The Improper African Border Lines

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) and Uganda President Yoweri Museveni speak extemporaneously to the residents of Kabale, 22 km from the Uganda-Rwanda border, at a meeting to improve relations between the two countries. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Do geographically delineated borders, imposed on the continent during the 19th-century colonial Scramble for Africa have any real meaning when movement across them has been so fluid? Where do the real borders lie?

Borders matter to a dictator. They delineate the boundary within which his power must be deferred to without question, and also the point beyond which he can banish his enemies, and deprive them of an identity.

But in Africa, identity can be somewhat fluid, because the distinction between any two modern nationalities is largely arbitrary. Communities, and sometimes even actual families, were rendered citizens of different countries through the imposition of the new borders emerging from the ‘scramble’ machinations produced by the 1885 Treaty of Berlin.

There is a mismatch between where existing borders now lie, and the identities of the peoples found on either side of them.

If Rwanda’s President Kagame really wanted to cut Rwanda and Rwandans off from their Ugandan neighbours, he would have first had to move his country’s border over a hundred kilometres to the north to reflect the fullest claims of the ancient Rwandan empire, before then shutting it down, as he ordered in early March when the main Rwanda-Uganda border crossing was closed on the Rwanda side.

Borders, like the dictators that need them, are obsolete. The current stand-off between Uganda and Rwanda comes across like two computer geeks having an argument over the ownership of a typewriter.

Alternatively, he would perhaps have to shrink the Rwandan nation to an area much further south, and ‘disown’ the many peoples whose small kingdoms and principalities were in 1911 forcibly fully incorporated into the existing Rwanda state by German colonial exertions.

Like a tussle between computer geeks

Such borders, like the dictators that need them, are obsolete. The current stand-off between Uganda and Rwanda comes across like two computer geeks having an argument over the ownership of a typewriter.

Rwanda has a long history of refugees and exiles, and Uganda has a long history of using newcomers in an attempt to resolve the foundational contradiction of its existence as a European entity imposed over several native ones. Many Rwandan refugees have ended up in Uganda, and gone on to have a significant impact on the politics there.

This is not a unique situation. The Argentinian Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara is known for his revolutionary exploits in Cuba but his name was Ernesto Guevara Lynch, a descendant of the many Irish families that migrated from their country’s economic ruin caused by centuries of British colonial domination. Egypt and other Arab countries then fighting the state of Israel.

Once Amin became President, some of these rebels went on to form a praetorian guard of sorts to the General, and acquired a particularly noxious reputation as his hatchet men in the intelligence services. They were not alone: Amin’s intelligence also contained Rwandan refugees, as well as, in the mother of ironies, more than a few Palestinians who came over after Amin switched allegiance from the West, and thus became their pariah.

The Ugandan state too, is in effect, founded on people from ‘elsewhere’. In seeking to defeat the two principal opponents – Kings Kabalega of Bunyoro, and Mwanga of Buganda, the British coloniser Captain Frederick Lugard undertook a long march in 1898 through the north-west of what is now Uganda to relieve an isolated outpost commanded by the Sudanese commander Salim Bey, who had been literally holding the fort as a still loyal officer to the Anglo-Egyptian garrison of General Gordon, who had been killed in Khartoum when it was overrun in 1885 by Islamic Mahdist militants.

Lugard then marched the soldiers back to occupied Buganda, creating a string of outposts two marching days apart, like a chain around Kabalega’s neck.

This was the first Uganda army, and the reason why many Uganda Army foot soldiers would remain associated with the South Sudan, north-west Uganda area – where even Amin came from ancestrally – for decades after the formation of the colony.

The starkest expression of this was how a few – and some quite high-ranking Amin-era intelligence operatives – found it expedient to high-tail it to Juba and other places in South Sudan with their protesting Ugandan girlfriends in tow, as the avenging Tanzanian army rolled in to topple him in 1979.

President Museveni’s government was much more explicit. Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) founders Paul Kagame and Fred Rwigyema were Uganda’s deputy director of military intelligence, and deputy defence minister respectively. Both were to leave their posts and launch the war that eventually saw the RPF take power in Kigali.

In fact the array of names of the Rwandan personalities (some now deceased) now quarrelling among themselves contained a few alumni of Uganda’s Makerere University, as well as former employees of the Ugandan government. During broadcasts, if it were not for the bloodletting, it would be almost amusing hearing them disputate in not French, but Ugandan-accented English.

African migration systems worked from a different perspective. In Buganda, for example, prior to colonially-created migrations, communities coming to settle were usually absorbed into one or other of its 50-odd hereditary clans, and expected to become full citizens.

Those borders are for those empires. Our own borders are within us, in our native institutions, cultural constraints, and the humanist values that sustain them.

Often, these were clans that also existed in the country the immigrants was coming from. This is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa. Membership of the hereditary Nvubu (Hippo) clan to which I belong can be found as far south of Buganda as Zimbabwe.

The current stand-off must be located within those histories. The past matters. It may be called history, but it is still politics. President Paul Kagame’s decision to close a border he once fled across as a refugee child, to now try and prevent his subjects from getting to the space to which his family was fleeing, and in whose government he once served, before crossing back over and overthrowing the Rwandan government, strongly suggests that that border is the least of our worries. It is what lies beneath.

The current dispute is not a clash between countries. Or even the peoples found in those countries; it is a clash of regimes given that both are competing to represent exactly the same interests in the Great Lakes Region: supplying the material needs of those vast global corporations that control various Western powers.

Those borders are for those empires. Our own borders are within us, in our native institutions, cultural constraints, and the humanist values that sustain them.

SOURCE: newafricanmagazine