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Once again, Africans are dreaming of unity. But observers both on and off the world’s second largest continent say they will have to deal with some serious demons before a United States of Africa can ever become a reality.

Eye in the Sky

The Organization for African Unity ended a counsel of ministers conference July 2000 in Togo with its latest call for a formal union of African countries. Desmond Orjiako, spokesman for the 37-year-old alliance, told reporters that union was “easily one of the most important issues to be discussed,” and declared that all the African states have now accepted the idea in principle.

“We had two strong views on it,” said Orjiako. “Some delegates felt the union was very important but the formation process was just too fast. They wanted to have certain things ironed out first. Others felt the discussions should continue because they had made so much progress.”

Not everyone is optimistic. Zimbabwe political scientist Tafadzwa Musekiwa says the biggest impediment to union is the reluctance of many African leaders—including in some cases harsh dictators—to give up power.

“The idea of uniting Africa is a noble one,” says Musekiwa. “But I am afraid such an idea may not be realized, at least in [the next] thousand years.”


Disunity and warfare both inside and among the continent’s 53 countries—about 30 percent of the world’s total—is often blamed for Africa’s many ills.

Six African countries are perennially among the 10 poorest on Earth, according to the World Bank. This year an estimated 8 million people risk starvation in the Horn of Africa, a result of famine and war.

Last year more than 3 million people in 15 countries were forced to abandon their homes because of war, insurgencies and repression, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees. Political violence in Congo-Brazzaville accounted for an estimated 800,000 refugees. A resurgence of Angola’s long-running civil war forced at least half a million people to flee.

More than 400,000 others fled their homes in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 350,000 left because of the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Large populations also fled in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, Somalia and five other countries.

Underlying many attempts to explain all this strife and suffering is the oft-heard assumption that Africa’s problems can be traced back to the way it was carved up by Europe’s 19th-century colonial powers.

Seven countries—France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium—partitioned the continent at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Conference host Otto von Bismarck—the “Iron Chancellor” of the German Empire—famously declared: “My map of Africa lies in Europe.”

The competing powers gerrymandered the landmass with their own political boundaries, which often divided language and cultural groups. The resulting ethnic fragmentation has been blamed for helping touch off some 50 successful political coups during the post-colonial period.

Global competition during the Cold War further exacerbated strife, as governments in the East and West staged surrogate war and intrigue in Africa through adopted clients.


Now that the Cold War is over, one of the many colonial legacies that remain is language. French is the official language in 18 countries. In 15 others it’s English. In Cameroon and Seychelles, it’s both.

Richard Roberts, director of Stanford University’s Center for African Studies, points to the “fascinating case”; of the border between Nigeria and Benin. “The line was drawn in the middle of the Yoruba state, in the middle of a coherent precolonial state. Now you have two national Yorubas. In Nigeria, where English is the official language, and in Benin, where French is.”

Far from uniting, a number of countries periodically undergo secession crises sparked by language and ethnic differences. The black Christian and animist south of Sudan—geographically the largest African country—feels rejected by the Arab Moslem north, leading to a violent state of civil war for much of its more than four decades of independence.

“All across the Sahara there are boundary disputes,” says Roberts. “The Senegal River was used as the border between Mauritania and Senegal, but there was a constant flow of people back and forth across the river. All of a sudden, they belonged to different countries.”

“Almost none of the current boundaries relate to tribal boundaries,” says George J. Demko, geography professor and former director of Dartmouth College’s Rockefeller Center. “Anybody would have screwed it up, though, not just the Europeans. No matter who created the borders, they would have had to trample over some of those tribal lines. You couldn’t make states out of all those tiny tribal units.”

Demko is one of many analysts who believe that redrawing national boundaries is not the answer to Africa’s many ills. “This business of being politically correct about boundaries is a little silly. I would argue that any attempt to restore boundaries that existed before the colonial period would cause nothing but more conflict.”

Geography professor H.J. de Blij of Marshall University agrees. “Governments that find themselves in possession of territory are loathe to give it up, however reasonable the claims of their neighbors might be.”

De Blij, Demko and others see far more important issues that need to be addressed if Africa has any hope of emerging from its seemingly endless misery, including what Demko calls a “failure of leadership.”

“I really think the main cause of conflict is no longer boundaries,” he says. “It’s corruption, lack of education, and lack of enlightened political leadership and national cohesion.”

Adds de Blij: “The truth is, Africa has not had any tutelage in statehood applicable to the kinds of states the colonial powers left behind. As a result, Africa has virtually no voice in international affairs. African countries are powerless: I think that’s really the key.”

These difficulties make any prospect of Africa uniting under one national flag—much less of successfully dealing with tribalism and regionalism inside many of the separate states—unlikely anytime soon, in the view of many. In the words of a recent Zimbabwe newspaper editorial, the United States of Africa continues to be “a pipedream.”

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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•  Covering about 11.7 million square miles (30 million square km), Africa is the world’s second largest continent.
•  The Sahara—the world’s largest desert—occupies more than 25 percent of Africa.
•  The Nile, one of Africa’s six major drainage networks, is the longest river in the world.
•  Africa’s more than 650 million people live in 53 countries. However, dozens of ethnic groups and local clans may share one national “state.” The continent has agreed to freeze the colonial boundaries that were drawn by European powers without regard to ethnic distribution.

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The 1991 collapse of military strongman Siad Barre left Somalia with no central government—and in a sense set up an experiment in what happens to an African country when it reverts to tribal government. Nine years later, observers say the results have not been pretty.

The Somali Republic was born in 1960 as a result of merging the region’s old British and Italian trusteeships. Maj. Gen. Barre took power in a 1969 coup, triggering a long and bloody civil war.

After Barre fled in January 1991, the functions of government essentially reverted to leaders of the country’s clan groups—some of whom remain bitter enemies.

“The most powerful clans control the urban areas,” says Marshall University geographer and Africa specialist H.J. de Blij. “It’s an absolutely feudal system. When things go wrong, the ones living in the margins, the poorest ones, take it on the chin.”

In 1993, a U.S.-led international force intervened to try to restore stability and deliver food to starving Somalis during an especially severe famine. They withdrew when one of the clans ambushed United Nations troops and dragged the bodies of American soldiers through the streets.

“Poverty is still rampant and crises come in and out,” says Dartmouth College’s George J. Demko. “They still have inter-clan conflict. The foreign forces were trying to provide order, and what they did was provide targets for the clans.”