125 years of the Berlin Conference
THE BERLIN CONFERENCE
"There is no single event in modern African history whose consequences have been as dire for the continent as the Berlin Conference of 1884-85," reports New African. With 26 February, 2010 marking 125 years since 'the end of this abominable conference', New African presents "an in-depth look at the conference and its impacts on Africa and her people."
Carving up Africa
It was the Berlin conference, [referred to as the Kongokonferenz in official German records] that led to, and formalized, the scramble and eventual carving up of Africa into blocks [for France, Germany, Portugal, King Leopold II of Belgium, Spain, and Italy] that were broken down to 53 countries.
"For three months, between 15 November 1884 and 26 February 1885, thirteen competing European powers and the USA met in Berlin, Germany to share Africa amongst themselves. No African was invited to the conference." This conference was such a sacrilege that one African artist, Yinka Shonibare, MBE represents it as a gathering of full-size bodies of headless men, one for each of the
powers, seated round a big long ovoid table, haggling over the map of Africa--a continent they could not see, they knew little about, whose people they barely understood.
These powers were indeed headless--devoid of humanity, but full of hunger and thirst for commercial and economic gain--raw materials.
Ironically, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who hosted and presided over the conference had just until 14 years previously fought so hard to unite Germany.
The Berlin Act of 1885
New African highlights some clauses from the Berlin act which was to govern how these powers were to conduct their affairs in relation to the acquired territories. Above all the powers were to guarantee the other powers freedom to trade within their territories. That the p owers, through the act, bound themselves to "preserve the native tribes and expressly guarantee their freedom of conscience and
religious toleration is ridiculous indeed--history shows that this never was, so it can only surmise to say it was purely a diplomatic fa?ade. The powers could only keep the colonies if they actually possessed.
The spoils of the Berlin Conference
The Berlin conference was a haggling forum, shrouded in diplomatic mischief and chicanery, the end of which was the formalization, among competing European powers, the eventual partitioning of Africa--a process brought to a close in 1902.
Britain got present day: Egypt, Sudan, British Somaliland [part of present day Somalia], Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia. Brain's scheme was to acquire a "Cape-to-Cairo territory" and it almost succeeded.France got present day: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Niger, Chad, Benin [collectively these formed French West Africa] Gabon, Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville [ collectively French Equatorial Africa], French Somaliland [preset day Djibouti] and Madagascar. Portugal got the area under present day Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. However, in 1890, five years after the Berlin conference, Britain threatened Portugal
with war if Portugal did not surrender Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe to her. Portugal gave in.
Germany got what are present day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi Cameroon, Togo and Namibia. Germany lost all these after loosing the First World War. Italy got Italian Somaliland, and part of Ethiopia, while Spain got modern day Equatorial Guinea, and later Western Sahara. King Leopold II of Belgium got the area under modern day Democratic Republic of Congo. In the spirit of the Berlin Act, New African laments that "the colonial economies were not designed to develop these colonies, but to create wealth for the colonial powers."
Beyond the Berlin Conference
Having come through the colonial era, where is the African society today, and where could we take it tomorrow? This is the point of reflection that New African, considers as it sums up the story on the Berlin conference. In the words of Ayi Kwei Armah, one of Africa's renowned writers, New African examines Africa, its people, their attitudes and manner of proceeding in general; and the
emergence of an ever growing feeling among post independence generation of Africans that if "we are to wake up from its [the Berlin conference and subsequent events] spell and remake our society and continent, we ill have to retrieve our suppressed ability to conceive of our wholeness...our suppressed history, philosophy, culture, science and arts."
It will "take practical political and social reforms", but which are not possible without "a preparatory process of cultural rebirth", itself only possible "when a significant number of our population have enough real information of our history, philosophy, and culture to understand our potential."
A point of concern is that the African situation as it is now, in practically all aspects, is a " breeder of
conflicts, famine, wars, and all sorts of instability," that while it contains abundant natural and human
resources, Africa lies at the bottom of the world.
New African proposes that to move forward, Africans will have to "conceive Africa as one continuous space, as opposed to the imprinted colonial mental geography that has Africans growing up "in administratively separated territories thinking of themselves as Kenyans, Ugandans...and so forth, but linked with Portugal [Britain, France, etc] in such a way that the first impulse they have when in need "would be to think of going [turning] to Lisbon [London, Paris...] and not to any place in Africa.
So "we are caught in the smaller frame of reference. That is the dilemma..."