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African countries are opening their borders. What does this mean for security, identity and trade?

People support free trade, but there are other bonds.

- August 12, 2019

On July 10, authorities from Niger and Burkina Faso signed an accord to ease interstate cooperation on issues of counterterrorism, economic development and natural resource management.

“There will be a border but we will act as though there really isn’t one,” explained Burkinabè diplomat Alpha Barry.

It’s a significant step between two countries with a history of disputed borderlands. In 2010, Nigerien and Burkinabè delegates asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle a decades-old territorial dispute. The ICJ’s 2013 ruling delimited a new international boundary between Niger and Burkina Faso to replace the vague line on French colonial maps.

As part of that resolution, people living near the border got to choose their citizenship. But our research suggests that people in the borderland still strongly cling to their national identities, even when government officials seek to minimize the divide between nations. According to surveys that we conducted in the border zone in 2016, few Nigeriens jumped at the opportunity to become Burkinabè, finding the thought of switching nationalities preposterous.

Here’s how we did our research

This tenacity of national identity is striking in remote communities that receive almost no benefits from the national government. In 2016, we surveyed 208 people in villages straddling the border between Niger and Burkina Faso. We asked respondents, mostly Nigeriens, whether they had heard of the ICJ ruling – and, if so, whether they intended to switch citizenship.

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We found that knowledge of the ruling was nearly universal, but less than 6 percent of respondents who answered the question said they wanted to switch to become citizens of Burkina Faso.

Here was one big reason: Respondents said they wished to remain in the nation of their parents and grandparents, who provide a social safety net in the absence of government support. Instead of claiming ties to a nation-state, respondents professed attachment to a nation-family, explaining their decision to remain Nigerien in terms of ancestral roots.

We also surveyed roughly 200 people in the capital cities of Niger and Burkina Faso and conducted focus groups on the meaning of national identity. In contrast with the borderland respondents, urban respondents were more likely to frame their nationalism in terms of benefits they receive from the state. This makes sense, given that urban residents were more likely to receive public goods – education, health care, etc. – than people in remote villages.

There’s a wider trend toward looser borders

Open borders are becoming fashionable across much of Africa, not just for forging partnerships in the war on terror, but also for facilitating trade. On July 7, Niger hosted a multinational summit to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – an ambitious plan for a continent-wide trade zone.

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Africa’s concerted push for political and economic integration is in stark contrast to the trend of tightening borders in the United States and Europe. Economic integration has been a long-term project for African leaders, with regional precedents including the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Community.

After four years of negotiations, the AfCFTA finally seemed possible in April, once the requisite 22 countries ratified an agreement to open their borders and lower barriers to trade. At the July summit, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, gave free-trade advocates another dose of hope by ceremoniously signing his name to the agreement, leaving Eritrea the only holdout of the 55 African Union member countries.

Africans – and their allies – support free trade

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that looser borders stand to raise intra-African trade by up to 25 percent, though key details of the AfCFTA, like e-commerce rules, have yet to be settled. While it is uncertain whether the AfCFTA will benefit workers in Africa’s largely informal economies, there is vocal public support for free trade. When the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda shut their shared border in July amid a political feud, a coalition of East African citizens sued the two governments over financial losses and insisted that the blockade be removed.

But citizens have shown that welcoming open borders is not the same as wanting to shed their national differences. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, Ugandans generally feel closer to their national identity than to their ethnic identity, and 64 percent of them have never considered moving to another country to live (data are unavailable for Rwanda).

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What does this mean for African borders going forward?

Softer border controls between Niger and Burkina Faso, and across the continent more broadly, do not mean African borders are disappearing altogether. Africa has seen significantly fewer changes to its map than other parts of the world, with secessionist conflicts being extremely rare. Even people who feel oppressed in African countries have tended to accept “artificial” colonial boundaries.

Here’s an example. Tuaregs in the Azawad region of northern Mali fought for independence in 2012 and 2013 but stopped short of trying to unite their co-ethnics in nearby countries with significant Tuareg populations. Rebel leaders vowed to “respect all the colonial frontiers that separate Azawad from its neighbours.” The name of their group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, underscored their national, rather than international, ambitions of self-governance.

Open borders may be on the way. But persistent nationalism in African countries, often passed down through generations, suggests that open borders may not inevitably weaken national loyalties or replace them with a Pan-African identity, despite the hopes of pan-Africanists.

Lisa Mueller is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College and the author of “Political Protest in Contemporary Africa” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Abhit Bhandari is a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @abhitbhandari.