John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Defining “Africa” Through Geography or Regional Cooperation

by John Campbell
September 17, 2012

Citizens of Mali protest during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting, where the Mali crisis and Guinea-Bissau coup are discussed, in Abidjan April 26, 2012. (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters) Citizens of Mali protest during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting, where the Mali crisis and Guinea-Bissau coup are discussed, in Abidjan April 26, 2012. (Luc Gnago/Courtesy Reuters)

What is “Africa?” Nomenclature raises difficult issues. Maps in school rooms show “Africa” as a distinct continent, the second largest in the world. But the U.S. Department of State assigns North Africa –the states of the Mediterranean littoral (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco), to its Near East bureau– not its Africa bureau.  On the other hand, the Department of Defense’s African Command (AFRICOM) includes Africa’s Mediterranean littoral with most of the rest of the continent in its area of responsibility.  The international consulting organization McKinsey & Co. included North Africa in its aggregated data on Africa in its well-known report Lions on the Move, the results of which would have been different absent the relative economic powerhouses of the Mediterranean littoral. The Libyan dictator Qaddafi famously tried to pose as an “African”—not Middle Eastern– leader, and he bankrolled the African Union. The Council on Foreign Relations follows the Department of State’s usage.

I share the view that the Mediterranean littoral belongs to Africa only in the sense of its being the northern edge of a geographic continent.  Incorporating it in discussions of sub-Saharan Africa can be misleading.  Its history, language, culture, and politics tie it closely to the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Europe.  (North Africa was a part of the Roman Empire and its cultural unity with Europe was broken only in the seventh and eighth centuries during the Islamic conquest.)

North Africa is also cut off from the rest of Africa by the Sahara desert.  The Sahara is a barrier equivalent in many respects to an ocean.  But, like an ocean, it can be crossed.  And trans-Saharan trade has been the underpinning of brilliant civilizations along the southern edge of the desert, especially in what is now Mali and northern Nigeria.

Where does the southern edge of the Sahara begin, especially as desertification proceeds? It seems to me that Mauritania and Mali, and perhaps Niger, can been seen as a borderland between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As such, they share some cultural similarities, along with northern Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan.

Why, in the era of globalization, does this matter?

One recent example, is that NATO cited Arab League support for its intervention in Libya as a legitimizing factor, while largely ignoring the African Union –to the chagrin of many of the latter’s member states, especially South Africa.  Also, Mali is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  This is a sub-Saharan African regional organization that has played a positive role resolving certain regional conflicts.  ECOWAS is deeply involved in the search for a political solution in Mali.  But Mauritania and Algeria, on Mali’s western and northern borders, are not members of ECOWAS.  Yet because of the porosity of boundaries and the cross-border movement of Tauregs (to say nothing of smuggling and other criminal or terrorist activities) these states are directly involved in the search for a solution in Mali, as well. And, as I blogged on September 13, 2012, neither Nouakchott nor Algiers is supportive of an ECOWAS troop presence in Mali. A solution might be for the African Union to involve itself more in Mali and for ECOWAS to draw back. Algeria and Mauritania are members of the African Union, as are all the states of ECOWAS. A September 14 meeting invovling Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, current chairman of ECOWAS and Benin President Boni Yavi, current chairman of the AU is a positive step in that direction.

So, the important issue may be not how “Africa” is defined but rather how the the areas of cooperation of regional organizations are determined.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Charles Edward Frith (@charlesfrith)

    AFRICOM & McKinsey Consultants. Sure sounds like war and dollars to me.

  • Posted by geeplay

    The Mali situation is certainly a difficult one.

  • Posted by Fikir98

    Regarding the portion of this commentary that states,

    “I share the view that the Mediterranean littoral belongs to Africa only in the sense of its being the northern edge of a geographic continent. Incorporating it in discussions of sub-Saharan Africa can be misleading. Its history, language, culture, and politics tie it closely to the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Europe. (North Africa was a part of the Roman Empire and its cultural unity with Europe was broken only in the seventh and eighth centuries during the Islamic conquest.)”

    In my opinion, if you scratch the surface there are complex and enduring connections between North Africa and Sub-Saharan African nations that are often overlooked and undervalued. This propensity to undervalue the deeper context has left Western nations unable to explain what may appear to be irrational connections and relationships, like the one Qaddafi brokered and maintained with Sub-Saharan Africans.

    For example, the major Sufi brotherhoods, which wield considerable political, economic and social influence in Sub-Saharan countries like Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, and Mali have roots in North Africa. The largest West African brotherhood, the Tijani was founded by Sidi Ahmed Tijanian, an Algerian. Interestingly, these are the type of historical nuggets that I hear during encounters with North Africans during my frequent trips to the region. Despite Western nations’ intense interest in all things Islamic, facts like these, which reverberate and continue to have implications in the geopolitical sphere, get short shrift.

    Yes, the relationship between the North and Sub-Saharan Africa is complex, however, Western nations would be best served to dig a bit deeper (not our strong suite) and explore connections more thoroughly or we risk falling prey to assumptions that have more to do with political positioning than with historical and current realities. The construction of the Mediterranean littoral and Sub-Saharan Africa are just that, constructs, like the creation of arbitrary states during the Colonial-era scramble for Africa. Sometimes what seems like a good idea does not always hold up under closer scrutiny nor does it pass the test of time, at least that is what history so often reveals.

  • Posted by Chavuka

    Stop looking for “Africa”, we passed that stage in the seventies.

    We have (55?) independent nations, with the sort of ethnic diversity that could occupy scholars for years.

    Stop trying to simplify an extremely complex and poorly understood (by the West) continent.

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