The "Real" Map of Africa

Redrawing Colonial Borders

1683 map by the cartographer Cloveris.

We often think of a map as a realistic representation of the world, but it is actually quite the opposite: a neat and idealistic drawing of borders in what are often messy places with no visible demarcations on the ground. A map can depict state sovereignty over areas with little to no actual governance. Nowhere is the gap between reality and cartographic representation greater than in parts of Africa.

The map of Africa that exists today is largely a legacy of nineteenth century colonialism. Some of these borders are disputed and large sections of them have yet to be formalized. To this day the African Union has a “Border Program” in charge of clarifying where the borders lie and of preventing and resolving disputes about them. Such disputes have included skirmishes over the Bakassi Islands between Cameroon and Nigeria; a brief conflict between Burkina Faso and Mali over the Agacher strip; and a two-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the location of a couple of villages that cost 70,000 lives. Still, there is usually no question as to what states—or whether any state—lie on either side of those borders.

Yet, continued use of blind representations of old colonial boundaries causes us to misread the reality on the ground in many African states and overestimate their empirical effectiveness. The official map makes the nation–state project in Africa seem uniformly successful and stable. But it is time for a map that reflects the actual geographical distribution of African state power.

Map of European possessions in Africa, 1904.

To create such a map, I devised a simple method of determining state power, defined as a minimum level of order and security and a state’s actual exercise of its authority, which involved analyzing travel advisories issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These advisories include maps that code the territories of every country in the world with up to four colors, symbolizing levels of safety—from green, where visitors are invited

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