Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When Africa was sliced up

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

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. 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. 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.

Historians, such as Olyaemi Akinwumi from Nasarawa State University in Nigeria, see the conference as the crucible for future inner African conflicts.
"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.  "The conference did irreparable damage to the continent. Some countries are still suffering from it to this day."

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. 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.

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.

Borders are important when interpreting Africa's geopolitical landscape, but for people on the ground they have less meaning. Socialist Banner argues that people should recognize their class bonds rather than their tribal or national affinities.

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