P011 – Contesting African Boundaries: Collective Mobilizations Across “Borders”
8 July, 14:00-15:30

Whittaker Hannah / Brunel University
Gooding Philip / SOAS, University of London


In recent years, the study of borders and borderlands has been a particularly productive area of research in African studies. In particular, political scientists, anthropologists and historians have emphasised the opportunities that are afforded to borderland communities, especially through the mobilization of cross-border kinship or economic networks, and they have shown how borderlands function as zones of political and regulatory creativity. However, much of this work has centred on modern borders between nation states, most of which were imposed by imperial powers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Rather less has been done on alternative conceptualizations of borders and borderlands. This is despite the fact that Africans have understood (and continue to understand) borders in a multitude of ways: in terms of natural boundaries such as rivers or lakes, the demarcation of grazing rights, stockades around towns, and the moving frontiers of pioneer migrants. These kinds of boundaries are heavily contested in terms of their nature and validity, and the analysis of them may draw out similar themes of opportunity and constraint.

Contester les frontières africaines : mobilisations « transfrontalières » collectives
Au cours des dernières années, l’étude des frontières et des « régions-frontières » a constitué un terreau fertile pour les études africaines. Politologues, anthropologistes et historiens ont insisté sur les opportunités dont bénéficient les communautés des « régions-frontières », particulièrement grâce à la mobilisation de réseaux familiaux et économiques. Ils ont aussi démontré que les « régions-frontières » sont des zones de créativité politique et réglementaire. Toutefois, une partie importante de cette recherche s’est concentrée sur les frontières modernes entre les États-nations, pour la plupart imposées par les pouvoirs impériaux entre la fin du 19e siècle et le début du 20e siècle. On s’est plus rarement intéressé aux conceptualisations alternatives des frontières et « régions-frontières ». Cette approche fait abstraction du fait que les Africains se sont toujours représentés les frontières d’une multitude de manières : que ce soit les frontières naturelles (comme les rivières ou les lacs), la démarcation des droits de pâturage, les palissades autour d’un village, ou encore les frontières changeantes de la migration. La validité et la nature de ces types de frontières sont fortement contestées, mais leur analyse pourrait permettre de dresser des parallèles avec les « régions-frontières » en termes d’opportunité et de restriction.


Paper 1

Justin Peter / African Studies Centre – Leiden

Decentralization, internal borders and conflict in South Sudan: evidences from Central Equatoria State

This article draws on extensive socio-anthropological fieldwork in Central Equatoria State, analysis of policy and historical documents, and the literature to understand relations between decentralization and conflicts in South Sudan. It does so by establishing the relations between decentralization and conflicts, and the roles of internal borders created as a result of implementation of decentralization policies on causing conflicts. Crucially, it links these relations to ethnicity, which is very relevant in the South Sudanese context; and shows how this can explain the rapid emergence of violent conflicts along ethnic lines in South Sudan during the interim period following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, and the period that followed. It further shows how the current structure of governance in South Sudan is reflective of governance strategies of the past; and how those conflicts are better understood as legacies of those interventions. We argue success or failure of decentralization projects will largely depend on the extent to which states are successfully or unsuccessfully divided to smaller geopolitical jurisdictions; and internal borders play crucial roles on this. We further argue that dependency on ethnicity as a criterion for decentralization risks failure of decentralization project in achieving its objectives. This article contributes to more informed theoretical discussions on the reasons for the failure of decentralisation.

Paper 2

Castryck Geert / University of Leipzig

Bordering the lake: Kigoma-Ujiji as a place of transition and transformation between spatial orders

Towards the end of the 19th century different spatial orders came together in the Lake Tanganyika region. The frontier character of the lake at the crossroads where resources, produce and skills met, got overshadowed by the westward moving frontier of an expanding global market under the guise of an Arab-led trade network, which was in turn overrun by European colonization and the drawing of territorial borders. Kigoma-Ujiji was both marginal and central to all of these spatial orders, combining the lakist fixed frontier, the moving Arab frontier as well as the fall-out of its demise, the colonial territorial borders, and the distinction between the urban area and its surroundings.

In this paper I present 20th-century Kigoma-Ujiji as a borderland grafted upon a quadruple spatial order. Out of possible empirical focuses on war and refugees, religion and spirituality, fishery and agriculture, town politics and factionalism, or music and sports, I here illustrate my point through family histories of migration and social mobility. In so doing I make sense of this urban area as a place of transition and transformation across spatial orders. Kigoma-Ujiji can hence be understood as a liminal town which is at the same time marginal and central to processes of global integration.

Paper 3

Browne Adrian / Durham University

Riverine rebels: the pre-colonial dynamics of northern Bunyoro’s borderlands

The ‘spatial turn’, and with it the well-established field of borderland studies, have arguably yet to take hold in the historiography of Uganda. In particular, historians have been slow to examine the diversity of Uganda’s pre-colonial borderland dynamics. My paper explores the history of the northern margins of Bunyoro, around Lake Albert and the ‘Somerset Nile’, before the demarcation of colonial administrative boundaries between this conquered kingdom and the districts of both northern Uganda and the Congo Free State’s Lado Enclave. I argue that these internal/external colonial boundaries, though not without precolonial precedent, belied the complex dynamics of this culturally and politically interstitial space; of a boundary that could at any one time have been defined in a variety of ways. Significantly, the new boundaries concealed the pre-colonial tendency of the Gungu and Palwo communities to evade, contest and collectively mobilise in opposition to the Nyoro state’s exactions by exploiting cross-border political, social and economic ties. The nineteenth-century Nyoro state, particularly under its final independent potentate, Kabalega, was in many ways shaped by this remote periphery. My paper examines the deep roots of what is today termed ‘cultural secessionism’ among the communities living atop Uganda’s largest oil fields.

Paper 4

Glovsky David / Michigan State University

Imagining the Frontiers: Migration and Empowerment in Early 20th Century Senegambia

When the 20th century began, borders existed (on maps) separating the French colony of Senegal, the British colony of Gambia and the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, but these borders were essentially unenforceable. Because of the weak colonial presence on the periphery of these colonies, the border was a place where people could use their alternative conception of the borderlands to resist the growing encroachments of colonial states, and use their position as borderland residents to their advantage. They continued to maintain their pre-colonial grazing lands, farmed seasonally wherever it was most lucrative, and used their shared culture and language to create a space that was simultaneously unified but multinational. However, the colonial border still marked the limit of colonial jurisdiction, and by crossing it, borderland residents could take refuge from policies they saw as unfair.
Through migration, the people of southern Senegambia showed that despite colonial claims to sovereignty, power was still held locally, and that their conception of regional unity held primacy over new colonial borders. Colonial government could not control the migration of people living within their borders, and while colonial regimes enacted migratory policies in order to control local populations, their inability to enforce those policies meant that local people used the border as a conduit to increase opportunities and push back against the imposition of colonial states.

Paper 5

De Roo Bas / Ghent University

The blurred lines of legality. Customs and contraband in the Congolese M’Bomu region (1889-1908)

By focusing on customs and contraband in the M’Bomu basin, this paper aims to fill in the gaps in current research on smuggling and border control in the Congo Free State, which tends to oversimplify the role of the state: illicit trade is usually presented as an issue that the Free State attempted, but failed, to curb. Firstly, I examine to what extent the colonial state and its European agents, its African soldiers and its local African rulers were involved in trafficking. Secondly, the paper investigates whether Leopold’s administration was aware of smuggling and to what extent illicit commerce was tolerated. Finally, I try to explain why the Free State dealt with contraband as it did. I explore to what extent customs practices in the M’bomu borderland were based on a cost-benefit analysis (smuggling is often tolerated because states often think that the monitoring and taxing of cross-border trade is not cost-effective or even impossible) and to which degree the attitude towards contraband might be explained by the negotiation of colonial rule with local elites in borderlands who have important stakes in transborder trade.

← Back to list