The nature of the State



The "Scramble for Africa" starts with the Berlin Conference of 1884 1885

and is completed by the turn of the 20th century. In this brief period, Europeans 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 and

had little knowledge of the geography and ethnic composition of the areas whose borders were

designing. Despite their arbitrariness these boundaries endured after African independence in

the 1960s. As a result in most African countries a significant fraction of the population is part

of ethnic groups that have been partitioned by the national border.1 A considerable body of

research in African history (e.g. Asiwaju (1985); Dowden (2008); Wesseling (1996)) argues that

the main impact of Europeans’ influence in Africa was not colonization per se, but the improper

border design. Partitioning, the argument goes, has led to ethnic struggles, patronage politics,

and spurred civil conflict and underdevelopment. (Stelios Michalopoulos & Elias Papaioannou)




Western v African


Low population densities, and the production of relatively small economic surpluses, hindered the formation of states in many parts of pre-colonial Africa. This

was particularly the case in central and southern regions of the continent. These stateless societies, however, did not lack political organisation. Westerners, steeped

as they are in state traditions, often regard the lack of state institutions as a sign of backwardness. This simply was not the case. The political systems that these stateless societies developed were well adapted to the environment they served. Considerable evidence of sophisticated forms of representation, justice and accountability among these communities has been unearthed. In many cases, confederations of villages provided security and a community for many thousands of Africans. Several of these larger stateless societies developed institutions and hierarchies that evolved, over time, into states




The stimulus for state formation was often the production of an economic surplus. This wealth enabled communities to sustain leadership groups, as well as administrative structures to support these governors. The states of Ghana and Mali, for example, were built on the profits from trans-Saharan trade.



Permanent, precisely delineated boundaries were rare. Power broadcast from the centre of a kingdom would dissipate the further a village was from the capital, and would ebb and flow according to the fortunes of the central administration. Indeed, there could even be an overlapping of authority, with a community owing degrees of allegiance to more than one political leader. This was very different from the European states of the same time, where governments sought to be the sole source of political authority within rigidly defined sovereign territories. Consequently, European wars have largely been about securing or expanding borders. By contrast, inter-community conflict in Africa, given the abundance of land, was not about borders; it was more often about winning booty: gold, slaves and cattle.



absence of defined state borders, the free movement of people, and the fact

that pre-colonial African governments broadcast power only over a limited range has

led some scholars to label these states ‘non-hegemonic


Africa did not evolve in isolation prior to European colonisation. The continent, like other parts of the world, had to adapt to invasions and imperial rule. The whole continent, in this respect, participated in the international economy prior to colonialism.


Coastal traders from Europe/Portugal


Agreements ratified at the 1884–85 Berlin Conference (and after) saw Africa carved up between the European powers. Only the empire of Ethiopia and the territory of Liberia (a country established for freed slaves) escaped this partition.


1914 European Terrtorial Claims


Arbitrary states in Africa: because they reflected the short-term strategic and economic interests of the imperial powers, and not the interests of the Africans they housed.



But: Several factors have been proposed to rationalize the arbitrary border design. First, at the

time Europeans had limited knowledge of local geographic conditions, as with the exception of

some coastal areas, the continent was largely unexplored. Second, Europeans were not drawing

borders of prospective states or -in many cases- even colonies. Third, there was a constant

imperialist back and forth with European powers swapping pieces of land with limited (at

best) idea of what they were worth of.


By the end of 1966, 40 countries had gained independence. While at the time, many proposed changing the colonial borders, African leaders and leaving Europeans did not touch this issue. The leaders of African independence believed that nation building would sideline ethnic divisions. Europeans’ main objective was to maintain their special rights and corporate deals with former colonies, and as such, they were reluctant to open the border issue...




External, rather than an internal, logic to the units chosen. Many boundaries are ruler-straight, following lines of longitude and latitude.


And in its eccentricities, why was German South West Africa (Namibia), awarded a narrow tract of land (the Caprivi Strip) to its north-east; and why does West Africa host the tiny state of The Gambia? In the first instance, Namibia’s odd shape was created by the strategic requirements of Germany’s foreign minister, Count von Caprivi. He insisted that this territory should have access to the Zambezi River, in order to deploy a gunboat.


Many of these borders do not make economic sense. As well as the initial disruption to lines of communication and trade, colonial boundaries also created longer term problems for African states. Decisions made in the capitals of Europe in the late eighteenth century, for example, have resulted in 14 African countries being landlocked. Borders agreed at the Berlin conference simply ignored economic imperatives.


Why? What are the Problems?



Political and social problems. Colonial borders ran through existing political and social units, resulting in many communities finding themselves split between different states. Some pre-colonial political entities did survive. Rwanda, Burundi, Lesotho and Swaziland have boundaries acknowledging pre-colonial realities, but such an acknowledgement was rare. Imperial partition scattered the Somali people, for example, among five sovereign states. The present-day borders of Burkina Faso cut across the traditional territory of 21 cultural and linguistic groups.5 In this sense, colonial rule ‘dehumanised’ Africa’s borders...



there was the possibility of irredentism. Irredentism is the desire to unite under one flag a community that is currently divided.


The costs of Unity?


And probs of multi-ethnicity?


If as some marxists argue the colonisers largely exploited Africa then the implication is that this did not endorse state building but rather, continued the heritage of the non-hegemonic state - through sheer lack of incentives to invest in the new bounded states politically.


Weak states: The state, in this sense, never rested on a social contract between government and people. Indeed, colonial administrators

were not even accountable to the Africans they ruled. Instead, they obeyed orders emanating from their superiors back in the capitals of Europe. Government was

therefore about maintaining order, balancing budgets and overseeing the extraction of raw materials for export.




From: Artificial States article


Not only in Africa, but around the globe, including Iraq and the Middle East, failed states, conflict and economic misery are often very visible near borders left over by former colonizers, borders which bore little resemblance to the natural division of peoples.


There are four ways in which those who drew borders created problems. First, they gave territories to one group, ignoring the fact that another group had already claimed the same land. Second, they drew boundary lines that split ethnic (or religious or linguistic) groups into different countries, frustrating the national ambitions of various groups and creating unrest in the countries formed. Third, they combined into a single country groups that wanted independence. Fourth, even if there were no major ethnic divisions in the new states, they were still a random collection of families, clans, and villages that would not have a strong collective national identity.


Peoples may have weaker allegiance to various collective agendas in artificial states than in non-artificial ones. In every society there are social norms that sanctions those who do not contribute to the public groups, and these norms may be stronger in less fragmented societies where most people share common goals and culture. The crucial question is what is the relevant group? In a natural state, there is more likely to be a strong nationalist allegiance to that state, making the whole nation the group. In an artificial state, people are likely to have a smaller radius of group identification, such as the kin network or the local village or region




If a people are 'naturally' migratory what sense can we make statehood and nation etc? One might wonder where Africa would be today if they had been left to nature?



Are not all borders squiggly in the end unless an island? (In fact, it is quite possible that, as time goes by, many currently straight borders will become squiggly as they are rearranged. Relatively newly independent countries have had "less time" than countries that were never colonized in which to re-carve their borders based on an equilibrium reflecting how different peoples want to organize themselves.)


Prior to the era of de-colonization, states had to prove their control of a territory before being recognized by the international system. Virtually all new African states would have failed this test at the time of de-colonization. However, with de-colonization in Africa (and to some extent in other regions), the leading international powers changed this rule to recognize nations that existed principally on paper as the heir to a former colonial demarcation. As Van Der Veen put it, its 'letterbox sovereignty' was conferred upon whatever capital and whichever ruler the letters from the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank were addressed to. This left the new rulers more accountable to international organizations and leading industrial powers than to their purported citizens. States consisted of little more than a few former independence agitators, the indigenous remnant of the colonial army, and a foreign aid budget. The new rulers of African states had no incentive to change a system of which they were the main beneficiaries, and hence the Organization of African Unity adopted a convention in the 1960s to treat colonial boundaries as sacrosanct


Botswana, which consists mainly of the unpartitioned Tswana ethnic group and has relatively squiggly borders on three out of four sides. One that is more artificial than average is Equatorial Guinea, whose Fang ethnic group is partitioned with neighbours Cameroon and Gabon and whose mainland borders (not including the island part of the nation) are mainly straight lines. Although both nations have natural resources (diamonds and oil, respectively), Botswana has been a politically stable democracy with mostly good development outcomes