africa is not a country
Photo: Harvill Secker

Read an Exclusive Extract From ‘Africa Is Not a Country’

The book, by VICE World News staffer Dipo Faloyin, attempts to break the stereotypes that continue to plague modern Africa.
Dipo Faloyin
London, GB

Dipo Faloyin's Africa Is Not a Country – which is published in the UK tomorrow and in the US on the 6th of September – is a portrait of modern Africa that pushes back against harmful stereotypes to tell a more comprehensive story of the continent's history and present. The following is an extract from the chapter “By The Power Vested in Me I Now Pronounce You a Country.”

Advertisement

As independence movements swept across the continent in the ’50s and ’60s, newly formed African nations had no experience to guide them on how they should scour their manufactured identities for a unifying national soul. They were choked with the same headiness that grips your senses as you wait on the threshold of the perfect house party, doorbell rung, internally juggling hope and unknown possibilities, anticipation and courage and the smooth grace of chance.

They soon found it impossible to look beyond what was directly in front of their faces. Reckoning with their current state proved to be a full-time job. Many of these nations were strange, awkward things, with autonomous limbs that didn’t really fit, guided by a multitude of brains working at vastly different frequencies, each controlling a wide array of powerful extremities. No wonder walking in a straight line proved a daily struggle. At their inception around sixty years ago, these nations were weak, unbalanced states, forever threatening to topple over and crush 1.2 billion people; states unable to recognise themselves, or their neighbours who were facing the same challenges.

The private agreements made by the European powers between 1884 and 1919 had blitzed and blended what were once proud, individual kingdoms, and as a result, African countries were faced with a difficult choice when they won their freedom: either to forge ahead and make the best of what they had, or redraw the entire map.

Advertisement

Nobody was fooled into thinking these borders were an act of divine inspiration. Everyone understood that they were part of a complex creation story that was selfishly messy and prone to plot holes that would certainly collapse under the weight of repeated viewings. Ethnic groups had been ripped apart, families had been ripped apart, languages had been ripped apart – a reality that was widely recognised across the continent. “It was unfortunate that the African States have been broken up into different groups by the Colonial powers,” Nigerian prime minister Tafawa Balewa said in 1963. “In some cases, a single tribe has been broken up into four different States. You might find a section in Guinea, a section in Mali, a section in Sierra Leone and perhaps a section in Liberia. That was not our fault.”

It wasn’t. 

It was their responsibility, however, to carve out a path forward. The first obstacle was how to keep these nations culturally intact. This has arguably remained the region’s biggest challenge. Back in the ’60s, once the demographically varied inhabitants of these nations no longer shared a common foreign enemy, they had the time and clarity to realise that, apart from wishing their coloniser gone, ethnic groups shared almost nothing else – not a belief system, common language, morality structure nor deity. They had skipped the foundation of organic trust and understanding that is rooted in centuries’ worth of nation building. And there certainly wasn’t a strong bond between the rulers and the ruled, especially when the citizenry came from a different ethnic group. This made it hard, at first, to instil patriotism for the national collective over an individual allegiance to those who spoke, dressed and worshipped the same way. But what were these new countries meant to do? It was the 1960s and the rest of the world was forging ahead, not willing to wait for Africa to reconfigure once again. Our parents and grandparents went to sleep one day and woke up bathed in promise. Their nations’ births were not of their doing, but the future could be.

Advertisement

It was to solve these inconsistencies that the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) met in Cairo in July 1964, hoping to agree on the best approach to take towards the continent’s deficient borders.

In an attempt to salvage Africa’s fledgling harmony, it was thought at the meeting that tinkering with borders would only lead to more strife and conflict at a time when countries were just coming off a big fight for independence. It was unlikely, anyway, that with so many vested interests you could ever find a configuration that would work for everyone. It also wasn’t clear how nations would go about arranging the new borders and who would be appointed to administer this work. The colonial powers had created such a mess that African countries couldn’t change their boundaries without the knock-on effects being potentially devastating. One wrong border line and an entire nation could vanish, making what you did in your country very much everybody else’s business.

People were also wary of the influence far larger nations with considerably more financial and military power – South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya – could have over the smaller countries. The initiation of an in-house scramble for land would certainly benefit a select few, and that was widely understood to be wrong. If only Europe had shown such restraint.

“I am not unaware that, when our colonisers set boundaries between territories, they too often ignored the frontiers of race, language and ethnicity,” President Philibert Tsiranana of Malagasy, now Madagascar, said in an address to other leaders. “It is no longer possible, nor desirable, to modify the boundaries of Nations, on the pretext of racial, religious or linguistic criteria . . . Indeed, should we take race, religion or language as criteria for setting our boundaries, a few States in Africa would be blotted out from the map.”

Advertisement

The president of Mali: “We must take Africa as it is, and we must renounce any territorial claims, if we do not wish to introduce what we call Black imperialism in Africa.”

In other words: splitting up into thousands of smaller ethnic groups was a predicate to chaos, and the enemy they knew was preferable to the villain they feared they would unintentionally create if an attempt to dismantle these unsustainably large countries went wrong.

Finally, it simply wasn’t in the personal interests of the first generation of presidents and would-be prime ministers to break up the continent. They hadn’t spent years leading the struggle for independence just to throw away a clear path to maintaining power. Wiping the Etch A Sketch clean did not guarantee them a prime position in whatever was drawn next.

There were then – and remain – some reasonable arguments for breaking up the entire existing arrangement – or, at the very least, reconsidering how the region approached the difficult battle for cohesion.

“Unity can only be based on the general consent of the people involved,” President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania argued in 1967, after his country showed a willingness to support secessionist movements, including backing the push by the Igbo of Nigeria’s south-east to break away and form the nation of Biafra – a move the Nigerian government would oppose, leading to a bloody three-year civil war. “The people must feel that this State, or this Union, is theirs; and they must be willing to have their quarrels in that context,” Nyerere continued. “Once a large number of the people of any such political unit stop believing that the State is theirs, and that the Government is their instrument, then the unit is no longer viable.”

Advertisement

Demanding through decree that people feel a deep, patriotic love for a country has made a number of ethnic groups across the continent feel isolated, and that their specific needs have been ignored by their country’s dominant ethnic groups, who at times have openly threatened their safety. This has, in part, fuelled secessionist movements in Uganda, Sudan, Angola, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Nigeria.

A study in 2011 by a group of Harvard and NYU professors tried to measure whether artificial states are more prone to political and economic instability. They defined artificial states as nations whose “political borders do not coincide with a division of nationalities desired by the people on the ground”. They measured two different functions: the effects of straight-line borders and the erratic separation of ethnic groups.

The researchers discovered that countries with unnatural borders and divided communities tend to have greater economic problems and political violence. Using their metric, they also found that nine of the thirteen most arbitrary states in the world are in Africa – Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The other countries are Pakistan, Jordan, Ecuador and Guatemala. All former colonies delineated to bring wealth and power to some, and subjugation to others.

Modern Africa was designed against its will to be a divided thing. A continent of fifty-four houses built on sand, poorly anchored to business deals written using Victorian definitions of civilisation. The irregular births of its nations, and the short time they’ve had to deal with the ramifications, underlie why so many are still fighting to overcome deep, foundational challenges. It is not because Africans are savagely ungovernable or too ignorant to lead a successful country. Even though most people would not say so out loud, such thoughts permeate our subconscious when we do not understand the context, the founding of the current configuration of states, and how their conflicts are fuelled and exploited by their foundational make-up.

“It is the weakness of the state in Zambia which allowed Frederick Chiluba to divert state resources while president toward his fellow Bemba,” argues Professor Pierre Englebert, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It is the weakness of the state which made it possible for Charles Taylor to use the revenue of the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry to fund arms trafficking in the late 1990s. It is also the weakness of the state that allows militias and gangs to organise drug, mineral and arms smuggling at the Liberia-Guinea-Côte d’Ivoire border area or in the Ituri region of Congo.”

The danger is that a significant number of people carry the silent bigotry that there is something inherently wrong and indecent about Africans as a collective that must have caused this continued scuffling. This is where discrimination breeds something more lasting, more insidious, and quickly, before you realise it, you’re gathered in a room, under a large map, scheming, creating a thing with arms and limbs it cannot control, and an undefined soul divided into a million pieces.

You can pre-order the book here.