On Thursday, June 23, 2005, Pambazuka News 212 covered World Refugee Day (WRD) 2005 featuring several well-thought out perspectives including an interview with Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond, whom many of us would agree is the founder of the first program on global refugee studies at Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford. Each year on June 20 the world commemorates WRD, a tradition “thankfully” began by leaders of African countries. I use thankfully in quotes because I am not sure if we should continue commemorating a day that could potentially cease to exist if actions of leaders guided us better and provided us with more human and national security. Instead, for various reasons including preoccupation with demarcating territorial borders created during colonial rule, our political leaders continue causing insecurity and refugee flows throughout Africa. Those who have already fled are either unable or unwilling to return to their home countries for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particularly social group and/or political opinion. In most cases where refugees have fled, many countries of asylum often deny them membership in their present or new social group. Therefore on this day I join other prominent African scholars such as Professor Mutua wa Makau, Professor of Law and Director of the Human Rights Center at The State University of New York at Buffalo in suggesting that we should “redraw the map of Africa” to recreate pre-colonial territorial integrity of African communities. This is also in respect of the Pan-African struggle against colonial rule and foreign domination throughout Africa and the African Diaspora.
The struggle to control Africa’s peoples and their territories by European slave traders, missionaries or colonialists created four major phases of massive human displacement and refugee flows in Africa. The first human displacement associated with European arrival in Africa came with slave trade where people fled from slave raiders while those captured were taken as slaves across the Atlantic. Next, was the partition of Africa which divided many former neighbours and kith and kin into different territories and created socio-cultural displacement among many Africans. When colonialism finally established its base, Africans resisting colonial rule and struggling for independence were forced to flee into neighbouring countries as refugees. Finally, African countries that succeeded in gaining their independence had as their first commitment to resist external aggression, avoid interference in the domestic affairs of a neighbouring African state and maintain the borders created during colonial rule. As a result, those who sought to exclude themselves from a territory where they had been forcefully included by colonial rule and wished to return to their former community were sabotaged and contained by post-independent African leaders. Others who struggled to reclaim their former territory were forced to flee into neighbouring countries.
Sadly, today many Africans countries continue struggling over territorial demarcation, separating relatives and creating insecurity and refugee flows among border communities. A recent joint-task force involving the governments of Malawi and Zambia has set aside close to US $1,130,000 in aid to demarcate a border allegedly for security purposes amidst protest of border communities with similar socio-cultural belonging. Similar territorial disputes continue between Nigeria and Cameroon, territorial disputes continue in the mineral-rich Bakassi peninsula, between Morocco and the Saharawi Democratic Republic, and between Angola and the Cabindese over the oil-rich Cabinda enclave. Previously in 1989, territorial disputes between Mauritania and Senegal involving dam construction in the Seno-Mauritania River led to the expulsion of Black Mauritanians to Senegal by Mauritanian President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. In 1998 following the international judgment on the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia, armed struggles between the two countries claimed many human lives including expulsion of Ethiopians of Eritrean origin from Ethiopia. There are many more cases one can point to where territorial disputes have increased and maintained refugee movements. What is indisputable in many cases is how the actions of most of our political leaders have prolonged such insecurity and time spent in refuge throughout Africa.
Therefore, this article suggests that in order to minimize refugee flows, any efforts to “redraw the map of Africa” should seek to restore pre-colonial boundaries and recognize traditional communities with full property rights. African leaders should understand that Africa’s peoples have the ability to determine their communal boundaries and no amount of aid can replace the preferred social living among those of similar socio-cultural origin. Where people have already been thrown across borders as refugees and have lived in the country of asylum for a long-time, African host governments should consider incorporating them in the spirit of “African Unity” either permanently or until such a time when they can return safely to their countries of origin. Otherwise, suppressing internal self-determination and privileging the stability of colonial-created borders within post-colonial African states undermines the spirit and achievements of the Pan-Africanist struggle and the new spirit of African Unity.
African leaders should restore respect and togetherness rather than antagonize border communities. They should also seek to rid themselves of colonially crafted legal manipulations such as birth, race and descent as grounds for citizenship that continue to deny refugees belonging in communities where they have lived for a long-time. In fact many refugees have become prominent social, economic, cultural and political resources in countries of asylum, greatly contributing to national development and political stability. For instance, Rwandese refugees in Uganda fought with the National Resistance Army of Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to liberate Uganda from Obote’s regime. However, once they demanded citizenship many Ugandans quickly reminded them that they were foreigners and parliament enacted citizenship laws requiring that either a parent or grandparent were born in Uganda. In other countries, constitutional and citizenship laws required in addition to birth, an established residence (Zambia) or membership to an “indigenous” community (Nigeria).
Nevertheless, there are several countries in Africa whose approach to territorial dispute settlement and refugee protection could be emulated throughout the continent. In 1991, Senegal provided for the naturalization of Mauritania refugees reportedly to avoid regional insecurity, diplomatic fall-out with its neighbour Mauritania and to incorporate Mauritanian refugees who share historical and socio-cultural similarities with the Peulh and Wolof of Senegal. In 2003, the Zambian government announced a “Zambian Initiative” to provide citizenship to Angolan refugees unwilling to move to Angola on humanitarian grounds.
On this year’s WRD, Tanzania began the process of granting citizenship to 182 out of an expected total of 1,320 Somali Bantu. Other countries such as DRC, Ghana and Rwanda have recently enacted laws that either grant citizenship to all or recognized dual nationality to address political discrimination against migrants, encourage the repatriation of Diaspora communities and attract economic contributions from Diaspora populations and rich resident immigrants. Through sub-regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), “transnational citizenship” is available to persons from any of the sixteen member states including refugees. Furthermore, the African Union (hereinafter AU) has also prioritized two other forms of citizenship alongside national citizenship - regional and continental citizenship.
In conclusion, whether some people within our national borders were former slaves vis-à-vis free people or strangers vis-à-vis indigenes, there is no reason why refugee host countries in Africa should deny such people the economic, political, and social rights by using politically opportunistic policies and practices of defining membership and demarcating territorial borders. Where refugees have resided in the area for decades, African countries should accord them membership through existing forms of citizenship, embrace new forms and patiently and creatively deliberate on other possible forms of resolving territorial disputes.