Long before the Berlin Conference of 1884/85, some of the territories on the African continent had already been secured as colonies. For instance, Gold Coast, the place that is today Ghana, had been annexed by the British around the 1860s.
Many historians caution against over-emphasising the significance of Berlin for Africans. Indeed, it is quite common to read among scholars that the conference was a diplomatic tactic Germany took as part of reinventing itself as an imperial power.
Yet, it will be quite odd to downplay what the conference held for Africans and how it has irrevocably shaped the lives of close to two billion people on the continent.
The first international consensus on the abolition of slavery
The slave trade had been outlawed by all the states that participated in the Berlin Conference with the odd exception of some of the territories under Ottoman control.
In order to find common grounds to bring all the parties together, the organisers of the conference proposed the complete abolition of slavery in Africa, where vassal states continued to contribute labourers to superior kingdoms.
The territories in Ottoman Empire also had to end slavery and the slave trade, thus making the agreement in Berlin, arguably, the world’s first international agreement that none should profit from slavery.
Congo was accepted as the personal property of King Leopold I
Colonisation in Africa came to be through different forms. One of the most ridiculous is the legitimisation of the Congos as owned by King Leopold of Belgium in 1885.
To clarify, the lands and resources in the Congos were internationally ratified as the personal properties of the man who then bequeathed it to his son, Leopold II.
It comes as little wonder how Belgium proceeded to brutalise the people of the Congos and exploit their resources. The cruelty followed the logic of property ownership.
The idea of Europeans building infrastructure and living in Africa
One of the proposals at the conference included what is known as “effective occupation”. This provision required that in order to claim a colony, Europeans need to build an administration in that territory.
This was required to prevent what would have been a colony in name only. With the establishment of administrations came infrastructures such as schools, churches and industries to serve the colonisation purpose.
The practice of “settler colonies” became optionable after the Berlin Conference.
The map of Africa as it is today is a result of the Berlin conference
The cartography of 21st century Africa is not exactly as 1885 but the Berlin conference more than anything gave birth to the layout we know today.
The indiscriminate divisions without a care for ethnic affiliations on the continent meant that certain ethnic groups such as the Ewe, Akan, Hausa, Tutsi, Maasai and Swahili, are at present, unnecessarily “international”.
Family and cultural ties were also severed.
Predetermining the economic viability of countries even before they existed
Even though it is understood that Berlin Conference was for the purpose of carving Africa into parts acceptable to Europeans, little is said of how this callous adventure predetermined economic prospects for the yet-to-exist African countries.
For instance, in the Gold Coast, the eponymously named territory was supposed to be the provider of gold Britain needed without due recourse to opportunity costs.
The story is no different for DR Congo, Nigeria among others. What this therefore means is that new countries would have to make do with what exploitation of their resources has taught them.
(*) Author Nii Ntreh is interested in academic philosophy with specific attention to moral, social and political topics. Having taught philosophy at the University of Cape Coast for a while, Nii finds in new media, a more potent way to reach many with his passion of breaking down complexities
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