Tuesday, July 31, 2012

African Map An Accident of History

Throughout the history of mankind maps have been used as instruments of power and propaganda to justify occupations and invasions. These seemingly simple lines outlining the physical world on charts are powerful mental constructs that shape the way we think, frame our cultural horizons and define our social boundaries. All territorial misunderstanding and wars between nations are basically conflicts over maps, hence making them some of the most important documents ever designed by man. The over-publicized issue of the tiny Migingo Island in Lake Victoria pitting Kenya and Uganda boiled down to the British colonial map.

Guided by selfish interests and in a bid to avoid a war with each other over Africa, Europeans demarcated the vast continent in the nineteenth century by drawing lines on a blank map, in some cases across places that no white man had ever set foot on the ground. This not only disrupted ethnic groups and undermined indigenous cultural entities and migratory patterns, but also created a room for political exploitation by modern day African leaders. In Zambia politicians Kenneth Kaunda and Fredrick Chiluba used the map in the past to settle political scores by declaring each other non citizens, hence unfit to run for the high office. Driven by an ideology forged and fostered by colonialism, a group of Rwandese ethnic extremists tried to redraw the map of central Africa in 1994 through the blood of a million people.    

During the era of European exploration of Africa mapping new lands gave one the power to lay claim to that particular territory and possibly exclude others. Most apartheid era South African maps, drawn by white supremacists determined to lay more claim to the land, omit the presence of indigenous people and black townships whose populations are sometimes larger than those of adjacent towns. French philosopher Jacques Derrida once defined apartheid as “a system of mapped-out solitudes.” The universal map of the world designed by the sixteenth century cartographer Gerhard Mercator favours Europe and distorts the actual size of Africa.

 This map, though now defunct, depicts the second largest landmass on earth as being the same size as Greenland, which in reality is four times smaller. The Gall-Peters projection which is currently used by many organizations across the globe is no better, hence its description by some geographers as “reminiscent of wet, ragged long winter underwear hung out to dry on the Arctic Circle.”

According to one scholar, all national boundaries are “artificial demarcations by man inspired by accidents of history, the vagaries of geography and the exigencies of economics.” This was even worse for Africa because her borders were hurriedly drawn in one of the biggest “accidents of history” guided by geopolitical, economic and administrative interests of the colonial powers. Groups of people that had no cultural or social similarities were crammed together while those who had long established administrative links were split by the stroke of the pen, mostly based on alien factors.  During the division of Hausaland between today’s Niger and Nigeria the British redrew the border in favour of the French, in exchange for France’s renunciation of fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland. Subjective generosity by European map makers granted countries like Congo DR and Sudan extensive and uncontrollable territories, while others like Benin, Lesotho and Gambia were squeezed into tiny zones.

To make their mapping work easier colonialists employed the services of military engineers and geographers sent in expeditions to mark borders and territories in difficult and remote terrain. With little or no information on people living in these areas, the explorers used haphazard methodologies to determine frontiers, sometimes separating families, clans and communities in the process. This explains the cultural and linguistic homogeneity of communities living along both sides of national borders throughout Africa.

Appointed to draw the final Uganda-Sudan border in 1912 Captain Harry Kelly, just like his peers elsewhere in the continent, used trivial methods to determine borderlines between human landscapes. “It would be a pity for the Sudan not to get the progressive people of Farajok and Obbo who with their fondness for clothes and such marks of civilization as brass bands would be worth having, but I fail to see at present how we can cut them off from the remaining Acholi,” he writes in one of his diaries.     

With imposed boundaries herding in societies with no social or cultural ties most African nations exist under a cloud of ethnic polarity, tensions and suspicions since communities pledge patriotism and loyalty more to a tribe or region than the state. The few times that semblance of patriotism exhibits is when it’s expressed through selfish xenophobic paranoia, often provoked by euphoric emotions fueled by sports and politics. Tribalism camouflaged in nationalism, later studies has established, was one of the principle forces behind the attacks on foreigners in South Africa in 2008.

Besides creating internally unstable nations the colonial blueprint has also instigated numerous border disputes across the continent, with the Horn being one of the places that have paid the heaviest price in blood. Every nation in this politically volatile region has been involved in a border related conflict either from within or without, drastically redrawing the region’s map in the process.

Eritrea has emerged as a free state while Somalia has been split into three autonomous regions, albeit with no international recognition. A referendum vote is scheduled for January 2011 in Sudan where Southerners are expected to decide whether to remain united with the Khartoum government or to have their own country. The General Election to be held in April is a critical milestone in the formation of the republic of Southern Sudan.

Despite being among the two African countries that were not colonized Ethiopia has had her own share of border problems. After being entangled in a protracted thirty year war with Eritrea in which the tiny red sea nation gained independence, the two neighbours clashed again in 2000 over the border town of Badme. Reports leaked by the media disclosed a “secret” deal between Addis Ababa and Sudanese government officials in 2008, where the former agreed to re-demarcate her border ceding huge tracts of land to Sudan. This caused a huge uproar from Ethiopian activists both within the country and in the Diaspora. The 1600 kilometer common border between the two nations, created through a series of Anglo-Ethiopian treaties and agreements, has historically been the center stage for conflicts between the two countries for more than a hundred years.  

In places where then apparently permanent natural features like rivers were used to decide borders between nations effects of climatic changes is threatening to flare up new conflicts. A case in point is the Uganda-DR Congo border which is partly defined by river Semliki. Flowing from Lake Edward through Semliki National Park in Uganda to Lake Albert the river have greatly varied its volume and course through the years, randomly ceding huge chunks of territory between the two countries in a series of wild give and take. To avert a conflict the two neigbours have formed a committee of surveyors who are redrawing the boundary based on geographical coordinates. 

Frequent bloody skirmishes and deep mistrust in Nigeria between the Christian south and the Muslim north has led some prominent Nigerians proposing the partition of the country into two autonomous states. According to supporters of this argument the two regions’ cultures, languages, religions and even their topographies and climates are starkly different. Pogroms against each other by members of the two dominant faiths have led to thousands of deaths in the last one decade. This year alone violence between Christians and Muslims in central Nigeria’s “middle belt”, a zone which lies along the country’s religious fault line, have claimed more than 500 lives. The latest bloodshed happened in February near the city of Jos where more than 200 people were hacked to death by machete wielding mobs. The war of Biafra in the sixties was one of the earliest manifestations of the religious and ethnic polarity of this British-created West African entity called Nigeria.

While many countries were formed by tying together incompatible groups of people other regions suffered separation and division of a people that had existed as a community for ages. Many Southern and West African countries consist of peoples who share languages, cultures and most were governed by single kingdoms long before the coming of Europeans, hence most can harmoniously exist as one nation. The creation of the tiny kingdom of Lesotho inside South Africa is geographically and culturally illogical. The Bakassi Peninsula is a piece of marshy territory that has been a source of animosity and military aggressions between Nigeria and Cameroon for decades. Despite the fact a huge majority of its inhabitants are Nigerians the International Court of Justice, basing its judgment on past colonial demarcation landmarks and treaties, ceded the peninsula to Cameroon in 2003.

The haphazard manner in which the continent was divided and the numerous conflicts this have brought about have led to radical suggestions of reviewing the African map based on cultural, social and political factors. Scholars and leaders that support this idea say that African Union, instead of dwelling on the Utopian idea of a United States of Africa, should take up this mandate. But besides the AU struggling to sort out simpler matters in Somalia and Darfur its ability to undertake such an onerous task is ruled out by the many resolutions it has adopted pledging to respect and uphold postcolonial frontiers.

 “Since the Berlin creations are not viable, their permanence should be repudiated. The criteria for the creation of new states should include historical factors, especially the demographic contours of Africa’s pre-colonial states and political formations, ethnic similarities and alliances based on cultural homogeneity and economic viability.” Explained Pro. Makau Mutua in an article he wrote in The Boston Globe in the nineties. The idea of redrawing the African map along African lines has also been supported by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The argument that a remedy for most African conflicts lies in redrawing the Berlin map, though it sounds farfetched and unpractical, is worth some consideration rather than instant dismissal. Eighty years after carving the continent into a labyrinth of artificial countries the colonialists left. These casually created entities were pitched onto the international stage as nation states, alongside national symbols like currencies, armies, airlines, government structures and names all handed over by the departing rulers.

These make African nations socially weak and culturally rootless which creates the environment for conflicts. However bloody civil wars in Rwanda and Somalia whose populations are based on single ethnicity and in Liberia and Ethiopia, countries that did not experience colonialism, pokes huge holes on the assumption that the major cause of Africa’s problems lie in the lines cutting across its map.


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