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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>Redrawing the map of Africa
Monday, 18 July 2011 12:54

Redrawing the map of Africa

Written by Daniel Morris

Daniel Morris: Redrawing the map of Africa

On March 1, 2010, a conference of military officials from the U.S. and various African nations opened to an auspicious start. Flights on time and visas in hand, invitees from Maseru to Ouagadougou had arrived safely at the military base in Washington, D.C., for the opening meeting. They came to network and receive a two-week course in U.S. security concerns: piracy, terrorism, oil security. After introductions, the floor was opened to questions. From the back of the room, sitting among the translators and press, a military official raised his hand.

"Where is my flag, South Sudan?" he asked.

Attendees looked around. The room was lined with flags from 53 African countries, but the one from South Sudan — stripes of black, red and green, with a blue triangle and gold star at the hoist — was nowhere to be found. Then snickers undulated. A referendum on South Sudan’s status was more than a year away. How could the official expect to see his flag, when at least in official terms, his country didn’t exist?

The pointed question reflected a much larger truth about African borders. Their arbitrary, absurd lines, dreamed up by European powers at a conference in Berlin more than 125 years ago, persist in defiance of compelling humanitarian reasons for redrawing them.

Yet the map will be a little less recognizable after tomorrow, when South Sudan celebrates its first independence day. The holiday comes after nearly 99% of the region’s residents voted in January to secede from the sclerotic, savage regime of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum. Usually a result that high on any side is a sure sign a vote has been rigged. But even al-Bashir accepted the outcome as a reflection of the will of the people. He had tried everything, including stealing the food and medicine of foreign aid, to starve and sicken Southerners into submission. He may have found the referendum result unwelcome, but it couldn’t have been surprising.

Despite some lingering uncertainties, the celebrations will raise a timely question: With a precedent set for rethinking African borders, what other regions might benefit from a status update? In the cold calculus of international policy-makers, even allowing for the possibility of bloodshed over exact border demarcations, where might more lives be saved by creating a new nation, rather than maintaining the fiction of an old one?

Perhaps the most persuasive case for divorce would be the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even if a Congolese president were less kleptocratic than today’s Joseph Kabila, the country’s geography makes effective governance nearly impossible. Roads and railways are decrepit and air travel is too expensive for the vast majority of the population. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council, likens DRC to "an archipelago of population centres separated from each other by literally hundreds of kilometers of impassable forest."

The lack of governance has led to decades of war by a mosaic of armed groups proficient in committing atrocities. The UN reports the South Kivu area is contested by groups including the Burundian Intelligence Services; former Rwandan genocidaires; the Congolese army; a loose group of militias known as the Mai Mai; and a network of arms traffickers connected to Tanzanian authorities.

Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon, Vice-President of South Sudan, speaks before the United Nations General Assembly. Export processing zone investors should tap into the South Sudan and Ethiopian markets to diversify from the export restriction imposed by the East Africa Protocol.Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon, Vice-President of South Sudan, speaks before the United Nations General Assembly. Export processing zone investors should tap into the South Sudan and Ethiopian markets to diversify from the export restriction imposed by the East Africa Protocol.


As the saying in East Africa goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that gets hurt. Congo’s Second War nominally ended in 2003, but the UN continues to document hundreds of instances of the slaughter of defenseless civilians and refugees. A woman in the DRC is more than 100 times more likely to be raped than a woman in Canada. Annual government spending on health care per person amounts to two dollars and is probably closer to zero in the eastern Kivu areas. A more localized form of government, including army, police and health services, could go a long way toward establishing for the first time a social contract between citizens of eastern Congo and their leaders.

Unfortunately, the international community’s scarce resources for Africa are devoted to other hotspots. But maintaining the illusion of a unitary Congolese state is not free. Foreigners bankrolled Congo’s last election in 2006 at a cost of more than $1-billion and the ongoing UN mission costs another $1-billion annually.

While any serious discussion about the legitimacy of African borders is first a subject for Africans, Canada can support African Union (AU) research into regions where the status quo is untenable and where a referendum is warranted. Residents of restive regions in Africa will no doubt be inspired by South Sudan’s independence celebration, in addition to the ongoing protests in the Arab world. Before these groups inquire about their own flags more aggressively, the AU and its international partners should proactively respond to their grievances.

Daniel Morris is a freelance journalist who studied African affairs at McGill University and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Last modified on Monday, 18 July 2011 13:03

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