A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Azawad: The latest African border dilemma – Al Jazeera English

In News, Politics on April 19, 2012 at 19:47

Azawad: The latest African border dilemma

Gaborone, Botswana – On April 6, Tuareg rebels in the West African city of Timbuktu unilaterally declared their independence from Mali and announced the birth of a new nation called Azawad. The declaration was widely ignored or condemned by neighbouring African states and the international community.

However, considering the arbitrary nature of many national borders in Africa which date to the colonial era, and the likelihood of protracted strife in a hunger prone area if rebel claims are simply dismissed, the international community ought to think carefully about how best to engage with this potential new African country known as Azawad.

The history of contemporary African borders is problematic to say the least. The European colonial powers carved up Africa, and capriciously set territorial borders, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 at which no Africans were present. These borders, which largely continued to exist long after independence, often split tribes, lumped incompatible ethnic groups together, or created countries which struggled economically because they were too big, too small, or landlocked. Given the problematic way in which African borders were originally set, it is not surprising that we see struggles to redefine national boundaries in the contemporary era.

Tuareg determined to hold onto homeland

On the surface, the solution to the “African border problem” may appear simple. That is, as opportunities arise, one should always seek to create more ethnically homogeneous states. The problem is that ethnic territories have never really existed in much of Africa. Rather, the African landscape is often wonderfully diverse with different groups pursuing distinct, and often complementary, livelihood strategies: farmers, herders and fishers to name a few.

As such, countries created with an ethnic rationale typically result in the majority group being privileged over others. These states may also have limited financial viability as they tend to be smaller and less economically diverse.

Azawad, while not a new idea, is the latest ethnic-territorial state to seek recognition. The Tuareg are a lighter skinned nomadic peoples, historically dependent on animal husbandry, that are spread across the drylands of West Africa between Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya.

The Tuareg have long aspired to have an independent state, as they were often marginalised by governments in the region that favoured more sedentary agriculturalists. The one exception to this was in Libya, where the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi actively recruited immigrant Tuareg and trained them to be part of his personal defence force.


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