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date: 11 April 2021

Border Politics in Africafree

  • Paul NugentPaul NugentCentre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh


African borders, which mostly follow the contours of the former colonies, are widely regarded as artificial and yet have enjoyed remarkable longevity. On the one hand, there have been relatively few serious secessionist and/or irredentist bids. On the other hand, a limited number of border disputes have been settled and mostly without recourse to conflict. This is often attributed to the willingness of states to accept the principle of the intangibility of borders inherited from colonialism and the associated legal principle of uti possidetis. Most claims to secession are based on a preexisting sense of territoriality, whereas there are relatively few that are premised on the rights of peoples to self-determination. It has been pointed out that claims to secession are often tabled as a bargaining position rather than as a nonnegotiable demand. However, the secession of South Sudan has created a genuine precedent, and there has been an upsurge of secessionist movements that reflects this reality. In addition, there has been a proliferation of fresh border disputes, which reflects the increased competition for valuable resources such as oil. This would suggest that some of the landscape of border politics is undergoing a shift.

However, a number of factors continue to work in favor of the reproduction of existing borders. Paradoxically, the fact that guerrilla insurgencies tend to breed in borderlands, from where movements either aspire to take over the existing state or seek to carve out zones of de facto control, means that the borders themselves are not challenged. War economies depend on transboundary flows in which local populations themselves are deeply invested. Moreover, the flight of displaced populations and refugees toward borders may create greater insecurity at the margins but also tends to reinforce borders in both a legal and a practical sense. Finally, the struggle to determine the basis on which trade and transport is managed involves associational actors operating at the national level. Equally, fishermen, herders, farmers, and other local actors frequently invoke national affiliations to justify their own right to exploit resources within border zones. At the border itself, one observes a convergence of international, national, and local political scales in a particularly striking manner.


It is very difficult to imagine a meaningful discussion of borders that does not involve a treatment of politics at some level—or rather, at multiple levels. Because the exercise of sovereignty always begins and ends at a physical border, state performativity is thrown into sharper relief at the geographical margins. Africa has its own versions of the “hyperborder” (Romero, 2008), complete with fortified fences that are intended to strictly regulate population flows—notably at the interface between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves in North Africa—as well as (de-)militarized zones. At the international level, there have been demands for the removal or repositioning of borders, leveled both by recognized states and by heterodox movements. But there is also a micropolitics to borders that is in many ways as significant. Most borders can be crossed, but they are often frenetic places where bureaucratic routines and the rhythms of everyday life rub up against each other. Moreover, the capacity for disagreements to jump scales has been demonstrated on numerous occasions. An example would be the localized clashes between herders and farmers along the Senegal River in 1989 that led to tit-for-tat urban violence across Mauritania and Senegal, the mass expulsion of each other’s nationals, and a narrowly averted interstate war. Although critical geography has cast doubt on scale as an organizing concept (Brenner, 2001), it does capture some of the ways in which issues are framed differently within the realm of politics. This article addresses the politics of borders at different scales—from interstate to the local—as well as some of the slippage between them. It begins with some of the all-important historical context, before turning to secessionism and irredentism, border disputes, guerrilla insurgencies, refugees, electoral dynamics, and the politics of trade and transport.

Historical Antecedents

Politics has its history; or, to state the matter less obliquely, the configurations of the present embody elements of a more remote past. Colonial boundaries tended to be molded to an existing political landscape rather than representing a radical departure. Once in place, colonial regimes generally instrumentalized borders by competing with one other for trade, taxes, and labor (Nugent, 2019). During the Second World War, when pro-Vichy regimes held sway across French West Africa, the competition was especially intense. After 1945, colonial governments were formally in agreement on what needed to be done, but typically interpreted the new paradigm of development in zero-sum terms. Even in cases where it seemed clear that cooperation would redound to mutual benefit, such as in the Senegambia, there was a preference for molding the new infrastructure to fit existing borders. Moreover, the great federations that had existed in French West and Equatorial Africa, and the new federal arrangements that were established in British East and Central Africa after the war, were all killed off just before or shortly after independence. The reason given in each instance was that federation disproportionately favored the better-endowed parties. The postcolonial inheritance, therefore, was one of disharmony, as reflected in the acrimonious dissolution of the Mali Federation—which unified Senegal and Mali for just over a year—in 1960. The formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 was supposed to usher in a new era of common purpose. However, borders became deeply entrenched, and it was not until the formation of the African Union (AU) in 2002 that there was a renewed pledge to transcend inherited boundaries.

Challenges to Inherited Boundaries

The Intangibility Question

One of the puzzles that has intrigued students of African politics is the reason why boundaries have endured despite the fact that they seem to make little intrinsic sense. Pierre Englebert even refers to a “secessionist deficit” arising from the mismatch between the reality of acutely dysfunctional states and a low incidence of separatism—indeed, he notes, only Latin America has had fewer territorial conflicts (Englebert, 2009, pp. 16–18). One of the stock explanations is that the Cairo Resolution of 1964 laid down the principle of the intangibility of borders inherited from colonialism.1 Through repeated restatement, so the argument runs, this became an established principle of international law. Indeed, so sacrosanct was this foundational principle that the authors of the Constitutive Act of the African Union felt impelled to restate the principle “of respecting the borders existing on the achievement of their independence”—the very wording that was contained in the 1964 Resolution. An extension of the same argument is that member states found it convenient to adhere to the principle of intangibility for the simple reason that to entertain challenges to inherited boundaries might rebound on everyone concerned. This stance made it more difficult for dissident movements to secure legitimacy for their own visions of the possible alternatives. But, as Englebert (2009, pp. 32–37) indicates, there are some problems with this line of argument. If the OAU struggled to persuade member states to comply with its various resolutions, it is not clear why they did not break ranks over borders when it suited them to do so. And though it was difficult to justify staking claims to territory in neighboring countries, it was easy enough to sponsor guerrilla movements that had their own ambitions for redrawing borders. Indeed, the proxy wars of the Horn have been driven by precisely such a logic.

The Cairo Resolution has often been conflated with the legal principle of uti possidetis juris, according to which preexisting boundaries would be carried over to newly independent states in order to stave off future conflict. Its practical application is generally associated with Latin America, where it is credited with having stabilized former colonial boundaries. In a seminal judgment in the case between Mali and Burkina Faso in 1986, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) maintained that uti possidetis carried legal force because it had been consciously adopted by African states (“Frontier Dispute,” 1986). In the subsequent Burkina Faso-Niger ruling of 2013, the Somali judge, Abdulqawi Yusuf, entered a dissenting opinion. He pointed out that uti possidetis was never actually invoked in the Cairo Resolution, whereas it explicitly referred to the principle of respect for the territorial integrity of member states that was embodied in the OAU Charter (“Separate Opinion by Judge Yusuf,” 2013). He also pointed out that it had never been the intention of the founding fathers to ossify colonial borders, but rather to create a breathing space so that they could revisit the matter with due reflection. The context here was the turmoil surrounding Congolese independence, when Katanga and South Kasai attempted to break away. This was interpreted by many leaders as a portent of the possible disintegration of the most unwieldy states and a likely contagion effect elsewhere. Yusuf’s reading is borne out by Julius Nyerere’s later comment:

We loathed the balkanisation of the continent into small unviable states, most of which had borders which did not make ethnic or geographical sense. The Cairo Declaration was promoted by a profound realization of the absurdity of those borders. It was quite clear that some adventurers would try to change those borders by force of arms. (“Without Unity,” 2012)

If uti possidetis was applicable anywhere in Africa, it was surely in former French West and Equatorial Africa, where internal boundaries mutated into the boundaries of soon-to-be independent states. The shifting contours of colonial Upper Volta made the principle directly relevant to the Mali-Burkina dispute, as both parties explicitly acknowledged. But elsewhere the parallels with Latin America were less clear. Some legal scholars have taken the view that although uti possidetis may have become part of the legal furniture through frequent usage, it was never a binding legal principle, but rather a “regional custom” based on the voluntary consent of states (Ahmed, 2015, p. 116; also Savarian, 2015). The implication is that if a Morocco or a Somalia did not accept the validity of the principle, it was effectively non-binding on them.

This, then, takes us full circle to the puzzle that was presented by Englebert. His own answer is that sovereignty has a distinctly finite quality when the international state system places limits on state recognition. Hence international sovereignty, which brings with it the power of legal command, is converted into a resource that can be traded and tapped into in so many ways (Englebert, 2009, p. 62). This may be even more salient when the state is fundamentally weak. On this interpretation, it makes sense for actors to seek co-optation or to mimic state command in the regions that the center cannot effectively control (Englebert, 2009, pp. 92–93). It follows that secessionism is often a bargaining counter rather than a nonnegotiable position. This reading makes a certain sense, but it is important to underline that because the livelihoods of border populations are so bound up with existing configurations (Nugent & Asiwaju, 1996; Feyissa & Hoehne, 2010), there are many positive reasons for not following putative leaders down a decidedly uncertain path.

Moreover, there is a real question of how many precedents are required before sovereignty becomes partible. Since the 1990s, referenda have culminated in two significant territorial changes. The first was the referendum that paved the way for the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993. Significantly, the Eritreans claimed this was an instance of delayed decolonization rather than an act of secession (Bereketeab, 2014). This argument applies more obviously to the Western Sahara, where the Spanish promise of a referendum was never delivered. In 1975, following a Moroccan invasion, Spain withdrew, and Morocco and Mauritania divided the territory in two—before the latter finally relinquished its stake. Morocco has continued to pursue its claim, while Polisario has asserted the right of the Western Sahara to receive its much-delayed independence. But unlike in Eritrea, Polisario has never seemed likely to score a military victory. And whereas the AU’s formal recognition of the Western Sahara seemed to provide some guarantee of future statehood, the return of Morocco to the organization in 2017 makes this less likely. The second territorial change was the emergence of South Sudan as a separate state in 2011. By contrast with Eritrea, this did set a clear precedent. Although the internal administrative border during the Condominium had been a rather hard one, it would be difficult to argue that the south had ever been anything other than a region of the Sudan. The particularity of the South Sudanese case therefore resides in the grim reality of decades of warfare rather than any finer point of constitutional detail (LeRiche & Arnold, 2012). The general lesson here is that secession is most likely to come after a protracted military struggle that makes separation thinkable from the point of view of the central government. It also requires something like a referendum to confer international legitimacy on the process. At that point, sovereignty does indeed become partible. However, the strange case of the Republic of Somaliland, which announced its separation from Somalia in 1991, also points to some of the potential pitfalls along the way. Somaliland has demonstrated its capacity to function as a state, and (like Eritrea) it has claimed that its desire to return to its former boundaries does not challenge the principle of intangibility (Ahmed, 2014, p. 120). It has held regular elections, and no doubt it could preside over a credible referendum on independence. The problem is that when the internationally recognized Somali government exerts little authority outside of Mogadishu, the latter has no incentive to entertain the right to self-determination, and the Somalilanders have no incentive to force them to do so.


At the turn of the millennium, it seemed as if secessionism had peaked, but there has been a resurgence since then, fueled in part by the South Sudanese precedent. This confirms a more general finding that claims to self-determination tend to be contagious (Cunningham & Sawyer, 2017). But secessionism in Africa is a decidedly mixed bag. Many of the separatist organizations really only exist on paper or on websites and can hardly be defined as movements. Such is the case, for example, with numerous members of the Organization of Emerging African States (OEAS), which is an alliance of secessionist formations that is headquartered in Washington, DC.2 But putting these aside, there remain a number of emergent secessionist claims that are credible enough. There is a discernible pattern in terms of the grounding and trajectory of African secessionist movements. First, those that have made the strongest pitch have been able to invoke a historic sense of grievance, typically dating back to the decisions made in the decade on either side of independence. Second, they feed off a sense of material deprivation in the present. Where they are located in resource-rich areas, the typical argument is that wealth is siphoned off with no benefit accruing to the population. In other cases, the complaint is that because they are not at the center of resource extraction, they are left in a state of abject neglect. The combination of claims to historical injustice and current deprivation has enabled movements to frame a moral case and to attract adherents on the basis of promises of a better future. And finally, the response of national authorities has helped to shape the subsequent turn of events. Declarations of secessionist intent have typically been met with force, often resulting in significant loss of life. Sometimes this has served to cow dissenters, but in a number of cases it has justified a countervailing resort to arms. The ease of acquiring firearms in border regions has made it possible to acquire the wherewithal to mount attacks on government installations, signaling the start of guerrilla campaigns of varying degrees of intensity. In what follows, I seek to identify the most significant secessionist outbreaks and the lessons that emerge from viewing them comparatively.

What is striking about African secessionist claims is that almost all of them invoke the precedent of a preexisting state, or a well-defined region, whereas appeals to a people’s inherent right to self-determination are few and far between. This makes African secessionist dynamics rather distinctive. There are six striking cases of the former framing that lend themselves to a close comparison. First, counted among the members of the OEAS is the Front for the Liberation of Cabinda (FLEC), which was established as far back as 1963. Cabinda, a coastal enclave that is separated from the rest of Angola by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was originally a distinct Portuguese protectorate before being merged for administrative purposes in the 1920s. However, the legal status of Cabinda remained ambiguous, and FLEC campaigned for a separate independence from Angola, which, it reminded the world, was endorsed by the OAU. The turning point was the Alvor Agreement of 1975, which the departing Portuguese signed with the Angolan liberation movements, but in the notable absence of FLEC. This agreement defined Cabinda as “an integral and inalienable part of Angola” (Martin, 2018, p. 215). Given that Cabinda is where most of Angola’s oil is produced, FLEC argues that Angolan annexation has been accompanied by looting of the wealth from the region without regard for the well-being of the local population. The likelihood that Cabinda could ever successfully secede is remote, however, given the limited size of the population and the interests of the Angolan regime in maintaining tight control. It has, however, launched at least one high-profile attack. A different kind of enclave is the Caprivi Strip in northeast Namibia. A thin panhandle that was originally intended to grant the German colony access to the Zambezi River, the Caprivi later provided a base for South African Defence Force operations across the border in support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) during the Angolan civil war. This colored its relationship to the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) government after Namibian independence. In 1999, a self-styled Caprivi Liberation Army targeted government installations in Katima Mulilo, the largest town in the region. The subsequent government crackdown pushed many Caprivi activists into exile across the border. Although Caprivi secessionism is certainly not defunct, a guerrilla insurgency has not eventuated.

A third instance is that of the Kenya Coast movement, which has been led by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) since around 2004 (Willis & Gona, 2013). In this case, the dispute dates back to a treaty of 1895, when the sultan of Zanzibar transferred the right to administer a 10-mile coastal strip to the British colonial authorities in return for an annual payment. The ill-defined legal status of the strip became a contentious issue in the 1950s, when African coastal populations and supporters of the sultan locked horns over its future. Although the issue was ostensibly resolved by an agreement of 1963, in which the sultan relinquished his claims, the Kenyatta government’s decision to impose a unitary state was interpreted as a betrayal. Here, a sense of neglect has been compounded by a perceived land grab by people from the interior with connections to the regimes in power. Many backers of the demand for secession maintain that the 1963 agreement only covered a period of 50 years and that in 2013 the population of the coast would enjoy the right to reconsider their political destiny. A new Kenya constitution in 2010 finally introduced a more devolved political dispensation with significant powers residing at the county level. However, in the wake of the disputed Kenyan election of 2017, the governor of Mombasa made a renewed call for secession on the basis that the coast remained excluded from power. A breakaway is something that the authorities in Nairobi could not easily countenance, given that the bulk of state revenues are collected at the port of Mombasa.

Fourth, the Casamance was always an integral part of Senegal but had been treated differentially in the colonial period—to the extent that many separatists have claimed (erroneously) that France intended to grant a separate independence. The manner in which the Gambia scythed through the middle of Senegal, separating the Casamance from Dakar and the heartlands of the Muslim brotherhoods, helped to instill a sense of distance in something more than a purely physical sense. After independence, the Casamance tended to align itself with opposition to the Socialist Party rather than pursuing a separatist agenda. However, this changed in the 1990s, ironically as a consequence of efforts to bind the Casamance more closely to the rest of Senegal. Rather like in coastal Kenya, the official promotion of tourism targeted the region, where northerners were accused of carrying out a land grab of their own. Moreover, it was the growing body of Jola migrants to Dakar who became conscious of their exclusion from a Senegalese political idiom summed up as “Wolofization.” Following heavy-handed repression, the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC) embarked on a military campaign that began with a surprise attack on the Séléty border post with the Gambia in 1990. Over subsequent years, the MFDC enjoyed at least the tacit support of the Jammeh regime in the Gambia and exploited safe havens and access to weaponry from across the Guinea-Bissau border. The MFDC insurgency has witnessed numerous ceasefires and periods of relative peace followed by renewed attacks, assassinations, and the cutting of the main roads (Marut, 2010). The insurgency has been sustained in large part by a profitable trade in forest products in border regions. Claims that the MFDC rebels plan to unify the Casamance, the Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau are rather fanciful, and the MFDC itself is clear that it is aiming for a state of its own.

Fifth, the demand for an independent Southern Cameroons has its origins in the deliberations over the future of the former German colonies that had been reconstituted as United Nations (UN) Trust Territories after the Second World War. The southern section, which had been administered as a part of Nigeria, voted in a UN plebiscite to join the former French UN territory of Cameroun. They formally merged in 1961 on the understanding that under a federal constitution, the Anglophone region would retain a degree of autonomy and that there would be guarantees for the English language. The subsequent unilateral decision to terminate the federation did not provoke an immediate backlash, and much like in the Casamance, there was a tendency for Anglophones to align with the opposition. In 1992, Camerounians even came close to electing an Anglophone president, John Fru Ndi, but the outbreak of internal rivalries enabled Paul Biya to claw his way back to office, and the moment was lost. In 1994, the Bamenda Declaration formally signaled the demand for the separation of “Southern Cameroons,” bringing together the (misleadingly named) southwest and northwest regions. In 2017, a series of demonstrations in the main towns, especially Bamenda, was met with a government crackdown, numerous fatalities, and the flight of over 40,000 refugees into Nigeria. A self-styled Ambazonia Defence Forces, a faction that advocates independence through armed struggle, has since launched its own attacks on the army, possibly signaling the start of something akin to the insurgency in the Casamance.

Finally, Zanzibar is a broadly comparable case in that, although it was always a separate British colony, it voluntarily united with Tanganyika after the revolution of 1964 to form the state of Tanzania. A federal constitution granted considerable autonomy to Zanzibar, but the perceived concentration of power on the mainland, and the increasing politicization of Islam on the islands, culminated in a growing political cleavage. The strategy in this case has been to use the ballot box to cement a majority for the Civic United Front (CUF) on Zanzibar, which could then advance the case for a political divorce. Conversely, the strategy of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) has been to manipulate the election process in order to forestall such an outcome. An important context here is the reckoning that there are substantial offshore oil reserves that would be lost to mainland Tanzania if Zanzibar seceded. The momentum lay with CCM after the CUF boycott of the Zanzibar elections in 2016 left it in total control of the political institutions on the islands.

There are also two cases where the case for independence has been premised in part on a people’s right to self-determination. In Zambia, the case for the independence of Barotseland resides in continuity of the Lozi Kingdom and the fact that it enjoyed a distinct protectorate status within colonial Northern Rhodesia. This reflected the particular importance that the British attached to working through the Lozi monarchy. At independence, the Barotseland Agreement, which was signed by the king and Kenneth Kaunda, seemed to guarantee the special status of the kingdom. But this was abrogated unilaterally and Barotseland, much like the kingdom of Buganda within Uganda, lost its privileged position. Whereas the Copperbelt became the hub of the Zambian economy, the Western Province, which subsumed former Barotseland, was largely left to its own devices. Over the years, there have been appeals for the restoration of the Barotseland Agreement, but some have gone further to demand outright secession. The stakes were raised in 2012 when the “royal household” itself backed the call for an independent state for the Lozi people. The movement is unlike most others in the sense that it is not purely a vehicle of urban elites and that it is explicitly focused on a shared ethnicity. Since 2012, the issue of secession has simmered, without breaking into anything like an armed insurgency. In this case, it is entirely possible that the monarchy would settle for something looking more like regional autonomy.

The other case is that of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria. Here the argument for secession harks back to the Nigerian Civil War, when, following the 1966 coups and pogroms against Igbos in the north of the country, Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu led a breakaway state for three years. In this case, mass violence and killings of Igbo military officers was construed as the point of no return. Biafran propagandists repeatedly played on the claim that the Igbo, who were overwhelmingly Catholic in a largely Muslim country, had been systematically targeted for extermination and that this made it impossible to remain inside Nigeria. However, it was also clear that the Biafran leadership believed that because the oil was located in the southeast, they could construct a viable state without the bothering with the rest of Nigeria. The problem was that this implied the inclusion of the minorities of the oil-producing Niger Delta, who were generally much less enthusiastic. As the fortunes of war turned against Biafra, and images of starving children were relayed to the wider world, some African governments, like those of Tanzania and Zambia, broke ranks and recognized the breakaway state. Following military defeat, there was a conscious effort to bring the southeast back into the Nigerian fold. But secessionist demands have resurfaced in the context of mounting disaffection with perceived northern domination. The Delta minorities complain that they have borne the brunt of environmental degradation while deriving none of the benefits from oil. At the same time, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), which was founded in 1999, and subsequently the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), have alleged that the Igbo have been systematically discriminated against despite their historically high levels of education. The response of President Buhari has been to ban IPOB, arrest its leaders, and embark on a campaign of military repression. This, in turn, has led to an upsurge in armed attacks on representatives of the state. A full-scale insurgency seems some way off, but there are indications that the lines are hardening. What remains unclear is what the borders of an independent Biafra would look like, given the historic opposition of the minorities.


By comparison with secessionism, state-sanctioned irredentism has been rather infrequent. The most obvious exception is the government of Somalia’s claim to populations in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and eastern Kenya, which culminated in a humiliating military defeat for the former in 1977–1978. After the subsequent implosion of the Somali state, irredentism was overtaken by the question of whether the latter ought to be reconstituted or whether the so-called Republic of Somaliland, based on the old British colonial boundaries, should be recognized as an independent country—in effect restoring the territorial divisions among Somali populations.3 The other exception is the irredentist claims pursued by the regime of Idi Amin against several of Uganda’s neighbors in the 1970s. Amin wished to revisit the transfer of highly productive tracts of eastern Uganda to the East African Protectorate (Kenya) in 1902. But it was the invasion of Kagera in northwestern Tanzania that led to war in 1977–1978 and the removal of Amin from power. Since then, the Museveni government has not revived the larger territorial claims, although it has some disputes (see “Border Disputes”). Finally, in the mid-1970s, the Eyadéma regime in Togo questioned the legitimacy of the 1956 plebiscite in British Togoland and appeared to stake a claim to the former UN trust territory. However, the belligerent response of the then military regime in Ghana led the Togolese government to back off, and the issue has passed into abeyance. In the border regions of eastern Ghana, there is some nostalgia for a united Togoland, but no interest in reunification with contemporary Togo.

Most irredentist claims have actually been made by movements that are simultaneously secessionist. Hence the maps that invoke the territory of a greater Barotseland also cover parts of Namibia and Angola. And yet the advocates of Caprivi secession from Namibia have not envisioned rejoining a greater Barotseland, even if their cause enjoys some sympathy on the other side of the border. Although Zanzibari politicians have advocated separation from Tanzania, it is significant that they have not reclaimed the coastal strip from Kenya. Equally, the MRC has not proposed rejoining Zanzibar, which bears its own imperialist burden with respect to the non-Arab populations of the coastline. Paradoxically, therefore, even irredentist agendas have run up against the reality that, at some level, secessionists have an interest in maintaining particular borders. Such contradictions are clearly manifested in the conduct of Tuareg dissidents, who have fought a succession of armed insurgencies against the governments of Niger and Mali, claiming systematic exclusion from power and economic marginalization. But although their armed wings have sometimes cooperated, activists have never come together in pursuit of a single Tuareg state (Gaasholt, 2014, pp. 197–214). The Nigerien Touareg have fought for a greater share of the uranium wealth, and their Malian counterparts have bargained for a more favorable relationship with the center. There was a significant shift in Mali when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) managed to capture much of the country and declared the independence of Azawad in 2012. Crucially, this state was to be carved out of Mali and did not include the Nigerien Tuareg. It did include the Arab populations of northern Mali (Gaasholt, 2014, p. 204), much as the MFDC appealed to both the Jola and Mandinka in the Casamance. In 2013, however, the MNLA abandoned its claim to independence and returned to trying to negotiate integration into Mali on the most favorable terms.

Border Disputes

Whereas secessionist and irredentist agendas pose a direct challenge to the established territorial order, most border disputes are premised on a lack of agreement as to where the boundary line should run, rather than challenging first principles. Unfinished colonial business has been a major factor in fomenting uncertainty. Colonial boundaries were initially defined by imperfect treaties and misleading maps. Ideally, a degree of fixity ensued with physical demarcation by joint boundary commissions. But often one of the parties was missing, or the preliminary decisions were not formally ratified. And where there were more than two parties involved, bilateral agreements created additional confusion—a case in point being the Ilemi Triangle, which is an undemarcated border zone at the interface between Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Where it provided difficult to reconcile the wording of the treaties with the geographical realities, awkward decisions were often postponed indefinitely. Again, border pillars degraded over time or were deliberately moved. Borders that run through the middle of lakes have posed a particular set of challenges pertaining to ownership of islands and fishing grounds. Moreover, given that river boundaries have a habit of altering their course, there are particular problems for deciding on the ownership of islands in floodplains like those created by the Zambezi River.

The politics surrounding border disputes in the early 21st century arises from the fact that while uncertainties abound, the discovery of valuable natural resources—most notably oil and gas offshore and around the lakes—has been a game changer. Precisely for this reason, the African Union Border Programme (AUBP), which was established in 2007 on a platform of turning barriers into bridges, made boundary delimitation and demarcation its immediate priority. The thinking was that climate change was likely to lead to more disputes over water courses, while oil and gas discoveries were likely to raise the stakes elsewhere. The contention was that it would be easier for states to cooperate when they knew exactly where their borders ran. Despite the commitment of member states to complete the demarcation of all their borders, the implementation has been decidedly patchy. As of 2015, Senegal, Mozambique, and Malawi had demarcated the greater part of their borders, but progress elsewhere has been limited—in part because states are heavily reliant on donor support.

Border disputes tend to throw up their own distinct patterns. Where a border has been contested in the past and exploitation of a resource suddenly becomes a realistic prospect, governments rush to reactivate dormant claims. Another common pattern is one in which populations move into uncertain border spaces to exploit fishing grounds, graze cattle, harvest wood fuel, or farm—and either enter into disputes with others seeking to exploit the same niches, or contest the efforts of governments to tax and/or control them. Borderlanders are not innocents in border disputes, therefore, and often invoke the support of the authorities in the country to which they profess allegiance. As local disputes come to the attention of national governments, state agents from either side may enter the contested area. A standoff usually results in an agreement to refrain from further escalating tensions. In cases where there is sufficient mutual trust, a boundary commission is convened and the border is (re‑)demarcated. Such has recently been the case on the border between the Casamance and the Gambia where insufficient (and disappearing) pillars led to some confusion as to where the border ran. Where trust is sorely lacking, the dispute may be sent to arbitration or, more commonly, referred to the ICJ for resolution (Oduntan, 2015). Such was the case with the Mali-Burkina Faso dispute over the Agacher strip, which involved relatively minor clashes in 1974 and a more serious round of fighting in 1985. This dispute was settled by the ICJ, and the border has since been demarcated to general satisfaction. In 1981, the dispute between Nigeria and Cameroun over the Bakassi peninsula threatened to escalate into a full-blown military confrontation. Again, the case was referred to the ICJ, and in 2002 a final decision was made in favor of Cameroun. Although the Nigerian government faced considerable domestic opposition, it proclaimed its willingness to abide by the judgment. This case is of particular interest because it confirms the role of borderlanders as parties to the disputes. The Nigerian legal position was based on the original agreement signed by the British and the rulers of Old Calabar, whose people today continue to fish in an area that they claim as their homeland. The Nigerian government case and the interests of the Efik populations therefore became closely intertwined. But when Nigeria prepared to hand over Bakassi, disgruntled Efik populations, who considered they had been sold out, threatened to declare their own independence.

As one might expect, formal separation and the de facto breakup of existing states has been conducive to border conflicts. The Somaliland and Puntland authorities have repeatedly clashed over their notional border, with the former invoking the historic boundaries of British Somaliland and the latter emphasizing the primacy of clan affiliations. Because neither entity is a recognized state, there is no possibility of submitting their dispute to the ICJ. In the case of the border dispute between Sudan and South Sudan, by contrast, sovereign states locked horns. The complication is that a decision on South Sudanese independence was taken without having resolved the question of their common border (Johnson, 2014). Given that the most valuable oilfields were located in the borderlands, and the enmity between the two sides was deep-seated, this was a situation ripe for conflict. The immediate source of discord was over the oil-rich Abyei region, which was eventually addressed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The latter made a partial determination and left the rest to be decided by a future referendum. In 2012, a full-scale war erupted when the South Sudanese invaded the Heglig oilfield. Having fought to a standstill, both sides accepted the mediation of former South African president Thabo Mbeki. An agreement was reached in 2013 that created a demilitarized zone and permitted South Sudan, a landlocked state, to export its own oil through Sudan. Although the South Sudanese government was accused of backing rebels in Sudan, it increasingly became embroiled in its own civil war, which diverted its attention elsewhere.

Although most disputes have been resolved after relatively minor incidents, there have been more substantial military confrontations. The Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi staked a historical claim to the Aouzou strip in northern Chad, based on an unratified agreement that Mussolini made with France in 1935, but also informed by the known existence of uranium deposits (Naldi, 1989, p. 73). Libya annexed the strip in 1975, and because the regime in Chad was supported by Qaddafi in its ongoing civil war, the occupation was not immediately contested. However, the subsequent victory of Hissene Habre signaled the determination of Chad to reclaim Aouzou. With French air support, Chad went to war with Libya in 1987. Eventually, the Chadian forces prevailed after two rounds of heavy fighting. The case was finally referred to the ICJ, which, in basing its judgment on an agreement of 1955 between France and Libya, effectively found in favor of Chad in 1994.4

By far, the most costly border conflict is the war that was fought between Eritrea and Ethiopia, between 1998 and 2000, over the area surrounding the unprepossessing town of Badme. It began with a skirmish between officials from the two sides and culminated in the death of some 80,000–100,000 people. Ethiopia eventually gained the military upper hand, and a peace treaty was signed in December 2000 (Abbink, 2003, p. 220). In this instance, the conflict was especially bitter because a border dispute was superimposed on a series of issues that had divided the two parties since the breakaway of Eritrea—including Ethiopian access to the Red Sea (Negash & Tronvoll, 2000). The two sides agreed to refer their dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The subsequent Boundary Commission allocated Badme to Eritrea, although some land passed to Ethiopia in the other direction. Ethiopia eventually pulled back from Badme, but there was a renewed outbreak of fighting on a different stretch of border to the east in 2016 Although, it remained the most highly militarized border in Africa, there was an unexpected rapprochement between the governments in 2018, which led to pledges on both sides to normalize the border.

The disputes that are newly emergent mostly concern maritime and lake borders. Two maritime disputes, which have acquired some prominence because of the discovery of significant offshore oil and gas deposits, are those between Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, and between Somalia and Kenya. In the first case, the two sides agreed to take their dispute to court. In 2017, the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) found in favor of Ghana, which had already issued contracts for oil exploration. In the second case, Kenya’s signature of exploration contracts with foreign oil companies spurred the Somalis into action. The case is ongoing before the ICJ. The lake disputes include the tiny island of Migingo on Lake Victoria, which is claimed by Uganda and Kenya. Conforming to a familiar pattern, the latter partly claims the island on the basis that the fishing communities are Luo and therefore, by extension, Kenyan.

A more hotly disputed case involves Malawi and Tanzania over Lake Malawi/Lake Nyasa. The Malawians have recourse to the Germano–British treaty of 1890 that defined the shoreline as the boundary of Tanganyika and thus conferred the lake itself on what was then Nyasaland. The Tanzanian government insists that the border runs through the lake and has asserted its presence in order to underline its claim. The dispute looms large in Malawian politics because the lake matters disproportionately to what is, after all, a small landlocked country.

Borderland Insurgencies

In the decades since independence, countless insurgencies have incubated in border regions, and many have gone on to shape larger political constellations. Within conflict-prone regions—notably in the Great Lakes, the Sahel, and the Horn—insurgent movements have proliferated and have fed off complex systems of alliances. Some of the latest research deploys social network analysis to map the relationships between armed groups in such turbulent border regions (Radil, 2018; Walther, Leuprecht, & Skillicorn, 2018). Some insurgencies have swept inward from the margins to capture the political center, whereas in other cases armed groups have contented themselves with detaching the borderlands from governmental control. In practice, a clear-cut distinction is problematic because the objectives of movements shift over time at the same time that fresh opportunities present themselves. The checkered career of Laurent Kabila in the DRC is a classic example. Kabila cut his teeth in the rebellions against the Mobutu regime in the 1960s, when his path famously crossed with that of Che Guevara. For three decades, Kabila remained holed up in the Fizi enclave, close to the Burundi and Tanzania borders. It was only in 1997 that the weakening of Mobutu’s Western alliances and the opportunities afforded by the installation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) government in Rwanda presented an opportunity for Kabila to march on Kinshasa. Other movements that have aspired to seize power have simply failed to muster sufficient force to break out of their enclaves—or they have become preoccupied with milking the opportunities for engaging in, and taxing, cross-border trade.

An example of a movement that worked inward from the margins was the RPF itself, which was constituted by exiles/refugees who had helped Yoweri Museveni to victory in Uganda. In 1990, the RPF launched an invasion from Ugandan territory that stalled. Over the next three years, it sustained a guerrilla campaign from the border zone until the outbreak of genocide provided the rationale for a full-scale invasion. While the RPF took control of Kigali, supporters of the former regime fled into eastern Congo, from where they launched their own raids into Rwanda. This prompted an invasion of DRC by Rwanda and Uganda, among others, and set off a bloody and ongoing conflict in North and South Kivu involving numerous militias—some claiming to represent the autochthons, others representing Tutsis living in the DRC, and still others representing Hutu génocidaires who had crossed over from Rwanda. The war economy that sustains regional conflict is underpinned by the systematic trafficking of resources, including diamonds and gold, through borders. Another example is provided by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which, under the leadership of Charles Taylor, initially mounted an invasion from Côte d’Ivoire. The NPFL pursued a brutal war of attrition, targeting areas that had supported Samuel Doe. The NPFL would almost certainly have seized Monrovia, but for the military intervention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which feared a regional contagion. Meanwhile, the NPFL spread the insurgency to neighboring Sierra Leone, where the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) deployed the earnings from diamonds in the eastern borderlands to embark on its own quest for national power. When Nigeria eventually grew weary of its peacekeeping commitments, an agreement was signed that prepared the way for the elections that brought Taylor to power in 1997. Fittingly, Taylor’s own downfall began with two other guerrilla insurgencies launched from the borders with Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.

An example of a movement that has been content to work the border is that of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a millenarian movement that has created widespread disruption across northern Uganda. The LRA has never been in the business of seizing state power and has preyed off civilian populations in the borderlands. Despite the powerful enemies ranged against it, including the United States, the LRA has successfully exploited the spaces that governments in the neighboring states of South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), and the DRC cannot, or choose not, to control. An emerging subset is the insurgencies that have proliferated across the Horn and West Africa by various Islamist groups claiming adherence to Al-Qaeda or ISIS. In the former Somalia, al-Shabaab is an outgrowth of the Islamic Courts movement, which attempted to reassemble some of the pieces of Somalia, in the shape of an Islamic state, before Ethiopia intervened. It notionally aspires to statehood, but most of its activities hinge on bombing campaigns in Somalia and neighboring countries and in raiding across the Kenya and Ethiopia borders. Boko Haram has its own origins in an urban movement that was explicitly opposed to Western influence and advocated a return to the roots within Islam. After the death of its leader, it retreated to the northeast, close to the borders with Cameroun and Chad, and made full use of the cover provided by the Sambisa Forest. From here, it mounted a successful campaign against the Nigerian army, even if its attacks became increasingly concentrated on the border zone (Dowd, 2018, pp. 126–129). In proclaiming adherence to the Caliphate declared by the Islamic State, Boko Haram signaled its intention to carve out a territory that did not necessarily reference existing borders. Hence its leader, Abubakar Shekau, proclaimed, “We are in an Islamic Caliphate. We have nothing to do with Nigeria” (Dowd, 2018, p. 120). The threat posed to Cameroun and Chad finally elicited a coordinated regional response, and Boko Haram was dislodged from its border strongholds (Emmanuel, 2018). Since then, it has reverted to a campaign of urban bombings in Nigeria. In northern Mali, the Azawad secessionist bid briefly intersected with the efforts of Ansar Dine to set up an Islamic state in Mali. Ansar Dine, which allegedly has links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), crossed the Algerian border with military equipment that was moved out of Libya after the demise of Qaddafi. Although MNLA and Ansar Dine both bid for Tuareg support, the fundamental incompatibility between their territorial objectives made a rift almost inevitable. Moreover, French intervention enabled the Malian government to recapture control of the territory that had been seized. However, insurgents who find themselves on the back foot experience little difficulty in crossing the border with a view to fighting another day. In the Sahara, much like in the Great Lakes, there remains a close connection between organized smuggling and rebel activity (Scheele, 2012).


Conflict dynamics across Africa have produced extremely high numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs)—estimated at some 12.5 million at the end of 2013—as well as refugees who make up another 18 million.5 Both are entangled with the politics of borders in their own complex ways. Whereas IDPs have often congregated near to borders, refugees are defined as such by virtue of having crossed one (or more). In practice, many of those who move through borders to escape violence join kinsmen on the other side and are never formally registered as refugees—as has repeatedly been the case during peaks in the Casamance conflict. IDPs and refugees have been construed not merely as humanitarian challenges, but often as a significant factor in the larger political equation. For states that abut onto zones of instability, it is considered preferable, other things being equal, that the IDPs should not cross, for fear of triggering international obligations. But at the same time, the presence of large numbers of IDPs generally increases the need for a state presence on the opposite side. Refugees pose political problems for governments in both the exporting and receiving countries. For the refugee-exporting countries, the loss of populations is not necessarily unwelcome in and of itself, and indeed the intention is often to drive them out. But refugee camps in neighboring countries are often construed as the breeding grounds for grievance and future insurrections, as the Rwandan experience clearly exemplifies. For the receiving countries, the challenge is to ensure that refugees are shielded from national politics as far as possible. Refugee camps tend, therefore, to be established well away from the capital cities and are typically embedded in border regions, where they perform a buffering function. Such is the case with the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, which consists of four camps close to the Somali border and which is home to nearly 235,000 refugees. The Bidi Bidi settlement in the borderlands of northwestern Uganda, which was opened to accommodate a flood of South Sudanese refugees in 2016, has reputedly overtaken Dadaab as the world’s largest refugee concentration, with some 285,000 residents. Uganda has tended to favor a more open form of refugee settlement rather than closed camps, whereas Kenya has restricted their movements. Refugee camps harbor some threats from the perspective of the host countries. Hence Kenya announced plans to close Dadaab in 2016, citing al-Shabaab infiltration, although it later backtracked in the face of international appeals. Refugee populations, and increasingly IDPs, are a political football kicked between international agencies, national governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), insurgent movements, and many other players besides.

Electoral Politics at the Margins

In the era of multiparty politics, border populations have related to the electoral cycle in their own distinct ways. Refugee populations have generally been unable to vote in the receiving countries by virtue of not being citizens. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was able to ensure that some Malian refugees who were living in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Mauritania were able to vote in 2013, and this was repeated for CAR refugees living in Cameroun and the Republic of Congo in 2015 (Lejeune-Kaba, 2017). The IOM performed a similar exercise for Libyan refugees in 2012 and 2014. But the general experience has been one of dislocation and disenfranchisement.

Given that border regions often serve as magnets for migrant populations, they are often the repositories of large numbers of votes for which political parties compete. Politicians on the campaign trail are likely not only to be regaled with standard complaints about the inadequacies of local infrastructure but also to be confronted with comparisons with conditions on the other side of the line. Aspirant politicians seek to signal their understanding of the border situation. Indeed, they may be well versed in boundary dynamics and even finance their campaigns from the proceeds of cross-border trade (Hüsken, 2018, pp. 902, 912). At the same time, given the close connection between border populations, the question of who has the right to vote can be contentious. In Ghana, which does not have a national identity card, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) has repeatedly alleged that large numbers of Togolese regularly register and turn out to vote for the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in national elections. Similarly, in the Zambia election of 2016, the incumbent Patriotic Front is alleged to have assisted nationals from Malawi and the DRC to register and then to cast their ballots (Sishuwa, 2018). The demand that only citizens should be allowed to participate presumes that people possess a single nationality and that it is easy to differentiate citizens from aliens. In practice, border populations are often intermarried, maintain multiple residences, and have a foot in both countries. By targeting border populations as foreigners, it is of course easier for politicians to prevent people from voting.

The Politics of Cross-Border Trade and Transport

Cross-border trade and politics have intersected in ways that go beyond the logic of the war economy. A larger study points to the ways in which political alliances within entrepôt states such as the Gambia, Togo, and Benin have revolved around the license given to large merchants and smaller traders to engage in the contraband trade (Nugent, 2019). Togo famously became the regional hub for a re-export trade in textiles, most notably Dutch wax prints, that entered through the port of Lomé (Sylvanus, 2016). While the state took its cut in the shape of import duties, the market women of Lomé, the so-called Nana Benz, consolidated a privileged position by virtue of their intimate alliance with the ruling party. Moreover, large numbers of ordinary people carved out a living through working the border with Ghana—as traders, porters, drivers and much else. Similarly, political alliances in the Gambia hinged on the export of smuggled groundnuts in one direction and the import of consumer goods in the other. The contraband complex in the entrepôt states bore serious implications for political alliances in the neighboring states, where governments attempted to rally urban support around the promise of increased formal employment and cheap consumer goods emanating from state-owned enterprises. In practice, producer prices for cash crops were squeezed in order to maximize government revenues, while parastatals produced commodities that were actually more expensive. This created incentives to engage in smuggling. Africa boasts the only example of two capital cities that face each other across an international border, namely Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Moreover, some of the continent’s fastest-growing cities, like Goma in the eastern DRC (now home to more than a million people), are located on international borders (Soi & Nugent, 2017). In these cities, livelihoods are intimately bound up with the workings of the border economy. This has a significant bearing on urban politics, where loyalty to incumbent regimes is often tenuous at best. Although governments may feel impelled to regulate cross-border trade, they are also conscious of the fact that it sustains urban incomes. This means that it is necessary to tolerate certain infractions of the law in order to shore up political support. Ironically, in a country like Senegal some of the key allies of the former ruling party—the Mourides—became deeply implicated in a contraband trade that was truly regional and which pulled the rug from beneath the government’s economic policies.

Since the millennium, the winding up of parastatals, the removal of many subsidies, and the influx of cheap Chinese goods, including fake textiles, has threatened to reorient much of the trade to the disadvantage of the entrepôt states. At the same time, regional integration initiatives across the continent seek to standardize and harmonize both customs duties and internal tax rates, thereby squeezing economic rents. However, the pace of reform is highly uneven by virtue of the vested interests of manufacturing lobbies and concerns about the rising cost of living among consumers. Hence Nigeria has sought to delay implementation of the common external tariff while maintaining schedules of strategic commodities that retain a measure of protection. The attempt to shield Nigerian industry has led to renewed imports through the port of Cotonou and increased smuggling through the land borders—thereby granting Benin a fresh lease on life as an entrepôt state.

The politics of cross-border transport is seeded into politics in its own way. Whereas regional integration nominally aims at facilitating the flow of goods along designated transport corridors, national transport associations lobby governments for a deal that is most favorable to themselves. Hence governments have been required to negotiate the sharing of cargo between transporters emanating from different sides of the border. Responding to pressure from its own transporters, Nigeria has effectively prevented vehicles from its neighbors from participating in the transit trade. Across the continent, transport associations have resorted to strikes and physical blockades as a mode of applying pressure. Between 2000 and 2016, Senegalese truckers imposed no fewer than six blockades at the Gambia border to draw attention to the decrepit state of the infrastructure, high fees, and official corruption (“Gambia, Senegal,” 2016). In each case, the Senegalese government was forced to intercede with the Gambian authorities to resolve the underlying issues. Truckers have similarly struck at the busy Kasumbalesa crossing at the DRC–Zambia border, citing not just corruption but acute personal insecurity. Some regional lobby groups, such as the Borderless Alliance in West Africa, support transporters in practical ways, systematically map illegal checkpoints, and lobby national governments over the non-tariff barriers to regional trade. The various Regional Economic Communities (RECs) apply their own pressure on national governments to ensure that officials at the borders are aware of, and respect, regional agreements on the freedom of movement of people and goods. One practical problem is that the institutional mechanisms for tackling governance challenges at the border often do not exist. There are almost no structures that enable local decision makers to work together across borders. This is even true of the structures that are intended to co-manage water resources, such as the Gambia and Senegal River Basin Organizations in West Africa. National governments tend to be jealous masters and prefer that consultations pass through the ministries in the capital city. The contacts between border officials, local government officials, and traditional authorities therefore tend to take place under the radar. When there is an issue that they cannot settle informally, it often takes an escalation of the problem to attract the attention of the respective centers. At moments of crisis, different governance scales become compacted.


This article has set out to demonstrate the fundamental importance of borders to political dynamics in Africa. Because the exercise of sovereignty notionally begins and ends at the physical border, state actors have an interest in advancing and defending their claims over border regions. These are advanced both in relation to the countervailing claims of other states and those of movements that may aspire to break away or merely create their own de facto autonomy. The sovereignty equation is also what defines the status of refugees and the manner in which this is operationalized spatially. Borders in Africa are often associated with conflict, but with some notable exceptions states themselves have settled their disputes through legal processes rather than by force of arms. Movements that lack international legitimacy and yet are well positioned to exploit the weakness of the central authority are more likely to engage in protracted insurgencies. At the same time, African borderlands are also sites of rapid demographic growth and of economic dynamism, especially in coastal West Africa and the Great Lakes region. For that reason, the borderlands feature prominently in the political equation at the national and transnational levels. At the same time, the livelihoods that grow up around the existence of the border have an important bearing on why borders persist and the way in which power relations play out in the borderlands. The micropolitics of borders, which is embodied in the practices of the everyday, is integrally connected to politics that plays out at other scales.


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  • 1. The Cairo Resolution is shorthand for “Border Disputes Among African States,” AHG/Res. 16(1) of 1964.

  • 2. See Organization of Emerging African States (OEAS).

  • 3. Puntland remained formally committed to the idea of Somali but has become a de facto separate entity.

  • 4. Judgment at International Court of Justice.

  • 5. Nigeria, South Sudan, and DRC have the most IDPs.