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Discussing border affairs in Africa

Borders in Africa, once considered
a topic too hot to touch, have
left the taboo zone. Countries
are openly discussing their
border affairs and thousands of
kilometres of borders have been
By Roman Meyer


Independence left African countries with many a challenge, their international borders being just one of them. Some drawn on predominantly empty maps, some described in treaties where its drafters had never set foot on the terrain. Colonial rulers had made efforts to describe several boundaries in more detail as time passed, drafting new treaties, maps, and even erecting pillars on the ground. Nonetheless, demarcation remained sparse, distances of 5 to 50 km between neighboring beacons being the norm rather than the exception. The situation in terms of treaties, maps and demarcation was even worse between neighboring countries formerly under the same colonial rulers. “Why bother with the boundary between Guinea and Senegal,” they seemed to say, “It’s all part of France anyway!”

African Union Border ProgramAs imperfect as they were, re-negotiating borders would most likely have resulted in endless debates and possibly even war. Therefore, the African Heads of State, in their first meeting in Cairo in July 1964, decided that borders were to be kept as they were at the time of independence. Pandora’s box remained closed. Demarcating the borders was, understandably, not a priority among the many tasks faced by the young nations. Given that most lay in sparsely populated hinterland (especially compared to its flourishing capitals) and that even the attempt of clarifying them could lead to disputes with one’s neighbors, African borders, for a long time, remained a taboo. That changed in 2007, when the African Union identified unclear national borders as a potential threat to peace and stability on the continent. As a measure of conflict prevention, it launched the AUBP, the African Union Border Program.

Much more than lines on a map

The goal that African Heads of State have set themselves is clear. All international borders are to be re-affirmed. That is a total of 80,000 km of land borders, twice the length of the equator. They roughly divide into 55,000 km of terrestrial, 22,000 km of river and 3,000 km of lake boundaries. In addition, an extra 20,000 km of maritime borders need to be delimited. The deadline, initially set for 2012, is now at 2017.

The ultimate goal of peace and stability on the continent, however, will not be achieved through delimitation and demarcation only. Borders are much more than simple lines on a map. There needs to be agreement on the movement of people and goods, if and how health services can be accessed on the other side, if small-scale farmers need to pay import taxes, if education systems are compatible, if cars need special insurance, if local people need visa, etc. The promotion of cross-border cooperation, which stretches across all these aspects, is thus the second pillar of the AUBP. The third one is capacity development, which aims at improving knowledge on border related questions. It enables technical trainings, studies of border related topics and has brought forward joint trainings of border patrol police units.

Many players on the field

One of the rare border beacons from colonial times refurbishedBorders being a question of national sovereignty, the main actors are the concerned countries themselves. Many have established National Boundary Commissions, manned with representatives of all ministries involved: lands, migration, finance, defence, etc. The AUBP unit established at the African Union coordinates, supports and monitors all efforts. Regional Economic Communities or RECs take an active role in facilitating exchange and easing trade at a regional level. International Partners are contributing on different levels to the AUBP. Germany, through its implementing agency GIZ, is substantially supporting the AUBP in financial and technical terms since 2008. The United Kingdom has allocated funds to the re-affirmation of the Sudan-South Soudan border. Exchange with the UN Cartographic Section as well as the UN Mine Action Service are taking place in case of need. So far, the AUBP has focussed on promoting positive border aspects, but prevention of negative aspects such as smuggling, arms and human trafficking, poaching, epidemics and cross-border terrorism are also increasingly being discussed.

Delimitation and demarcation

In theory, delimitation and demarcation is straightforward. Two countries decide to re-affirm their border and set up a Joint Boundary Commission, or JBC. They decide on the exact delimitation, based on existing treaties, maps or the situation on the ground, resolving minor issues along the way. A Joint Technical Commission, comprising surveyors, cartographers and others works on all technical aspects and reports back to the JBC. Once the delimitation is agreed upon, the JTC starts staking out and constructing the boundary beacons.

Online WebMap overview, part of the AU Border Information System AUBIS

From surveying to digging, mixing of cement and even painting the beacons, every step is done in a mixed team — not due to mistrust, but to underline the fraternal spirit and the joint nature of the work. Surveying is done using GPS, usually in the coordinate systems of the two countries as well as a global system, either WGS84 or ITRF2008. Some countries decide to create topographic maps of the border area to be annexed to a future agreement. A new treaty between the two countries is drafted and signed by the respective ministers or presidents either before or after field work. Assistance from the AU, UN, or international development partners is requested where necessary.

Challenges, obstacles and success stories

Challenges, of course, are manifold. Existing treaties may be very unspecific, landmarks disappeared over time, making delimitation of the boundary line a protracted procedure. Determination of watershed lines is costly, and so is the DGPS equipment, software, manpower and satellite imagery needed to implement a project of this scale.

Best practices to demarcate boundaries in Africa

Personnel with the necessary qualifications and experience are scarce. Some countries are more experienced and better equipped than their neighbors, which in itself can create tension. It is self-evident that coordination between countries is crucial. Both need the financial resources, teams and equipment deployed to the border at the same time, something that is easier said than done, especially when financial years are not synchronous. In case the two parties do not agree on the boundary line, they are advised to seek mediation rather than court rulings, as these are usually both lengthy and costly.

On the more technical side, challenges are also numerous. Rivers change their course seasonally, create and destroy islands, divide into several branches or at times dry out completely. Watershed lines, calculated from DEM, are altered due to roads that act like drainage pipes, or cannot really be determined at all in very flat areas. Satellite imagery often provides sufficient resolution, but insufficient horizontal accuracy. And border beacons are sometimes vandalized by local community in need of construction material.

From left to right:The many arms of the river Congo make it difficult to identify its main channel,Example of a boundary map of 1911 at 1:200’000 scale. Pillars are far apart and the line in between is curved

Also, the border staked out as per the treaty may misalign with an assumed border which the local communities have gotten used to, leaving the countries with the difficult decision to either adjust the treaty or to create tensions at the local level. Without the assistance of SBAS or local CORS, surveying and calculating the precise location of the border beacons is a laborious task.
And non-expert counterparts at ministries or international organizations often don’t understand the procedures of these highly technical surveys.

Despite all this, much progress has been achieved. Thousands of kilometres of borders have been demarcated. Best practices on how to demarcate borders on the continent have evolved and were published by the African Union, so countries can learn from their peers and avoid errors others had made. Documentary films have been produced to raise awareness of decision makers and the larger public. Existing treaties have been unearthed from colonial archives and other sources, scanned and published in an online database where each treaty is linked to the respective border. Coordinates within these treaties have been published on an online map on the AUBP website. And June 7 has been established as Africa Border Day. Of course, some actors are less engaged than others, but the front-runners are really doing a commendable job and the others follow in their wake.

Ambassador Aguibou Diarrah, Head of AUBP, launching the first set of guidebooks on border delimitation at the African Border Day on July 7, 2013

Ambassador Aguibou Diarrah, Head of AUBP, launching the first set of guidebooks on border delimitation at the African Border Day on July 7, 2013

Peaceful and well demarcated future

More, of course, is yet to come. Countries will be able to upload new agreements directly into the AU Border Information System, or AUBIS. Efforts are underway to establish June 7 as the ‘International Day of Integration across National Boundaries’ at the UN level. The African Union convention on cross-border cooperation is currently undergoing ratification procedures in the Member States.
However, all efforts for integration and cross-border cooperation remain futile if the boundary is not clearly demarcated. Delimitation and demarcation of African Borders remains a Herculean task, and an official dataset with all borders defined is still a long way to go. But the first steps have been made.

The biggest success of the AUBP, however, is the AUBP itself. Borders in Africa, once considered a topic too hot to touch, have left the taboo zone. Countries are openly discussing their border affairs. A call for demarcation by one country is no longer perceived as a land grab attempt by the other, but as a chance to handle a formerly toxic topic. Bit by bit, the motto of the AUBP, which sums its efforts up so poignantly, may become a reality: African borders will change “from barriers to bridges.