[We] have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot 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. Lord Salisbury
It’s common knowledge that the territories of African countries are an inheritance of colonial rule. These territories correspond to the borders between the old colonial empires, which in turn were the result of occupation, aggression, imperialism and balance of power politics. The “scramble for Africa” resulted in a partition of the continent that took little notice of ethnic groups or pre-colonial African states and that has survived the end of colonialism:
[T]he “Scramble for Africa” … started with the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 and was completed by the turn of the 20th century. In this brief period, the prospective colonisers partitioned Africa into spheres of influence, protectorates, colonies, and free-trade areas. The borders were designed in European capitals at a time when Europeans had barely settled in Africa with little knowledge of the geography and ethnic composition of the areas whose borders they were designing. Despite their arbitrariness these boundaries endured after African independence. As a result, in most African countries a significant fraction (around 40-45%) of the population belongs to groups that have been partitioned by a national border. (source)
However, before we get into the story about the link between this historic fact and current ethnic troubles in Africa, I have to make a few general remarks about borders and diversity. All countries, not just those in Africa, are culturally and ethnically diverse. They are all the product of aggression and none of them correspond to divisions between ethnic groups. And this diversity is not in itself a problem. On the contrary: diversity is good because it helps to promote tolerance and it enriches our thinking and feeling. Purity, on the other hand, leads to exclusion and expulsion. The ideal of national purity is therefore not acceptable.
It follows that political states which do not perfectly align with pre-existing ethnic or national communities are not, by definition, problematic. And neither are they “unnatural”. If anything, ethnic diversity is the natural condition of states.
At the same time, we have to admit that national or ethnic groups may desire national self-determination and a state of their own, separate from other groups. This desire may spring from a history of hostility between groups, a hostility which is believed to endanger the cultural, linguistic or ethnic survival of groups. In extreme cases, this hostility leads to more than just difficult cohabitation and results in separatist conflict and civil war. To some extent, this is also the case in Africa. With the emphasis on “also”.
We should also remember that well-functioning democracies can deal with such problems, to a certain extent, and can do so a lot better than alternative forms of government. A democracy protects minority rights, religious freedom, tolerance and local self-government. The idea that a strong government is necessary to keep hostile groups from attacking each other is a myth. Violent suppression of antagonism will only make it worse in the long run.
However, those democratic solutions may not always prevent extreme hostilities between ethnic groups within a political state. Hence, secession or other ways of redrawing borders may be necessary.
The fact that many African countries have their fair share of ethnic conflict is, in part, the consequence of dysfunctional or absent democratic governance, but also of the history of colonialism. The colonial powers imposed the borders of African countries without consulting the populations or their leaders. These powers had neither self-determination nor peaceful coexistence in mind, only their own interests. African national liberation movements took those borders as given and had no interest in questioning them, which was understandable given the risks of conflicts with newly independent neighboring countries.
Because African borders cut across ethnic lines, politics in many African countries has, to this day, a strong ethnic and tribal component. (But, again, the same is true in many countries outside Africa). When combined with dysfunctional or absent democratic governance, tribal politics often leads to violence: minority ethnic groups feel excluded from power or discriminated in other ways; ethnic brethren in neighboring countries may feel the need to intervene; and so on. Difficult to say which is the dominant cause: 19th century map drawing or bad governance, or perhaps something else entirely, such poverty, resources or crime.
When we look at governance, the Europeans share part of the blame for present-day authoritarianism in Africa:
Africans often didn’t live in anything like the absolutist ethnic states which Europeans wanted them to live in — which would have made it easier to govern them [and extract labor and resources] — so Europeans colonial administrators worked very hard to create absolutist ethnic tribal groups and then force Africans to live in them. This is not to say that ethnicity didn’t exist before colonization; that sort of generalization is also hard to sustain, as most continental level generalizations are. But the general rule was that the sort of political state which was suited for organizing and controlling a population’s labor and resources did not exist before colonial rule, and had to be invented, and was, by Europeans. (source)
And Europeans also share part of the blame for the role of ethnicity in present-day conflicts. Not only did they draw the borders without regard for ethnicity, they in a sense enhanced the importance of ethnicity in Africa:
“Gikuyu,” for example, means “farmer,” and it distinguished the people (in what is now Kenya) who lived by farming, and took a pride in it, from the people who lived a more pastoral life in the same area, and spoke a different language. But the groups intermarried, crossed over, and traded with each other when they felt like it, and neither was a single political group anyway; there was no Maasai state or nation, nor was there a Gikuyu nation. That is, until Europeans — with their maps and censuses — decided that there was, and codified it into colonial law. After that, there were such “ethnic” groups. (source)
Not surprising then that there’s authoritarianism and tribalism in Africa today. However, there’s more than that. The colonial experience and the colonial need for authoritarian government created long running authoritarian national structures as well as national feelings and “peoples”, despite the artificial nature of African states. That’s why there are strong feelings of patriotism across ethnic groups in most African countries. Again, just like anywhere else in the world.
So, with this bit of context, I hope we can avoid simplistic and monocausal narratives about artificial African countries torn apart by ancient tribalism, and about the long term effects of 19th century map drawing by ignorant and self-interested Europeans. A lot of other stuff also explains current violence in Africa, and Africans aren’t simply tribalists.
But still, we have to acknowledge that map drawing and tribalism does explain something. This paper (also here) shows
how arbitrary border decisions have affected war and civil unrest in Africa, particularly among split ethnic groups and their neighbors. Not surprisingly, the length of a conflict and its casualty rate is 25 percent higher in areas where an ethnicity is divided by a national border as opposed to areas where ethnicities have a united homeland. Examples of divided (and conflicted) groups are the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Anyi of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The conflict rate is also higher for people living in areas close to ethnic-partitioned hot-spots. … Using a 1959 ethnic homeland map from ethnolinguist George Peter Murdock, the authors studied African conflicts from 1970 – 2005 (the “post-independence period”) and found that “civil conflict is concentrated in the historical homeland of partitioned ethnicities.” (source)
ethnic homeland map from ethnolinguist George Peter Murdock, merged with map of current national borders, showing partitioned ethnicities
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a more detailed version of the Murdock map:
1959 ethnic homeland map from ethnolinguist George Peter Murdock
And here’s a simplified version of the ethnic map of Africa:
ethnolinguistic groups and national borders in Africa
(source, click image to enlarge)
The following map shows that African borders correspond less to ethnicity than borders in most other parts of the world:
Average number of ethnic links to a neighbouring country
More about Africa here. More human rights maps here.