Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Borderline Disorder: (De facto) Historical Ethnic Borders and Contemporary Conflict in Africa (lay summary)

This is a lay summary of the article published under the DOI: 10.31730/

Published onJul 03, 2023
Borderline Disorder: (De facto) Historical Ethnic Borders and Contemporary Conflict in Africa (lay summary)

Scientists trace modern conflicts in Africa back to historical borders and resource disputes

To understand conflict in Africa, scientists examined the relationship between traditional ethnic territories and modern-day African conflicts. They found that certain factors made conflict more likely, like competition over agricultural land or similar cultures between the people at the border.

Conflicts, including smaller-scale attacks within countries, are recognised as one of the key challenges for development in Africa. As a result, a lot of research has been done to discover the causes of fighting both between and within countries. 

One factor that plays a role is whether countries share a national border, because this might include disputed land or resources.

The researchers in this study point out, however, that we still know very little about the influence of historical ethnic borders found within countries.

That is why they looked at historical ethnic borders across Africa and mapped out the relationship between these borders and present-day conflict zones. They specifically focused on areas where non-civil conflicts occurred, meaning conflicts between local people that didn’t involve the country’s government.

The researchers also wanted to know whether specific resources or features at the borders, for example rich agricultural land or rivers, meant fighting was more likely.

The researchers investigated these relationships using a combination of historical maps, and databases containing information about where and when conflicts had occurred between 1989 and 2017. Using a computer model, they then looked at the African continent as a whole to find out whether historical ethnic borders lined up with areas of conflict. 

They also used the model to test whether various resources and features in the environment had any influence on the likelihood of conflict in border areas.

They found a strong statistical relationship between the presence of historical ethnic borders and the chance that conflict had occurred in that area. They also noticed that there was a higher chance of those areas being places where conflicts had first started.

They said the conflicts can often be linked back to specific causes. Border areas that include rich agricultural land, and areas where groups of people were culturally similar, for example, had higher levels of conflict. 

The researchers say this may be because in areas where people have very similar cultures, they are more likely to compete over the same resources. Border areas where the population had recently increased were also more conflict-prone, and the researchers found that people were less likely to own land in these areas.

This study is the first to explore the relationship between historical ethnic borders and non-civil conflict in Africa, and provides new information about what can cause conflicts, and the different factors that can cause fighting to break out in border areas.

The researchers add that knowing these factors, and potentially changing ethnic borders to legally recognized ones, may help decrease conflict across the African continent.


We explore the effect of historical ethnic borders on contemporary non-civil conflict in Africa. Exploiting variations across artificial regions (i.e., grids of 50x50km) within an ethnicity's historical homeland, we document that both the intensive and extensive margins of contemporary conflict are concentrated close to historical ethnic borders. Following a theory-based instrumental variable approach, which generates a plausibly exogenous ethno-spatial partition of Africa, we find that grid cells with historical ethnic borders have 27 percentage points higher probability of conflict and 7.9 percentage points higher probability of being the initial location of a conflict. We uncover several key underlying mechanisms: competition for agricultural land, population pressure, cultural similarity and weak property rights.


This summary is a free resource intended to make African research and research that affects Africa, more accessible to non-expert global audiences. It was compiled by ScienceLink's team of professional African science communicators as part of the Masakhane MT: Decolonise Science project. ScienceLink has taken every precaution possible during the writing, editing, and fact-checking process to ensure that this summary is easy to read and understand, while accurately reporting on the facts presented in the original research paper. Note, however, that this summary has not been fact-checked or approved by the authors of the original research paper, so this summary should be used as a secondary resource. Therefore, before using, citing or republishing this summary, please verify the information presented with the original authors of the research paper, or email [email protected] for more information.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?