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Reevaluating the African Approach toward Resolving Border Issues

Imagine that you are a stranger to the town as well as to the country, sitting at a table on the terrace of a café on a sidewalk along a narrow but bustling street. Amid the relaxed atmosphere, your eyes capture suddenly a strip of black square brick tiles with interspersed white crosses on them, running on the ground and passing underneath your table. You sense that what you are looking at is strange, but you do not know yet what it is that makes it strange. Your eyes follow the line, scrutinising it backwards and forwards, and you take notice that it runs right up to the front wall of the café behind you. Just in front of you, the black strip runs across the street, crosses over the opposite sidewalk and goes up to the closed door of a multi-story apartment building. A closer look around brings to your notice, just a few steps before you, letters of the alphabet painted in white on either side of the line: ‘B’ and ‘NL’. You do not need to ask anyone what this whole combination of things is all about, because the idea ultimately sinks in: You are just sitting right on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands.

Such is, nowadays, the reality of the border phenomenon one is likely to encounter within the European Union (EU). The case is intended to illustrate how far personal attitudes and behaviors, government philosophies and policies, and organisational systems and practices can possibly evolve and stretch with regard to borders if people are willing to let them. That borders are where they should be only to serve ultimately – not to encroach on or work against – the common interests of the people who put them there by common consent demonstrates itself in an unambiguous manner.

The European Union’s existing formal border management practice, as represented above, appears in direct contrast with its current counterpart in Africa. In fact, the parallel is beyond comparison. Despite aspiration and rhetoric, arguably, the African Union (AU) has not yet articulated clearly, and is not able to enforce, a continental, all-encompassing and binding package of philosophy, policy and strategy governing border management regimes uniformly and effectively. Given this reality, it may be too much to imagine border control circumstances in Africa to transform in the near future to any significant degree, let alone to the degree prevailing within the EU.

Taking such a position may not serve one so well, especially considering the possibility that comparing Europe and Africa leads to much graver historical rancor than comparing two different ordinary things, like apples and oranges. And yet, at least, it does not indicate any desire to disregard the existence in Africa of an established tradition in which people interact freely and peacefully across borders. Nor does it mean that borders are a new, challenging or incomprehensible phenomenon for Africans. Rather, by taking that position, our concern turns out to be much more fundamental, that African states, individually as well as collectively, have yet to justify – by any practical measure and primarily to the benefit of their own people – why they should go on maintaining their existing border management regimes. In other words, it is high time that African states and their governments investigated, more seriously now than ever before, how well the systems they claim to have put in place have been serving the interests of the nation, meaning the interests of the respective citizens. After all, no matter what the specific objectives of a particular sovereign state are, the ultimate goal of effective border management should be ensuring the highest possible well-being for the people constituting the state.[1]

The challenges and issues surrounding the management of borders in Africa are diverse and complex. Reducing them to categories, some of these challenges and issues tend to be philosophical, others historical, and still a few others something else. Starting from the philosophical aspects, we find that states in Africa have yet to redefine and comprehend certain core and prerequisite concepts, and see if they can align or streamline their views and interests accordingly. For instance, we can mention two alternative paradigms identified in the theoretical world. According to one view, nation-states behave as if they were the single most important players on the international arena, and the boundaries between them strict dividing lines shielding state sovereignty and national security.[2] Components of this line of reasoning date back to the colonial era. It is easy to discern that states that have their border management policies and practices oriented along this line of reasoning are more likely to exhibit borders that are closed, fenced, walled, and, sometimes, militarised.

Another view is that states do not have to be the only – not even the major – political players in cross-border and international relations.[3] This position determines that state borders have as a principal function allowing and enabling neighbors and other international players to interact more freely and smoothly. Territorial disputes and border conflicts will not have a chance under these circumstances. Instead, the development of cross-border communications and infrastructure, and other beneficial undertakings will flourish. In a much similar fashion, one can call upon other alternative views for investigation. However, the point to be made here is that, given at least some of the border issues in Africa, it does not seem that the border situations will ever improve unless the views of African leaders happen to evolve in accordance with the demands of the times.

Looking at other dimensions, we may find that the effective management of national borders in Africa appears to have been hamstrung by certain historical excuses and narratives. This happens with regard to two aspects of the continent’s colonial history: the imposition of the nation-state model and the arbitrary nature of boundary delimitation and demarcation. The reason why arbitrariness has become a special issue in Africa is related particularly to how the current states were established by the colonial powers, including the manner in which they transported or, rather, implemented their nation-state model in the continent.

The nation-state model, as we know it now, had its definitive historical emergence with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Historians assert that these events heralded not only a new period of peace in Europe but also the advent of a modern era that did not tolerate countries’ being the personal possessions of monarchs. What is more, Westphalia saw to it that the territorial integrity of other nations was respected, and that rulers had the right to determine the affairs of their respective states, freeing them from external intrusions.[4]

The Peace of Westphalia did, indeed, live up to its name as far as the wars in Europe at the time were concerned. It ended both the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War by bringing the warring parties back to their senses. It was instrumental in the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, as well. However, critics of the ‘Westphalian System’ of nation-states question the significance of copy-pasting this system as it is in contexts like those in Africa.[5] In their view, the system was, in the first place, a European response to a European problem, thus suiting the prevailing situations there. Our taking on this should be that its exportation and application elsewhere depended for success on how similar and conducive situations were within the host societies.

Two questions arise demanding further scrutiny in this respect. First, there is the question of the manner in which the Westphalian model had contributed to the challenges African states have been encountering with regard to their borders, whether directly or indirectly. We can argue that, in Africa, the Westphalian System was not only unsuitable but also unsolicited. The circumstances in the continent had been such that Westphalia or its prescriptions had to be superimposed in their entirety, often by force, onto pre-existing indigenous systems.[6] Indigenous societies that were originally brought into strong social, economic and political cohesion within time-tested local cultural, ethnic, religious and other boundaries had had to contend with alien regimes. At least in this context, the said nation-state model has contributed to the social, economic and political turmoil that has prevailed in post-colonial Africa.

The second question relates to how much African states, and regional and continental organisations have so far done to rectify the problem. There can be no doubt that early contemporary African political leaders have always had a clear understanding of the depth and magnitude of the difficulties the boundary situation would initiate once leadership had passed to indigenous hands. As a result, different individuals or groups of individuals had put forth what they thought were best for the continent. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) played a pivotal role, in 1964, in bringing all the then-independent states together whereby, for the sake of peace and stability in the continent, they acquiesced in keeping the territory transferred to them at the time of independence. The idea behind such an agreement was to refrain from questioning the doctrinal mould from which territorial sovereignty was established in each state’s case. And, in so doing, they sought to maintain peace among neighbouring African states, and work towards an ultimate, long-term political unity at a continental level.[7]

It is public knowledge now that the arrangement did not succeed in either preventing the border disputes and conflicts or unifying the continent as a single political entity. Half a century after the agreement, Africa has yet to show any real breakthrough in relation to just the most fundamental prerequisites of a sound border regime: boundary delimitation and demarcation. According to existing data, not more than a quarter of the inter-state borders are currently demarcated.[8]

This does not mean, however, that efforts to change the status quo are in short supply. Much to its credit, the AU, torchbearer of the defunct OAU, established the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in 2007 under the umbrella of the Peace and Security Department (PSD) of the African Union Commission (AUC). Its objectives are: (i) the delimitation and demarcation of African boundaries where such exercise has not yet taken place; (ii) the reinforcement of the integration process, within the framework of the regional economic communities (RECs) and other large-scale cooperation initiatives; (iii) the development, within the framework of the RECs and other regional integration initiatives, of local cross-border cooperation; and (ii) capacity building in the area of border management, including the development of special education and research programmes.[9]

It is no accident that the AUBP decided to leverage the RECs for its success. Article 3(I) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (CAAU) itself stipulates, for the “gradual attainment” of its objectives, that the AUC utilises the institutional capabilities of the RECs.[10] Much closer at home, cognisant of this responsibility and those delegated to it through its own charter, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been engaged in programmes and initiatives that aimed at improving cross-border relations between its member states.

The region that is represented by IGAD, the broader Horn of Africa (HoA), has a number of special characteristics that rather add to the persistence of border-related problems in the region. The borderlands in question are arid and semi-arid, barely habitable and scant in resources that can support livelihoods other than pastoralism, which is itself increasingly being negatively affected by climate change. Added to the natural forces, historical circumstances and decades of deficient governance have been rendering these borderlands increasingly inhospitable even to some of the hardiest people in the world. Poverty, disease, drought, hunger, communal or ethnic friction and conflict have been typical descriptions of the HoA border areas. Emerging events are increasingly piling up new issues and worsening the impacts of existing problems. Extensive degradation of the natural environment, the proliferation of modern weapons or their easy accessibility, profitability of smuggling and trafficking operations of illegal commodities and people, and expansion of large-scale development projects, are new additions to the already too crowded list.

That these problems are quite serious and that they are occurring along almost all the borders of member states of the AU or IGAD indicates one thing: the best chance to resolve them resides in the ability of member states to muster their strength and act in unison. Both the AU and IGAD have instituted several continental and regional mechanisms, respectively, intended to address the issues at different stages and levels. For instance, the AUBP’s integrated border management strategy has outlined ways to tackle all the multi-faceted border-related problems in a comprehensive and innovative manner.[11] It has championed the blending of time-tested global models with indigenous ones, meant to deal suitably with the problems in accordance with their specific characteristics. For its part, IGAD has issued a number of mechanisms including, for instance, the Minimum Integration Programme (MIP) intended to fast-track the integration process with a view to compensate for lost time relative to the AU schedule and the progress some other RECs have accomplished.

In closing, it may be essential as a stakeholder and citizen to judiciously point out one thing at this juncture: Owing to the extraordinary gravity and breadth of the problems affecting borders and borderland people, RECs, especially IGAD, and the AU should explore changing their respective modus operandi. Given the size of the assemblage of declarations, protocols, agreements, programmes, and other frameworks, it is difficult to imagine the shortage of these as an excuse for some degree of change not to occur in the status quo of contemporary border-related problems. Years are passing, with these formalities making little difference on the ground.

Berhanu Lemma is a researcher and consultant with long standing experience in defense and security sector management and capacity building. He is the head of the Border  Management and Security Programme at the The Borders Institute (TBI), a regional non-governmental organization focusing on research and consultancy on border issues. Berhanu Lemma can be reached at


[1] Annette Weber. Boundaries with Issues: Soft Border Management as a Solution? January 2012. Perspectives, FES Eastern Africa.

[2] Vladimir Kolossov, “Border Studies: Changing Perspectives and Theoretical Approaches,” Geopolitics 10 (2005): 612.

[3] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A.C. McEwen, International Boundaries of East Africa (Oxford, 1971) 21 – 27.

[8] Wafula Okumu, “Border Management and Security in Africa,” Researchgate. Available:

[9] Declaration on the African Union Border Programme and Its Implementation Modalities, Addis Ababa, 7 June 2007.

[10] OAU, “The Constitutive Act of the African Union (CAAU)”, Lome, Togo, 11 July 2000.

[11] African Union Commission, “Draft African Union Strategy for Enhancing Border Management in Africa,” Addis Ababa, May 2012.

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