Background to The Berlin Conference
On 15 November 1884 a conference called the Berlin Conference where Africa was scrambled and colonized which changed the political landscape of Africa forever was held in Wiilelmstrasse, in Berlin at the official residence of the German Chancellor. This conference also known as the Congo Conference was done on a horseshoe shaped table with a large map of Africa on the wall. The agenda for this gathering was to set rules on how the continent of Africa will be shared and distributed among the European powers at that time. In some quarters it is often referenced as Africa’s undoing, for its lands and resources were shared by Europeans with little or no thought for the occupants
Buildup to the Berlin Conference
Exploration of the Congo region by explorers Henry Morton Stanley increased interest in the continent. King Leopold of Belgium in 1876 contracted Henry Morton Stanley and together they formed the International Congo Society with the goal to explore resources within the Congo region and to also civilize the inhabitants. King Leopold’s activities did not go unnoticed by French intelligence which subsequently led to France as well as Germany and Britain engaging in its own form of colonial exploration in Western Congo basin and other parts of the continent
Before this conference, the native inhabitants still ruled themselves in sizable groups and conducted trade with European merchants on the coast with the interior essentially untouched by foreigners.
However the abundance of large mineral deposits such as rubber, ivory, gold and territorial tussle soon increased interest with France, Portugal, Britain and Belgium at the forefront; Germany showed interest later, of grabbing African territories for themselves. In no time they were having conflicts among themselves as to who owned what and had the rights to certain territories. To forestall this conflict, Portugal with support from Britain called for a conference to work out modalities on how to solve the “African problem”.
Prior to this conference the activities of King Leopold II of Belgium around the Congo Basin from 1876-1884, and in 1885 made possible the formation of the Congo Free State which he later annexed in 1908 as the Belgian Congo. King Leopold was responsible for numerous atrocities that decimated almost half the population of the inhabitants of the region. Under the guise of bringing Christianity, commerce and Western civilization he perpetuated atrocities against the locals. Using Stanley Morton he created trading post along the waterways of the Congo basin and signed treaties with local chiefs and thereafter appropriated these territories as his personal properties. His attempt to personally control The Congo region sparked and led to other European countries laying claims to different parts of African territories.
Reasons for the Conference
The major reasons that thus led to this conference are;
- The recognition of Africa’s abundance of valuable resources
- Need for colonial exploration.
- To prevent brewing conflicts amongst European nations doing trade along the Congo and Niger Rivers.
The Gathering of the European Powers
This meeting was called for by Portugal and organized by the first German Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck. It opened on 15 November 1884 and ended 26 February 1885, lasting for 104 days and within this period, formally legitimized the Scramble, exploration and subjugation of Africans. The countries that participated at this conference were Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, The United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Norway, The USA and Germany. Without having an idea of what was actually on ground they apportioned different parts of the continent to themselves.
African autonomy and governance was totally eroded as an aftermath of this conference, with their autonomy taken over by force and coercion. Initial trade agreements reached with local chiefs were jettisoned; trade was conducted along the coast but after the conference white traders began to move further into the interior of Africa.
The rules set at this conference led to European countries legitimizing the exploration of Africa’s mineral resources for their own benefit and not for Africans. Also at this conference, there were no Africans representatives, for their opinion was not necessary nor to be considered. Diplomatic in form as it was called, the agenda was purely for economic exploitation in reality.
The outcome of this conference was the result of a General Act formalizing several points;
- A resolution to end slavery on the continent with documents signed by the European countries to stop the trade.
- The signatory powers would have free trade throughout the Niger and Congo Rivers.
- Any new act of possession on the African continent would have to be notified by the possessor to the other signatory powers.
- The properties occupied by Belgian King Leopold’s International Congo society were confirmed as his which he then renamed “Congo Free State”.
- The Principle of Effectivity which stated that the powers could acquire rights over colonial lands only if they possessed them or had “Effective Occupation” through treaties with local leaders. And if they had sufficient authority to administer and defend them. This Act became essential to prevent countries from setting up colonies without the capacity to keep order.
The United States reserved the right to accept or decline the conclusions of the conference and was the sole exception for they did not accept the resolutions neither did they acquire any territories.
In the three months of the conference, the continent was divided into 50 countries through a mix of irregular geometric borders, ignoring the cultural and linguistic boundaries set by the native leaders. The scramble for Africa had begun in what is today known as Colonialism across virtually all part of the continent. However just two countries remained or were considered uncolonized all through this period; they are Liberia and Ethiopia
With this conference European countries that were once hostile to themselves channeled it to the African continent. A major impact this conference also had was that it eliminated any form of autonomy or self-governance Africans once had.
Before this conference, trading was conducted between African natives and European businessmen diplomatically through indigenous chiefs. However after this conference all that changed for the Europeans who once did business onboard their vessels went inland, forcefully signing treaties with local chiefs. Initially 80% of African lands were in the hands of local chiefs but after this conference by 1902, 90% of all land that made up Africa was under European control. The figure above shows the map of Africa with colors showing European countries and the territories they held during the colonial era.
Issues of governance still arose for the colonialist due to the diverse and confusing cultures and languages they had to deal with. They thus set to reorganize African in units they could understand and control. This will create serious problems for the continent for when they achieved independence nationhood is still yet to be attained with most still struggling to build stable nations, with tribalism and ethnicity being the bane of African politics. The Post-Colonial leaders inherited a legacy of political fragmentation that has made cohesion impossible and thus cannot operate effectively.
From the narration above do you think Africa should be compensated by European countries for the atrocities and exploitation of its resources and can you still identify traces of the resolutions reached at the conference in Africa today? Also are there any benefits you think Africa gained from the Berlin Conference?