From Partition to Re-Unification: The 120th Anniversary of the Partition of Africa by European Powers



The 120th anniversary of Africa’s partition passed largely unmarked in November 2004. While some no doubt would wonder what the significance of this is today those that are aware of the partition and its implications will be able to see its negative implication for Africa’s development and parallels with cold war era balkanization of the world into east versus west spheres of influence. Some would even argue that Hitler’s brazen land grab or policy of “Lebensraum ” in which the Nazis claimed expansionism and conquest was vital for the continued political and economic development of Germany sprang from the objectives of the

Berlin conference. Without doubt however the goal of the Berlin conference was to consolidate expansionism for resources and markets through negotiation rather than war.

Globalization came to Africa via the transatlantic slave trade about 500 years before the term became ‘sexy’ or was even coined. This massive plundering and abuse of Africa’s most valuable resource – its citizens – provided millions of slave workers and stupendous profits for the forerunners of many of today’s multi million dollar business empires and their countries of origin. The equivalent present day would be to have today’s multinationals backed by states to forcibly recruit millions to work in factories and industries as slave labor for 400 years with absolutely no pay beyond food and water supported by floggings, amputations and hangings to keep the workers in line. The idea is not far fetched. The creation of an artificial class of non-persons by way of demonizing Jews created the slave labor for the companies behind the Nazi war production machine. If six million perished in Germany and some parts of Europe within six years in a state policy partially hidden from society but subsequently exposed, think what could have happened over a period of 400 years of unrestricted savagery by numerous states and a clearer picture emerges of the most savage, violent, and comprehensive mass violation of rights in human history.

Some ‘experts’ squabble of whether Africa lost 25, 50 million or 100 million to this bestial policy sanctioned by states, and use various criteria to compute varying figures – abductees that actually arrived alive at slave plantations, those that ended up at the bottom of the ocean, those that died resisting, those that died as a result of displacement and its consequences such as disease and hunger, children that died after loosing their families etc. This is beside the point.

Not only were millions in their youth and productive prime lost, millions more were psychologically destroyed and displaced and most importantly the development of society was more or less suspended for 400 years. We only need to look at the impact of the holocaust on Jews, or the current Darfur crisis to see what state sanctioned policies of destruction of a people can do to the stability, development and psychology of peoples and their societies.

But this is not the main focus of this write up. The significance of the above is that it was against this background that the Partition of Africa – a continuation of the policy of plundering by other means – from human to natural resources – was enforced. The Berlin Conference of 1884 formalized the scramble for and partition of Africa by colonial powers. The conference was hosted by the German government of Otto Von Bismarck and led to Africa being carved up for the exploitation of its resources along the lines of modern day gangsters dividing cities into market spheres of influence to avoid arbitrary gang warfare that is bad for ‘business’.

By the end of the conference of 13 European powers and the United States, the template had been laid down for the creation or superimposition of roughly 50 countries the majority of which cut arbitrarily across the logic of nationality, geography, language or other uniting factors. The then major players were Britain, Germany, France, and Portugal, which between them already controlled most of the coastal territories where forts were established for protection of

trading companies. Belgium, Italy and Spain played supporting roles with the others haggling in vain for crumbs. The broad division that resulted was:

– Hosts Germany grabbed Namibia (German Southwest Africa) and Tanzania (German East Africa), Togo land, some of Cameroon and Benin.

– Great Britain pressed its naval and military advantage and secured Egypt, parts of Sudan, Uganda and Kenya (or British East Africa), most of southern Africa including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia), Botswana and significant areas of West Africa especially Nigeria and Ghana (Gold Coast).

– Belgium and King Leopold II held tight to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Belgian Congo).

– France secured most of western and central Africa, then known as French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa and later some of North Africa.

– Portugal took Mozambique and Angola

– Italy got Somalia (Italian Somaliland) and a portion of Ethiopia.

– While Spain made do with the smallest territory – Equatorial Guinea

(Rio Muni).

The negative impact of the partition on Africa could not have been lost on the colonial powers especially Bismarck of Germany whose entire 40-year political career was devoted to the unification of Germanic states including fighting three wars including the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and executing an endless series of diplomatic manoeuvres that played his neighbors against each other. (The subsequent defeat of Germany in the first and second world wars led to the loss of its colonies.)

For the “natives’ already disoriented by the slave trade and its consequences, expansionism, protectorates and artificial states not only meant the denial of the right to self determination, it meant suppression and containment by state machineries designed for colonial rule. Colonial economies were not designed to develop the colonies but rather to create wealth for the colonial powers. An entire legislative framework and state apparatus was specifically designed to ensure that “the law” crushed any signs of dissidence. Sedition, criminal

defamation, insult laws, states of emergency, detention without trial, pass laws etc became key instruments of control by colonial authorities or white minority governments in southern Africa. These frameworks and culture of intolerance for opposing views were largely inherited by many African states and laid the foundation of institutional abuse of rights in many modern African countries today.

It is utterly impossible to sustain human rights within the context of unviable states, failed states, or states perpetually in a state of conflict either because they are an artificial construct with ruling elites based very narrowly ethnic, language, racial or other artificial divisions. Also, the artificial borders created by the partition of Africa broke apart ethnic nationalities and in many cases fused them artificially with others nationalities within new states. Ruling elites were cultivated either from minorities or majorities or artificially created and sustained using the army and or police. These divide and conquer policies were unsustainable indefinitely and it was just a matter of time before conflicts broke out over political or economic domination. In some countries, the process of independence leading to the withdrawal of colonial powers or served as the trigger for long suppressed divisions to boil over. Either way, the entire construct of these states was aimed at exploiting and violating the rights of citizens.

By the time of independence, many African countries were stuck with these artificial constructs and a change of guard offered no solution. Not insignificantly, the independence era coincided with the cold war era and any leaders actually asserting independence were promptly labeled communists and dispatched via coups, murder or both. Some countries such as the DRC are yet to recover from the consequences of such interference and disruption that led to the murder of its elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the imposition of Mobutu. If as in the case of Ghana’s Nkrumah new leaders actually advocated African Unity and a reversal of the colonial borders and fiefdoms of new

political leaders then other insecure African governments anxious to maintain the status quo also opposed them. Where soldiers were not directly prompted to seize power, the fragile nature of many states and their non productive nature meant that in the struggle for political power, the most organized and best armed body of men would inevitably become aware of their potential power and sweep squabbling politicians aside. The assumption of power by armies largely trained to serve colonial interests by holding down populations could only lead to more institutional violation of rights. Despite their occasional anti-imperialist posturing and theatrics designed to confuse issues and consolidate their hold on power, this was the true nature of the Mobutus and Idi Amins.

The cold war also resulted in prolonging the life of white minority rule in southern Africa as the liberation movements were seen as pro-communist or socialist and the white minority governments pro-west and pro-capitalist. Cold war rivals sustained all sorts of undemocratic governments of the left, right or centrist kind, as Africa once again became an arena of conflict. In other words, the interruption of social, economic and political development by four centuries of slavery, the repressive legislative frameworks, state apparatus, institutions and culture created by colonial authorities, the non-productive nature of many economies, the non-viability of others, artificially constructed states, long periods of military or civilian dictatorships that plundered the countries, the

cold war fall out and so forth have all combined to create the present political culture and political economy which prevails in much of Africa and makes it difficult if not impossible to uphold human rights in a sustainable form. Any move away from this past which had as its central feature the institutional violation of rights must therefore have as its new central feature, the institutional promotion of rights. It is not a coincidence that the new African Union has emerged in a decade that has seen more elections in Africa than in the last 40 to 50 years of independence of most Africa countries. In the case of some southern African countries, independence was only won in the last 10 to 20

years. Compared to the relative 600 to 700 years of stability and development in Europe only accelerated or held back by revolution or war for certain periods its easy to see why Africa remains the least developed continent despite its potential. The context becomes clearer in comparison with the Asian colonies that had their civilizations, cultures and developmental trajectories affected by decades of colonialism – but crucially not suspended or destroyed by 400 years of slavery followed by carving up and imposition of mostly artificial

states. The result is that Asia has an unbroken sense of history and culture and recovered quickly but not yet completely from colonialism.

In the case of China and Japan, the results of relative lack of disruption are clear to see. Were it not for the immortality of the pyramids, mummification techniques that indicate advancements in medical science and undeniable archaeological evidence of several African civilizations thousands of years older than many European and Asian civilizations, Africa and civilization would never be mentioned in the same breath. As it stands, Hollywood is still in denial as evidenced by its continuous portrayal of ancient Egypt by white actors.

This travesty and violation of historical and cultural rights can only be equaled by a spectacle of African actors portraying ancient Greece, Rome or China without any sense of irony.

The largely unbroken development of Europe over the last few centuries also explains why modern day European military dictatorships such as Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal or more recently in Greece and the Balkans did not fundamentally upset the development of those societies even though some of them and Franco in particular lasted over 30 years – longer than most African dictatorships. Even where as in the case of Hitler and Mussolini dictatorship and war led to destruction, the Marshall plan with its more or less free billions of dollars reconstructed and even gave impetus to further development of those societies.

Most importantly and not surprisingly, major European governments subsequently came to the conclusion that the creation of a European Union would help break the cycle of wars and conflict in Europe and create the developmental basis for future socio economic and political stability. At the heart of this today is the promotion of European level core rights instruments, which provide more protection to citizens than the rights regimes in many individual countries hence the tendency to resort to the European Courts for the protection of rights, denied in country. “I will go to Europe” has become a fashionable slang

by many that feel cheated and unprotected.

The adoption of several rights based treaties and protocols by the new African Union is a step in the right direction and the recent declaration of a treaty signing week within the last month shows that the Commission of the African Union in particular clearly understands the role that promotion of rights can play in the development of modern society. The mission, vision and strategic plan promoted by the Commission’s current Chair Prof. Alpha Konare are evidence of this. It is far from clear however that many African governments understand this as evidenced by the lethargy towards signing, ratifying and institutionalizing instruments that will enhance the protection of rights such as the African Court of Human Rights /Court of Justice and the Protocol for the Protection of Rights of Women. This trend must be reversed. The broad sketches of African and world history and development above demonstrate that no where on the planet is the institutionalization of rights more crucial to development than in Africa.

The political integration of Africa is aimless and doomed unless done on a rights basis that reverses hundreds of years of a largely imposed political culture rights abuses which can in turn unleash its creative and developmental potential. The protection of rights can also not be sustained on the basis of underdevelopment. Governments largely based on exploitation, preservation of ruling elites, or that preside over underdeveloped societies tend to deny free expression and core rights of association, assembly, political participation and ignore key economic and social rights such as health care, housing, food security and so forth. The summary and core of the rights imperative is that all societies need these rights to develop and cannot develop further without the protection of these rights.

Sankore is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression & Associated Rights, an NGO focusing on rights issues in Africa..

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