Why are some regions plagued by seemingly endless instability? In the Middle East, one widespread argument, which even the Islamic State expounds, puts much of the blame for chronic conflict on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret deal agreed 100 years ago by France and Great Britain to divide between them the soon-to-be-former Ottoman Empire. According to this view, while the “lines in the sand” drawn by the diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot served the short-term interests of the colonial powers, the arbitrary partition of the region spurred a century of violence, organized and otherwise.
Whether or not the Sykes-Picot Agreement is the main reason for the Middle East’s troubles, one thing is certain: the imposition of capriciously drawn borders by colonial powers has not been a uniquely Middle Eastern phenomenon. African countries have had the same experience – and may have suffered even more as a result.
During the ‘Scramble for Africa’ (which lasted from roughly the late 1860s until 1905), European powers signed hundreds of bilateral and multilateral agreements that partitioned the largely unexplored continent into protectorates, free-trade areas, and colonies. The event that most symbolizes the colonial carve-up is the conference that Otto von Bismarck organized in Berlin from November 1884 until February 1885, where an area twice the size of Germany and France, the Congo Free State, was presented as a gift to Belgium’s King Leopold II.
In drawing these lines, diplomats focused on preventing Europeans from fighting one another on African territory, not on local geographic, cultural, or political conditions. African leaders had no say in any of the negotiations. As then-British Foreign Secretary (and subsequently Prime Minister) Lord Salisbury famously put it, Europeans “engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod.”
At first, the colonial arrangements had little impact on Africans, who were allowed to move freely across the new borders. Upon independence in the 1960s, however, the borders became salient. While there were calls to redraw the colonial lines, neither departing Europeans nor local elites were interested in the thorough reshuffling that this would have required. Ultimately, all African countries except Somalia and Morocco accepted the colonial borders.
That decision had far-reaching consequences. As the historian Henk Wesseling has explained, rather than reflecting political, institutional, and economic reality, the map of Africa “helped to create it” in at least three key ways.
First, Africa has the largest share of landlocked countries of any continent. Countries like Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, the Central African Republic, Niger, Rwanda, and Uganda have suffered, as their access to global shipping routes – and thus to world markets – depends on their unstable neighbors.
Second, vast geographic differences across ethnic homelands in many African countries, together with these countries’ sprawling size and inadequate infrastructure left by the colonial powers, has meant that national governments have struggled to govern effectively beyond the metropoles. Even countries with relatively strong institutions find it difficult to project power in remote areas.
Third, the homelands of about one-third of African ethnicities straddle international borders. The Diolas in the Casamance region have been divided among Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. The Togo-Ghana border divides the Ewe. The Maasai live in Kenya and Tanzania. And the list goes on, affecting around 400-500 million Africans (roughly 40% of the continent’s total population).
The long-run consequences of colonial ethnic partitioning on contemporary political violence are profound. By comparing anthropological maps of the spatial distribution of African groups during colonization with detailed geo-referenced information on violent events, we have confirmed what has long been suspected: ethnic partitioning has played a key role in spurring conflict and animosity in Africa since independence.
Specifically, we found that homelands of partitioned ethnicities have been disproportionately affected by armed conflict between state forces and rebels with the explicit goal of overthrowing the government. Violence against civilians – including the destruction of villages or churches, conscription of children, kidnapping, and rape – is also linked to ethnic partitioning.
We also learned that partitioned ethnicities are significantly more likely to engage in civil wars that have an explicit ethnic dimension. Since the early 1960s, roughly one-third of such groups have participated in an ethnic-based civil war; only about one-fifth of non-partitioned ethnic groups have engaged in such conflicts.
Partitioned ethnicities are also much more likely than their non-partitioned counterparts to face institutionalized discrimination from the national government (25%, compared to 15%). As econometric evidence and case studies reveal, one reason for this is that neighboring countries often use divided ethnic groups to destabilize one another’s governments, including through proxy wars. Target governments use such activities as a pretext to discriminate against those groups.
Somalia is a poster child for the impact of ethnic partitioning. Immediately after independence, Somalia became embroiled in two devastating wars over the overwhelmingly Somali-populated Ogaden region, which the British and the French ceded to Ethiopia for its support in their war against Somali clans in the late nineteenth century. Then, in the early 1960s, Somalis in northern Kenya, with support from the Somali government in Mogadishu, fought for secession, further eroding regional stability and setting the stage for the failure of the Somali state in the early 1990s.
There is no denying that external powers’ mapmaking has had a powerful influence on Africa’s development. While the evidence does not necessarily carry over to the Middle East, it seems reasonable to assume that the Sykes-Picot Agreement did, indeed, help shape that region’s development – perhaps by spurring conflict. Acknowledging the lingering consequences of the West’s colonial behavior is the first step toward redressing them.
Professor of Economics at the London Business School
Associate Professor of Economics at Brown University