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Against colonial borders: The need for African citizenship now

Friday 17 March 2017, by siawi3


Hashi Kenneth Tafira

May 19, 2016

Partition of Africa and delimitation of borders were arbitrary acts which Europeans imposed without regard to local conditions. Dismantling colonial borders is therefore a veritable pan-African project. Pan-Africanism should be seen as a people-to-people relationship rather than one among heads of state, intellectuals or western tutored elites.

Today we are witnessing large-scale movement of people across borders. Political, economic and social instability within nation-states has reached a volatile level. Concern about tightening of borders, national security and increasing fear of the African “Other” are now commonplace. This paper makes some propositions and states the case that colonial borders and preoccupation with territory, securitization and security regimens and “sovereignty” are a bane to African unity. It argues that such impulsion reveals the colonial nature of the so-called postcolony. Secondly, it is time that Africans were granted African citizenship, meaning that there should be free human movement across the borders; an African should feel at home no matter where they are on the continent. Thirdly, there are more merits in dismantling colonial borders than maintaining them.

The case for African citizenship

Criminalisation of Africans, anti-black African hatred and impulsion to Afrophobia are major questions. In contrast, mobility and movement are historical features of African citizenship. Tidiane Kasse captures this essence well:

“In some African cultures, travel is an initiating act. One becomes a man when he leaves his family to go far to discover other people and other cultures, to confront the real world realities. This means going away from the comfort and care of a mother, far from protection of a father. Going away is getting more experience; coming back is enriching one’s group with what was learned in the other world. This culture brands the Soninkes – a cross border community living between Senegal, Mali and Mauritania.”[1]

The same applies to the Kikongo people who are found in three countries. By the time of German arrival the Hutus and the Tutsis were merging into one cultural group through intermarriage and increased contact. The 1994 Rwandan genocide and other conflicts bordering on ethnicity manifest the insidious colonial divide-and-rule tactics which heavily relied on ascriptive ethnic identities. Colonialism, apart from inserting artificial borders and isolation of ethnic groups, forced some traditional foes to live side by side. The colonial nation-state while bringing together diverse groups also kept others separate and divided and unintegrated at the same time breaking up ethnic groups.[2]

Historically, Africans have always engaged in short and long distance trade and intermarried therefore creating an authentic citizenship while relating at social, political and commercial levels.[3] It is true to state that all African communities have shared cultural, linguistic and religious affinities on all sides of the border. People on so-called border communities are the same and often don’t recognise the borders. Dismantling colonial borders is a veritable pan-African project. According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o pan-Africanism should be seen as a people to people relationship rather than one among heads of state, intellectuals or western tutored elites.[4] This is based on the African humanist ethos. He states:

“There is no rational basis other than convenience for regarding colonial boundaries as sacrosanct and by implication the residents of either side of the colonial border as foreigners. These borders were historically constituted, markers of European memory on Africa, to meet colonial needs, and there is no reason why they cannot be historically reconstituted to meet African needs and reconnect with African memory.”[5]

The formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on May 25 1963 in Addis Ababa to unite the African continent was a noble achievement. However, as Joseph Ki-Zerbo observes, the OAU only managed partial unity because:

“It committed the original sin of maintaining colonial borders supposedly to prevent conflicts. Yet these same borders are in flames. They are structurally prone to conflict. They make every African a foreigner to at least 80% of the other Africans. African borders are instruments of vivisection of peoples and have, since their establishment, caused untold human sacrifice in the form of fratricidal holocausts, merely out of respect for boundary lines already marked in blood by the colonial conquest.”[6]

Border disputes between Nigeria and Cameroon, Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Badme/Yirga Triangle are some cases that call for indictment of colonially drawn borders.

Ki-Zerbo further notes that the reason is that the struggle for African nationalism was delinked from the struggle for pan-Africanism and African intellectuals supported that. Of course nationalism isn’t awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist.[7] At independence invention and imagination of a new nation including naming was distant from the ethos of pan-African unity. The African elite who led struggles for independence sprang from the mission tutelage and imbibed western liberal notions of the nation. In fact they started as parochial ethnic associations where members of the same ethnic groups coagulated around a prominent figure. They transplanted their chauvinistic ethnic views into the national movements, which means that the national liberation struggle really failed to deal with the issue of tribalism. Most national movements had the term “national” in them and concentrated with liberation of its own borders. At independence the “big men” of the struggle considered the new nation-state as a personal possession, as property and were reluctant to dissolve the borders. But claims of African state sovereignty are “political fiction.”[8] Imperialist and neoliberal capitalist domination, ethnic and political violence ebbed by foreign intervention and arms commerce, impoverishment of whole populations, enrichment of the few elite and other multifaceted disturbances debunk the myth of territorial sovereignty.

OAU’s successor the African Union (AU) states that it is inspired by OAU’s vision of unity, solidarity, cohesion and cooperation among African people and African states. Article 3 (b) is Westphalian. It seeks to “to defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its member states.”[9] Article 4 (b) also commits to respect borders existing on achievement of independence and Article 4 (g) shies from interference by any member states in the internal affairs of another. Similarly the OAU Charter while committing to promotion of unity and solidarity of African states, Article 11 (c) seeks “to defend their (member states) sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence.” Article 111(1) also promotes sovereign equality of all member states and 111 (2) urges non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. At the 1963 conference it was only Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah who favoured a political union of the continent. Other leaders swore to maintain the borders. The 1964 Cairo Declaration further affirmed the resolution to preserve territorial boundaries.

The evolution of the nation-state from Europe to Africa and the non-Western world

After a devastating 30 years of war from 1618 to 1648, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France and their allies reached a peace agreement and signed the peace treaty of Westphalia. The treaty of Westphalia established the modern concept of nation-state and held that all states are sovereign and equal. Sovereignty, territory, international law and the international system which would enable a state to enter into treaties and agreements with other political entities were prominent outcomes of the Westphalia agreement. Indeed internal characteristics of sovereignty are where there is absolute authority within a territorial demarcation while externally the nation-state is recognised in a legal international system and there is observance of non-interference in the domestic affairs of that nation-state.

But post-1648 and the establishment of a colonial nation-state were late arrivals. Since at least 1488 and inception of colonial modernity, colonial adventurists always questioned whether non-western peoples were well attuned to the concept of the nation/state. Like all other assumptions Europeans had of other peoples, if nations, states, clans and ethnic identities existed in Europe did they also exist elsewhere? Of course non-western peoples were seen to be lacking civilisation, were subhuman and had no knowledge of judicial concepts and ideas of proper government. For this reason they had to be subordinated to a “superior” civilisation where they had to be incorporated into a colonial state and its legal machinery which were transplanted from Europe and applied in the colonies. The dichotomy of civilised/uncivilised buttressed by legal processes prompted disciplines like anthropology which defined the characteristics of the uncivilised. Thus colonialism was an encounter between “civilised” European state and the “uncivilised savages.”

Colonisation of the non-western world under an international law called Doctrine of Discovery followed Voyages of Discovery, conquest, confiscation of land and other barbarities. Within this reasoning Europeans claimed superior rights over indigenous peoples and by erecting flags and stone monuments, religious symbols, crosses, and celebrating mass they made legal claims of ownership of the lands they “discovered.”[10] The justification was of course religious, racial and ethnocentric. [11] Subsequently several European countries used law of colonialism to make claims to African lands. Constitutive of the Doctrine of Discovery was:

the first European country to “discover” assumed property and sovereign rights over the lands and its peoples
permanent occupation and settlement
indigenous people considered to have lost full property rights over their lands, inherent sovereignty and rights to international trade and commerce and diplomatic relations
terra nullius – that is, the land is empty and devoid of occupation or if occupied but not used, according to European reasoning, it had to be claimed
non-Christians didn’t have same rights to land, sovereignty and same determination as Christians
Europeans could acquire title to land through conquest, that is, military victory and just war and whatever is gotten it is booty.

In any case Pope Eugenius IV had passed papal bulls in 1436 and Nicholas V passed them in 1455 granting Portugal rights to title to lands of Africans, place them in perpetual slavery and seize all their property. In 1493 Alexander VI issued a papal bull granting lands to Spain. This was consummated at the treaty of Tordisallos in 1494 where the pope gave both Portugal and Spain blessings to demarcate the two hemispheres among themselves.

By the time major European powers sat at Berlin in 1884 – 5 the process of colonisation had been underway for a couple of centuries. The conference attempted to resolve by peaceful means the increasing competition for colonies by European powers. To rationalise the scramble the conference employed diplomacy, power politics and international law where the imperial powers sought to work out a legal and political framework that would facilitate colonial expansion without resorting to conflict.[12] However the conference and the scramble for Africa led to crafting of the African map just like the European map was drawn after Westphalia, and secondly creation of colonial nation-states. Partition of Africa and delimitation of borders were arbitrary acts which Europeans imposed without regard to local conditions. [13] Besides, there was invention of ethnic divisions and racial codification. This makes present problems afflicting Africa colonial problems.

The postcolony shows the legacy of transference of judicial, legal, institutions, rule of law and justice and democracy.[14] Obsession with maintenance of law and order consistent with the colonial policy of tutelage, coercion and penalisation explains why after independence the structures of law and order remained intact including the army, the police and the prison services.[15] These instruments are mobilised by the postcolonial regimes to keep out African immigrants or detain them for being illegal. By preserving and continuing with colonial oppressive instruments postcolonial regimes maintain a status quo created by colonial capitalism which is contrary to the interests of African majority. [16] In countries like South Africa degrading nomenclature like alien are used and are in statute books.

At transference of independence which was constitutionally negotiated African leaders not only agreed to maintain colonial borders but got political power without disrupting socio-economic and cultural features established by colonisers.


Physical borders translate into mental borders. Metaphysical and physical dismantling of colonial borders is a huge stride towards mental liberation. Africans have been conditioned to hate other Africans simply because of different territorial, social and geographical origin. These demands are linked with the call for an end of colonial, neo-colonial and imperialist exploitation of African resources and her people. We take caution of Cabral’s assertion that national liberation is not only the end to colonialism but freedom from foreign domination whereby “the principal aspect of national liberation struggle is the struggle against neo-colonialism.”[17]

Under terms of globalisation, neo-liberal conditions and market regimens, the irony is that governments open their borders to international capital on very generous stipulations while keeping Africans out who they consider to be the “aliens” and “undesirables.” Thus the nation-state according to Comaroff and Comaroff is engaged in the “business of attracting business” while becoming “a mega-management enterprise.”[18]

On the eve of the founding of OAU Nkrumah told the gathering:

“Without necessarily sacrificing our sovereignties, big or small, we can here and now forge a political union based on defence, foreign affairs and diplomacy and a common citizenship, an African currency, an African monetary zone and an African Central Bank. We must unite in order to achieve the full liberation of our continent. We need a common defence system with African High Command to ensure the stability of Africa…with our united resources, energies and talents we have the means, as soon as we show the will, to transform the economic structures of our individual states from poverty to that of wealth, from inequality to the satisfaction of popular needs. Only on a continental basis shall we be able to plan the proper utilisation of all our resources for the full development of our continent.”[19]

At that time African leaders didn’t appreciate Nkrumah’s wisdom. Europeans did. The concept of European Union is based on Nkrumah’s ideas. In contemporary times Europeans have realised the futility of the nation-state and have opened up their borders to their citizens. Africa is still closed to Africans but is open to westerners under the spurious reasons that the latter are tourists or investors.

African citizenship is an urgent and pertinent call. African citizenship would be beneficial to the continent. First it would promote love, understanding, togetherness and unity of African people and show them that they are one people; all other particularisms are fictitious. Secondly Africa’s huge human potential would be utilised for Africa’s development. Thirdly it leads to mental and psychological decolonisation.

Dr Hashi Kenneth Tafira is based at Archie Mafeje Research Institute, University of South Africa. He is the author of “Black Nationalist Thought in South Africa: The Persistence of an Idea of Liberation,” 2016, Palgrave MacMillan.

End notes

[1] Tidiane Kasse,”Africa and the Drama of Immigration.”, 21 April 2016.

[2] Francis .M. Deng. 1993. Africa and the New World Disorder: Rethinking Colonial Borders. The Brookings Review Volume 11 Number 2 pp32-35.

[3] Hannington Ochwada. 2005. “Historians, Nationalism and pan-Africanism: Myths and Realities,” in Thandika Mkandawire, ed. African Intellectuals. Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Dakar: CODESRIA.

[4] Ngugi wa Thiong’o. 2005. “Europhone or African Memory: The Challenge of the pan-Africanist Intellectual in the Era of Globalisation,” in Thandika Mkandawire, ed. African Intellectuals. Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Dakar: CODESRIA.

[5] Ibid: 162.

[6] Joseph Ki-Zerbo. 2005. “African Intellectuals, Nationalism and pan-Africanism: A Testimony,” in Thandika Mkandawire, ed. African Intellectuals. Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Dakar: CODESRIA, p87.

[7] Ernest Gellner. 1964. Thought of Change. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

[8] Richard Werbner. 1996. "Introduction. Multiple Identities, Plural Arenas,” in Richard Werbner and Terrence Ranger, eds. Postcolonial Identities in Africa. London: Zed Books.

[9] Constitutive Act of African Union, Lome, 11 July 2000.

[10] Robert. J. Miller. 2011. The International Law of Colonialism: A Comparative Analysis. Lewis and Clarke Law Review 15: 4 pp847 – 922.

[11] Ibid

[12] Anthony Anghie. 1999. Finding the Peripheries: Sovereignty and Colonialism in Nineteenth Century International Law. Harvard International Law Journal Volume 40 Number 1 pp1-80.

[13] Saadia Touval. 1966. Treaties, Borders, and the Partition of Africa. The Journal of African History Volume 7 Issue 02 pp279-293.

[14] Sally Engle Merry.2003. Review: From Law and Colonialism to Law and Globalisation. Law and Social Inquiry Volume 28 No 2 pp569-590.

[15] Dani Wadada Nabudere. 2001. Law, the Social Sciences and the Crises of Relevance. A Personal Account. African Social Scientists Reflections Part 2. Nairobi: Heinrcih Boll Foundation.

[16] Ibid

[17] Amilcar Cabral. 1969. 1969 Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle. London: Stage 1, p83.

[18] Jean and John.L.Comaroff. 2001. Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Post-Colonial State. Journal of Southern African Studies Volume 27 Number 3 pp627-651.

[19] Cited in Kofi Buenor Hadjor. 2003. Nkrumah and Ghana. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press Inc, pxii.