THE BERLIN CONFERENCE
By Chris Hall
When we hear about some of the most fragile states in the world, many of them are in Africa. Currently there are racially motivated conflicts in Ethiopia and South Sudan, and the Rwandan Genocide served as a harsh reminder of the racial tensions which have plagued the continent. But why have so many of these conflicts occurred in Africa? Well, most of that can be traced back to the Berlin Conference of 1884.
Africa’s untapped resources were attractive to the great colonial powers of the time: most notably Britain and France. The Scramble for Africa ensued once these nations noticed the true political power of colonisation. Belgium, France and Portugal all disputed over the area which is now the Republic of the Congo. France’s further moves into Tunisia frightened Britain, who saw this as a threat to their control over the Suez Canal, the vital shortcut on the way to India. Tensions in Africa increased significantly throughout the mid-nineteenth century.
While Britain, France and other powers had been colonising different areas for a while, a new European powerhouse was emerging: Germany. Having reunited in 1871, the Kaiser envied the other countries’ power overseas. Seeking to compete against their neighbours (soon to be competitors), Germany launched several of their own expeditions, worrying Britain and France. After some negotiation, King Leopold of Belgium was able to convince France and Germany that some sort of agreement had to be reached. With support from Britain, Portugal and the USA, the Berlin Conference was agreed, seeking to end the conflict between powers.
In the end, 13 countries sent delegates to the conference: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, the UK and United States. It is important to note that African countries had no place at the negotiating table.
The Berlin Conference created many rules for the colonists of Africa to follow. For example, if they wanted to colonise an area, they had to make sure it was not just in name only; they needed clear local control and a local population who was loyal to the European power. Free trade was opened up across key waterways such as the Congo River. The most significant of the terms agreed, however, was the definition of regions of which country controlled which part of the continent. This agreement would condemn Africa to decades of ethnic conflict.
When it came to dividing up the countries, the Europeans used entirely arbitrary lines. This can be seen especially in the Sahara, where modern borders resemble the lines of longitude previously used. These borders didn’t take the intricate ethnic and tribal systems in Africa into account, so some groups were divided between powers and others were forced into the same arrangements as others. This meant that when these countries gained their independence, these borders were maintained and conflict ensued between tribes and ethnic groups about who should control the government. For example, the Rwandan Genocide was between the Hutu and the Tutsi people of Rwanda, two groups who had been locked in the same country due to this decision.
Looking at a modern map of Africa, many of the same borders exist as were established back then and there is still relatively little respect for the ethnic groups within them, with regards to borders. Only time will tell exactly how long the impacts of the Berlin Conference and the Scramble for Africa in general will last.