The Caprivi Strip and the Curse of the Scramble for Africa


Borders on a map of Europe look very ‘natural’; i.e. no straight lines. There’s a certain flow to them in that they don’t appear arbitrary. Contrast that with a map of Africa, which has a lot more straight lines and odd panhandles. This is a legacy of the 19th century Scramble for Africa, in which European imperial powers raced each other to carve up the continent and thus exploit their resources and labour (as well as make to gain strategic trade locations and simply just to one-up each other). Lines were drawn across the continent with little or any regard for ethnicity or commonality, throwing together often quite disparate peoples into the same jurisdiction. Just looking at that map of Africa, we can see some examples of odd panhandles given to countries: Cameroon’s extreme north was obtained by German colonisers to gain access to Lake Chad; in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium obtained a tiny strip of Atlantic coastline at the Congo River mouth in order to have access to international shipping lanes.

These borders, determined thousands of miles away at European negotiating tables, create huge logistical and political problems for the countries today that have inherited these colonial borders arbitrarily determined by outsiders over a century ago. With hundreds of ethnic groups divided between only a few dozen countries in a rather complex mosaic, states are constantly fending demands for greater autonomy or outright independence, often with violent results.

The most striking example of arbitrary borders in Africa, though, most certainly goes to Namibia and the 450-kilometre-long cartographic oddity known as the Caprivi Strip. Once again, the European negotiating table was the cause: in 1890, German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi arranged a land swap with the British, taking the extreme northern section of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) and giving it to German South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) so that Germany could have access to the Indian Ocean via the Zambezi River (the joke was on Caprivi; the downstream Victoria Falls made that part of the river unnavigable). What it did do was leave what became Namibia with an isolated region featuring six different indigenous ethnic groups speaking a language not used in the rest of Namibia and giving them more in common with neighbouring portions of Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe (combined constituting much of the former kingdom of Barotseland) than with their compatriots in the rest of Namibia. The pervasive feeling of alienation resulted in the 1994 formation of the Caprivi Liberation Front in eastern Caprivi. A Namibian defence force raid on a front training camp in 1998 led to 2,500 refugees fleeing into Botswana; a retaliatory attack in the Caprivian capital of Katima Mulilo led to fighting that killed 14 people. The result was the longest court trial in Namibian history: 235 charges of murder, sedition, and treason applied to 132 people. The logistical nightmare of trying such a case has meant that the process has lasted over seven years with no end in sight.114 of the accused remain in prison; 17 have died waiting to go on trial. Certainly this acrimonious and protracted debacle rife with apparent human rights abuses cannot be a source of pride in what by African standards is an otherwise stable and healthy democratic state. Just another legacy of colonial conquest in Africa.

Further Reading

Amnesty International (2003). Namibia: Justice delayed is justice denied: The Caprivi treason trial. Avaiable at Accessed 11 August 2010.

Deng, F.M. (1993). Africa and the New World Dis-Order. In J. Brecher et al. (eds.), Global Visions: Beyond the New World Order. Boston: South End Press.

Deng, F.M. (1993). Africa and the New World Dis-Order: Rethinking Colonial Borders. The Brookings Review 11(2): 32-35.

Lamb, G. (1999). Civil Supremacy of the Military in Namibia: A Retrospective Case Study. SACDI Defence Digest Working Papers Working Paper No. 8. Cape Town: Centre for Conflict Resolution.

Lewis, M.W. (2010). The Self-Declared Republic of Ambazonia. GeoCurrents, 2 August 2010. Available at Accessed 11 August 2010.

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