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The spoils of Berlin: Osei boateng reports on the give-and-take diplomacy that finally led to the partition of Africa. by 1902, all of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, were firmly under European colonial control.

When the Berlin Conference opened on 15 November 1884, Portugal, one of the chief protagonists at the conference, presented what became known as the "Pink Map" (or the "Rose-Coloured Map"), on which its colonies of Angola and Mozambique were united through commandeering the intervening territories--the vast swathe of land that would become Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Strangely, all the participating nations, except Britain, agreed that Portugal could have its way and become the proud owner of a huge territory spanning Angola on the west coast through the heartland of Africa to Mozambique on the east coast. To the other 12 countries attending the conference, it was a done deal. But Britain had other designs, as usual.

In 1890, five years after the conference, London, typically, and in breach of the Treaty of Windsor and the General Act of Berlin itself, ordered Portugal to withdraw from "the intervening territory" or face the full wrath of British military power at its height. Portugal obeyed, and the area became British, and was subsequently divided into Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi).

Initially, as the Scramble for Africa gathered momentum, Britain was mainly concerned with maintaining its lines of communication with India, hence its interest in Egypt and South Africa.

But once the two areas were secure, and egged on by its arch-colonialist, Cecil Rhodes, to acquire a collection of Cape-to Cairo territories to build a Cape-to-Cairo railway (Rhodes famously said in those days: "I contend that we [the English] are the first race of the world, and the more we inhabit, the better it is for the human race"), Britain went for broke and almost succeeded through its control of Egypt, Sudan (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), British Somaliland, Uganda, Kenya (British East Africa), Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Lesotho, Swaziland, and South Africa.

In West Africa, Britain got Nigeria, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone, and The Gambia. France, the other big winner, got much of West and Central Africa--all the way from Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Niger, Chad, Benin (all these territories were then called French West Africa), to Gabon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville (forming French Equatorial Africa), to French Somaliland (modern Djibouti) in the northeast, and Madagascar in the southeast. Having lost the "intervening territory", Portugal contented itself with Angola on the west coast, Mozambique on the east coast, and the Cape Verde islands off West Africa.

Otto von Bismarck's Germany, having agreed to the ceding of the vast Congo territory to King Leopold as his personal property, got in return South West Africa (today's Namibia), German East Africa, comprising Tanganyika, Ruanda and Urundi (today's Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), Cameroon and Togo. Unluckily for the Germans, they lost all their African colonies after losing the First World War.

Italy got Somalia (Italian Somaliland) and part of Ethiopia, while Spain received the smallest territory, Equatorial Guinea (then called Rio Muni), and later, the Western Sahara.

Although the General Act of Berlin included a resolution to "help in suppressing slavery", in truth the European powers found the strategic and economic objectives accruing from the African colonies far more important, as the primary task of the Berlin Conference was to set the ground rules making the Congo and Niger River mouths and basins neutral and open to European trade.

To prevent cheating and waste, the General Act's Principle of Effectivity demanded that the European powers "could hold on to colonies only if they actually possessed them: in other words, if they had treaties with local chiefs, if they flew their flag there, and if they established an administration in the territory to govern it with a police force to keep order. The colonial power also had to make use of the colony economically. If it did not do these things, another power could do so and take over the territory. It therefore became important to get chiefs to sign protector-ate treaties and to have a presence sufficient to police the area."


It was to meet these strict demands that the European powers sent expeditions to coerce African rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary. This often led to the strange spectacle of African chiefs putting their thumbprints to treaties written in strange languages they could neither read nor understand.

This was all because, as the writer David Koeller explains: "Article 34 of the Berlin Act states that any European nation that took possession of an African coast, or named themselves as 'protectorate' of one, had to inform the signatory powers of the Berlin Act of this action. If this was not done, then their claim would not be recognised. This article introduced the 'sphere of influence' doctrine, the control of a coast also meant that they would control the hinterland to an almost unlimited distance.

"Article 35 also determined that in order to occupy a coastal possession, the colonial powers also had to prove that they controlled sufficient authority there to protect existing rights such as freedom of trade and transit. This was called the doctrine of 'effective occupation' and it made the conquest of Africa a less bloody process."

Less bloody for the Europeans, of course, but not for the Africans. As the Nigerian journalist, Rotimi Sankore, pointed out in 2005: "The negative impact of the partition of Africa was not lost on the colonial powers, especially Bismarck of Germany, whose 40-year political career was devoted to the unification of Germanic states involving an endless series of diplomatic manoeuvres and fighting three wars to achieve this aim."

Bismarck succeeded in unifying Germany in 1871, only 14 short years before sitting down in Berlin with 13 other countries to divide up Africa! If division brought strength, Bismarck certainly would not have fought three wars to unite Germany! But when it came to Africa, the Iron Chancellor lost all his reasonableness!

And it was not that the partition was for Africa's own good. "Colonial economies," as Rotimi Sankore pointed out, "were not designed to develop the colonies, but to create wealth for the colonial powers. For the Africans, already disoriented by slavery and its consequences, protectorates and artificial states not only meant denial of the right to self-determination, they also meant suppression by colonial state machineries that denied the Africans the right to economic initiatives, paving the way for the present-day economic domination of Western multinationals."
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Title Annotation:AFRICA
Author:Boateng, Osei
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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