Carving up Africa – The 135th anniversary of the 1884 Berlin Conference

“… To govern, they [European Powers] found they had to contend with a confusing milieu of fluid identities and cultures and languages. The Europeans thus set about reorganising Africans into units they could understand and control. As Professor Terence Ranger noted, the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after it, African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”
– Patrick Gathara, Kenyan writer and political cartoonist

Editor’s Note: November 15th 2019 marked the 135th anniversary of the 1884 Berlin Conference which created most of the political boundaries that now crisscross the continent of Africa.

It was a conference comprising mostly white men from European nations, as well as representatives of the United States and the Ottoman Empire.

There were no Africans present. Indeed, an attempt by the Sultan of Zanzibar to be invited was laughed away by the British delegation. The only representation of Africa was a large hanging map, strategically placed to guide the political and diplomatic carving knives to wrestle the best cut from the colonial cake. 

There was no concern for the carnage the butcher knives would have on the peoples of Africa, their cultures and traditions. All that mattered was exploiting and extracting Africa’s wealth for the insatiable appetite of European Empire’s. Empire’s that would, just 30 years later, mobilize their citizens to slaughter one another, in an effort to protect their colonial conquests and to extend their reach.

The Qatari news agency, Al Jazeera, published an essay by the Kenyan writer and award-winning political cartoonist, Patrick Gathara (15 November 2019) in which he offers an African reflection on the Berlin Conference that makes uncomfortable reading. 

Gathara concludes his fascinating and insightful article thus:

At the time of the conference, 80 percent of Africa remained under traditional and local control. The Europeans only had influence on the coast. Following it, they started grabbing chunks of land inland, ultimately creating a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that was superimposed over indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. However, to get their claims over African land accepted, European states had to demonstrate that they could actually administer the area.

Often, military victory proved to be the easy part. To govern, they found they had to contend with a confusing milieu of fluid identities and cultures and languages. The Europeans thus set about reorganising Africans into units they could understand and control. As Professor Terence Ranger noted, the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after it, African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”

Now, 135 years after Berlin, it is perhaps time for introspection. While it is impossible to turn back the clock, Africans would do well to reflect on what has happened since. Teaching the real history of the subjugation of the continent would help counter the myths of “ancient hatreds” that are said to fuel the conflicts on the continent. And Africans could decide to get together on the continent to debate and decide on the relationship they want with the rest of the world rather than always having that dictated to them from abroad.

You can read Patrick Gathara’s full article by clicking here.