Statehood and Violence

The question of statehood and arbitrary boundaries has really been bothering me of late. In particular, the violence that continues to exist as a result of state boundaries arbitrarily drawn by countries in the West really makes me wonder about the sensibility of retaining many states in their current form. There are some very obvious areas where tensions remain high as a direct result of arbitrarily drawn state lines, like those of Palestine/Israel, India/Pakistan, and Ethiopia/Eritrea, for example. The histories of these areas is more widely known to most people in the West: most people (I would hope) understand the importance of state lines in the continued problems associated with these areas. In these cases, the West’s decision to separate (or join) various disparate and/or arbitrarily defined groups of people has led to incredible violence that has lasted for decades. At this stage, Palestine and Israel look almost as far from a peace agreement as ever. Well, almost.

Still, the historical factors behind other hotbeds of unrest are rarely mentioned or made public. Reporters may be taking it as a given that their readers are aware of the background to their stories, but I get the feeling that they gloss over the historical causes of the violence and/or unrest. The news coverage I read of places like Somalia and Nigeria really highlights this. In Somalia, the historical relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia makes it much easier to understand why the country mistrusts the current transitional government (which is backed by Ethiopian forces). Not many reports refer to the fact that Somalia went to war with Ethiopia in the 70’s in order to annex the Ogaden so as to unite all Somalis. Even fewer refer to the terrible losses that Somalia suffered in social and military contexts.

Historical issues also underly many of the problems faced by foreign oil companies in the Niger Delta. Over the last few weeks I’ve read of dozens of foreigners being kidnapped in and around the Niger delta, where Nigeria’s oil reserves are concentrated. (According to one report I read, 55 foreigners have been kidnapped this year already.) What this report and many others neglect to mention is the serious poverty faced not only by all Nigerians, but by especially those in the area around Port Harcourt. It might seem odd for me to mention this region, in particular, but the history of the area directly impacts its poverty: in the late sixties, the region was the secessionist state known as Biafra. The Biafran War, like all civil wars, was crippling and left the region devastated. While that was more than thirty years ago, the effects of civil war can’t be ignored.

But before I digress into a lengthy description of similar areas that are or have been cause for wars or tension, I want to look at the reasoning behind statehood. I don’t propose to offer anything more than questions, but it bothers me that so many governments are incredibly unwilling to alter completely artificial boundaries. In some cases, where access to minerals or the like are in question (a la Biafra), I can see why a state would prevent the redrawing of boundaries. In others, however, it strikes me as odd that areas like the Ogaden (Ethiopia/Somalia) and Kashmir (Pakistan/India) remain subject to conflict and violence. Furthermore, it is hard to see why certain states continue to exist as separate entities. I understand national pride, but I don’t necessarily see the need for certain states to exist. And now will come some controversial examples, because I won’t deny my ignorance of the issues that may have driven separatism. My first two examples are Lesotho and Swaziland, which are both monarchies quite close to home. I understand the existence of their monarchies, but they are both very closely allied to South Africa: their currencies are pegged to the Rand and both Sesotho and siSwati are widely spoken in South Africa. Furthermore, both countries are economically dependent on South Africa. They both exist as independent entities because they were British protectorates separate from what later became the Union of South Africa. And nothing has changed since.

Perhaps someone else can provide arguments for why so many arbitrarily defined states remain bounded as they are, because I really can’t understand why they do. (As witnessed by this long and unfocused post that doesn’t quite lead anywhere…)


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