By Onyeka Chidozie
One of the legacies of Africa’s colonial past is the arbitrary borders it bequeathed on the people of the continent. In dividing up the continent, European colonialists paid scant attention to the question of how the territories related or were connected with one another. Thus, it is not uncommon to find members of the same family split into two countries and some nationalities and ethnic groups broken into several countries.
One consequence of this development is that to most people, the borders amounted to nothing more than artificial constructs. They generally moved freely across the borders without any let or hindrance. It has not helped matter either that most African countries are unable to institute any real border controls. For one thing, the amount of resources required to put up such controls would be beyond anything many of them can muster. For another, in some cases, any expected benefits would just not be enough to justify the expense involved.
Yet, in today’s world when security has become a major challenge across the continent, the porous borders are a critical source of concern. The conflict in Mali has been fueled largely with weapons and fighters coming out of Libya following the fall of the Muamar Gaddafi regime. Because of the open borders, these fighters were able to easily cross into Mali with their weapons and to team up with local rebels to unleash the violence that has engulfed northern Mali. The Tuareg rebels involved in the fighting in Mali can be found in other Sahel countries neighboring Mali.
In Nigeria, where Boko Haram insurgents continue their bombing campaign, it is generally believed and accepted that a significant number of the fighters are actually non-Nigerians. These citizens of neighboring countries are thought to have entered the country through its northern borders to join up with some locals in their quest to force the adoption of their extreme views. Their weapons are also believed to come in via the same route.
In the Central Africa region, the frequent incursions by Rwandan and Ugandan fighters into the Democratic Republic of Congo have only been possible because of the absence of strong border controls.
In Uganda itself, Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lords resistance Army who has been declared wanted by the international community, is believed to have evaded capture because he is able to move freely between northern Uganda and Sudan.
When the United States identified a security and immigration problem in its southern border, it decided to build a security fence as a way of securing the border. Construction of that fence is still ongoing. In Israel, the government has also built a controversial wall separating the Israelis and Palestinians. Although built for questionable motives, that separation wall serves as a point of security control for the Israelis.
In Nigeria, the mood appears to be toward building a security fence along the country’s borders, particularly in the northeastern area where the Boko Haram sect has been most active.
According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, a senior presidency official, said that the idea of erecting a security wall along the Nigeria-Chad border had been receiving official consideration for some time, but gained weight following recent fighting in Baga, Borno State, in which soldiers from Nigeria, Niger and Chad in a multinational force, fought against the terrorists who had turned the area into a base to attack civilians across northern Nigeria.
According to the official, the security situation along the border with Chad has worsened considerably, necessitating some radical measures to restore normalcy to the area and protect the people from foreign criminals.
He said that, previously, the criminals who stole their livestock and attacked their women, but that, that had since morphed into terrorism, as foreign militants and arms dealers now used those routes to foment trouble in Nigeria, had exposed Nigerian communities in border areas to frequent attacks.
If Nigeria does go ahead with the building of the border fence, it would be the first country in Africa to adopt that approach to border security and control. It is not yet clear how long the propose border fence would be and how much it would cost to erect. An idea of the cost can be gleaned from the United States where 650 miles of solid border wall were built at a cost of $2.6 billion.
There is no doubt, however, that an effective border fence that is properly manned and monitored can be a very useful tool in reducing the ability of criminals and terrorists to conduct cross-border activities.
The real question, however, is whether, given the other challenges confronting African countries and taking into account the amount of resources available to them, deploying the funds necessary to build such fences would be the optimal use of whatever available resources there are.
This must be done also taking into account the likely serious environmental damage likely to be wrought by the border wall. For instance, animals that used to roam freely across the land in the border areas would no longer be able to do so. While human beings would be able to go to official border crossings to get across, that will not be an option the animals will have. Moreover, the construction of the fence is likely to generate a lot of waste and debris, which will pose, even more of a threat to the environmental.
In all, it may make sense, in the case of northeastern Nigeria where the ongoing insurgency has virtually ground the economy to a halt, to build such a fence. That might be just what is needed to restore normalcy in the region and to get the economy working again. But the expected benefits may not be enough to justify building such a fence in most other cases, such as expending the billions that will be required to build a wall that will span all of Nigeria’s 2,515 miles of borders.
African countries must, therefore, continue to search for a politically acceptable solution to their border security issues. While a border fence may address some specific cases, it is not a real solution to the security problems confronting the continent.