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The Nature of Borderlands and Conflict

Borders matter because they provide a key element in the structure of the modern-day global system, by mapping the arrangements and numbers of the territorial units upon which all humans live (Starr, 2006). In addition, borders mark the lines of the legal termination of one territory and political unit to the start of another (Ikome, 2012). Jonathan Goodhand (2018) stated that “borders are not so much a line as a relation and they epitomise contradictory forces — they are something that simultaneously divides and connects, a source of security, a barrier that protects and a site of friction and conflict“ (p. 8). In this sense, borderlands are the spaces where political scientists encounter different forms and logics of rule, such as the space between the centre and the periphery, and the rule across the border. Robert Braun and Otto Kienitz (2022) argued that scholars are attracted to the study of national boundaries because, as history has illustrated, borders are “home to the most important forms of political contestation, including, but not limited to civil war and competing state formation“ (p. 304). Taking into consideration the importance of borders and borderlands, the article poses the following question: How do borders affect the dynamics of conflict? To answer the question, the article will assess the impact of borders on conflict by looking at how it affects actors, identities, and strategies.

The Study of Borderlands and Borders

To assess the nature of borderlands and conflict, it is useful to understand how borders are defined. First of all, borders are, by definition, the margins of the state. As such, Bruce Korf and Timothy Raeymaekers (2013) provided two different vocabularies dealing with the margins of the state — borderlands and frontiers. The former was defined by Francois Vrey (2012) as “a territory (or territories) co-located to an international border and typically reflects the geographic confluence of the adjacent countries“ (p. 188). On the other hand, the latter was referred to by Goodhand (2019) as “fuzzy political spaces, marking zones of transition between different centres of power and regulation“ (p. 9). Both these concepts form part of the study of borders, also known as ‘limology’. However, scholars have recognised that borders are a complicated social phenomenon, and as such, border studies have been transformed into an interdisciplinary field developed in parallel by sociologists, ethnologists, psychologists, lawyers, economists, physical geographers, and political scientists (Kolossov, 2006, p. 606).

Image 1: Sagolj, D. (2018, April 12). A piece of clothing holds back barbed wire on the Chinese side of the North Korean border [Photograph].

The Nature of Borders and Conflict

Charles Tilly (1992) theorised that state formation has historically been a violent process, illustrating how violence played a central and foundational role after the Thirty Years War that ravaged most of the European continent. Borders, frontiers, and borderlands were often central to the process of war-making and state-making in history. Goodhand (2018) provided an accurate description of this process, by stating that “men of violence on the fringes of emerging states, whose banditry and challenges to power and authority at the centre, became a catalyst for state expansion into its frontier regions“ (p. 10). In contemporary research, borderlands have continued to play an important role in the dynamics of conflict, development, and state-building (Goodhand, 2018). For example, in comparative political literature, Danial N. Posner (2005) turned to the study of border regions in Zambia to investigate ethnic conflict, albeit with the explicit aim of determining the conditions under which political competition revolves around either tribal differences and/or language group differences. The study demonstrated how formal institutional rules in politics determine social cleavages. In another comparative study, Jeffrey Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg (2018) analysed borders and their relation to violence in the eastern regions of Poland during the 19th and early 20th centuries, concluding that the “interwar political orientations and behaviours predicted the spatial distribution of violence which emerged in the summer of 1941“ (Kopstein et al., 2018, p. 22).

In addition, Goodhand (2018) turned to the study of borderlands to investigate how a thorough understanding of the phenomenon can in turn illuminate a more comprehensive comprehension of the development and violent contestation. The author advocated that such an approach can encourage further systemic analysis of the trade-offs between different sets of policy goals and interventions in areas where violence occurs in borderlands, with the explicit aim of finding context-specific measures to mitigate violence. Goodhand (2018) based the findings on the fact that “subnational conflicts with strong trans-border dimensions are the most widespread, enduring, and deadly forms of conflict in South and Southeast Asia, affecting half the countries of that region“ (p. 3). As a starting point to investigate the nature of borderlands and its effects on the dynamics of violence, it is worthy to acknowledge that borders reveal the limitations of the state because they function as membranes through which goods, people, resources, and information travels across boundaries. Braun (2022) noted that “this duality activates three at times paradoxical processes that shape political processes on the ground“ (p. 307). These processes are best explained as border effects, as identified by Braun (2018), and include the following: “(1) borders involve specific actors; (2) shape local identities, and (3) provide distinct strategies“ (p. 303).

Image 2: Biron, S. (2020, July 8). A conflict without borders continues to play out in the Sahel [Photograph].


The first border effect, as identified by Braun (2022), has to do with actor involvement: as such, borders include specific actors who come to either defy or defend the nation-state. Borders are by definition closely related to national security, as in such a traditional understanding the state apparatus is tasked with preventing military threats. Vladmir Kolossov (2005) noted in this regard that borders have become militarised zones, “where the highest priority is the fighting efficiency of military units ready to repulse the aggression of a potential enemy“ (p. 621). Borders are also symbolic of a state that is perceived as being either too weak or too strong. In a state that is perceived as weak, indeed, conflicts in borderlands stem from the proliferation of actors who promote insecurity in potentially unstable areas. The various actors engaged in these areas are motivated and driven by a variety of agendas, including political, economic, social, or criminal (Vrey, 2012).

Vrey (2012, p. 195) elaborated on the variety of actors and their respective agendas in these borderlands. Firstly, rebel groups posing as guerrillas are often present in these areas, but the degree to which these groups harbour secessionist sentiment will vary and be case-specific. Secondly, guerrilla groups can also become proxies for absent governments in disputed or conflictual borderlands: in such a case, guerrillas can accentuate their political role by replacing state structures and traditional authorities. Thirdly, borders are important for trade, including illicit trade. Therefore, armed groups with economic agendas are often present in these regions, and on occasion, they merge their economic interests with grievances to pursue and guarantee access to resources that in turn are vital for their survival strategy. Vrey (2012) specifically noted that in such cases, “the line between politics, personal gain and criminality becomes blurred, particularly if lootable resources are on offer and a war economy emerges“, continuing that “the extent to which the aforementioned converges in borderlands, the greater the threat to central authorities becomes“ (p. 195). In sum, borders have a significant effect on the diversity of actors engaged in these regions. In addition to the state and its military forces, insurgents, militias, rebels, private contractors, armed groups, and vigilantes are also present. It is precisely this plethora of actors, and their alternative agendas, which constitute a security threat because borderlands serve as mobilising territories that either define or defy the state (Vrey, 2012).

Image 3: Goodman, J. (2019, August 30). Colombian rebels’ rearming ups pressure for Maduro [Photograph].


Braun (2022) noted that border regions not only involve distinct actors “but they also shape identities by amplifying perceived group differences, political threats, and social fault lines“ (p. 308). These identities frequently alter and change conceptions of legitimacy and interests while also shaping perceptions of contemporary problems. Frederik Barth (2012) also noted that borders can signify rival conceptions of both ethnic and national identity. In essence, Braun (2022) posited that “independently, each of these interstitial processes renders borders amplifiers of perceived between-group inequality, collective threats, and other negative cross-border influences, which can subsequently result in the hardening of ethnic fault lines in the heads of those who live nearby“ (p. 308).

An example of how identities at borders might affect violence is through instances of ethnic confrontations. Ethnic confrontations often begin when ethnic populations challenge the state's territorial integrity. Vrey (2012) noted that “the value of territory becomes accentuated and ethnic lines are followed or deliberately invoked through identity politics“ (p. 198). To use an illustrative example, the Tuareg insurgency of 2012 in northern Mali showed various elements of an ethnic confrontation due to the fact that the insurgents questioned the territorial integrity of the Malian state in an ethnic showdown (Vrey, 2012). Indeed, the 2012 secessionist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali was driven by various factors, one of which was the failure of the Malian government to implement peace agreements that promised to integrate the Tuareg ethnic group into security services and governmental positions. The Tuareg insurgents subsequently challenged the government’s legitimacy due to the failure of the state to create the conditions for a homogenous development of the country (Chauzel & Van Damme, 2015).

Image 4: Unknown. (2012, April 6). Tuareg fighters gather at an undisclosed location in Mali in February [Photograph].


The third way in which borders affect conflict is by providing strategies that benefit local elites and non-state actors. Braun (2022) noted that it provides actors “with unique strategies that exploit the border landscapes and leverage the interplay of overlapping local and cross-border authority structures“ (p. 308). For example, criminal and rebel groups can turn to borderlands for safe havens where the state lacks legitimacy or capacity. In addition, the patterns of violence are also shaped by the geographical distribution of resources that are needed by warring parties to mobilise forces. Phillipe Le Billon (2001) noted that lootable resources, located on the periphery of the state — e. g., drugs — can provide a tax base for rebels. While other resources which are located centrally — e. g., oil — can provide revenues for the state to monopolise.

Border regions can also provide unique strategies to rebels. For example, Braun (2022) noted that “rebel leaders can payroll their movements by engaging in or facilitating the smuggle of contraband and other forms of illicit trade enabled by the price differentials that exist in borderlands“ (p. 311). In addition, rebels can benefit from the absence of the harmonisation of national security which further fuels impunity. This absence of security and governance is perhaps best illustrated in the case of Colombia. Annette Idler (2012) noted that “Colombia’s borderlands are conditioned by weak state governance systems, a high-risk/ high-opportunity environment, a proneness to impunity, and, due to their geostrategic situation, constitute major links in the cocaine business“ (p. 94). As a consequence, the borderlands have become a place for violent non-state actors, which broadly include rebels and paramilitary groups (Idler, 2012). And lastly, rebels can find both shelter and fighters in border populations which are aggrieved. According to Braun (2022), “refugee camps, which are often located in border regions contiguous to conflict zones, provide a pool of fighters with low opportunity costs for joining rebel organizations“ (p. 311). Idean Salehyan (2007) provided an illustrative example of such a strategy when referring to the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. The perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda belonged to the Hutu ethnic group. When the conflict ended, the Hutu militias began to reorganise their movement in refugee camps which were situated in neighbouring DRC near the Rwandan border. Salehyan (2007) concluded that “external sanctuaries are a significant source of mobilization potential“, continuing that “weak neighbours, rival neighbours, and refugee communities can provide strategic interests for rebels across the border“ (p. 226).

Image 5: Reuters. (2022, June 13). The M23 is one of the more than 120 armed groups active in eastern DRC [Photograph].


The article showed how borders affect the dynamics of conflict by referring to their impact on actors, identities, and strategies. What has become clear is that borderlands are often marginal spaces, where conflict becomes more likely due to the intersection of these three effects. Borderland disputes can lead to rebellions, insurrections, and even civil wars (Starr, 2006). Therefore, more research should be conducted on these contentious political spaces, specifically in terms of possible mechanisms and frameworks which could be implemented to build better and more lasting relationships between central governments and border communities.

Bibliographical References

Barth, F. (2012). Boundaries and connections. In A. Cohen (Ed.). Signifying Identities (1st ed., pp. 15-20). Abingdon: Routledge.

Braun, R., & Kienitz, O. (2022). Comparative Politics in Borderlands: Actors, Identities, and Strategies: Annual Review of Political Science, 25, 303-321.

Chauzel, G., & Van Damme, T. (2015). The roots of Mali’s conflict: Moving beyond the 2012 crisis. Netherlands: Clingendael.

Goodhand, J. (2018). The centrality of the margins: the political economy of conflict and development in the borderlands. Batticaloa: Borderlands Asia.

Idler, A. (2012). Arrangements of convenience in Colombia’s borderlands: An invisible threat to citizen security: St Antony’s International Review, 7, 2, 93-119.

Ikome, F.N. (2012). Africa’s international borders as potential sources of conflict and future threats to peace and security: Institute for Security Studies, 1, 233, 1-16.

Kolossov, V. (2005). Border studies: changing perspectives and theoretical approaches: Geopolitics, 10, 4, 606-632.

Kopstein, J., & Wittenberg, J. (2018). Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust. New York: Cornell University Press.

Korf, B. & Raeymaeker, T. (Eds.). (2013). Violence on the margins: States, conflict, and borderlands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Le Billon, P. (2001). The political ecology of war: Natural resources and armed conflicts: Political Geography, 20, 5, 561-584.

Posner, D. N. (2005). Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Salehyan, I. (2007). Transnational rebels: Neighboring states as sanctuary for rebel groups: World Politics, 59, 2, 217-242.

Starr, H. (2006). International borders: The SAIS Review of International Affairs, 26, 1, 3-10.

Tilly C. (1992). Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Vrey, F. (2012). Borderlands and internal conflict: from theory to the reality of contemporary conflicts. In I. Liebenberg. & T. Potgieter (Eds.). Reflections on War (1st ed., pp. 187-201). Stellenbosch: African Sun Media.

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Oct 23, 2022

Excellent article! The argument is well-structured and straightforward, with clear and precise explanations. You succeeded in giving an excellent overview of the topic. Good job!


Very interesting reading! I especially appreciated the structure of the article, which eases the reader into the different issues you cover. The text is well-written and well-organised, resulting in an informative and clear piece.

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Deretha Bester

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