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Africa’s porous borders promote transnational crimes rather than deeper integration

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Hard borders in Africa have for the most part been colonial legacies. Very few of these inheritances have been touched in post-colonial Africa.

Not long after independence, some leaders had advocated for a borderless Africa where goods, services, labour and capital could move freely—they wanted a political union. However, opposition to the idea prevented its implementation.

Eventually, the Organisation of African Unity was established to represent not more than a forum of independent African states. Later, the organisation proposed regional blocs that focused on regional integration in the various geopolitical zones across the continent.

Consequently, regional blocs like the East African Community, the Economic Community of West African States,  the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of Central African States, among others were created to speed up the integration process.

After establishing these regional blocs, with the ultimate aim of integration by way of “soft” borders that enhance intra-regional integration, not much has been achieved. 

How things got to this point

Many reasons have been attributed to the lack of success in ensuring soft borders. These include issues related to revenue, interstate rivalry, political mistrust and the “language barrier” argument. In recent times, however, the need for states to protect their borders against transnational crimes has become a significant hindrance to integration. With the coming into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area, this is a major challenge.

A major transnational crime in Africa in recent times has been land-grabbing violent extremism that is unleashing savagery across states. From North Africa to Mozambique, terror groups are hitting multiple countries across borders. 

Today, southern Tanzania is affected by an insurgency based in Mozambique. West African littoral states are also affected by events in the Sahel. In all of these examples, porous borders have been cited as “enabling” factors.

Further compounding the situation is the illicit trade in arms and drugs, which are major transnational crimes that make states push harder for stricter border controls. 

Ultimately, all of these illegal activities fuel violent extremism.

What’s the way forward?

Interestingly, many of the borders that divide Africa also divide people of the same ethnicity or clans. In many places, border populations don’t see the difference between the divide. It is therefore difficult to officially maintain a hard border or control transnational crimes.

For positive continental regimes like the African Continental Free Trade Area to succeed, there must be both conscious and concerted efforts, as well as political will, from all states to help eliminate transnational crimes while fostering integration across the whole of Africa through trade.

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An international relations and security expert who previously served as a special assistant to the Vice President of Ghana and a research assistant to the office of the President. He is currently a senior analyst for the Conflict Research Consortium for Africa.

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