The centre can hold: things don’t always fall apart

The New York Times has a feature looking at the birth of new nation states from the disintegration of the old (similar, although less extensive to the interactive map The Guardian published online a couple of weeks ago). The usual feature in the New York Times piece: DRC is splintering, of course; Somaliland’s breakup is, apparently, “confirmed”; Mali’s division is seemingly “irreparable”. Belgium makes an appearance, but predictably the gaze is largely upon Africa and Asia.

Predicting the demise of the nation-state is something of an industry. After all, ‘country will probably not split apart’ garners less editorial excitement than the prospect of messy national divorces, new flags and the rush to print updated maps.

Much analysis in these type of pieces focuses on the factors and forces that push apart, rather than those holding it all together. But surely experience,in Africa at least, suggests the centre has in fact been able to hold relatively well over the past 60 or so years, albeit with compromise and change.

At the heart of the NYT piece is the fact of the inherent instability of artificial borders, an idea popularised in Basil Davidson’s Black Man’s Burden and a mainstay of analysis of the African polity ever since. No-one is disputing the fact that boundaries across much of Africa are artificial creations of rapacious colonial states, cutting across pre-existing and real polities and communities. But in truth, all borders are artificial constructions, representing the victory of one set of actors over another. The difference becomes one of longevity. How long must a border have been in existence before it becomes accepted as creating more than imaginary communities and holds real social and cultural force?

Wouldn’t it be a far more interesting question to ask that why, given the abitrary nature of colonial boundaries, African states have by and large, with some notable exceptions, stuck together? But this doesn’t fit in with the normal narrative about Africa, one that tends towards the words fragile, precarious, unstable, failed. It is, moreoever, a narrative that is rarely applied outside Africa and Asia. The Guardian‘s map included movements that are slightly problematic in being considered in such a context. Is Uamsho on Zanzibar primarily secessionist? Are there other ways of looking at it (and other so-called secessionist movements)?

Moreover, there is a question of scale here. What support does Uamsho have? Does it – the organisation rather than the wider pro-independence movement – post an existential threat to the union? For example, how would a map of the UK look with such treatment? With strong (if not necessarily majority) independence movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland, smaller but still significant support in Wales, not to mention calls for Cornish independence: is the UK therefore an example of a failed state, or one heading for collapse?

The question of a breakaway Somaliland is frequently held up as the next new African country (as per the NYT analysis). But whilst it is operating in many ways as an independent country, and there are certainly calls for a full and clean break by some, the reality is by no means as certain nor as clear cut as the western binary ‘in-or-out’ analysis allows for. There is an in-between, not one that sits comfortably with traditional notions of the nation-state, but one that has a real and tangible existence nonetheless. Borders are places of fluidity, not fixed impenetrable barriers. It is by no means certain that Somaliland would choose to become a separate and independent state, even if it continued to resist ‘rejoining’ Somalia as per the traditional nation-state model.

Elsewhere, the urge to pull together rather than fracture has resulted in countries such as Tanzania, where a real sense of nationhood was forged from the colonial inheritance. Even where civil war has exerted a terrible and tragic toll in human life and misery, in how many cases has this culminated in a split? More interesting to ask why DRC has stayed together despite its history of political and civil turmoil than think about ways it might split apart.

Perhaps it is time we moved on from the obsession with borders and boundaries as the places where the seams begin to pull apart irrestistably and irrevocably, and consider how they offer new opportunities that transend, rather than destroy, countries. It might be journalistically less exciting, but from a social science and humanities perspective, the ways in which Africans, African states and African institutions have managed their tarnished legacy is both interesting and in many cases inspiring.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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3 Responses to The centre can hold: things don’t always fall apart

  1. Tim Kelsall says:

    Mike, there are five things that keep African states together, in descending order of priority : 1. The stasis induced by the international states system, 2. The closely associated aid and flag rents, 3. Natural resource rents, that encourage national leaders to hang onto otherwise difficult to govern areas 4. The fears of minority groups within potential secessionist regions, which encourage loyalty to the centre 5. Some sense of national identity, however recently manufactured.

    Just my opinion, of course…

    • Hi Tim, thanks for the comments. I think you’re probably right. I think the issue of identity is important, if not fully researched in meaningful ways. I also wonder whether it is because in some cases there are real (if not officially recognised under the international states system) alternatives to either secession or unity.

      • Tim Kelsall says:

        Borders are often pretty porous, and offer lucrative opportunities for smuggling etc, which might explain why people don’t challenge them more often. And in some places (e.g. E Congo), a multitude of entities and actors compensate for the titular state’s ineffectiveness…

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