The Scramble for Africa, fractionalization and open borders

Co-blogger Nathan Smith’s plea for someone to write a history of borders got me thinking about Africa and how its borders were drawn. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 formalized what has come to be known as the “Scramble for Africa“, a process through which contemporary African borders were drawn. And as many researchers have shown, Africa’s borders were largely drawn in an arbitrary manner with little regard for the interests of the people who would later fall under the jurisdiction of those same borders. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou summarize the Scramble for Africa thus [footnotes omitted and my own emphasis]:

The key consideration of European leaders [in drawing up Africa’s borders] was to preserve the “status quo” preventing conflict among Europeans for Africa (as the memories of the European wars of the 18th-19th century were still alive). To this objective the Europeans divided areas and drew borders in maps, without taking into account local conditions and the ethnic composition of the areas. African leaders were not invited and had no say on the drawing of political boundaries. Moreover, European leaders were in such a rush that they didn’t wait for the new information arriving from explorers, geographers, and missionaries.

There is little disagreement among historians that the scramble for the continent was to a great extent artificial (see Asiwaju (1985) and Englebert (2009) for references). As the British prime minister at the time Lord Salisbury put it, “we have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever tord; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” Asiwaju (1985) summarizes that “the study of European archives supports the accidental rather than a conspiratorial theory of the marking of African boundaries.” In line with the historical evidence, Alesina, Easterly, and Matuszeski (2011) document that eighty percent of African borders follow latitudinal and longitudinal lines, more than in any other part of the world.

A direct effect of the Scramble for Africa was the partitioning of ethnic groups, many of which had existed as unitary “nation-states” for many of years. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou quantify this partitioning effect thus:

 Quantifying the effects of the Scramble for Africa requires identifying the partitioned groups. To do so we use anthropological data from the pioneering work of George Peter Murdock (1959), who has mapped the spatial distribution of 834 ethnicities at the time of colonisation in the mid/late 19th century. [We] classify as partitioned groups those ethnicities with at least 10% of their total surface area belonging to more than one country. There are 231 ethnic groups with at least 10% of their historical homeland falling into more than one country. When we use a more restrictive threshold of 20% there are 164 ethnicities partitioned across the national border.

Our procedure identifies most major partitioned ethnic groups. For example, the Maasai have been split between Kenya (62%) and Tanzania (38%), the Anyi between Ghana (58%) and the Ivory Coast (42%), and the Chewa between Mozambique (50%), Malawi (34%), and Zimbabwe (16%).  We also calculate the probability that a randomly chosen pixel of the homeland of an ethnic group falls into different countries. The ethnic groups with the highest score in this index are the Malinke, which are split into six different countries; the Ndembu, which are split between Angola, Zaire, and Zambia; and the Nukwe, which are split between Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Botswana.

Another direct effect of the Scramble for Africa was the mishmash of different ethnic groups under a single border. The degree of such mishmash can be quantified by calculating an ethnic fractionalization index for a country, with the index ranging from zero to one. An index closer to one implies that a particular country is very ethnically diverse in the sense that the probability that two randomly picked individuals belong to the same ethnic group is very low. Using the indices calculated by Alesina et al., the average ethnic fractionalization index for sub-Saharan Africa is 0.65 with a median of 0.73. On the other hand, the average for Western Europe is 0.20 with a median of 0.12. The top 5 African countries with the highest indices are Uganda (0.93), Liberia (0.91), Madagascar (0.88), Congo DR (0.87) and the Republic of Congo (0.87). In Western Europe’s case the top 5 are Belgium (0.56), Switzerland (0.53), Luxembourg (0.53), Spain (0.42) and Germany (0.17). If the top 5 European countries were in Africa, they would rank 37th, 38th,39th, 42nd and 51st respectively in terms of ethnic fractionalization. The fact that Western European countries are not as ethnically diverse as African countries should not be surprising. The process of nation-state formation was more systematic in Western Europe with the result that the nation-state formed around less ethnically heterogeneous groups.

The effects of Africa’s arbitrary border formation have not been benign, as one would expect. In a now famous scholarly article from 1997, Easterly and Levine showed that Africa’s dismal post-independence economic performance was largely driven by the high degree of ethnic fractionalization. The authors showed that “ethnic [fractionalization] was closely associated with low schooling, underdeveloped financial systems, distorted foreign exchange markets, and insufficient infrastructure”. And this was driven by the fact that “[ethnic fractionalization] leads to rent-seeking behavior and reduces the consensus for public goods, creating long-run growth tragedies” (my italics). Even more tragic, recent work by Michalopoulos and Papaioannou shows that the random partitioning of ethnic groups explains much of the continent’s civil wars since the 1960s. Their work shows that “civil conflict intensity, as reflected in casualties and duration, is approximately 25% higher in areas where partitioned ethnicities reside (as compared to the homelands of ethnicities that have not been separated)”. The groups that have been particularly impacted by this are “the Afar and the Esa, which during the period from 1970 to 2005 have experienced five civil wars…[T]he Afar being partitioned between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, and the Esa being split between Ethiopia and Somalia”. And the effects are not only limited to partitioned ethnic groups: “Tribal areas adjacent to the ethnic homeland of partitioned groups also experience more civil wars, which tend to last longer and be more devastating. [E]stimates imply that an ethnic group residing adjacent to a partitioned ethnic homeland is on average 5% more likely to experience civil conflict”. And civil conflicts have led to the death of millions of people in Africa and to the displacement of many more.

One can easily imagine that a different border configuration that, for instance took into account the historical interests of different ethnic groups, might have kept at a minimum some of the problems highlighted in the previous paragraph. And this is why I believe that global open borders can go a long way in rectifying some of the consequences of the Scramble for Africa. Under open borders, individuals belonging to certain ethnic groups or entire ethnic groups can easily relocate to countries that the individual or the ethnic group indentifies with or to countries that are likely to guarantee the safety of the individual or his group. (In this post, I showed that the fact that the US has open borders between states made it easier for targetted ethnic/racial groups to migrate elsewhere). Currently the costs of emigrating, even within Africa, are substantial. Very often those on the receiving end of ethnic conflicts are not allowed to easily intergrate into the neighbouring countries to which they run to but are instead placed in refugee camps known for their notoriety. Similarly, those individuals or groups seeking a better life economically in a neighbouring country are required to obtain a dossier of documents, most of which are costly to obtain, before crossing the border to begin the employment search. Those who are unable to obtain these documents resort to risky methods to get themselves across (Update: for more on this last point, see John Lee’s post titled Risking death to get into South Africa).

Some might object that whereas global open borders might lead to a reduction in ethnic diversity in Africa, for instance, they might, on the other hand, lead to an increase in ethnic diversity in certain parts of the developed world such as Western Europe or the United States. And with ethnic diversity increasing, the very problems that open borders were meant to correct in Africa might crop up in the West. This fear, however, is not borne out by research. An exhaustive literature survey by Alesina and La Ferrara finds that “rich democratic societies work well with [ethnic] diversity, in the case of the United States very well interms of growth and productivity”. This result seems to run through institutions. The presently developed countries are developed largely because their initially homogeneous populations built a consensus around establishing a set of inclusive institutions. (It is this process of consensus building that was likely short-circuited in Africa’s case during the Scramble for Africa). And these institutions are unlikely to change in the face of increased diversity because institutions, once established, tend to persist. And it goes without saying that the types of individuals or types of ethnic groups that are likely to relocate to the West are the kinds of individuals or kinds of ethnic groups that identify with the West’s way of life, including its institutions.

UPDATE: Co-bloggers Vipul Naik and Nathan Smith have previously addressed, in some great detail, the relationship between immigration, immigrants and institutions here, here and here.

Related reading

Grieve Chelwa

Grieve is currently a PhD student in economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Grieve has worked and lived in 5 African countries, in four of those as an immigrant. He is originally from Zambia.

See our blog post introducing Grieve, or all blog posts by Grieve.

12 thoughts on “The Scramble for Africa, fractionalization and open borders”

  1. This reminds me of the partition of India, albeit there are important differences.

    While the Scramble for Africa was precipitated by colonial powers, the partition of India was precipitated by a specific group of local leaders in the then India (now partitioned) who threatened instigating large-scale violence if India weren’t partitioned, see e.g. The British just wanted to leave quickly (and the Indian leaders wanted to see them go) but didn’t proactively seek a partitioning.

    What happened though was that in the aftermath of the partition, people who found themselves on the wrong side of the border tried to move in huge numbers across the border, and those that didn’t move quickly enough were killed. A total of about a million people (estimates vary) were killed in the violence that accompanied the partition:

    The actual drawing of the partition line was done by a British civil servant with no knowledge of India (this was considered a feature, not a bug!):

    It’s not clear to me that a partition along ethnic/religious lines, even if apparently sought by local leaders rather than foreign colonial powers, is necessarily something that works out well, particularly given that many people would tend to find themselves on the wrong side of the border.

  2. Hmmm. While the historical background here is very good, I think the results of an open borders solution in the African context need a lot more thought. To assume that just because ethnic groups are spread across different countries means that they would move to become more homogeneous given the option is very simplistic. Actually, although ethnic or tribal identity is very important, economics are far more likely to be a push/pull factor.

    In general, the areas which have been most negatively affected by the division of colonial borders seem to be the areas which still have ethnic tensions and low levels of development today. Given freedom of movement many people would likely leave these areas altogether rather than simply become more homogeneous. For example many in eastern DRC would very much like to migrate to Uganda or Tanzania where there is greater security and economic opportunity, and this would result in even greater diversity in these countries than already exists.

    Another example, ethnic Somali territory was spread across five different colonial territories and this has contributed to a lot of conflict. But an open borders scenario seems at least as likely to see ethnic Somalis leaving Somalia for (literally) greener pastures elsewhere (in Kenya for example, where around 600,000 Somali refugees already reside) rather than returning to Somalia as a show of ethnic solidarity. Likewise, conflicts over territory and resources, already a major source of ethnic or tribal conflict, may actually increase.

    Interestingly, borders generally are much more flexible in practice in Africa than elsewhere – although this is often a result of lack of policing and petty corruption. For instance, in many parts of Africa pastoralist groups do cross borders more or less freely – law enforcement only becomes involved when cross border cattle raiding becomes an issue.

    Another factor worth mentioning is that Africa is inherently very diverse. There is more genetic diversity in Africa than in the rest of the world combined (a result of the very small number of humans who first migrated out of Africa). So in a sense diversity is inevitably going to be high no matter the borders.

    In any case, this is a very interesting and practical area for discussion of open borders – but assessing the impact of implementing such a policy today needs more thought. More on this subject please!

    1. @RedBrick, thanks for your thoughtful comments. One of my motivations in writing this post was to point out that one of the ways by which we classify people, especially those in Africa, and decide who gets to live in some place and who doesn’t was born out of an arbitrary historical process that was largely divorced from reality. For instance, Botswanans can visit South Africa visa free for up to a year (technically for 6 months and then get a 6 months extention), Zambians upto 4 months (technically one month and get a 3 months extension) , Kenyans and Nigerians cannot even set foot in South Africa without going through a lengthy visa process in their home countries. This makes little sense when viewed through the lens of the Scramble for Africa. My reading of your comment is that we see eye to eye on this. Now for the parts where we disagree-ish.

      Whereas I agree that economics is a pull/push factor, I tend to think that war/civil conflict is an even bigger pull/push factor. For instance, there are large and significant income disparities between rural and urban areas *within* African countries but Africa has historically been one of the least urbanized places in the world (although, admittedly, the urbanization rate has picked up somewhat recently).

      Secondly, it’s not so evident, at least to me, that open borders within Africa would result in an increase in ethnic diversity in recipient countries. Like the partioning story highlights, many ethnic groups have their kith and kin spread out across many borders so that if the Chewa of Zambia moved eastwards into Malawi (where you find Chewas as well), Malawi’s level of ethnic diversity (whichever way you measure it) would not budge at all. The same can be said of the Sotho who are split between Lesotho and South Africa; the Tswana between Botswana and South Africa; the Tavara (or Tonga) between Zimbabwe and Zambia; the Lozi (or Luya) between Botswana, Zambia and Namibia; the Luvale between Zambia and Angola and so on. I have little knowledge of the ethnic groups within the great lakes region of East Africa but I suspect that you might have something similar there too so that it is not self-evident that open borders will naturally result in an increase in ethnic diversity in a recipient country.

      Suppose open borders resulted in an increase in ethnic diversity in recipient countries and suppose that the pull/push factor is either economic opportunity or the promise of peace. The work By Alesina and La Ferrara that I link to makes mention of the variation in economic outcomes (and civil conflict outcomes) even in the face of high ethnic diversity in a particular region of the world.Even though African countries are on the whole very ethnically diverse, some are more so than others so that the relatively less heterogeneous, again working through the consensus mechanism, have been able to “agree” at some point in their past on a set of relatively inclusive institutions – and this is why these countries are pulling people in the first place. And these institutions are unlikely to shatter in the face of increased diversity.

      But your general comment that this angle needs further thought is welcome.

  3. There is reason to think that it is ethnic polarization, not fractionalization, that better explains civil war, i.e. when there is a majority and a minority large enough to be threatening, so that each group can fear the other, and hope to win a conflict.

    In diverse but not polarized societies ethnicity-based civil war requires horse-trading coalitions of multiple ethnicities, which is in tension with more extreme forms of ethnic loyalty and hatred, and means that no one group can hope to achieve domination itself, making peace more attractive by comparison. Here is an AER paper finding that polarization predicts war better than fractionalization:

    In the U.S. this idea is part of the idea of a “rainbow coalition”: if immigration reduces European-Americans to a minority, with large African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American populations, then no single group’s identity politics could dominate the national stage.

    1. Thanks for your comment BK. I agree with you that ethnic fractionalization does not, in the literature, do a good job of predicting civil conflict. And this is why I was careful in my post to not link the two. The paper by Michalopoulos and Papaioannou that I link to in the post speaks of “ethnic partitioning” via random border design as predicting civil conflicts. And the channels through which this might happen are contained in their paper. But what I do in the post is explicitly link ethnic fractionalization to poor economic outcomes a la Alesina, Easterly, etc…

  4. There are an abundance of ethnic groups throughout Asia , with adaptations to the climate zones of Asia, which can be Arctic, subarctic, temperate, subtropical or tropical. The ethnic groups have adapted to mountains, deserts, grasslands, and forests. On the coasts of Asia, the ethnic groups have adopted various methods of harvest and transport. Some groups are primarily hunter-gatherers , some practice transhumance (nomadic lifestyle), others have been agrarian/rural for millennia and others becoming industrial/urban. Some groups/countries of Asia are completely urban ( Hong Kong and Singapore ). The colonization of Asia was largely ended in the 20th century, with national drives for independence and self-determination across the continent.

  5. We shouldn’t be countries, just friendly or warring ethnic groups and tribes which worked well for us.

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