Skip to main content Accessibility help

The green, the grey and the blue: a typology of cross-border trade in Africa*

  • Gregor Dobler (a1)


What are the reasons for the extraordinary dynamism of many African border regions? Are there specificities to African borderlands? The article provides answers to these questions by analysing the historical development of African state borders’ social and economic relevance. It presents a typology of cross-border trade in Africa, differentiating trade across the ‘green’ border of bush paths and villages, the ‘grey’ border of roads, railways and border towns, and the ‘blue’ border of transport corridors to oceans and airports. The three groups of actors associated with these types of trade have competing visions of the ideal border regime, to which many dynamics in African cross-border politics can be traced back. The article contributes to African studies by analysing diverging political and economic developments in African countries through the lens of the border, and to border theory by distilling general features of borders and borderlands from African case studies.


Corresponding author


Hide All

This article is an outcome of years of discussions and exchange with my colleagues and friends in the African Borderlands Research Network ABORNE. They are too numerous to name here. Kate Meagher, Paul Nugent and Wolfgang Zeller have at various points changed my understanding of borderlands. I presented earlier versions of this article in Lisbon, Bayreuth and Joensuu, and I thank all participants for valuable input. Daniel Bach, Katharina Heitz Tokpa, Rita Kesselring, Olivia Klimm and Olivier Walther read drafts; their comments, just as those of the two anonymous reviewers, have provided crucial feedback and allowed me to make the article much better. My original research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation SNF and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG.



Hide All
Akiyama, T., Baffes, J., Larson, D.F. & Varangis, P.. 2003. ‘Commodity market reform in Africa: some recent experience’, Economic Systems 27, 1: 83115.
Anderson, J. & O'Dowd, L.. 1999. ‘Borders, border region and territoriality: contradictory meanings, changing significance’, Regional Studies 33, 7: 593604.
Asiwaju, A. 1976. Western Yorubaland Under European Rule: a comparative analysis of French and British colonialism. New York, NY: Humanities Press.
Asiwaju, A. & Nugent, P., eds. 1996. African Boundaries: barriers, conduits and opportunities. Edinburgh: University Press.
Austin, G. 2008. ‘Resources, techniques and strategies South of the Sahara: revising the factor endowments perspective on African economic development, 1500–2001’, Economic History Review 61, 3: 587624.
Bach, D., ed. 1999. Regionalization in Africa: integration and disintegration. Oxford: James Currey.
Baud, M. & van Schendel, W.. 1997. ‘Towards a comparative history of borderlands’, Journal of World History 8, 2: 211–42.
Berman, B. 1990. Control and Crisis in Colonial Kenya: The dialectics of domination. London: James Currey.
Berman, B. 1998. ‘Ethnicity, patronage and the African state: the politics of uncivil nationalism’, African Affairs 97, 388: 305–41.
Bierschenk, Th. & Olivier de Sardan, J.-P., eds. 2014. States at Work. Dynamics of African bureaucracies. Leiden: Brill.
Boas, M. 2015. The Politics of Conflict Economies: miners, merchants and warriors in the African borderland. London: Routledge.
Boyrie, M., Nelson, J. & Pak, S.. 2007. ‘Capital movement through trade misinvoicing: the case of Africa’, Journal of Financial Crime 14, 4: 474–89.
Bulir, A. 2002. ‘Can price incentive to smuggle explain the contraction of the Cocoa supply in Ghana?’, Journal of African Economics 11, 3: 413–39.
Chalfin, B. 2001. ‘Border zone trade and the economic boundaries of the state in North-East Ghana’, Africa 71, 2: 202224.
Chalfin, B. 2010a. ‘Recasting maritime governance in Ghana: the neo-developmental state and the Port of Tema.Journal of Modern African Studies 48, 8: 573–98.
Chalfin, B. 2010b. Neoliberal Frontiers: an ethnography of sovereignty in West Africa. Chicago, IL: University Press.
Chalfin, B. 2015. ‘Governing offshore oil: mapping maritime political space in Ghana and the Western Gulf of Guinea’, South Atlantic Quarterly 114, 1:101118.
Cooper, F. 2002. Africa since 1940: the past of the present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coplan, D. 2012. ‘Border show business and performing states’, in Wilson, Th. & Donnan, H., eds. Blackwell Companion to Border Studies. Oxford: Blackwell, 507–21.
Das, V. & Poole, D., eds. 2004. Anthropology at the Margins of the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Decoville, A., Durand, F., Sohn, C. & Walther, O.. 2013. ‘Comparing cross-border metropolitan integration in Europe: towards a functional typology’, Journal of Borderlands Studies 28, 2: 221–37.
Dobler, G. 2008a. ‘Boundary-drawing and the notion of territoriality in pre-colonial and early colonial Ovamboland’, Journal of Namibian Studies 3: 730.
Dobler, G. 2008b. ‘From Scotch whisky to Chinese sneakers: international commodity flows and trade networks in Oshikango, Namibia’, Africa 78, 3: 410–32.
Dobler, G. 2009a. ‘Oshikango: the dynamics of growth and regulation in a Northern Namibian boom town’, Journal of Southern African Studies 35, 1: 115–31.
Dobler, G. 2009b. ‘Chinese shops and the formation of a Chinese expatriate community in Namibia’, The China Quarterly 199, 707–27.
Dobler, G. 2009c. ‘On the border to chaos: identity formation on the Angolan-Namibian border, 1927–2008’, Journal of Borderland Studies 25, 2: 2235.
Dobler, G. 2012. ‘Private vices, public benefits? Small-town bureaucratization in Namibia’, in Peters, A. & Handschin, L., eds. Conflict of Interest in Global, Public, and Corporate Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press, 217–32.
Doevenspeck, M. 2011. ‘Constructing the border from below: narratives from the Congolese–Rwandan state boundary’, Political Geography 30, 3: 129–41.
Egg, J. & Herrera, J.. 1998. ‘Échanges transfrontaliers et integration régionale en Afrique subsaharienne: introduction’, Autrepart 6: 527.
Elden, S. 2013. The Birth of Territory. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A.. 1998. ‘What is agency?’, American Journal of Sociology 103, 4: 9621023.
Feyissa, D. & Hoehne, M.. 2010. Borders and Borderlands as Resources in the Horn of Africa. London: James Currey.
Golub, S. 2015. ‘Informal cross-border trade and smuggling in Africa’, in Morrissey, O., López, R.A. & Sharma, K., eds. Handbook on Trade and Development. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 179209.
Goody, J. 1971. Technology, Tradition, and the State in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hagmann, T. & Péclard, D.. 2010. ‘Negotiating statehood: dynamics of power and domination in Africa’, Development and Change 41, 4: 539–62.
Hagmann, T. & Korf, B.. 2012. ‘Agamben in the Ogaden: violence and sovereignty in the Ethiopian–Somali frontier’, Political Geography 31, 4: 205–14.
Heilbrunn, J. 2014. Oil, Democracy and Development in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Herbst, J. 2000. States and Power in Africa: comparative lessons in authority and control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Howard, A. 2014. ‘Cross-boundary traders in the era of high imperialism: changing structures and strategies in the Sierra Leone-Guinea region’, articulo 10. <>.
Iheduru, O. Forthcoming. ‘Organized business and regional integration in Africa’, Review of International Political Economy. doi: 10.1080/09692290.2015.1011191.
Jackson, S. 2006. ‘Borderlands and the transformation of war economies: lessons from the DR Congo’, Conflict, Security and Development 6, 3: 425447.
Jones, R. 2009. ‘Categories, borders and boundaries’, Progress in Human Geography 33: 174–89.
Kaiser, R. 2012. ‘Performativity and the eventfulness of bordering practices’, in Wilson, Th. & Donnan, H., eds. Blackwell Companion to Border Studies. Oxford: Blackwell, 522–37.
Kayizzi-Mugerwa, S., Anyanwu, J. & Conceicao, P.. 2014. ‘Regional integration in Africa: an introduction’, African Development Review 26, S1: 16.
Kopytoff, I. 1987. The African Frontier: the reproduction of traditional African societies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Korf, B. & Raeymaekers, T., eds. 2013. Violence on the Margins: state, conflict, and borderlands. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lee, C.K. 2014. ‘The spectre of global China’, New Left Review 89: 2965.
Lefèbvre, H. 1974. La production de l'espace. Paris: Anthropos.
Lentz, C. 2014. Land, Mobility and Belonging in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Little, P. 2010. ‘Unofficial cross-border trade in Eastern Africa’, in Sarris, A. & Morrison, J., eds. Food Security in Africa: market and trade policy for staple foods in Eastern and Southern Africa. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 158–81.
Martinez, O. 1994. ‘The dynamics of border interaction. New approaches to border analysis’, in Schofield, C., ed. Global boundaries. London: Routledge, 115.
MacGaffey, J. 1991. The Real Economy of Zaire: the contribution of smuggling and other unofficial activities to national wealth. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Meagher, K. 2014. ‘Smuggling ideologies: from criminalization to hybrid governance in African clandestine economies’, African Affairs 113, 453: 497517.
Mevel, S., Vakataki‘Ofa, S. & Karingi, S.. 2014. ‘Illicit financial flows, trade mispricing, and their impact on African economies’, in Elhiraika, A.B., Mukungu, A.C.K. & Nyoike, W., eds. Regional Integration and Policy Challenges in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 220–52.
Miescher, G. 2012. Namibia's Red Line: the history of a veterinary fence. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miles, W. 1994. Hausaland divided: colonialism and independence in Nigeria and Niger. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Miles, W. 2014. Scars of Partition: postcolonial legacies in French and British borderlands. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Moseley, W., Carney, J. & Becker, L.. 2010. ‘Neoliberal policy, rural livelihoods, and urban food security in West Africa: a comparative study of The Gambia, Côte d'Ivoire, and Mali’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107, 13: 5774–9.
Mühlmann, W. & Llaryora, R.. 1968. Klientschaft, Klientel und Klientelsystem in einer sizilianischen Agro-Stadt. Tübingen: Mohr/ Siebeck.
Nugent, P. 2002. Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens on the Ghana-Togo Frontier: the lie of the borderlands since 1914. Oxford: James Currey.
Nugent, P. 2008. ‘Border anomalies: the role of local actors in shaping spaces along the Gambia-Senegal and Ghana-Togo borders’, in Bellagamaba, A. & Klute, G., eds. Beside the State: emergent powers in contemporary Africa. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 128–38.
Nugent, P. 2012. ‘Border towns and cities in comparative perspective’, in Wilson, Th. & Donnan, H., eds. Blackwell Companion to Border Studies. Oxford: Blackwell, 557–72.
Olivier de Sardan, J.-P. 2008. Researching the Practical Norms of Real Governance in Africa. London: ODI.
Popitz, H. 1992. Phänomene der Macht. Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck.
Raeymaekers, T. 2009. ‘The silent encroachment of the frontier: politics of transborder trade in the Semliki Valley (Congo-Uganda)’, Political Geography 28, 1: 5565.
Raeymaekers, T. 2012a. ‘African boundaries and the new capitalist frontier’, in Wilson, Th. & Donnan, H., eds. Blackwell Companion to Border Studies, Oxford: Blackwell, 318–31.
Raeymaekers, T. 2012b. ‘Reshaping the state in its margins: the state, the market and the subaltern on a Central African frontier’, Critique of Anthropology 32, 3: 334–50.
Reinhard, W. 1999. Geschichte der Staatsgewalt. Munich: Beck.
Roitman, J. 2005. Fiscal Disobedience: An anthropology of economic regulation in Central Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schütz, A. & Luckmann, Th. 2003. Strukturen der Lebenswelt. Konstanz: UTB.
Soares de Oliveira, R. 2007. Oil and Politics in the Gulf of Guinea. London: Hurst.
Soares de Oliveira, R. 2015. Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the civil war. London: Hurst.
Söderbaum, F. 2004. ‘Modes of regional governance in Africa: neoliberalism, sovereignty boosting, and shadow networks’, Global Governance 10, 4: 419–36.
Söderbaum, F. & Taylor, I.. 2001. ‘Transmission belt for transnational capital or facilitator for development? Problematising the role of the state in the Maputo Development Corridor’, Journal of Modern African Studies 39, 4: 675–95.
Söderbaum, F. & Taylor, I., eds. 2008. Afro-Regions: the dynamics of cross-border micro-regionalism in Africa. Uppsala: NAI.
Storey, D. 2012. Territories: the claiming of space. London: Routledge.
Thünen, W. 1842–63. Der isolirte Staat. Rostock: Leopold.
Titeca, K. 2012. ‘Tycoons and contraband: informal cross-border trade in West Nile, north-western Uganda’, Journal of Eastern African Studies 6, 1: 4763.
Titeca, K. & de Herdt, T.. 2010. ‘Regulation, cross-border trade and practical norms in West Nile, north-western Uganda’, Africa 80, 4: 573–94.
Titeca, K. & Flynn, R.. 2014. ‘‘Hybrid governance’, legitimacy and (il)legality in the informal cross-border trade in Panyimur, Northwest Uganda’, African Studies Review 57, 1: 7191.
Vaughan, C., Schomerus, M. & de Vries, L., eds. 2013. The Borderlands of South Sudan: authority and identity in contemporary and historical perspectives. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Walther, O. 2014a. ‘Border markets: an introduction’, Articulo 10. <>.
Walther, O. 2014b. ‘Trade networks in West Africa: a social network approach’, Journal of Modern African Studies 52, 2: 179203.
Zeller, W. 2008. ‘Danger and opportunity in Katima Mulilo: a Namibian border boomtown at transnational crossroads’, Journal of Southern African Studies 35, 1: 133–54.
Zeller, W. 2015. What Makes Borders Real: in the Namibia–Zambia and Uganda–South Sudan borderlands. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

The green, the grey and the blue: a typology of cross-border trade in Africa*

  • Gregor Dobler (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.