The Congo Pedicle

For decades, the countries of Africa have had to deal with the artificially-imposed boundaries they have been confined to by the legacy of European colonialism; boundaries that slash across ethnic and cultural homelands, linguistic groupings, and geographic features. Most of these boundaries were simply lines of convenience. Some, however, were the result of drawn-out negotiation processes designed to give a country access to strategic waterways or natural resources. The borders of the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) are the archetypal example of the latter. Twice, the Belgium King Leopold II negotiated two odd-looking protrusions (call them panhandles, call them pedicles, call them salients) that gave his brutally-run ‘personal property’, the Congo Free State (later the Belgian Congo from 1908 when the Belgian parliament compelled the king to give the Congo to Belgium as a colony) a rather distorted shape. The Berlin Conference of 1884 gave the Congo access to the Atlantic Ocean via a small strip of land (today’s Bas-Congo or Kongo Central province) that protruded west from the heart of the country. This served to split Portugal’s colonial holdings of Angola and Cabinda from each other (a split that still has great implications today as much of Cabinda lobbies for independence). The other odd border protrusion is the focus of this post – the so-called ‘Congo Pedicle’.

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The Congo Pedicle is that odd-looking, vestigial tail-like protuberance that nearly splits neighbouring Zambia in half. The Pedicle does nothing for DR Congo, but has adverse affects on its neighbour. Why, then, was this odd little border drawn this way in the first place? For that, we go back to the 1890s, where two different colonial land companies ran into each other in southeastern Katanga: Leopold’s Congo Free State coming in from the north, and Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company coming up from the south. Southeastern Katanga at the time was under the jurisdiction of the Yeke Kingdom, led by its ruler Msiri. Both Leopold and Rhodes’ parties wanted control of the region in order to maximise their holdings in the area and gain access to what was eventually found to be one of the most resource-rich areas of the planet, the Copperbelt. Both attempted to negotiate one-sided treaties with Msiri that would give them control of Katanga at least at a protectorate level. Msiri, himself a savvy trader and military strategist, rebuffed both sides. The Congo Free State would prevail in 1891-92 by sending an expedition under mercenary William Stairs to take the region by force from Msiri (which they did, killing the ruler in the process) and force his underlings to sign a treaty giving the region to the Free State. The British accepted the result (Rhodes himself dealt with it by investing in Katanga’s fledgling mining enterprises) which left negotiating the location of the border.


Source: R. Perry, Used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

The Belgians claimed all land north of the Congo-Zambezi watershed divide, while the British claimed everything to the south of the Congo-Zambezi watershed and east of the Luapula River, leaving a 70-to-150 kilometre gap to be argued over – the modern pedicle. The British argued for cutting off the gap at the narrowest point (marked on the map above where the light red colouring of the Pedicle ends). Belgium pushed for the border to go as far east as the Luapula did – the Bangweulu Swamps, where the river breaks up into various channels and creates one of Africa’s largest wetlands. Not only would the Belgians gain more territory this way, they would also have access to game hunting areas in the wetlands. Umberto I of Italy ultimately adjudicated the negotiations; he drew a straight north-south line from the watershed line to the place where the Luapula emerges from the wetlands.

The resulting panhandle created an artificial border that functioned cut off the northern quarter of Northern Rhodesia (which would become Zambia after independence) from the rest of country. Belgium’s rush to develop Katanga for mining drew residents out of Northern Rhodesia who had better access to the Belgian Congo than the rest of their own country. As shown on the map above, the Pedicle combined with a massive detour around the adjacent Lake Bangweulu and its surrounding swamps meant that a journey that would normally take 174 km from Mufalira to Mansa takes 1 166 km instead.The Rhodesians negotiated with the Belgians in the 1940s to build a dirt road crossing the Pedicle, with a ferry crossing the Luapala at the town of Chembe to join the Pedicle road to the national road network. Initially, the road was actually not a problem: by agreement, the Rhodesian government controlled the road and its maintenance. This changed with Congolese independence and the resulting chaos that followed. Under Mobutu Sese Seko, Katanga, like much of the country, was neglected, leaving border guard and policemen unpaid. These workers resorted to harassment of Zambian travellers, extracting bribes and confiscating possessions (which hasn’t completely stopped, necessarily). The condition of the unpaved road deteriorated thanks to 30 years of neglect. Complaints about the road became so plentiful that eventually the Zambia government built a paved road directly through the swamp as close to the Congolese border as possible, shaving 400 km off the original detour but still much longer than the road through the Pedicle.

With (relative) peace in DR Congo, improvements to the Pedicle road, including a 350-metre bridge built to replace the Chembe ferry, are underway, making travel times much shorter. The road has been earmarked as a corridor of critical importance by both Zambia and DR Congo, as well as Namibia, the country through which much of the resources extracted from the Copperbelt is exported. Surveying the border is crucial to stop ores and arms from being smuggled across the border (5 000 metric tons of mineral ores per day are illegally taken into Zambia from DR Congo), and improving the road will help the two government keep tabs on the Copperbelt and the isolated Luapula Province much more easily.


Zambia’s Luapula Province would be virtually cut off from the resource-rich Copperbelt and lose direct access to the national capital of Lusaka were it not for the Congo Pedicle road. Courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

The European-imposed borders were endorsed in 1963 at the inaugural meeting of the Organisation for African Unity (now replaced by the African Union), heads of state seemingly more interested in preserving their own existing, newly-independent fiefdoms rather than go through the pain of redrawing borders from scratch (a sentiment that persists today; just look at the refusal to recognise Somaliland despite two decades of de facto independence from Somalia). Maintaining those borders that artificially united and/or split various peoples has severe repercussions today across the continent, as many African countries have ceased operating as functioning states completely with only a fiction of sovereignty (Somalia and DR Congo itself at the head of that long queue). Keeping existing borders intact, however, theoretically prevents chaos and fighting over which group of people gets what piece of land and preserves stability (despite its awkward borders and electoral/coup troubles in the 1990s, Zambia has been a rather peaceful country by African standards). The imminent independence this summer of South Sudan will be the first major change to the African map in nearly two decades. Will it be an exception, or will we see a domino effect of borders being redrawn across Africa?

Further Reading

Africa Insight (2009). The curse of Africa’s colonial borders. Afro Articles, 28 September 2009. Available at Accessed 25 March 2011.

Bariyo, N. (2010). Zambia, Congo Seek Funds to Mark Border. The Wall Street Journal, 22 March 2011. Available at Accessed 25 March 2011.

Kaluba, A. (2005). Tales from the treacherous. Times of Zambia. Available at;=1059535566. Accessed 25 March 2011.

Mbulo, E. (2010). Zambia, Congo DR and Namibia sign agreement on transport. Maravi, 8 March 2010. Available at Accessed 25 March 2011.

Tostevin, M. (2008). Colonial borders. Does Africa have a choice? Africa News Blog, 14 August 2008. Available at Accessed 25 March 2011.

Zachary, G.P. (2010). Africa Needs a New Map. Foreign Policy, 28 April 2010. Available at Accessed 25 March 2011.

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2 thoughts on “The Congo Pedicle

  • good one
    proruptions is another nice word to call these
    & heres another good read about this area

    also i think not just african countries like libya & ivory coast but lots of places will soon be splitting up

    in fact yemen appears to have cracked into at least 4 parts just this week
    & in general self determination does trump territorial integrity
    but it is just taking a while for many folks to realize this


  • That's an amazing link! Thank you very much indeed for sharing.

    (I'm amazed the 'united' Yemen made it to the 20-year-mark, myself…)

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