The Bad Borders Meme (guest post by James Fearon)

by Erik Voeten on January 10, 2011 · 1 comment

in Blogs

Below is a guest post by James Fearon, the Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. As many of you know, Jim is one of the most influential scholars in the field of international relations. His work in the past decade or so has focussed on interethnic cooperation and civil war. He may occasionally offer his thoughts on these pages when the mood strikes (which we hope is often). The text below is Jim’s.

In general I think Jeffrey Gettleman does a great job reporting on Africa for the NYT, but his piece in the Week in Review today (A Colonial Curse Comes Up for a Vote) kind of set me off.

It begins “More than any other continent, Africa is wracked by separatists,” and then immediately suggests that the bad borders drawn by the colonial powers are “a prime reason that Africa remains, to a striking degree, a continent of failed or failing states.” He then relates some different theories for why African Union members have accepted the idea of recognizing a new southern Sudanese state, despite the long wariness of the African Union (and its predecessor, the OAU) about “opening Pandora’s box.” He wonders if this will start a trend and suggests that might be a good thing.

Africa is not wracked by separatists more than any other continent. In fact, the interesting thing is just how rare separatist movements have been in Africa, especially given how ethnically diverse African countries are relative (on average) to the rest of the world.


The graph shows the share of separatist conflicts in all ongoing civil conflicts for subSaharan Africa and for the rest of the world since 1970. I used the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Database for this, which among other things codes whether the conflict is about “government” or “territory.” This basically corresponds to whether rebels are trying to capture the center or are trying to secede or gain greater regional autonomy. The UCDP/PRIO data have a very low threshold for conflict and tiny separatist groups are more common than tiny center-seeking rebel groups, so these data arguably exaggerate the amount of consequential violent separatism.

Separatist conflict has evidently been less common in Africa than the rest of the world. This is still true in the last 10 years, though maybe there has been some uptick, it’s hard to say. If you compare by region, separatist conflict has been much more the norm in Eastern Europe/former Soviet Union and in Asia than in SSA. And if you were to examine the data at the level of ethnic groups rather than countries, the probability that a minority ethnic group in Africa has been associated with some rebel movement for secession or autonomy is going to be much lower than in these other regions (and Middle East/North Africa too).

At least until recently, the big prize for would-be rebels in SSA has been to capture the center, not to try to found some tiny landlocked micro-state that would be completely at the mercy of the country or countries surrounding it. Moreover, in Africa ambitious individuals from a small minority group can sometimes reasonably hope to get power at the center by using force. This is because the states are so weak, and also because there is usually no majority ethnic group that dominates the capital and its politics. Plurality groups in Africa typically only have 15-20% of the total population. In Asia and Eastern Europe, by contrast, you have lots of countries that are actually named for a majority or plurality group that “owns” the capital. That makes separatism a relatively more attractive option for minority groups in those regions.

Of course, if the major aid-donor states start to say that they will happily finance and support new micro-state governments in SSA, then we will probably see a lot more separatist movements there.

Would this improve governance? I don’t know. On the one hand there is definitely something to be said for the proposition that the governance problem is easier to solve in smaller jurisdictions. On the other hand, if you really were to go all the way to ethnically homogeneous units in SSA, you might just be maximizing aid bureaucracy.

I’m not saying that the division of Sudan is a bad thing. I’m just doubtful that bad borders are really “a prime reason” for weak states in Africa or that redrawing them the right way – which would be what? – is an important part of the answer. (Note, by the way, that southern Sudan is practically as ethnically diverse as Sudan was, and equally subject to Gettleman’s “bad borders” complaint, especially if it becomes another kleptocracy of narrow ethnic elites fighting it out over control of oil revenues and aid flows.)

[Thanks very much to the Monkey Cage regulars for this opportunity, though most likely I won’t be able to take much advantage of it because my rants about news items are rarely data-driven (and that’s what seems most appropriate here).]

James Fearon

{ 1 comment }

chris January 12, 2011 at 11:12 am

If you compare by region, separatist conflict has been much more the norm in Eastern Europe/former Soviet Union and in Asia than in SSA.

Of course, you could make an argument that Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are *also* the victims of borders badly drawn by imperialists/colonialists in an armchair hundreds of miles from the territory actually being divided up. So the overall argument doesn’t go away, it’s just not completely specific to SSA.

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