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Consider the history of borders. Starting with the Berlin Conference of 1884 when seven European countries carved out their stakes on the continent, Africa was gradually broken down into an illogical clutter of nation-states. The borders of these states had no regard for historical groupings and identities, and shifted depending on what was most politically and economically expedient for the colonising country. At different points during the first half of the century, for example, Burkina Faso was part of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Mali and Senegal, before eventually coagulating as the Republic of Upper Volta.
In the early 1960s, as more African states gained “independence” and moved towards establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, border blues drove one of the earliest rifts in continental politics. The “Casablanca group” of states led by Kwame Nkrumah advocated a radical approach to African unification, while the “Monrovia group” led by Leopold Senghor called for a more conservative approach, one that held the borders of nation-states in higher esteem.
The Monrovia group won, and one of the first resolutions of the OAU was to endorse colonial borders. Today, there are only a few African countries – Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique, Rwanda and Seychelles – that allow all Africans either to enter without visas or to obtain visas upon arrival. For the rest, fellow Africans have to jump through hoops whose variations in complexity often reflect larger political dynamics. It seems that what has infiltrated our psyche even deeper than colonial geography is the spirit that inspired the origin of borders: perceptions of superiority and inferiority, the violence of competition for resources, selective openness determined by levels of perceived threat and historical animosity. And questions of historical clarity are chronically present.
Where did the vision of division come from? How does it stay alive? Who teaches you to hate your neighbour? Official classifications along invisible lines were both symptoms and tools of oppression throughout the 20th century. In apartheid South Africa, pass books determined where and when Africans had the right to exist in their own land. In Rwanda, Belgium introduced identity documents with “ethnic” classifications, to nurture divisions in the incubator of rigid bureaucracy. Across the continent, people put arbitrary colonial divisions on paper and called them passports.