Four Oddities from Africa's Political Geography

Colonialism, independence, and chance combined to produce these unusual outcomes

ancient map of africa
Brian Lüdtke

Brian Lüdtke

Owner and Founder,

2 June 2019

Cabinda, an Island of Angola Between the Two Congos

Angola has an exclave called Cabinda, which is a portion of Angolan territory completely detached from the other 99.4% of the country. Surrounded by DR Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, Angola would otherwise have no border with the latter. In 1997, Angola’s forces advanced into Congo-Brazzaville to support Denis Sassou Nguesso during a Congolese Civil War of ’97 through ’99 (Joseph Kabila, strongman of DR Congo, supported his enemies, Pascal Lissouba and Barnard Kolelas; while Sassou Nguesso also received support from Chad and Rwandan Hutu militiamen.)

Boardwalk in Cabinda, Angola
The boardwalk in Cabinda, Angola

The enclave originated from Portugal’s centuries of settlement and trade along the west coast of southern Africa. Notably, the Portuguese in this area shipped millions of slaves to Brazil, which received more African slaves than any other destination in the Americas. However, Portugal’s legal claim was solidified with the 1885 Treaty of Simulanbuco, between the crown and three tribal chiefs, who separately submitted to Lisbon’s suzerainty. In the same year, the Conference of Berlin appeased Belgian demands by granting the Belgian Congo (the so-called Congo Free State) the southern bank of the river, separating Cabinda from the rest of Angola. Although the 1933 Constitution of Portugal made the distinction between Cabinda and Angola, the two areas were administered from Luanda as a single entity under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

In 1974, after the overthrow of the far-right regime, Portugal suddenly abandoned all claims to its colonies, creating a power vacuum and instability. The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda declared the exclave’s independence from Portugal. In late 1975 and early 1976, the communist MPLA, supported by Cuba and the USSR, invaded Cabinda, putting an end to its dreams of independence.

A working-classn neighborhood in Cabinda, Angola

The exclave-province of Cabinda of 7,270 km2 has a population of roughly three-quarters of a million people.

Tanzania's Lost Slice of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi)

Historically, where rivers or lakes form international boundaries, the two countries evenly divide the water area, more-or-less down the middle. Lake Geneva, the Rio Grande, Lake Titicaca, the Yalu River, and Lake Tanganyika are all examples of this.

However, when the English and Germans signed a treaty on 1 July 1890, it award 100% of the water in nothern Lake Nyasa to the British Central Africa Protectorate (later called “Nyasaland” and eventually “Malawi”). 

Lake Nyasa, a.k.a. Lake Malawi, clear blue water
Visitors enjoy snorkeling in the clear blue waters of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi)

If this dispensation prevails, some ridiculous scenarios could present themselves.  For example, a Tanzanian hotel on Lake Nyasa could be ruined: an oil or gas rig could be installed on the lake just a meter away from the shoreline, in the shallow water. Malawian investors could install lake bungalows on stilts over the water, directly in front of the Tanzanian beach; Malawian military vessels could anchor just off the shore.

Sailing on Lake Nyasa, Lake Malawi
Sailing in the tropical waters of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi)

Tanzania argues in favor of disregarding the colonial treaty, in favor of international norms. It points out that in the southern part of the lake, Mozambique has a share of the water area, roughly taking the half closest to its territory. But Malawi counters that Mozambique only has half of that water because it agreed to recognize Malawian sovereignty over Likoma Island and Chizumulu Island, which today are Malawian exclaves, physically closer to Mozambique and surrounded by Mozambican waters – yet another oddity of African political geography!

German East Africa Merges with British Zanzibar?

How did the major part of German East Africa, Tanganyika, come to merge with German East Africa? Traditionally, of course, sub-Saharan Africa’s political affiliations derived principally from the colonizer country. Sierra Leone (British) never randomly merged with Guinea (France), while Angola (Portugal) never consolidated with DR Congo (Belgium). Even when countries did come from the same colonial heritage, attempts at unification were failure. For example, the Mali Federation of 1960, which united Senegal and Mali for two months, proved to be a misfire. The dream of combining Ghana and Togo, which share an Ewe culture among other ethnic links, ended up as nothing more than that.

Kayaking in Zanzibar, Tanzania, East Africa
Kayaking in the crystal waters around Zanzibar and Pemba Island

The actual motivations behind the uniting of Zanzibar and Tanganyika remain somewhat obscure; they depended upon the interests and machinations of the key actors from the two polities. For Tanzania, the advantages included territorial enlargement, and uncontested control over territorial waters. If Zanzibar and Pemba had remained an independent country, their offshore position would have granted them control over a vast area of the Indian Ocean.

For Zanzibar, the union enabled it to achieve some stability in the aftermath of the John Okello’s reign of terror. Following the so-called “Zanzibar Revolution,” a genocidal chapter wherein the Arab and Indian political and economic elite of the islands – together with their families – were raped and massacred, the new strongmen faced the prospect of the dividends of bad karma: economic collapse and the prospect of more coups and instability. Calling upon the power of Tanganyika allowed the first president of Zanzibar, Abeid Karume, to ensure the long-term survival and dominance of himself and his family, albeit with Zanzibar City subordinated to Dar es Salaam (and later, to Dodoma).

How Do Africa's International Borders Generally Remain Intact?

With few exceptions, the borders left behind in Africa by colonizers generally remain in place to this day, no matter how much chaos ensued during th. During Liberia’s Civil War, for example, when ten “armies” of drugged children were roaming around committing atrocities, none of Liberia’s neighbors decided to profit from the disorder to annex territory.

During the Second Congo War of 1998 – 2003, with eight African countries all fighting each other on the territory of DR Congo, never did the controversy revolve around irredentist foreign claims on territory of the Central African giant, despite its profound weakness and extensive rot. Even today, with the Central African Republic enduring seemingly-endless ethno-religious strife and chaos, few if any serious voices advocate for the breaking up of the territory.

Savagery and cannibalism during the Liberian Civil War
Despite the chaos, atrocities, and ignominies of the Liberian Civil War, the legitimacy of Liberia's borders was never challenged

In 1964, the Organization of African Unity proclaimed that colonial borders should not be altered to reflect on-the-ground realities of language or ethnicity. Although the dividing up at Africa at the Berlin Conference and earlier was motivated by European interests, not a concern for ethnic coherence, to renegotiate borders would upon a Pandora’s Box of endless dispute. Furthermore, even if all parties could somehow agree on the “reformed” borders, territories would be thrust into an unfamiliar political arrangement, creating uncertainty and significant costs associated with integrating existing structures.

International pressures and recognition prevent African states from invading their neighbors. For example, in the early 1970s, when Gaddafi’s Libya invaded Chad, he confronted resistence not only from local factions, but also from France. Late in that decade, when Idi Amin (supported by Gaddafi) invaded Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere led not only the recovery of the United Republic’s territory, but also the liberation of Uganda itself. However, never did Nyerere aspire to annex part or all of Uganda, as only an international parriah would pursue such a policy.

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