What’s in a border?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The headlines these days still have me scratching my head and I can’t imagine I’m the only one. For example, this morning I learn that the Government of Syria, having solemnly declared that an armed insurgency threatens the life of the nation yesterday, duly responded  by lifting a thirty year state of emergency today.  I guess they figured there wasn’t much point closing the barn doors once the constituency had bolted.

It all seems a bit comical at times, but of course it is deadly serious and symptomatic of the way in which the ructions we are currently witnessing are straining the normal responses states would employ against civil unrest precisely because the neighborhoods involved are not inhabited by ‘normal’ states. Instead, places like Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Nigeria and Syria tend to be recent confections, with a territory defined by borders drawn to the convenience of some other country, a population composed of whoever happened to be living within those bounds at the time and effective control now exercised by those who managed to scramble to the top of the heap or be successfully implanted and hang on. Much of the Middle-East is still a good decade short of a century of sovereignty and I’m older than a few independent states in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Its easy to forget much of this when things are going well. Somehow, describing a country as a state and giving it a little stenciled name tag at the UN General Assembly creates all of these reassuring associations that may or may not apply. Certainly, institutions might not be perfectly democratic and economies may be shaky, but statehood implies a totality that is greater than the sum of the parts, bound up in some kind of national identity that can accommodate and eventually subsume local ethnic, sectarian and tribal loyalties. As previously noted with regard to Sudan, however, the elites that inherited these foundling post-colonial states well understood their fragility and embraced the lesser risks entailed by retaining colonial borders over the greater ones that could be triggered should the question of borders be re-opened.

In essence, the decision was to accept the possibility of of protracted secessionist agitation and internal conflict over the potential for an interstate free-for-all. However, given  the fact that most of those affected had hardly had a say in the matter, taken together the governance traditions inherited from colonial powers, it is hardly surprising that these outset conditions fostered unaccountable, authoritarian rule. Robert Kaplan recently wrote in FT on this point, urging readers, in a near-Shakespearean flourish, to “beware the void beneath the shell of tyranny”. The point being that if the effective control over such countries, such as it is, begins to slip, the other fundamentals may quickly come up for grabs as well:

Just as [the first post-colonial President of Cote d’Ivoire] Mr Houphouët-Boigny was an extension of French colonialism by another name, Muammer Gaddafi in Libya, with his despotic anti-state ethos, has intensified the worst aspects of Italian colonialism. The postcolonial era is still in its early stages. Soon we will find out if there are any meaningful institutions or loyalties in these places that cohere with artificially drawn borders.

I think there may be room to take issue with Mr. Kaplan’s conclusion that “a society that is truly post-colonial tempts anarchy.” Taken to (one of) its logical extremes, this approach dooms post-colonial states to never stop being post-colonial in the sense of reeling wildly between repression and anarchy. It also thereby risks propping up the repressers, such as Egypt’s ex-Pharaoh Mubarak, who freely invoked the British colonial shibboleth of Arabs being unable to govern themselves in his final attempts to cling to power. It also does little to acknowledge that such societies are experiencing rapid and wrenching social change, and that the unstable factor in many situations may be the frustrations of a nascent urban middle class that has no outlet for its political and economic ambitions rather than the shackles of backwards tribal loyalties.

I also think that it may be useful to update the implicit critique of former colonial powers. Sure they left behind a mess, but how have their subsequent policies affected the recipients? Returning to borders, a news story today helped me to put things in perspective. Colonial border-drawing policies can clearly be attributed some of the blame for the conflicts in West Africa that are currently causing displacement and holding back development. In order to stem the resulting flow of migrants, European border-enforcement policies resulted in arrangements with Libya that  gave considerable aid and comfort to the Ghaddafi regime. And as a result of the failure of the Ghaddafi regime to change until change was forced upon it, the ostensible dismantling of internal borders within Europe is now in disarray. As with colonial borders, we must all now take globalization as we find it.

7 responses to “What’s in a border?

  1. The world is filled with borderlands where political and cultural/linguistic borders don’t coincide and where one group wants to change the political border that another group sees as sacred. Furthermore, the history of the world is shaped by unequal power relations, particularly between the colonizer and the colonized, whether in colonies of occupation or settlement. In a colony of occupation, indigenous populations constituted a majority administered by a foreign power, whereas in a settler colony, the invaders annihilated, displaced and/or marginalized the indigenes to become a majority non-indigenous population. The subsequent and persistent trauma is cumulative. After independence the former colonized lands have frequently fallen into protracted political problems which are often revolving around the form of government these peoples need to reconstitute an effective and reconstructive state. Why they often find it hard to reconstitute a working and democratic state lies very much in their horrendous colonial past and by the fact that they have often been faced with an overwhelming challenge to reconcile their political differences at the ‘artificial’ national level. In Europe this process of molding tribes, regions, fiefdoms into something one might regard as national cohesion and the formation of national identities took hundreds of years. Why do we expect this process to evolve so much faster in Africa, especially with the worlds’ major powers and their henchmen, the greedy transnational corporations, continuously keep competing for influence, manipulating events and sticking their fingers into the political developments and from time to time their guns into the game of these complex cultural eco-systems of various peoples, values, beliefs, creeds, tongues and dreams.

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