The consequences of the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884/5 are still with us today. This conference of the then Great European powers including: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Great Britain, Germany France, Russia and lesser powers: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden-Norway. The Ottoman Empire and the USA although the USA was an observer.

We should also remember that the German Chancellor, Bismarck, was keen to isolate Great Britain in Europe and strengthen Germany’s alliances a key part of his foreign policy. Opportunities to encourage Anglo-French rivalry was to Germany’s advantage.

The conference agreed on the methods of partitioning Africa. Thus it began the scramble for Africa.

The Great European powers had their own reasons for this conference each wanted to stake out their claims and Germany the relatively newcomer in Africa certainly wanted to establish its imperial claims and also had designs on blocking British expansion as indeed was the will of the French.

British occupation of Egypt (1882) but was not a total occupation as financial control had to be shared with the French (until 1904) and this meant that Great Britain had to cultivate goodwill with other rival powers. The British had opposed German expansion in South West Africa, by now even William Gladstone, the Liberal prime minister, favoured acceptance of German claims in South West Africa as his opponent Lord Salisbury, the Tory leader, had accepted German claims in east Africa. The British had also supported the Belgian King’s goals in the Congo.

Many of the colonial boundaries that emerged after this conference created artificial borders of the colonial states, which were destined to be same frontiers of the new political entities that emerged in the creation of independent states after 1957.

This week has seen in a Namibian court a trial of so-called treason concerning ten secessionists, another 119 are still waiting completion of their trials, who want an independent Capirivi state – Caprivi strip – named after the former German Chancellor Georg Leo von Caprivi (1890 – 1894). Namibia became gained independence from South Africa in 1990.

The accused were alledged to have acquired arms for a Caprivi Liberation Army to challenge the Namibian state for control of Caprivi. The ten men were given prison sentences of between 32 & 30 years.

African leaders don’t like separatist movements and it is easy to see why, because once separatism succeeds it may inspire others; although clearly the Biafran example (1967 – 1970)  was divisive at the time, since then many of us feel that in backing a brutal Nigerian ( Nigeria became independent in 1960)  government of the day was backing the wrong horse. So far only the Eritreans have succeeded in acquiring independence, but Eritrea breaking apart from Ethiopia (1991) has shown separatism can work (Eritrea had been merged with Ethiopia in 1952).

Namibia like many African states is composed of diverse peoples with relatives that are in neighbouring states; if the separatists movement succeed that would lead to the beginning of the end for the Namibian state, maybe not a bad thing in itself.

You can add the nonsensical  Congo Democratic Republic, an enormous unmanageable state of 2,345, 410 sq kms (1/4 the size of the United States) , with enormous rich resources composed of diverse peoples and languages: a creation of King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885 (Congo Free State), independent since 1960 and constantly engaged in civil wars which continue to this day;  likewise the  Sudan, 2,505,810 sq kms, independent since 1956 also engaged in constant civil wars and the modern tragedy of Darfur is in the headlines regularly.

Even Zimbabwe is standing on the brink of division, this writer feels separatism is not necessarily a bad idea, but may herald a new future for Africa and an end to artificial states may be inevitable.


  1. August 9, 2007 at 09:16

    You’re right – the absurd state demarcations have often been a serious obstacle to fostering the sense of national unity that’s needed for peaceful, pluralistic politics – and has given leaders both pre and post independence the opportunity to play the ethnic card to strengthen their own positions.

    But change is hellishly slow. Even somewhere as eminently statelike as Somaliland is having endless trouble in getting its de facto autonomy converted into independence proper. Southern Sudan may be edging there if Darfur or a renewed centralism don’t get in the way.

    I guess there are three worries. First, as you say, the desire of the powers that be to maintain the status quo. Second, the risk that state break-ups may be more like Yugoslavia than Czechoslovakia. Third, might a continent moving towards more ethnically defined nations mean poorer relations between them?

    But on the basic point I completely agree: no state has the right to survive at the expense of its people’s welfare.

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