Africa's borders split over 177 ethnic groups, and their 'real' lines aren't where you think

If we were to redraw Africa’s borders to have each ethnic group in their own country, we would have at least 2,000 countries

Sign in Botswana: turn left for Namibia, right for Zimbabwe and Zambia. (Photo: Flickr/ Guitarfish).

Sign in Botswana: turn left for Namibia, right for Zimbabwe and Zambia. (Photo: Flickr/ Guitarfish).

AFRICA’S arbitrary borders have done much to foment strife and instability on the continent. Partitioning communities, the argument goes, has led to artificial borders, ethnic struggles, and spurred civil conflict and underdevelopment.

Look at a map of Africa and you will notice the many clean lines. Nearly half (44%) of Africa’s borders are straight lines or follow lines of latitude or longitude, splitting at least 177 ethnic groups in two or more countries.

It’s obviously impractical to have all Africa’s ethnic groups with their own country, simply because Africa is such a diverse place. If we were to redraw Africa’s borders to have each ethnic group in their own country, we would have at least 2,000 countries.

Still, four in ten Africans today belong to an ethnic group that has kin across borders.

Having your community split by a border increases the risk of war, says this seminal study on the long-term effects of African borders, and makes conflict more deadly. One study showed that length of a conflict and its casualty rate is 25% higher in areas where an ethnicity is divided by a national border as opposed to areas where ethnicities have a united homeland.

There are several reasons for this high risk of conflict, the researchers say – partitioning tends to generate irredentist demands, where ethnicities that are minority groups in one country want to unify with their kin across the border.

For example, the Somali are split between five different countries – so apart from Somalia itself, Somalis can be found in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

At least three wars since independence in the 1960s have been driven (partly at least) by the desire of Somalis in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya to become part of Somalia. The Somali national flag is a white five-pointed star set against a blue background; the five points of the star represent these five “estranged” Somali groups.

Risk of conflict heightened

The risk of conflict is also heightened because split ethnicities may fight to gain independence or obtain automony; one historical study documented that around 20% of civil wars in Africa have a secessionist undertone.

Split groups are also more likely to be smaller, as a percentage of the total, in their respective countries, and so are likely to be marginalised and unable to access political power, and the benefits of patronage.

The Malinke of West Africa are among the most partitioned people in Africa, split into six different countries – Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and The Gambia.

Similarly, the Ndembu are split between Angola, Zaire, and Zambia; the Nukwe, between Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Botswana, the Alur, between Uganda and DR Congo, and the Ibibio between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Silver lining

But there’s a silver lining to this seemingly gloomy story. You may not realise it – and African governments don’t give them enough credit – but border communities generate as much GDP as all of Africa’s offices and factories, only that it’s off the books.

Informal cross border trade represents 43% of the official GDP of the continent, thus being almost equivalent to the formal sector, according to data from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

In some ways, people hardly recognise the arbitrary lines that separate them from their uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters living on the other side.

But in other ways, they are very keen to benefit from the opportunity, leveraging their mobility to make the most of price differences across borders.

One report from USAID estimates that each of about 3 million West African cross-border traders conducts an annual average of $20,000 in transactions, amounting to an aggregate amount of four billion dollars.

Overall informal exports to West Africa from Nigeria is estimated to be between $1.5 and $1.9 billion, and up to 15% of Nigeria’s imports enter Ghana informally, largely along the Benin–Nigeria border.

Livestock are some of the most informally traded commodities. In the Horn of Africa, cross border trade in camels through Ethiopia/Djibouti, South Sudan/north-western Kenya, and eastern Uganda/western Kenya is estimated to be worth $5million per year; informal trade in cattle represented more than 85% of total trade.

In this region, exports of livestock to neighbouring countries in fact at times exceed official trade by a factor of 30% or more, hence making up over 95% of total trade in livestock.

A similar study quoted by the African Development Bank noted that informal traders along the Kenya- Somalia borders were known to realise astounding growth of 500-700% in the value of their livestock and generated annual sales in excess of $11.7 million.

In Uganda, a more relaxed tax regime makes some goods in the country cheaper, leading to the curious phenomenon where goods can be imported to landlocked Uganda through Kenya, only to be re-exported to Kenya – doubling back of the same roads that they were imported through - and still sold for a profit!

Sudan and DR Congo are a major destination for Uganda’s informal exports, jointly accounting for 64%-74% of exports, largely comprising shoes, clothes, fish, beans, maize grain, flour, beer, medicines and alcohol.

A mountain of paperwork

Still, it’s not that these cross-border communities are intent on evading the law – following the legal channels is so incredibly tedious that it can be virtually impossible to comply, if your goods are ever to make it to market on time, before your tomatoes turn to mould.

In most African countries, there are two sets of documents to be filled on either side of a border, which means that the average customs transaction involves 20–30 different parties, 40 documents, 200 data elements (30 of which repeated at least 30 times), and the rekeying of 60-70% of all data at least once, according to the report from UNECA.

These administrative hurdles sharply increase trade costs (it is estimated that each day of delay at customs is equivalent to an additional 85km between the trading countries). They also encourage illicit trade and corruption in order to bypass delays at customs and border posts.

But African borders, formidable as they seem (officially), are actually not as robust in reality, particularly if there’s a common ethnic group living on both sides, as these communities are adept at squeezing through the cracks.

Generally, African governments generally adopt a “live-and-let-live” approach – even though the informal trade denies governments much-needed tax revenue, it provides even-more needed jobs.

The AfDB notes that the informal trade can have numerous knock-on effects, such as lessening the impact of food crises and help reducing price volatility, as well as give a greater availability of goods at affordable prices.

But the most interesting study on borders we have come across so far looked at two communities in Niger and Nigeria. These are the Hausa, who straddle the border between the two countries, and the Zamra, who are found within Niger and so have an “internal” ethnic border with the Hausa.

The study found that the Niger-Nigeria national border did not have such a large impact on the price difference of millet and cowpeas between the two countries, compared to other borders in the region that do not share a common ethnic community on both sides.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that the price difference within Niger, between the Zamra and the Hausa, was much more pronounced than that between the Hausa living on both sides of the Niger-Nigeria international border.

At first, it seems that linguistic differences between the Zamra and Hausa would explain the internal (ethnic) barrier to trade in Niger, as none of the Hausa traders in the study could speak Zamra, and only 20% of Zamra traders could speak Hausa.

It’s the women

But then interviews showed that it takes a very low level of linguistic proficiency to sell millet and cowpeas; just a rudimentary knowledge of simple terms and numbers in either language is enough to close a sale.

So if language isn’t the problem, what explains the price gap? The answer is surprising – women.

The researchers found a stark difference in the gender composition between the Hausa and Zarma regions. At the Hausa-Zamra “internal” border, 30% of traders operating in the Zamra markets are female, as compared with only 5% in the Hausa markets.

The percentage of female traders increases when moving farther west into Zarma regions, and decreases when moving farther east into Hausa.

The cultural difference in gender roles, as reflected by the gender composition of Zarma and Hausa markets, may be one source of the ethnic border effect if male Hausa traders are unwilling to trade with female Zamra traders.

This reluctance to trade with women reduces the optimal quantity traded between those markets – effectively segmenting the markets and creating a “real”, de facto border.

The study thus makes a stunning conclusion: that in such situations, ethnic borders may map the geography of trade more effectively than international borders do.

So if you’re a government, how do you promote trade in such an environment? Fancy customs offices and computerised border posts won’t make much of a difference. It’s easy – encourage intermarriage across communities. Market inefficiencies like this will disappear, because you’ll quickly run out of excuses why you can’t buy cowpeas from your wife’s sister.


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