How 1884 Berlin affected 2010 Africa

Posted on January 21, 2011

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The following is the first of several excerpts from my new book, African Lions, published in February:

The Berlin Conference held in 1884 was a grand meeting of old imperial hands. Chargés d’affaires from Europe’s leading colonial powers gathered in long drawing rooms to sit around impossibly large tables, a phalanx of wallflower advisors backing them, in order that they might better organise their individual stakes to parts of Africa. A great map of Africa was hung from one of the rooms’ high ceilings, matching the huge heavy curtains for weight and splendour. This was the great theoretical carve-up of Africa into neat geometric lines and right angles: “you can try your luck at taming the savages in this bit as long as you leave us this and this”, they would discuss between breaks.

Called by King Leopold II at his luxurious Berlin villa, the conference brought together representatives from the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Sweden-Norway, Spain, Denmark, France, Belgium, Italy, Russia and Portugal to work out an African policy when it came to geographical claims. All turned up. The United States were offered a seat at the table, but chose not to attend. They talked over several months and came up with the General Act of the Berlin Conference, a diktat which outlined in international (colonial) law each individual nation’s claims to parts of Africa and the all-important shipping routes which would allow their interests in the continent to flourish. When the representations took their seats in the panelled walled rooms of Leopold’s villa, 80% of Africa still remained under tribal control. 18 years later, in 1902, 90% of it was officially European-owned.

The Berlin Conference codified country’s rights to claim land which was not really theirs: it established arbitrary territories in which they could contest ownership, which in turn led to the arbitrary borders that each power established for the colonies they created. Had either level of cartography been more compassionate and less focused on straight lines and 90 degree angles, some of the current complications that seem endemic in African nations might today be avoided.

We have already seen just how divided nations can be through the case of Nigeria and its tempestuous relationship with the Niger Delta. While the seat of power lies firmly in the urban north of the country, most of the hydrocarbon reserves (and consequently most of the potential economic prosperity) lies in the south’s backwaters, amongst the deeply tribal, deeply proud residents of the Niger Delta. While Britain and the United States have struggled with a strong north-south divide in their past, each country has managed to move beyond geographical division and become united; many African nations have yet to do so.

The problem is one of temperament, with the north and south often being divided by simply more than basic geography. Usually there is a difference in way of life, with the often more rural and agrarian, traditional half of a nation often sitting on the overwhelming majority of the reserves. Sometimes the division is exacerbated by a religious divide, often stemming back thousands of years. The gap between the two people becomes intractable, and a strong sense of ‘us versus them’ – or to use a postcolonial term, ‘us’ and ‘the Other’, exists.

If you’re interested in reading more, keep an eye on this blog (or subscribe using the method to your right) or email me and I’ll update you as and when the book is published.

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