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130 years ago: carving up Africa in Berlin

Hilke Fischer / mcFebruary 25, 2015

In 1885 European leaders met at the infamous Berlin Conference to divide Africa and arbitrarily draw up borders that exist to this day.

Kongokonferenz Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

The map on the wall in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin was five meters (16.4 feet) tall. It showed Africa with rivers, lakes, a few place names and many white spots. When the Berlin Conference came to an end on February 26, 1885, after more than three months of deliberation, there were still large swathes of Africa on which no European had ever set foot.

Representatives of 13 European states, the United States of America and the Ottoman Empire converged on Berlin at the invitation of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to divide up Africa among themselves "in accordance with international law." Africans were not invited to the meeting.

The Berlin Conference led to a period of heightened colonial activity by the European powers. With the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all the states that make up present day Africa were parceled out among the colonial powers within a few years after the meeting. Lines of longitude and latitude, rivers and mountain ranges were pressed into service as borders separating the colonies. Or one simply placed a ruler on the map and drew a straight line. Many historians, such as Olyaemi Akinwumi from Nasarawa State University in Nigeria, see the conference as the crucible for future inner African conflicts.

French caricature (from 1885): German chancelor Bismarck divides the African continent among the colonial powers (AKG/Picture Alliance)
French caricature (from 1885): German chancelor Bismarck divides the African continent among the colonial powersImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

"In African Studies, many of us believe that the foundation for present day crises in Africa was actually laid by the 1884/85 Berlin Conference. The partition was done without any consideration for the history of the society," Akinwumi told DW.

Traditional boundaries not considered

New borders were drawn through the territories of every tenth ethnic group. Trade routes were cut, because commerce with people outside one's colony was forbidden. Studies have shown that societies through which new frontiers were driven would later be far more likely to suffer from civil war or poverty.

"The conference did irreparable damage to the continent. Some countries are still suffering from it to this day," Akinwumi said.

In many countries, such as Cameroon, the Europeans rode roughshod over local communities and their needs, said Michael Pesek, a researcher in African colonial history at the University of Erfurt. But historians, he explained, were now less inclined than they were to regard the arbitrary redrawing of Africa's borders as the root cause of conflicts in postcolonial Africa.

Map of Africa's ethnic and political boundaries

"People had learnt to live with borders that often only existed on paper. Borders are important when interpreting Africa's geopolitical landscape, but for people on the ground they have little meaning."

Scared to re-open Pandora's Box

In the 1960s, as African countries gained their independence, African politicians could have changed the colonial borders. But they desisted from doing so.

"A large majority of politicians said around 1960 'if we do that we will open up Pandora's Box'," Pesek said. They were probably right. Looking at all the problems Africa has had over the last 80 years, there have been numerous conflicts within states but hardly any between states.

When examining African conflicts, the colonial power that occupied a particular tract of land - the Belgians, French, British or Germans - is less relevant than the significance of belonging to specific ethnic groups which colonial powers often pitted against each other.

Ethnic allegiances were far more open and flexible in the 19th century than they are today, Pesek said. In pre-colonial Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi were social groups and it was possible to switch from one to the other. It was colonial rule that cemented the division of the population, of which one of the consequences was the 1994 genocide.

Namibia Geschichte Deutsch-Südwestafrika Ovambos auf dem Weg in die Minenstadt Tsumeb
African rulers and people had no say in the division of their continentImage: ullstein bild - Haeckel

In 2010 - on the 125th anniversary of the Berlin Conference, representatives from many African states in Berlin called for reparations for the colonial era. The arbitrary division of the continent among European powers, which ignored African laws, culture, sovereignty and institutions, was a crime against humanity, they said in a statement. They called for the funding of monuments at historic sites, the return of land and other resources which had been stolen, the restitution of cultural treasures and recognition that colonialism and the crimes committed under it were crimes against humanity.

But nothing has come of all this. The historians from Nigeria and Germany are not surprised. "There is much talk of reparations for the slave trade and the Holocaust. But little mention is made of the crimes committed by the European colonial powers during the hundred years or more they spent in Africa," said Pesek.

Olyaemi Akinwumi doesn't believe there will ever be any reparations, of any sort shape or form.