Africa: The curse of 1885

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See this map?


It was created by young Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon, as a thought experiment. He tried to imagine what African countries would look like if colonization had not happened. Perhaps the most striking feature of this map, compared to the current situation is – no straight lines!

Now that 2015 has started and we think about the problems of Africa today, it is necessary to go back in time 130 years – to the origin of those straight lines. As we know, they were Europe’s enduring curse for Africa, a curse pronounced by Africa’s bad fairy godfathers, the European leaders who carved up Africa back in 1885.

Cartoon of Bismarck, carving up Africa

When independence came, around 1960, African leaders and former colonial powers both agreed to stick to the colonial borders, for many reasons, some better than others. I don’t know enough about African thinking at the time to go very far into this. In this post, I would like to suggest some reasons why this status quo also suited Europeans.

Some reasons were certainly related to the desire by European countries to keep their spheres of influence. In 1960, even though the French and the British had fought the Germans together, they were still very much in competition with each other. So they had a self-interest in keeping the colonial balance of power and to avoid more uncertainties at a time that was uncertain for them.

Another reason must have been the Cold War, which was very much alive at the time. Allowing the formation of new countries might have played into the hands of the communist bloc which the West very much sought to contain.

So, those were basically geopolitical reasons. I guess that, given the times, these were more or less understandable, even though they had nothing to do with concern over the wellbeing of Africans.

Those primitive Africans

But there was another type of reasoning as well, of a more cultural, some might say: racist nature.

This has to do with the fact that Africa was populated, in the minds of Europeans, by primitive tribes. Remember: in Europe, in pre-Christian times, there were primitive tribes in Europe as well, such as the Anglo-Saxons and the Batavi.

These were heathen bands of people who had not yet formed states but who were the ancestors of later peoples. It was felt that this development (from primitive tribes to more sophisticated peoples) was natural and universal.

Thus, the Africans, primitive as they were, lived in tribes, but these tribes would eventually, with development, diminish in importance, giving way to people. Thus, in a country like Ghana, you would have the Ashanti tribe but the Ghanaian people.

This reasoning, still used today, is for the most part wrong. Of course, some form of amalgamation of peoples that share cultural and linguistic traits has happened in Europe and could also happen in Africa.

In Germany, the Prussians, the Bavarians and the Swabians are all different, but have no problem in living together harmoniously (but with a lot of internal autonomy). In a country like Kenya, one might imagine that the same could happen with the Kikuyu, the Kamba, the Embu and the Meru.

But in Belgium, with the Flemish and the Walloons, it did not work and is not likely to work so well. What makes one think that it would work in Kenya, then, for ‘tribes’ as different as the Luo, the Kikuyu or the Samburu?

In any case, if such a process could occur at all (and it might), then it is likely that it will not follow the neat geographical lines dreamt up by a bunch of Europeans in 1885. This is forcing Africans to believe in a dream that can never become a reality and helps to explain, I am convinced, why bad governance is so prevalent in Africa.

From a European perspective, this line of reasoning could be taken a step further. In 1960, Europe was busy trying to heal the wounds of a century of bitter wars. The European Community was being formed and many hoped that at some point, nation states in Europe would become less important, in favour of a common European identity.

Likewise, in Africa, it might be possible to move from the primitive tribal stage immediately to ‘civilization’ by developing a common African identity. I am not saying at all here that the Pan-African ideal was derived from or an echo of similar European ideals. But I do think that there are parallels and that it is good here to take a close look at the differences and similarities between Europe and Africa.

Looking back 50 years, it is clear that in many parts of Europe, there has been considerable progress towards unification, not only at the economic and political but also at the cultural levels. But this has in no way gone at the expense of feelings of ethnic identity.

Nowadays, no Dane would want to give up her Danish identity because she now also has a strong European identity. On the contrary: if anything, it has become clear that a common Europe is only possible if it is based on strong and protected separate ethnic identities.

I, for one, really wonder if Africans are so different from Europeans that things would be different in Africa. I would venture the thesis that a common African identity can only develop if it is based on respect for and protection of the separate ethnic identities that together form part of Africa’s uniqueness and unique richness. Because this has often been denied and downplayed, Africa and Africans are suffering.

So, the reasons why, from a European point of view, African borders should stay are, as we have seen, partly geopolitical and partly based on a misconceived idea of Africans as being somehow primitive and uncivilized.

African socialism?

But were there really no other, loftier reasons than these? I think there were. In Europe, (ethnic-based) nationalism was seen by many, especially in more progressive circles, as something evil. It still is. After all, the fascists in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain were fiercely nationalistic and xenophobic. Nationalism was seen as being one of the causes of those devastating European wars.

Therefore, fighting nationalism was seen as a necessary ingredient for peace. From a socialist point of view, the workers of the world all had the same basic interests and could only gain from internationalism, as opposed to nationalism. It was in the capitalist interest to keep the workers apart by drumming up nationalist sentiment.

Therefore, progressive people should fight nationalism (and colonialism). Therefore, also, the fact that African borders were artificial was perhaps less relevant: after all, in a socialist world all borders would become irrelevant.

More than half a century later, I think we can now safely conclude that this reasoning, though praiseworthy from an ethical point of view, was wrong. Even workers have distinct cultural identities, and cultural rights are as much a part of human rights as the right to education and to freedom from poverty.

For minority populations, this was confirmed in 1992 by the UN, in its Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

In many African countries, only minorities exist and the protection of these minorities is now at a level far below that of most European countries. I would go as far as to suggest that a Pan-Africanism that is not based on respect for an love of diversity within Africa is bound to stay sterile and artificial.

Today, in Europe, a language like Romansh with its 60,000 speakers has official status in Switzerland whereas in Africa, a language like Luganda with its approximately 7 million native speakers has no official status at all.

Leaving ethnic identity to the right-wing nationalists and xenophobes leads to desperation and to secession movements that are violent and extremist – as can be seen in this interactive map from the Guardian.

Dealing with the curse

So, we have looked at various reasons for accepting the current status quo in Africa – geopolitical, cultural and political in nature. They are all flawed and together help to explain why bad governance is so prevalent in Africa. But – what can we done to overcome this curse, that Africa has had to suffer from for the past 130 years?

For some of Africa’s failed states, I see no other option than to start to question the traditional borders. Within their current borders, these countries can never work.

For many other countries, it might be possible to work towards models that would give a greater prominence to indigenous language and culture and that might lead to increased regional autonomy.

This would mean a progressive type of nationalism, one that is not xenophobic, but that does not deny the fact that people are, and need to feel, rooted in their own language and culture. At the same time, barriers to regional trade and to the free flow of people need to be removed (analogous to what has happened in Europe).

Eventually, you may get to situations where open, peaceful and democratic debate is possible about the beste way forward – in the way that this has been possible in the UK, for example, about Scotland.

Africans will need to find African solutions, of course, and this will inevitably lead to an outcome different from what is depicted in Cyon’s map. In modern times, we have seen some development in this direction in South Africa, where 11 national languages were given official status – and they are being used. Thus, peaceful progress is possible. But it must be based on a hard-nosed analysis of the assumptions that have underpinned thinking on Africa ever since the curse of 1885 was first cast.

 Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for  four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.

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