Revisiting the 'Scramble for Africa

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Remember what that was, the ‘Scramble for Africa’? This was the fairly sudden movement by Europeans to formally divide up Africa and set up colonies, in the late-nineteenth Century. It was enabled by the Berlin Conference of 1885, which established the countries and borders in Africa as we know them today. In the words of Ali Mazrui, this was the ‘Curse of Berlin’.

Politicians and scholars alike have basically accepted the results of the Berlin Conference as a fact of life that Africa just has to learn to live with. Until recently: in fairly ground-breaking research, two economists from the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research have been able to show that colonial border designs have spurred political violence and that ethnic partitioning is systematically linked to civil conflict, discrimination by the national government, and instability. In other words – one of the causes of Africa’s endemic problems is precisely the legacy of the colonial borders.

One starting point of the analysis of Michalopoulos and Papaioannouis is the map of the ethnic makeup of Africa that was prepared by G.P. Murdock in 1959. In itself, the fact that nothing better seems to be available says something about how scientists so far seem not to have neglected this matter. Nevertheless, any alternative ethnic map would probably lead to the same basic findings.

One question that Michalopoulos and Papaiouannou do not answer is the question – now that we know this – what do we do with this knowledge? How should this realization of the continuing damage done by Africa’s borders lead to changes in the debate about Africa and its future?

Adekeye Adebajo, Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in South Africa has called for a “New Berlin Congress”, this time led by Africans and based on African aspirations and needs. This has not happened yet – and is not likely to happen.

The need for a new perspecitive

In my own longread, “African Identities: a New Perspective“, I try to address these questions in a more holistic way.

In the book, I start by examining the concept of ‘culture’ as it has evolved over the past 130 years. I point out how in modern theory, culture is seen as something ‘between the ears’, as a system of behaviour patterns. In the past, culture was seen as the result of human refinement. In 1885, Europeans equated culture to civilisation and civilisation to buildings, paintings and other artefacts. Therefore, they were able to portray Europeans as civilised and advanced – and Africans as uncivilised and savage.

Using modern approaches to culture, like the Hofstede model, such an essentially racist difference in portraying Africans and Europeans is no longer possible. European cultures and African cultures are equivalent – but different. However, the same old-fashioned ideas on culture that existed in Europe more than a century ago are still implicitly or explicitly being used – by Europeans, but by Africans as well.  To my knowledge, a study of African cultures using modern theories has not yet happened.

In Europe, more and more countries were formed since 1880 . These countries were formed largely along ethnic lines. There has been a growing regional autonomy for ethnic groups even in current multi-ethnic countries in Europe. There is official protection for minority languages and cultures.

There is a stark contrast between developments in this area in Europe and those in Africa. Why is this so and what can be done to overcome the ‘Curse of Berlin’? In my longread, I call for:

– A study of African culture using modern theory of culture and intercultural communication;

– A study of African languages from an African perspective, looking not only at differences but also at commonalities; I support a renaissance of African languages;

– A Panafricanist perspective that does not gloss over differences but that respects and cherishes them, seeking to heal the wounds that were inflicted by the curse of 1885 and that is grounded in an appreciation of the uniqueness of all of Africa’s many peoples.

“African Identities: a New Perspective” is available from all major e-book retailers. For readers of this blog, it is available free of charge for a limited period using this link, with NL93D as promotional code.

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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