26 February 2010 marks exactly 125 V years from the end of the infamous M Berlin Conference that led to the "Scramble for Africa" by European powers. Apart from slaver-both transatlantic and Arab-there is no single event in modern African history whose consequences have been so dire for the continent as the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Held over three months in a snowy Berlin, and attended by 13 European nations and the USA, the conference set the ground rules for the partition of Africa, leading to what Mo Ibrahim now describes as the "unviable states" on the continent. And what is more: no African was invited to the conference or made privy to its decisions! Yet we still suffer its consequences! Osei Boateng takes us through the history of the abominable conference.
AT NOON ON 26 FEBRUARY 2010, ANYBODY WITH THE slightest drop of African blood in him or her should exercise one minute of silence in remembrance of the 125th anniversary of the end of the disreputable Berlin Conference. For, apart from losing Egypt in ancient times and 400 years of Arab and transatlantic slavery (between the 15th and 19th centuries), no greater evil has befallen Africa and its people, with longer-lasting consequences, than the Berlin Conference. Held between 15 November I884 and 16 February I885, the conference opened the floodgates to what became known as "the Scramble for Africa" by European nations motivated by greed and a desire for exploitation.
As H. J. de Blij and Peter O. Muller note in their book, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, published in 1997: "The Berlin Conference was Africa's undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time Africa regained its independence in the 1960s, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily. The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy acquisitiveness during a period when Europe's search for minerals and markets had become insatiable."
When the conference opened in a snowy Berlin in mid-November 1884, 90% of Africa remained under traditional and local control, with Algeria held by France; the Cape Colony and Natal (both became part of modern South Africa) held by Britain; and Angola by Portugal. At the time, European colonialism was largely concentrated along the African coast. The interior was still a huge mystery to the Europeans, which led to their erroneous belief that Africa was a "dark continent". The "darkness" however was not African, it was in the heads of the curious Europeans who had no idea of what the African interior looked like or what went on there.
The Cabinda example
Sadly, as Matt Rosenberg, a European writer attests: "What ultimately resulted from the Berlin Conference was a hodge-podge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into 50 irregular countries. This new map was superimposed over the 1,000 indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason and divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along."
A notable example is Cabinda, the 3,000 sq mile enclave which is officially a province of Angola but separated from it by a small jut of DRCongo where the Congo River enters the Atlantic Ocean at Matadi. Now sandwiched between Congo-Brazzaville and DRCongo, Cabinda was officially annexed to Angola in 1975 against the wishes of the majority of the people, after Portugal withdrew from its colonies in 1974.
But judging from the 30-year separatist war in Cabinda which recently led to a gun attack on the Togolese "African Nations Cup" team bus in Cabinda, the natives there certainly do not want to be part of Angola. Yet Angola holds tightly on to Cabinda on account of colonial trearies in which the Cabindan natives had no say, and because of the abundant oil produced in the enclave.
Over the three months that the Berlin Conference lasted, the European powers similarly haggled over territories all over Africa, disregarding the cultural and linguistic boundaries established by the indigenous population. After the conference, the give-and-take continued, and by 1902, 90% of Africa had come under tight colonial bondage. The continent had been carved into 50 disparate countries, most of which cut across the logic of nationality, geography, language, culture, and other unifying factors.
Some modern historians, like the American Adam Hochschild, insist rightly that contrary to popular belief the Berlin Conference did not partition Africa. "The spoils were too large, and it would rake many more treaties to divide them all," Hochschild says in his seminal book, King Leopold's Ghost, first published in 1999.
A fair point and factually correct, it is however only technical. By resolving some conflicting claims, and providing the Europeans with the moral, if not legal, right to colonise the whole of Africa via The Berlin Act of 1885, the conference became the catalyst for the Scramble of Africa, even though the 14 participating nations left Berlin still with unfinished business to haggle over, which was finally resolved through more treaties and compromises in the following years.
In fact, as the Nigerian journalist, Rotimi Sankore, pointed out in New African five years ago, in an article marking the 120th anniversary of the Berlin Conference: "The partition of Africa must not be seen as an isolated event. It was a continuation of previous policies of European exploitation and flowed naturally from the 400 years of transatlantic slavery. Having provided the wealth that created the basis for the Industrial Revolution in Europe, transatlantic slavery had outlived its main usefulness. The industries needed raw materials and these were to be found in Africa. To prevent hostilities breaking out over the control of Africa's resources, the Berlin Conference was held to carve up...