The African Union’s Border Policy and Peace in Africa

Written by: Peter LaBelle

On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in response to Russia’s recognition of the “People’s Republics” in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN) addressed the UN Security Council. Martin Kimani asked the Russians to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis, not an irredentist war in Ukraine. As he pointed out, African nations could sympathize with Russia’s concern for their ethnic kin separated by national borders: “[Our borders] were drawn in the distant metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations which they cleaved apart.” The point raised is a valid one, at least as far as Africa is concerned. According to one study, 28% of Africa’s ethnic groups are partitioned between modern borders. However, in the interest of peace, African nations agreed upon their independence to keep the old colonial borders: “Rather than form nations that looked ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward, to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.” Kenya’s appeal did not, of course, avert war in Eastern Europe. But it highlights the international institutions and norms through which Africa has sought to avoid similar conflicts, efforts which have come under threat in the past and which face new challenges with a civil war underway in Ethiopia. It also demonstrates positive developments toward international cooperation on the continent, which raise hope for economic integration, peace, and cooperation there in the longer term.

         The agreement ambassador Kimani referred to dates back to 1964, when the members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), predecessor to today’s African Union (AU), met in Cairo for its first general meeting after being founded in 1963. The organization sought to integrate Africa politically and economically, and to fight against Apartheid in minority-ruled South Africa. It also sought to ensure peace and stability on the continent by settling border disputes, recognizing that the borders inherited from its colonial past, though not ideal since they represented the imperial aims and commercial rivalries of the European colonizing powers, “constitute a tangible reality,” and that all members of the OAU should “pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence.”

         Since then, the OAU, now the AU, remains committed to maintaining these borders, and changes have been relatively rare. African nations opposed border changes, fearing that allowing changes to a given border could set precedent for changes elsewhere and spark international conflict. Perhaps as a result, there have been relatively few border changes in Africa since independence. The AU has helped countries define their borders, providing aid with technical surveying. This surveying has settled several previously-unmarked boundaries, but is only effective where all nations involved are interested in cooperating and where political stakes are relatively low. In many cases there is a more serious clash in government interests, as when the territory in question contains villages or natural resources, and the AU lacks a judicial branch to settle and enforce such issues. As a result, conflict has flared between states. In recent years tensions increased between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Zambia occupying Congolese villages along Lake Tanganyika in 2020. And the ideology of “Pan-Somalism,” which seeks to unite all Somali people in a single state, remains a cause for concern. It resulted in a short war between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1964, which ended with the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the two countries. Somalia’s neighbors established military alliances with one another and the OAU condemned the notion of “pan-Somalism.”

         In the present day, war in Ethiopia again presents a challenge to the African community, though this time due to a civil, not interstate, war. Since November 2020, the Ethiopian government has been at war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group which ruled the country for 27 years between 1991 and 2018. The war began after the TPLF held elections in its region, against the will of the central government, sparking a political crisis.  The tides of war have gone back and forth, with the rebels threatening the capital city, Addis Ababa, in November 2021. The war has a distinct ethnic character; the TPLF claims to represent the interests of the Tigray people, who make up about 7% of the population, concentrated in the north of the country. Ethiopia’s population is made up of almost a hundred different ethnic groups, and the country has a long history of political conflict between centralization and federalization of the state. Under the current constitution, the country is divided into nine federal regions, based on the dominant ethnic groups. Even before the war, observers warned that the country might break apart along ethnic lines, drawing a comparison with the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Clearly, such an outcome would present a serious challenge to the AU’s border policy, and to peace and stability on the African continent. During 2021, the AU sent numerous envoys to Ethiopia in an attempt to set up talks between the TPLF and the central government, including four former African presidents. However, all were unsuccessful, in part because the AU itself is headquartered in Addis Ababa and relies on its host’s approval to operate there, limiting its ability to put pressure on the government.        

At the end of March the Ethiopian government and the TPLF declared a ceasefire, raising hopes of a broader peace. While this received praise from the AU, it seems more likely to have been prompted by the threat of harsher US sanctions. Since 2021 the US government has placed sanctions on organizations and individuals on both sides of the conflict, in an effort to pressure them to pursue peace talks and allow humanitarian aid into Tigray. Shortly before the ceasefire, a stronger sanctions bill passed out of committee in the US House of Representatives. Though the US may have stronger tools at its disposal, the African community does not lack methods through which to promote peace and security. However, these mechanisms are long-term oriented and cannot respond as effectively to  specific crises. On the economic front, the newly ratified African Continental Free Trade Area has immense potential. It aims to greatly reduce tariff barriers between African countries. According to the World Bank, it could lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty, and raise the incomes of tens of millions more. It got off to a slow start, due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is room for long-term growth: only 17% of Africa’s international trade goes to other African countries. Sustained economic growth would reduce the chances of conflict and instability in Africa. As Paul Collier demonstrates, low income and low growth are two key factors which result in frequent conflict in the world’s poorest nations. Each percentage-point increase in economic growth reduces the odds of civil war breaking out in a given country over the next five years by about 1 percent (The Bottom Billion, pp. 19-20). Economic integration presents an opportunity for the AU to encourage peace and cooperation on the continent in the long-term, and may be less politically fraught than attempting to involve itself in border settlements. This would further underscore Africa’s success in dealing with post-colonial disputes in a far more constructive and peaceful manner than has occurred in other parts of the world, including the former Soviet Union.