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Changing The Face Of A Continent
By Greg Mills
IN A recent article, author Bashir Goth observes of that rump of what was previously Somalia: “As people of Somaliland, we have only one thing in mind; that all roads lead to recognition... We have been watching other countries with less democracy, less peace and less ethnic cohesion gaining sovereignty and recognition. We have seen Bosnia, Montenegro, East Timor, all former Soviet Republics embraced and accepted by the international community. We now watch Kosovo and Western Sahara inching towards independence.”
One of the first acts of Africa’s post-independence leaders was to place a moratorium on the continent’s colonial borders — out of fear, apparently, that this would open a Pandora’s Box of secessionist and irredentist claims.
Divvied up at the 1885 Congress of Berlin between the colonialists according to ethnic loyalties, rivers, mountains, perceptions, interpretations, royal European relationships, alliances, whims and follies, these borders were inherited unquestioningly by the new leadership of Africa. For even though the political and economic chaos of post-independence Africa illustrated just how unworkable the borders could be, the moratorium safeguarded the weak territorial control of the continent’s states from covetous neighbors and fissile internal politics.
But 50 years on, how realistic is this, given the difficulty Africa’s bigger states have in managing their territories, cracks in the fac ades of national ethos and institutions, and the backdrop of the breakup of the former East bloc and Soviet Union?
And if politically feasible, what are the likely candidates for new borders and states?
Africa ’s vastness poses dramatic problems for its governments. Sudan faces the possibility of secession through a referendum in a few years of its southern people. Khartoum has attempted to keep the country together through a cocktail of repression and diplomacy, the measure of which partly reflects the vastness of its territory. Darfur, for example, is about the size of France.
Elsewhere, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the scene of various failed breakaways, involving the provinces of Katanga, South Kasai and the Kivus. These were, for the most part, brilliantly handled by Mobutu, who essentially ran his country by running it down. What else could he be expected to do in controlling a country bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined? This is why men with intimate experience of the costs of the absence of governance in the Congo, such as the Rwandan chief of defense staff Gen James Kabarebe (also one-time defense minister of the Congo in the 1990s) ask rhetorically: “What is the Congo? What is the problem of the Congo?” The answer, he suggests, is that “it is a continent in itself”.
One problem with African states is relative underpopulation or, put differently, the unevenness of its population concentrations. There are large areas of very few people, while some places, such as Rwanda and KwaZulu-Natal, can scarcely support their population numbers. Underpopulation or uneven population concentrations link with the ability to govern and extend power.
Those opposed to attempts to revisit Africa’s borders include, surprise surprise, its leadership, where there are obvious vested interests, along with those who have visions of the relative potency of nationalism over economic functionalism, and those who argue that greater dysfunction would result from splitting the continent into smaller parts.
If one accepts that Africa’s problems have stemmed in large part from the failure of governance, especially over large territories, and the related inability to manage differences of religion, race and ethnicity, then alternative forms of state formation remain a viable option, perhaps nowhere more than in Africa’s big states — Congo, Sudan and Nigeria.
To argue that this would result in economically unviable units since “bigger is better” is to ignore their current failings, along with the record of compact states in global affairs, from Singapore to Costa Rica. And to argue that strongly federated system of government — such as in Nigeria — successfully accommodates such tendencies, is to ignore the cost of their operation. In Nigeria’s case this essentially amounts to the buying off of federal units by the central government, a political and administrative tax that increases (but with diminishing returns) the more troublesome each of Nigeria’s 36 states proves.
Bashir Goth observes that “Somalilanders know that we neither have the political clout nor the alliance of the willing to support our cause”. A functioning Islamic democracy, Somaliland may not be recognized as an independent state, even though it functions better than many granted this formal label.
The irony for Somalilanders is that their country — the colonial British Somaliland — was briefly internationally recognized for four days in 1960, before Hargeisa agreed to join forces with the (formerly Italian) Somali Republic to form Somalia. While they do not thus technically represent the thin edge of the recognition wedge for Africa, they are, for the moment, a political symbol and catalyst for a long overdue debate — about whether redrawing or maintaining Africa’s borders will lead to endless conflict, chaos and suffering.
Yet Africa’s existing state structure now seems to be entrenched, not just in the minds of ruling elites, but also in those of much of the populace. No secession of Katanga or Kasai would be accepted by most Congolese. The recognition of Somaliland would be a red rag to a large number of Somalis, which would rapidly be used by Islamists in furtherance of their own agendas. But for the moment there seems to be no willingness to accept that when states patently don’t work, something else is needed.
Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation and is the co-author of a recent volume on “ Africa’s Big States”.
Source: Business Day