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 to exercise “normal vigilance,” to red where their presence is “strictly unadvised.”

In the map below, I converted every red area to grey and considered every non-grey area (pictured without color) to be within state control and grey ones outside of it. Of course, an area that is dangerous for a French citizen does not necessarily mean it is for locals. But it does suggest an inability of the state to exercise full sovereignty in that particular region. With the technical assistance of staff from Pomona College’s Information Technology Services, I then redrew the boundaries of African countries to reflect only that part of their territory over which they exercise state control. The map below presents the end result—the “real” map of Africa.

(Maps by Warren Roberts and Robyn Swift)

The new map provides some interesting insights into the state of affairs across the continent. For example, large parts of African land are beyond the reach of the states that ostensibly control them. On this “realist’s” map, some of the 54 official African states are contiguous to each other, but others are separated by large swaths of stateless regions, some more than a thousand miles long. By my count, of the 11.7 million total square miles of African continental land mass, roughly 4 million, or about 34 percent, are out of state control.  In reality, a person can travel from Mauritania to Egypt (provided one survives the journey) without encountering any effective state authority.

The map also raises questions about whether some of these countries—even those with legitimate governments recognized by other countries—truly exist in any meaningful way. Consider Libya and Somalia, two states that are entirely grey. Libya has been struggling since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 and might yet recover. Somalia, on the other hand, has not really been a state since 1990.

Nigeria is another case in point. Boko Haram has much to do with Nigeria’s loss of control over its northern territory, although the actual range of the group’s actions is generally limited to the northeast. The Niger Delta also remains a hot spot, leaving the country with little more than two small discontinuous segments that largely correspond to Yorubaland in the West and Igboland in the East.

Chad, in contrast, stands out as a sturdy island in a sea of Saharan statelessness. Once wracked by factional civil wars, the country has evolved into a potential regional hegemon. This may have to do with President Idriss Déby’s militaristic use of oil revenues, which have boosted the country’s economy by an average of 7.8 percent per year since 2005.

The Sahara Desert, February 26, 2011.
Juan Medina / Reuters

In East Africa, it is Ethiopia that stands out. This 2,000-year-old never-colonized state endures despite its inimical surroundings. Although human rights activists have questioned U.S. support for the Ethiopian regime—as illustrated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s controversial visit this past July—the map makes that rationale clear. There is simply no other potential ally still standing in the region.

In both West and East Africa, state reach tends to be weaker where radical Islam has spread. Almost all the most territorially challenged spaces, such as Mali, Niger, and northern Nigeria in the west or Somalia in the east have Muslim majorities and have suffered Islamist insurgencies: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali and Niger; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and al Shabab in Somalia.

The pattern of West and East African state failure also corresponds by and large to the routes that have brought thousands of migrants to the shores of Europe these last few years. The territorial collapse of these states might not only be the cause of their migration but also what makes it possible.

In Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has yet to reassert genuine authority over its eastern regions almost 15 years after the beginning of its alleged post-conflict transition. Despite the deployment of UN forces, dozens of militias continue to roam its eastern provinces.

In contrast, there is not a speck of grey in Southern Africa. Even with Zimbabwe in relative shambles, the region is almost entirely free of grey on the map. In Angola or South Africa, this might reflect effective control; in others, like Zambia, it may signify a lack of challengers to the state despite its weaker capacity. For what it is worth, this pattern correlates with the higher per capita incomes and greater democratic scores in this region.

Paradoxically, one of the most interesting lessons from this realist map of Africa is how much it has changed from its past. The continent might have had much fewer grey areas two or three decades ago. On the other hand, there would have been more grey areas along coastal West Africa as recently as five years ago. At that time, rebels were marching onto Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire after ten years of civil war and Guinea–Bissau had become a narco-state. That was also certainly the case in the 1990s as civil wars raged in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Chad and Angola would be much smaller than they are today since most of their territories would be grey. More tellingly, Rwanda and Uganda, now clear pockets on the map in a largely grey neighborhood, were once greyer than any other country.

In other words, territorial control and state reconstruction are possible, at least for some. But it is important to note that the stronger countries now (such as Angola, Chad, Rwanda, and Uganda) improved largely on their own with relatively little external intervention. In the end, sustainable state formation in Africa will likely have to be an internal process.

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  • PIERRE ENGLEBERT is the H. Russell Smith Professor of International Relations and Professor of African Politics at Pomona College, where he is also Director of the Program in International Relations and the African Politics Lab. He has authored five books on African politics, most recently Inside African Politics (with Kevin Dunn). Find him at www.pierre-englebert.com.
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