What are the main issues?
Many national borders across the African continent were determined and imposed by former colonial powers. As part of the process of decolonisation and in the hopes of preventing conflict, African states agreed to respect intangibility of borders as they existed upon achievement of independence.
Formally, this is referred to as ‘conforming to the principles of uti possidetis juris, and respect for the intangibility of African borders’. The Organization of African Union (OAU) promulgated these principles in legal and political frameworks such as Resolution 16 (1) of the July 1964 Cairo Declaration, while Article 4 (b and f) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) serves to achieve the same.
The majority of these borders still exist today, yet many continue to lack sufficient clarity and therefore still pose a risk in fuelling conflict.
A variety of factors, which differ from one context to another, contribute to current state of inter-state African borders. Reasons can include problematic colonial-era documents, some of which contained deviations, or lacked precision. In other cases, socio-economic considerations were not sufficiently accounted for in the original demarcation process. While one should avoid a blanket approach, the risks remain consistent across different contexts: where borders are contested and suffer from insufficient clarity and local acceptance, this can directly contribute to or fuel local and inter-state conflict.
Disputed borders stand to undermine relations between communities, regions and states – and in this way hinder integration at all levels. These matters can rapidly escalate to incidents of violence, conflict and displacement – and may pose a protracted threat to peace and security. In this process, governance gains are undone, and opportunities for economic growth and development are lost.
Milestones towards better borders
The AU recognises that disputed borders may spur conflict – and conversely, that clearly delimited and accepted borders form a tenet of continental conflict prevention. The threat of conflict is particularly evident in resource-rich border areas. To mitigate this risk, the AU launched the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in 2007. The AUBP works on three principle areas.
First is assisting AU Member States in the delimitation, demarcation and reaffirmation of their inter-state boundaries. Activities under this focal area may include increasing or renewing border markings and signage; mapping border areas; sensitising local border populations; reinvigorating border commissions; and signing Border Treaties.
The second focus area consists of efforts to work alongside relevant regional economic communities (RECs), so that these bodies can better support border governance and enhance cross-border cooperation within and among their member states. Here, activities focus on boosting the role of the AU and regional entities as convenors, coordinators and developers of norms, with the AUBP boosting the relative normative frameworks, instruments, policies and programmes.
Third is the strengthening of capacities of border stakeholders in the area of border governance. Crucially for conflict prevention, activities here also include research and raising awareness on the importance of borders among local communities.
Subsequent to the creation of the AUBP, three other declarations (Addis Ababa, 2010; Niamey, 2012; and again in Addis Ababa, 2016) have reinforced the mandate of the Programme. At the Second Conference of Ministers in Charge of Border Issues, 7 June was adopted as African Border Day. This annual event is intended to showcase the role of borders in the promotion of peace, security, and development in Africa.
At the Second Conference of Ministers in Charge of Border Issues, 7 June was adopted as African Border Day.
The AUBP is also guided by the AU Convention on Cross-Border Cooperation (Niamey Convention), which was adopted by the 23rd Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in June 2014. The Convention forms the legal framework for the practical implementation of cross-border cooperation. It elevates border governance from the structural prevention to a more proactive approach that fosters peace and good neighbourly relations between states.
In February 2020, another important milestone was achieved when the AU adopted the African Union Strategy for Better Integrated Border Governance. The Strategy provides guidelines for Member States to align their national border governance policies along the relevant AU provisions and recommendations.
From barriers to bridges: what happens next?
Borders and border areas can become catalysts for the peace, stability, and the socio-economic growth of the continent. However, in many parts of Africa, the development of border areas, and the human security of border communities, still require greater political and economic attention. Often, scare public resources are allocated elsewhere and demands for basic services are neglected.
Borders and border areas can become catalysts for the peace, stability, and the socio-economic growth of the continent.
A key priority of the AUBP is to promote and institutionalise cross-border cooperation as a tool to develop border areas, address the socio-economic needs of border communities, and to strengthen regional/continental integration.
Cross-border cooperation builds off kinship, culture, heritage, and geographical proximity to enable local stakeholders to transform border areas. It also ensures that states and communities exploit synergies rather than compete.
Cross-border cooperation builds off kinship, culture, heritage, and geographical proximity to enable local stakeholders to transform border areas.
It is within this context that the 12th African Border Day will be celebrated this year under the theme: Economic and Social Development of Borderlands through the ratification and implementation of the AU Convention on Cross Border Cooperation (Niamey Convention).
For more, continue to follow the conversation on social media on 7 June under the hashtag #BorderDay2022.
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