LETTER FROM AFRICA: Lands Carved for a Colonial Feast: What of the Borders?

Published: February 9, 2005  New York Times

KHARTOUM, Sudan - It is a truism of Africa that the borders bequeathed by white colonial powers, drawn in the 19th-century scramble for Africa at the convenience of London, Paris and Brussels, became the black man's burden.

Like most truisms, this one holds a large measure of truth: the division of the spoils of African conquest created a continent of malformed states that cross ethnic, religious and tribal lines, an elaborate set of booby traps that have exploded into mayhem over the past 50 years.

The consensus seems to be that those borders have stuck because the alternative - a fractured map of Africa with thousands of tiny states, constantly at war - is even worse.

But that consensus view is being put to the test in Sudan. When the Arab-dominated Sudanese government signed a peace deal with the African and mostly Christian south, ending Africa's longest-running civil war, the agreement included a truly historic concession: If after six years southerners so wish, they may secede from the north by referendum, remaking the map of Africa essentially for the first time since the end of the colonial era.

But few people here really think that will happen, which raises a difficult question: why should breaking a country up - into two or three parts, not a thousand - be so hard to do, even when it seems to make so much sense?

With the long, bitter history between south and north, one that includes centuries of slavery, war and discrimination against African Christians by Arab Muslims, it is perhaps not surprising that many southern Sudanese say they have no plan to stick with the north.

"How can a people who have been subjugated by the north for so long accept unity?" asked Adam Cholong Ohiri, a professor at Juba University, a southern university in exile in Khartoum. "Many will conclude it is better to go our own way."

But many northerners, including the current government of Sudan, aware that a great portion of Sudan's oil is in the south, press for Africa's largest nation to stick together.

"Sudan must remain united," said Adam Mousa Madibo, vice chairman of the opposition Umma Party in Khartoum. "Sudan is at the heart of Africa, and if it split it would send shock waves across the continent."

Indeed, the breakup of Sudan, which is by no means assured, would set a significant precedent.

"This would be the first time there was a real colonial boundary that would be broken to form something entirely new," said Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, an anthropologist at Rhode Island College who has been studying Sudan for three decades, in an interview here.

"This vast country was assembled by the British to control the Nile valley, not because it made any sense for the people living here," Dr. Fluehr-Lobban continued, noting that the north and south were administered separately by the British. "The central question is whether there is any such thing as Sudanese identity that could hold it together now. A national identity needs to be created if Sudan is to remain united."

The same could be said in many nations in Africa, though to a lesser degree, and there may be something to the notion that the precedent set by the Sudanese agreement could add fire to separatist insurgencies elsewhere.

Yet secessionist movements actually form only a fraction of the insurgencies that have racked the continent. In fact, the worst conflicts on the continent are over control of land and natural resources - the oil, diamonds, copper and silver that have fueled the bloodiest conflicts - and the best means of grasping at those has traditionally been to control the central government.

"Most of these insurgencies are striving for power at a national level," said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "That is the only thing that matters. If you are out of power you are out of luck."

Indeed, if the colonial nation-state is the black man's burden, it has also been the African despot's best friend, a powerful tool when wielded by crafty hands. The excesses of African dictators, from Mobutu Sese Seko to Robert Mugabe, from Sani Abacha to Charles Taylor, were enabled, to a greater or lesser degree, by the inherent conflicts created by artificial state boundaries that allowed a powerful central government to play tribal, ethnic and religious groups against one another.

In some cases, Mr. Morrison said, the conflicts are simply too deep and complex to be resolved any other way than breaking up. Sudan, which has been at war for much of its 50-year post-colonial history, would seem to be the foremost example of such a case, but there are others.

Congo, a huge, resource-rich country, has been mired in a conflict involving an alphabet soup of rebel group acronyms and several neighboring countries that has killed nearly four million people, mostly with starvation and disease, by a recent estimate. It is sometimes suggested that the Congolese would be better off dropping the pretense that theirs is a functioning state run out of the capital, Kinshasa, and allowing their regions wide autonomy, if not full independence.

But often enough it is the insurgents themselves who oppose the breakup. Having seen how lucrative centralized power can be, most are reluctant to give it up for what is often paradoxically seen as the lesser goal of independence.

In the case of Sudan, John Garang, the leader of the southern rebels, has argued against secession despite its popularity among his followers, pushing instead for a bigger slice of the pie in Khartoum.

In Nigeria, a vast and splintered nation that shares many of Sudan's problems - tribal and religious divides and even greater oil wealth concentrated in one region - violent battles over religion, tribal rivalries and oil have killed thousands in the past decade. But not since the searing Biafran war of the 1960's has the Niger Delta region, with its abundance of oil, made a serious effort to go its own way.

So it seems that the white man's borders will remain the black man's burden for some time to come.
"There is a rational argument for unity, but also a very strong historical and emotional argument for separation," said Dr. Fluehr-Lobban, the anthropologist. "In Sudan it is hard to say which way it will go. But in Africa, history tends to point to sticking together, for better or worse."