Silencing the guns in Africa’s borderlands

The African Union (AU) commemorated the 10th Africa Border Day on 7 June within the framework of ‘Silencing the guns’ in Africa, the AU’s theme for 2020. According to Smail Chergui, AU  Commissioner for Peace and Security, ‘there is no better place to realise the goals of silencing the guns than in the African borderlands’.

The commemoration highlighted the importance of borderlands for regional peace and security, regional integration and development.  

Meanwhile, tensions between states over borders that are not demarcated are on the rise on the continent, as witnessed recently between Somalia and Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia, and Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If borderlands are to become the focus of the African integration project, as per the AU Border Programme’s (AUBP) vision for uniting and integrating the continent through peaceful, open and prosperous borders, member states have to prioritise the overall governance of these areas.

If borderlands are to become the focus of the African integration project, member states have to prioritise the overall governance of these areas

This includes demarcating their borders, resolving existing border disputes, investing in the socio-economic development of hinterlands, facilitating cross-border trade and investment, jointly developing cross-border resources, and investing in regional infrastructure development.

Continental efforts to silence the guns in borderlands

Through its Border Programme, the AU has been providing technical support to member states in the delimitation and demarcation of their borders, and the creation of border cooperation structures.

AU-supported consultations have led to the demarcation of the common border between Burkina Faso and Mali in 2012. In addition, a cross-border health centre, shared by the villages of Ouarokoy in Burkina Faso and Wanian in Mali, was constructed.

The AUBP also supported the delimitation of Lake Malawi/Nyassa between Malawi and Mozambique. Similarly, Botswana and Namibia signed a boundary treaty in 2018, after the AU supported them in the process of delimiting their common border. In February 2020 Benin and Togo agreed to demarcate their common land border with pillars and delimit 140km of their river boundary.

Technical support by the AUBP is a much less costly alternative to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for member states trying to settle their border demarcation at the technical level. However, when border disputes lead to political contestation, the AU rarely plays a significant role in the resultant conflict.

AU efforts are fruitful when countries and especially their border areas are at peace. Unfortunately, most member states do not prioritise the demarcation of their borders when they are at peace with their neighbours. When border disputes lead to political contestations, the AU often does not play a significant role in the dispute that emerges. This is mostly because the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), the primary organ tasked with responding to African peace and security issues, seldom puts border disputes on its agenda to be resolved at the political level.

The PSC’s willingness to engage on topical sensitive issues, such as inter-state border matters, is increasingly in decline while discussions of more generic issues are becoming more frequent.

Most member states do not prioritise the demarcation of their borders when they are at peace with their neighbours

Scepticism over the AU’s ability to settle disputes

The AU’s preference to address border disputes through negotiation and compromise, so as not to set a precedent, has also led some member states to voice scepticism over its ability to settle such disputes, especially if these have escalated into a political scuffle. Most recently, Somalia rejected Kenya’s call for the AU to mediate their maritime dispute, voicing concerns about the organisation’s neutrality.

Furthermore, while the AU can formulate an opinion following a technical border assessment, it currently does not have a judicial mechanism whereby border disputes can be settled through binding decisions like those of the ICJ. Thus most countries prefer to settle their disputes through either bilateral negotiations, as Sudan and Ethiopia are currently doing, or arbitration by the ICJ or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The most significant challenge, however, is that while the AU has set up a mechanism to prevent conflicts between states over shared borders, this mechanism does not help to address the main drivers of borderland insecurity. These are rooted in poor governance, securitisation of borders, and the tense relationship between the centre and periphery in member states.

Most member states also lack the political will to match the regional integration rhetoric with actual implementation in their borderlands.

Drivers of instability

Africa’s borderlands have been arenas of conflict and instability since independence.

While the AU adopted the principle of inviolability of boundaries inherited at independence, only an estimated 35% of African borders are known to be demarcated. This has led to tensions between a number of countries.

Such disputes linked to demarcation are worsened by natural resource exploration in borderlands and further complicated by the shifting of natural boundaries as a result of climate change impacts.

Many countries also accuse one another of interfering in each other’s internal politics, often played out in bordering areas. In 2019 Rwanda and Uganda accused each other of sheltering dissidents, leading to the closure of their common border.

Armed opposition groups more often than not also originate in remote borderlands, where grievances rooted in a lack of social development and marginalisation lead to armed mobilisation against the government. When armed opposition morphs into independence movements the conflict becomes more devastating. This was seen during Africa’s two longest wars fought for South Sudan’s and Eritrea’s independence, and can currently be witnessed in Cameroon’s South and South-West regions, renamed Ambazonia by separatists.

Lack of good border governance has led to the proliferation of cross-border terrorist activities

Lack of good border governance has also led to the proliferation of cross-border terrorist activities, as witnessed in the Sahel and especially the Lack Chad Basin, with trans-border organised crime involving human, arms and drug trafficking, and smuggling of key export goods. The profits from illicit trade finance terrorist and rebel groups across the continent.

The proliferation of small arms and light weapons in borderlands due to long-standing conflicts escalates cross-border disputes among local communities. This sometimes prompts national security forces to intervene, which was the case in the recent Ethio-Sudan border incident that involved local Ethiopian militia and the Sudanese army.  

Irredentism linked to historical claims

Another driver of insecurity in African borderlands is irredentism, caused by a demographic overlap in many countries. One of the most notable irredentist movements has been the quest for a ‘greater Somalia’, which remains a major issue in the Horn of Africa. 

De-colonisation claims also destabilise what is regarded as the borderlands of claimed territories. These include Somaliland’s border with Somalia, and Western Sahara’s border with Morocco. A number of other African countries also call for the de-colonisation of their territories from Western powers.

In 2019, for example, the AU Assembly asked the AU chairperson to follow up on an ICJ Advisory Opinion that ruled for the Chagos Archipelago to be returned to Mauritius. Similarly, the United Nations General Assembly voted in 2019 for the withdrawal of the British colonial administration from the Chagos islands by November 2019.

Limits on cross-border trade

Due to the above-mentioned factors, most African borders have been securitised, limiting cross-border trade, investment in infrastructure and socio-economic development. This in turn creates a vicious cycle of marginalisation and bad governance that foments further instability.

Border closures due to border disputes or other security concerns affect local communities, which typically depend on cross-border trade. When legal trade is closed off, it is replaced by trafficking and smuggling, which is the sole source of livelihood for many communities living in the hinterlands of African states.

Border closures also negatively impact inter-African trade and hamper regional integration flagship projects such as the African Continental Free Trade Area and the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons.

Insecurity in borderlands thwarts infrastructure projects that could have led to peace and regional integration. Examples include the suspension of a road construction project between South Sudan and Uganda in 2005 because of a border dispute between local cross-border communities.

Border disputes also impede development projects in member states. Ghana’s deep-water oil and gas exploration saw a decade-long delay following a boundary dispute with Côte d'Ivoire.

To overcome these challenges, African states have to fix the mismatch between their regional integration plans and the reality of continued neglect and unresolved disputes over borders.

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