The Dividing of a Continent: Africa’s Separatist Problem

Added: 07-31-2018

In this article, Max Fisher describes the way many African nations continue to experience separatist movements as a result of internal conflict stemming from the adoption of arbitrary colonial boundaries as national ones. He cites areas of conflict, such as groups like the 7 million Kikongo speakers in southwest Africa not having their own state or the Mombasa Republican Council vying to split from Kenya, as examples of this continuing problem caused by questionable national borders.

movement conflict Angola nation dispute invent Kikongo people master class Mombasa Republican Council separatist colonial Portuguese border land resources

Type Reading Time Author Date Source
article 5 minutes MAX FISHER 09-10-2012
Type Reading Time
article 5 minutes
Author Date
max fisher 2018-07-31 00:00:00 UTC
Key Takeaways
  • Colonial boundaries were arbitrary and ignorant of ethnographic or linguistic differences. 
  • Colonial boundaries were adopted as modern nations regardless of internal conflict. 
  • Separation movements are challenged by the imbedded history of current borders and the logistics of changing them.


In this article from The Atlantic, Max Fisher’s main point is that throughout the continent of Africa, ‘tribal identities’, which are ancient and deeply rooted, are much stronger than national identities, which are new and artificial. He argues that because the latter has been used to establish many of the modern African nations we know today, cooperation within states can be tough. He uses this to explain the rise of separatist movements in Africa, such as the Mombasa Republican Council which wants Kenya’s coastal region to secede. 

The author points out how arbitrary the borders really are through examples like the Nigerian-Cameroonian dispute over what was once German land. In Angola, he explains, “The only thing that the people who lived there shared in common was that they answered to Portuguese masters.” He goes on to say, “They became the country of Angola, an essentially invented nation meant to represent disparate and ancient cultures as if they had simply materialized out of thin air that very moment.” Even worse, Kikongo speakers, whose large population could make up an entire country, have been spread across Angola, Congo and DR Congo because of colonial boundaries. 

He admits Sudan’s split into Sudan and South Sudan was a victory for the the separatist movement, but only because it was one of the worst cases of different religions and ethnic groups being placed inside the same country. 

He concludes that while the goal of separatist movements is to reclaim the ‘tribal’ boundaries and forget colonial ones, it would be difficult, if it is even functionally possible. This is because the resources of national governments are far greater than these small movements, tribal make up of many countries is still very diverse, and the logistics of reconfiguring states is complex.


Max Fisher in The Atlantic