace but the human condition is far from being perfect. Disputes are to be expected and sadly, they have historically turned violent.
Did Africa lose an opportunity or it escaped being raped by Europe again?
The borders in Africa as of now are anachronistic: they have lost relevance since their existence was only justified by the West’s need to mark grounds to exploit. As soon as African people attained their independence, the reality is the borders were no longer relevant and there was need for logical delimitation. States remain delimited on lines which were never drawn to unite the people but to facilitate for effective exploitation. Fragmented tribes and communities have become minorities scattered in different countries where they are treated as sub-citizens yet an effective border system would have united them in one country.
When disputes arise, they never stay localized but more countries are affected since one group of people is scattered in all those countries. In fact, the problems that have arisen because of these artificial borders are inexhaustible in a single article. What is shameful is the Western hypocrisy when people kill each other in Africa. Instead of realizing their countries are just as culpable as the African war-mongers, they claim it is a lack of civilization that results in the fighting yet the truth is the inadvertent European social project that Africa is, is a big failure.
Lord Curzon of Kedleston who became British foreign secretary in 1919 knew the lethal nature of borders. His words that, “Frontiers are indeed the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war and peace, life or death of nations,” are conclusive. We inherited bad borders and if we do not deliberately learn to tolerate each other, we are destined to mow each other down on account of meaningless lines drawn by the European’s pen.