How did European colonial borders create conflict in Africa?

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European colonial borders contributed to post-colonial conflict because they were basically arbitrarily drawn—or drawn in a way that prioritized the interests of Europeans—without considering the diversity of the continent.

In 1885, colonial borders were drawn by mutual European consent at the Berlin Conference, an agreement that basically ratified European claims to territory gained through conquest. Because colonial borders often became the basis for post-colonial nation-states, peoples with ancient rivalries and grievances—and, at the very least, little common heritage—were crammed together into modern nation-states. What made this particularly toxic was that Europeans often (in the interests of maintaining their empires) favored one ethnic group over another. When European power was removed, clashes often developed over who would control the new state, sometimes with violent consequences.

In Rwanda, for example, the two largest ethnic groups were the Hutus and the Tutsis. Under Belgian colonial rule, the Tutsis were given preferential treatment; the were granted education, prime farmlands, and positions within the colonial bureaucracy. This was a deliberate policy rooted in the Belgian understanding of race and racial hierarchies as well the need to avert unity against their colonial regime. Consequently, it created a legacy of resentment between the two peoples that exploded into conflict repeatedly after independence in the 1960s. It was the background for the unspeakable genocide of over 800,000 Tutsi people in 1994.

Similarly, modern Nigeria was created out of two regions that were merged together by the British in the early twentieth century. This brought the majority-Muslim North into conflict with the predominately-Christian South, and contributed to a series of violent conflicts. Because the British's motives were strategic—they hoped to connect the northern part of their holdings in the region to the Atlantic coast—they did not take the political and social realities on the ground into account.

In this way, the arbitrary establishment of borders by European powers contributed to decades of conflict in Africa.

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One of the biggest causes of post-colonial conflict in Africa is the partition of countries that was created by the European powers' arbitrary borders. These borders were created with little or no concern for the people actually living there or for their heritage. As a result, ethnic groups were divided across several countries, which has led to civil war and other outbursts of violence.

A 2011 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that civil conflicts are roughly 25% higher in countries that were partitioned as a result of the Scramble for Africa than in those countries where ethnic groups haven't been separated. The Afar, for example, are one of the ethnic groups with the highest rate of civil conflict, and they've been split across three different countries: Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

Civil wars and discrimination also create refugees. When these families flee to neighboring countries to avoid violence at home, that can lead to new conflict in the country to which they've fled. That same CEPR study found that incidences of civil conflict increase by 5% for ethnic groups that live next to a partitioned ethnic homeland.

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