African viewpoint: Blood and borders

Supporter of Ivory Coast's incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo pray at a political meeting at a stadium in Abidjan on 23 January 2011 Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo garners most of his support from western ethnic groups and the southern Akan people around the coast

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Nigerian Sola Odunfa thinks it is high time African leaders redraw the continent's borders.

Start Quote

The poor and helpless are always the victims when their rulers belch”

End Quote

Blood, blood, blood all over Africa but, I ask, when will it end?

Over the weekend the people of Jos and some villages nearby were arranging for the burial of 14 more people killed in the long-running ethno-religious crisis in Nigeria's north-central region.

The total number of people slain in the past year tops 1,000, with many more injured.

I won't mention trouble-spots like Sudan, Niger, Somalia and the whole of central Africa, but focus on Ivory Coast as senior Nigerian government officials are seeking crucial international support for the use of military force to resolve the seemingly intractable political and electoral crisis there.

Gbagbo's naivety
Voters near Maseru in Lesotho on 17 February 2007 Lesotho, which is ethnically homogeneous, is relatively peaceful

You may remember that President Laurent Gbagbo and his political foe President-elect Alassane Ouattara are entrenched in a fierce battle over the result of the 28 November election.

The electoral agency declared Mr Ouattara the winner but Mr Gbagbo will not step down.

It is not as if Mr Gbagbo's action constitutes a grave crime akin to the imposition of the death penalty on poor Ivorians - the poor and helpless are always the victims when their rulers belch - but his peers on the continent are apparently seething with anger at not only his stubbornness but also his naivety in allowing an opponent to win an election.

Therefore West African leaders have declared that Mr Gbagbo must quit office for Mr Ouattara or face the bombardment of his palace and wherever else he may be suspected to be holed up.

Start Quote

Other African leaders know it but they won't talk about it for fear of bringing the ghosts in their own lockers back to life”

End Quote

Other African countries are likely to see their own future in the current political crisis in Ivory Coast.

Mr Gbagbo, a Bete from the west of Ivory Coast, draws his support from ethnic groups in the west and southern Akan groups that live around the coast, including in the main city Abidjan.

Mr Ouattara is a northerner. There are some southerners who do not accept northerners as true Ivorians. The problem of Ivory Coast at its most simple is: North versus south.

Mr Gbagbo probably knows that if he gives up power now, his supporters in the west and south may never taste it again.

Swiss example

Other African leaders know it but they won't talk about it for fear of bringing the ghosts in their own lockers back to life.

Flags at the 10th African Union Summit 01 February 2008 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia A basic principle of AU is that all countries must retain colonial borders

To my mind, however, that ethnic sentiment is nothing to be ashamed of.

According to some social scientists it is a basic human tendency for people to move with their own kind.

Start Quote

Take away the strong Afrikaner influence and you will be able to predict how long it will take even the giant South Africa to begin to collapse”

End Quote

The most stable countries in the world are those that are either ethnically homogeneous or have federal systems.

Multi-ethnic European states like Switzerland ward off internal conflict through a strict federal system which gives autonomy to every group.

Spain is still trying to solve the problem posed by its restive Catalans; the UK is gradually becoming an apostle of devolution.

Thus homogeneity and federalism in member countries make the European Union stable.

On the other hand African leaders are trying to build an African Union (AU) on the foundation of colonial borders.

A basic principle of the AU is that all countries must retain the borders they inherited at independence.

The principle is under great stress. This is why there are wars all over the place.

The only countries which have no such problem, to my knowledge, are Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho - and that's because they are ethnically homogeneous.

Take away the strong Afrikaner influence and you will be able to predict how long it will take even the giant South Africa to begin to collapse.

Current borders on the continent are colonial and against all human tendencies; they will remain the source of bloody conflicts until leaders of vision and strength emerge to change them.

I commend to all the commonsense in last week's statement by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga - the failed AU mediator on Ivory Coast - who said that mediation efforts should not be about imposing democracy and free and fair elections but about "avoiding a much greater disaster".

I tell you, I would rather have justice than free elections.

Thank you for sending us your comments. You can read a selection of your views below:

While, it's an inescapable fact that those colonial borders could serve as catalyst for social instability, attempts to redraw those lines could lead to more socio-political unrest. We await Bashir's realistic dissolution of Southern Sudan from the Union, we must also not forget what happened in the 1960's Biafra, south-eastern Nigeria. The ethnic divisions exist, mainly, because a group seems to be lacking several basic necessities than their neighbours. Wouldn't efficient reallocation of resources be a suitable solution, than the formation of new states? And when I mention efficient distribution in the African context, I mean more noticeable signs of resource managing. Yes, the ethnic divisions in Central Africa, Niger, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Somalia are unmistakable. But, draw new lines, and we run a likely chance that, when the dominant group feels it's lacking or wants something, it's going to extend its reach in an undiplomatic fashion. Not, dealing with the current reasons why these supposed ethnic divisions exists, accelerates political propaganda. The Hausa man, from my understanding, has no quarrels with the Igbo man, besides, the fact that, as a particular group inhabits more environmentally sustainable grounds, the man with infertile land (in a agro economy), wants to provide for his community. The same could go for the Northern and Southern Ivorian and Sudanese. Deal with these economic and environmental concerns, through capacity building, in order to harness diversity, and your ethnic squabbles are managed. Draw, new lines, and our grandchildren will still be looking for a plausible solution to the African pandemic.

Ebuka Okoye,

Ethnicity is primarily not the major problem facing Africa. Our most pressing problem is failed leadership. Most people parading today as African leaders lack the foresight to appreciate the huge deficiencies in the lives of ordinary Africans; ignorance, poverty, unemployment, you name it. Failed leadership then resorts to the cheapest means to stay in power appealing to ethnic sentiments. Africa has come along way from the colonial era. Many African societies are integrating through education, inter ethnic marriages, employment and other social activities. What Africa needs now are leaders moulded in the stature of our pre- and post-colonial leaders. Only then can we expect unity and purpose for progress in Africa. Ethnicity will always be with us, but true leadership would steer towards unity.

Evans K Ahorsey, Alexandria, US

In South Africa, one of the reasons apartheid managed to last so long was because, unlike in the West, the ethnicity that came to rule made up only a small minority of the population. In the West, giving people equal rights meant at worst giving up a small piece of the pie. In South Africa it meant giving up the whole pie. While they were wrong, I can at least rationalize how a perfectly sane and well-to-do Afrikaner might fear abandoning such a system. In Ivory Coast, you have a near 50-50 split along both geographic and ethnic lines. Perhaps a simple vote to determine who gets all the marbles wasn't the most practical idea to begin with? Perhaps Gbagbo, whether misguided or not, isn't actually some egomaniac just trying to maintain his grip on power but instead has a genuine fear of what will happen to his people? Did anybody ever stop to think that perhaps the ever so common failed African election is not so much a cause of Africa's issues as it is the symptom of Africa's issues? We need to stop being so idealistic and insisting that every African nation comply with our one size fits all solution of holding elections and assuming everything will work out. Africa needs to instead start finding unique solutions to the very specific problems that each individual nation has and that no developed Western Democracy has ever had to deal with.

Owen, Toronto

Ethnicity is not the problem in Africa, the problem is greed of our leaders. Once they are there corruption becomes their daily prayers and enriching their families and cronies their rhythm.

Nosa Edokpayi, London

The question remains: Will Africans be given the chance to see the original 1885 Berlin Conference partitioned African Map? How can you redraw African boundaries while many parts of Africa are "thanking" the colonialists for giving them another part of African territory that was not their own. Think about Bekassi peninsula and Nigerian relations with Cameroon. A basic understanding remains: we all know where our grandparents farmed the point is how can we make the best out of it. African states must remain under the influence of the Berlin Conference Hangover and there is little to be done about it since The Hague has greater influence over African affairs than any African solution.

Ibrahim Hamza, Richmond, Virginia

Colonial Borders are not the problem. People only use them as an excuse not to look at their own problems created by themselves and have people look away from the real problems - corruption, ethnic violence (even in the absence of borders), improper government, etc. The idea that more ethnically homogenous states would result in less violence is not true. Lesotho (an 'example' above) has not been stable - in the last twenty years it had a coup (and the leader had to be forced out by South Africa) and Somalia (85% Somali) is arguably the most failed state in the world today. Stop focussing on supposed colonial failings, independence was gained (on average) half a century ago - focusing on the colonial past as the supposed source of problems only makes people fail to look at the current causes of today's problems.

PG Kurilecz, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Re-drawing the borders may work for a handful,but not for a majority of African countries. It may work for a country like Nigeria, where there seems to be little or no national interest by the average Nigerian and especially the past and current leaders. Each leader tend to see things from the prism of his home state or ethnic group. I beg to differ with Mr Odunfa that countries with homogenous group or citizens are more peaceful and properous. Who do explain United States of America the most ethinically diversed country on the planet. Yes. It is predominantly White/Causian. But within its Caucasian population are Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, pratically all the European countries are represented, then, there are African-Americans, Latinos, Jewish, Native-Americans, Asians, the list goes on. Yet, America is the most peaceful, prosperous country in the world. People around the world are literarilly dying to get to America. Until African leaders begin to have their countries' national interests at heart and take care of their citizens, re-drawing boarders would be nothing but window-dressing. But, most importantly, until the general populace of African countries launch a peaceful protest against their government that they would no longer be taken for a ride nothing would change.

Kingsley Obayanju, Columbus, Ohio, USA

Let's not forget that conflict between ethnic groups in Africa predates colonialism. The colonialists used this as a tool in their divide and conquer strategy when carving up Africa for themselves. That said, the biggest problem in Africa today is failed leadership.

Anonymous,

More on This Story

Letter from Africa

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Africa stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • HouseboatLife on the water

    Could a floating house be the home of the future? The BBC's Adam Shaw takes a look

Programmes

  • The Audi RS7Click Watch

    Tech news review of the week including a speed record for a self-driving car

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.