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After South Sudan: integrating Africa

The battle for ideas, for allegiance, for identity has gone on in Africa as it has everywhere. Breaking up existing state territories in Africa would be at least as arbitrary as when imperial powers did so at the Berlin conference in 1888.

On 11 July, 2011 in The Atlantic, G. Pascal Zachary proposed that more African states should “divide, secede, splinter, or otherwise scramble the old colonial borders” in order to “reduce conflict, increase economic growth, and cost less in foreign aid.” I want to set out a few problems with his assertion as well as argue that despite having inappropriately assigned borders, further division or secession in most sub-Saharan African cases is neither necessary nor desirable. South Sudan represents an exceptional case where secession might arguably have been preferable to unification but it is too early to claim this. A case might be made for a minor scrambling of some borders but even that is not realistic given elite incentives to sovereignty and the opportunity cost that such an effort would represent. In the end, the reality is that separation often leads to increased conflict.

Salva Kiir and Omar al-Bashir at the declaration of independence on 9 July. Photo: Adam Hyde.

Externally drawing up state boundaries according to colonial arrangements made in 1888 was, of course, inappropriate, arrogant, inhumane, and generally damaging in many ways. It would be hard to argue convincingly that all African borders are comprised of neat ‘nations’ governed under single integrated authorities. In many countries we observe the opposite. State boundaries often split populations that have natural affinities (geographically and culturally for example), while at the same time these borders can force the political integration of groups that typically appear at odds with one another, unable to get along, collectively act, and create a political economy that could lay the foundation for growth.

These facts alone do not justify the proposal to split up and scramble existing boundaries. Such instrumentalism ignores the fact that social and political systems, ethnicity and culture more generally, are forged over time, and that they are changing, malleable and flexible constructs. Affinities outside the familial are borne of common experience and history, shared interests, and sustained incentives to cooperate. They are forged through public debate and mutual dependence, whether for trade, survival, or love. These are the things that enable populations to define themselves as a ‘people.’

Given this interpretation of how human societies evolve, contrary to Zachary’s argument, policy should acknowledge the obvious incentives facing African elites to maintain weak states, and increased effort should be made to promote integration of populations within existing territorial boundaries. I would argue that such effort at integrating diverse populations within states would have more positive outcomes for African development than would dividing populations into smaller social and political units. 

Zachary makes a number of points that I take issue with. For example, in arguing that such measures would reduce conflict, the author ignores the substantial body of literature that finds that the presence of numerous ethnic or other diverse population subgroups within a single state, often generate a ‘power balance’ characterised by less conflict; and conversely, that where less groups (but more than one) are found, as in the case of Rwanda, we observe more conflict due to the dominance of those one or two groups. Tanzania, for example, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Africa: but it is also one of the most peaceful and politically stable, despite sustained disappointing economic growth.

Zachary is promoting ethno- or tribal- based nationalisms and further, politicising these identities and equating them with statehood. Were populations arranged into such small units, it is difficult to follow his logic that this would lead to increased economic growth. On what basis could ‘Nubia’, one of Zachary’s examples, form a viable nation-state capable of political and economic organisation and international engagement, with sufficient scale and efficiency to ever enable growth and development - assuming that one could somehow define neat parcels of people for inclusion and exclusion as ‘Nubian’? It is a small, sparsely populated, landlocked region with poor human development indicators and an undeveloped economic base. Further, he asks why Darfur should not secede ignoring the fact that Darfur is a melting pot of cultures, ethnic groups, and influences, without any obvious centralised political leadership.

It is also difficult to see how, in an industrial and service based international political economy, even smaller African states can compete with China or India in these respective sectors, outside of micro-niche specialisation, without years of considerable investment and commitment to financing basic services, let alone complex industrial or service based organisation.

Zachary further argues that the maintenance of such tiny states would cost less. But the marginal cost of first securing and then maintaining an additional state and its administration is very high (both in terms of international aid and when measured as a proportion of a state’s total budget), and this cost is directly relative to the population size over which any administration governs (more people, more economic activity, more tax, etc.). Would it not therefore cost more in the maintenance of state bureaucracies and their inherent inefficiency and frequent corruption than in trying to facilitate the existence of larger populations within one state?

Zachary looks to Jeffrey Herbst to support his argument, referencing Herbst’s book, States and Power in Africa. Herbst argues that a reason for the failure of development in many states in Africa is due to states’ failure to extend an infrastructure of power across their territories, due to sparse populations making it very expensive to do so (build roads, tax, deploy police, etc). But Herbst does not necessarily conclude that Africa needs smaller states. On the contrary, it is more logically viewed as an argument for stronger states (or for the concentration of human density that might reduce the cost to states of deploying their 'power infrastructure'). If states, for example, were assisted via international aid and pushed with incentives to extend state control to their peripheries, thus capturing control of their territory, this might indeed address one problem without creating the difficulties that myriad smaller states would present. The natural and sustained trends toward increased urbanisation also might ultimately contribute positively in this regard.

Herbst does, admittedly, suggest that the carving out of certain economically viable (higher population density) regions within Africa might be desirable in the sense that a higher population density is more conducive to economic development, but he is not himself explicitly advocating this. If this were to happen, who then would govern less densely populated, less economically and politically viable rural or remote areas? It is not an acceptable proposition that areas of insufficient density or natural wealth be carved out and left outside the nation-state system, with their residents unable to enjoy the benefits that membership of a nation-state affords. At the heart of a nation-state is economic redistribution – sharing the gains of economic wealth created in some areas or in some industries to areas that might not be as economically prosperous, but no less a part of the nation-state regardless.

Secessionist movements

Independence celebrations. Photo: Adam Hyde. 

Historically, national boundaries have often been forged because there was a security imperative to consolidate, through conflict and negotiation under duress. Secession movements are often the result of strong internal divisions that led to conflict and if that conflict could not be forcibly contained or resolved by a single authority - the state, the conflict would at times manifest as a secessionist movement, with the state ultimately ceding control of that territory to be governed by its own population. In Africa, this has rarely happened, due to the incentives to elites of maintaining the status quo. Zachary, drawing on the work of Pierre Engelbert and others, argues that weak sovereignty contributes to under-development. But he wrongly extends this to imply that smaller, or ethnically defined populations will therefore have ‘strong sovereignty.’ There is little if any evidence supporting this.

Secessionist movements are usually borne of armed struggle that is frequently protracted, politically destabilizing, economically ruinous and casualty heavy. Despite the actual failed or 'partial coverage' of many states in Africa, and the possible merits of secession in some cases, the incentives are not for states to voluntarily or willingly let go of areas of territory for the possible future benefit of small subsets of a population. As Russell and McCall argued in 1973 in The Southern Sudan: The Problem of National Integration[1], “A secessionist struggle is precisely one of those situations of political conflict where the possibility of resolving differences through the rational exchange of ideas has vanished.”  That is, secession represents the failure of people to integrate, to forge a common identity embedded within state institutions. Even though self-determination may be what is just, it still represents failure by many measures. 

Anyone seeking to avoid secession by violence (in Sudan more than two million people perished before independence was secured), should rather advocate for the orderly 'rational' re-planning of Africa's borders. But even assuming the miraculous result that Africa's elites would entertain such a conversation, it should be remembered that there is no primordial 'African' culture, just as there is not primordial, unchanging ‘traditional’ African political arrangements. The pre-colonial history of Africa is the story of interweaving challenges over land and existence. The battle for ideas, for allegiance, for identity has gone on in Africa as it has everywhere. Breaking up existing state territories in Africa would be at least as arbitrary as when imperial powers did so at the Berlin conference in 1888.

Politicizing ethnicity

Independence celebrations. Photo: Adam Hyde. 

Multilateral institutions have been set up to recognise and engage with nation-states. The absence of a single trump-all unified nation within a state’s boundaries is not in itself justification for the dissolution of that state. It is an argument for the need for more focus on integration of various ethnic groups, or in some instances, of various nations within one state. The politicization of ethnicity - patronage, distribution along ethnic / tribal lines is perhaps the greatest barrier preventing African progress. It feeds corruption. It motivates antagonisms and violence. It pits humans in an ancient and hideously regressive ‘we are better than them' clash from which forms of social and political organisation more conducive to development and engagement in the international political economy take immediate flight. 

While the hype around the secession of South Sudan has been almost universally reported in a positive light, it is worth remembering that the nature of southern integration is defined by (negative) identification with a common enemy (Northern Sudan) and not by (positive) national or cultural integration with each other. This is likely to become a more salient point in the coming years, and is already manifesting itself with proliferating intra-south conflict and ongoing border conflicts with Sudan, amongst myriad other issues.

It is also worth noting that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 set out first and foremost a process for the integration of North and South Sudan through the Government of National Unity. Such integration, had it been consolidated, would have been more in line with the vision espoused for South Sudan by the late John Garang. Such integration, however, would have paid more time and more attention to the incentives facing Southern Sudanese leaders.

Maintaining borders is not about respect for what is. If there is valid claim, valid inertia pushing toward secession or other change in a defined territorial unit then this should be supported as legitimate effort to self-determination by a people’s common will. Secession will happen, over time, if incentives and capabilities in Africa align to that end. External interference in that process would be unwarranted and energy would be better exerted in creating incentives to integration of the existing nation-state configuration for the benefit of peace and long-term stability in the region. This approach maintains faith in the ability of people to integrate or unify together while acknowledging that this can be a difficult process requiring the creation of sustained incentives to that end over a longer period of time.

About the author

Adam Hyde is a PhD candidate in International Development at the London School of Economics. The focus of his current work and research is South Sudan.


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