Why are we so obsessed with existing national borders – especially in Africa?

Chris Blattman asks why Russia’s annexation of Crimea is such a terrible thing, triggering responses focused mostly on a possible slippery slope (is Putin in 2014 the same as Hitler in 1939?) and the unacceptable procedure by which the annexation was accomplished.

Defending the legitimate application of democratic norms is important, and so is making sure that we don’t pull a Neville Chamberlain. But I don’t think that’s why the West has reacted so strongly to the Crimea situation. I’m convinced it’s because people around the world are committed to the existing boundaries of nation-states – even when they make absolutely no sense.

We justify that commitment partly through legitimate fears about credibility and potential future invasions and annexations by other powers, but there seems to be a visceral, emotional component to it as well. This is especially obvious in Africa: the African Union’s charter enshrines “the principle of the respect of borders existing on achievement of national independence”, a principle reaffirmed repeatedly through other agreements and resolutions. Those borders make no sense. Everyone knows they make no sense, and that they were for the most part constructed by a bunch of foreign colonizers through negotiation and war. They divide ethnic groups and language families arbitrarily, and leave tens of millions of Africans living in countries with no access to the sea. And the AU is absolutely committed to defending them. This is a fairly general problem: many countries around the world are too small and poorly thought-out geographically. As Lant Pritchett has argued, strictly-enforced national borders make small countries susceptible to devastating spatially-correlated shocks.

I am no fan of the Crimean annexation’s democratic basis and am legitimately worried about Putin invading other countries. Those are valid concerns – but they aren’t the whole reason that everyone objects to this invasion. A large part of it comes from a popular belief in the legitimacy of nationalism – a sense that the status quo, as established in roughly 1945, is the natural state of the world and that it is inherently harmful to change it, especially by combining states.

3 thoughts on “Why are we so obsessed with existing national borders – especially in Africa?”

  1. I don’t think the concern is really over combining states. If anything, most international organizations and groupings seem to be encouraging this in Africa. Witness things like the East African Community, etc.

    The concern is the opposite one, fragmentation. Sure, the boundaries may be arbitrary, but secession risks compounding these problems through smaller states still, new conflict zones, and war.

    1. Secession could definitely make things worse, but I’m not convinced there are any meaningful pushes for integrating states in Africa. Has there been any actual action on e.g. the EAC’s common market?

  2. Thanks for writing about an obsession of mine. Why are, for instance, Togo and Benin different countries. Or indeed Nigeria and Cameroon?

    DRC and Congo Brazzaville. I drove through almost all of West and Central Africa 12 years ago, over a period of 2 years, and I was often left scratching my head. Landlocked Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mali – are they so radically different that they cannot be together?

    Meaningless artificial identities. ECOWAS has blown chance after chance after chance to unite – often as a result of a fear of being recolonized by the Nigerians. It’s frustrating.

    – A frustrated Nigerian

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