|Monday, August 21, 2023|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
"Tear down this 'Wall' and in three days I will rebuild it." - Jesus before the Sanhedrin - modern day Judiciary/Parliament - (Cf. John 2:20)
ne major point, commentators on the unfolding political scenarios - threats of wars and foreign military interventions in Niger Republic and neighbouring countries - Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Conakry - former French colonies in West African sub-region, have not paid sufficient attention, is the continued devastating effects of the 'landmines' laid in Africa by the Western powers following their Berlin Conference of 1885. That is, when the countries of these Western European powers that enslaved and were colonising Africa, met and sat around the table at a Conference in Berlin, Germany in 1885, and arbitrarily partitioned and divided the continent of Africa among themselves like 'a piece of cake', on a map on their table, without the presence or contribution of any African.
Thereafter, they called those their arbitrarily and artificially partitioned colonial frontiers in Africa, 'nation states'? That was how all these present-day fašade of African nation states came to be, and were created by the foreign powers as a continuation of the West's neo-colonial exploitation and plunder of African resources and the continent. In other words, the modern African nation states were never created to succeed, but rather to continue to serve the interest of the former colonial powers, and to be behaving exactly, the way they are behaving today. The Berlin Conference, therefore, was the height, after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, of the Western European imperialism and colonial legacy in Africa. The effect of which is still very much with us, and is not about to go away.
It is from this point of view of the enduring legacy and continued negative influence of the decisions reached by the European powers at this Berlin Conference on Africa, that the so-called "Eleven Colonial Pacts" French imposed on their former 14 African colonies as conditions for granting them independence in the 60s', would begin to make sense to many today. Especially, to those who are yet to know that aspect of colonial history in Africa. And in the context of the unfolding events in the countries of former colonies of France in West African sub-region. It also explains why majority of Africans are not happy with France today, and why many Africans as well, home and abroad, are against those Heads of States of the Economic Community of West African Countries, ECOWAS, who are pushing for military intervention in Niger Republic. Because, majority of the people in the continent see what is happening now in Niger and neighbouring countries, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea (the coming to power of the new regimes, though, through military coups), as a kind of efforts by the Africans themselves, to address the past colonial injustices and trappings of France in those African countries.
A caveat: I remember, about three years ago, in a discussion with a European friend. The man told me that, "the 'landmines' (anti-African colonial and neo-colonial trappings), the West had planted in Africa, is such that there is no way any African ruler (or nation state) can come out of it to develop his/her country or improve on the lives of the people." He went further to tell me, that even I as an African now living in Europe (or US), if I decide tomorrow "to return to Africa and settle there to work to help your people, I can assure you, in two or three years you will run back to Europe (or US). Because there is no way the 'landmines' planted there by the West will ever allow any genuine African leader or conscientious elite with good intention and lofty ideas, to live and work in Africa, to develop and improve the living conditions of his or her people and society."
This is how bad the African situation and reality is. It confirms why we must learn to begin to view international politics with regard to Africa, from the bottom up instead of the usual top bottom. That is, the necessity of an African perspective in evaluating the unfolding scenarios in the West African Francophone countries. And on international politics or relations as a whole, which may complement and even correct the dominant Western perspective gained by looking from top downwards.
Again, this view from below is especially apposite to sub-Saharan Africa. Its states are not only amongst the poorest in the world (which, by the way, is by design of those who made it so and who want it to remain so, though, for selfish ends, unfortunately). But, which were artificial nation states created by international action arbitrarily, in the form of European colonialism, and have been left with state frontiers which rarely correspond to pre-colonial socio-cultural worldviews - philosophy of life, value systems or geographical identities of the African people.
The first question that needs to be asked is therefore how these African states managed to survive till today? For example, how did Nigeria manage to survive - for a period of 60 years, after independence - within a global order dominated by former colonial masters and their states, which were evidently vastly more powerful than any or even all African states put together? This is not only a question about what African states - or more precisely, to make a very important distinction, the rulers who acted on their behalf - did or did not do in an attempt to help them to survive. The problem is deeper than that.
Many of the world's troubling problems have their roots in decisions made at the treaty of peace at Versailles in 1919 following defeat of Germany. Among them are the creation of Burundi, Rwanda, the Congo and Iraq, the instability of the Balkans, and above all, the feud between the Arabs and the Israelis. Similarly, in recent times, there are Palestinian exiles in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan living in poverty and overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness. All these are compounded all the more by the current arbitrary geopolitical and economic systems that have divided the countries of the North against those of the South. Frustration is attracting growing numbers of refugees to Islamic extreme groups; violence in defense of what they regard as their political and religious rights, these dispossessed refugees believe, is the only way out of their oppressive conditions.
In other words, they are telling us that, as long as the domineering groups continue to contribute to the volatile atmosphere, and unless the injustices are addressed, the world can expect more violence and terrorist activity. The rage of "violent fundamentalists", for example, in most of the Muslim communities, often has its roots in past and present injustices. Until the injustices are openly acknowledged and addressed, it is impossible to begin dialogue and reconciliation.
As the saying goes, "there is salvation in history." That implies that African leaders must not shy away from confronting the sad history of the Berlin Conference and its continued influence and effects in today's African society and governments. The trappings of the Berlin Conference that gave birth to the creation of all those fašade of modern African states, which came about through colonial fiat by the European countries in 1885, in Berlin, Germany, must be revisited by the powers responsible for it. The Berlin Conference (just like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade), has been described, and rightly so, as the "Original Sin" of Europe in Africa! Both the West and African leaders must summon the courage to revisit the Berlin Conference and free Africa forever from the existing colonial trappings and draconian, enslaving structures imbedded in all those artificial arbitrary colonial created modern African nation states.
Again, most of the post-independence crisis, wars, political instability, economic woes, etc., in various post-colonial African nation states, since 1960 to the present-day, owe their root causes and source of flame, to the Berlin Conference of 1885. This explains why also the so-called International Community, including the U.N., the U.N. Security Council, and other International Organisations and world centres of power or powerful nations, have remained indifference to most of the atrocities being committed in different African countries by the former colonial powers. And why also these world powers careless about the atrocities being committed against the indigenous African populations - ordinary citizens, by those local political leaders - the neo-colonial local agents, the Western powers often help to cling to power in different African countries, and which, they, deceitfully, call, 'democratically elected' presidents. Because these neo-colonial local agents - spinoffs, are put in office, in the first place, through the domineering influence, in the form of neo-colonial arrangements, of the former colonial powers and allies. The aim of which, is to use those local, neo-colonial agents, to protect and promote the interests of the former colonial powers, the West and their allies, and not that of the African people or country those local political leaders are supposed to serve, in the continent.
The Berlin Conference, convoked and chaired by German Chancellor, Ottoman Bismark, was at the request of King Leopold II of Belgium. The major interest of the Belgium King was to use the Conference as smokescreen to secure the support of Germany, to keep away other European countries from encroaching into his self-acclaimed stronghold over the Congo and its rich mineral and natural resources, which he saw as his personal property. Therefore, at the Berlin Conference, these Western European countries, arbitrarily partitioned and divided the continent of Africa on the 'map' on their table, like a piece of cake among themselves. Thus, the beginning of the Western European colonial exploitation and plunder of African resources, which succeeded the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade - human merchandise from Africa to Europe and the Americas.
Among the countries present and which participated at the Berlin Conference, include, the following, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Greece, The Netherlands, Italy, among others. Turkey represented the Arab countries at the Conference. No single African was there.
Since then, and with the continued global domineering influence of the West at the international politics, the 1885 Berlin Conference colonial arbitrary partition and creation of fašade of the artificial modern African nation states have continued to underpin the way the modern world perceives and relates with Africa at all levels of human engagements. That is, internationally, on the continent, regional, and at the national and local levels. It remains till today, the lense through which the outside world relates or deals with Africa. Any nation or international organisation or group coming to Africa, or which wants to enter into any business deal with any African nation state, has to, first of all, go through the governments of the former colonial European power of that country, to get permission. This is the hidden truth and reality of the modern African nation states. It is as if these African nations are still under colonial yoke. No real political or economic independence has been achieved so far by any of the modern African nation states. This is the crux of the matter!
That means that those decisions reached at, and their structures which were laid 'underground' by the Western powers at the 1885 Berlin Conference on Africa, are still very much with us and are not about to go away. Unless, however, something urgent and concrete is done to dismantle those colonial, anti-African decisions and structures of the Berlin Conference. So, that, Africa and its people can breathe again, some fresh air. This is why we must never be tired in proposing referendum for self-determination of the component indigenous ethnic nationalities or geopolitical regions in each of those African nation states with history of political, ethnic and religious violence. Those countries that have witnessed and have continued to witness in their domain, wars, pogroms, ethnic-cleansing, genocides, instability and political crisis and what have you, caused by the unattended to, dangerous cultural and religious diversities in most of those African nation states created after the Berlin Conference. Referendum for self-determination, methinks, is the most viable solution available today that can put a stop to all these things. We shall return to this point.
However, as things are today, at international politics, it is as if Africa does not exist. Moreover, in the individual African countries themselves, most of the citizens don't feel as such, any emotional link with the state or government at all levels, federal, state and local government. Most of the migrating young Africans also feel like stateless citizens since the government of their home country don't care much about their plights in foreign lands. All these show how insidious and devastating the effects of the Berlin Conference "Acts" are today, even as we speak. It affects politics at all levels, national, regional, continental - Africa's relationship with international politics. Decisions affecting African nation states and people even in their own homelands, are determined, not by the needs and conditions of the African people themselves, but rather, by the arbitrary interests and neo-colonial agenda of the former colonial powers, the West and their allies. All those who wield power and influence at international politics.
Thus, even though nation states are central to the understanding of international relations in 'Third World' countries like in African nation states as elsewhere, nation states themselves are often very different kinds of organization from those that the conventional study of international relations tends to take for granted. Their interactions, both within their own populations and with other parts of international system, correspondingly differ as well. And although the international relations of African nation states has attracted an increasing amount of attention, much of this have operated within assumptions about the nature of statehood and the international system which may be seriously misleading.
A view of international politics from the perspective of the founding story of African nation states created under Western European colonial arrangement, may therefore help, to illuminate the continued impact of the Berlin Conference on Africa and on the behaviour of African leaders and society. As well as help to provide a perspective on the ongoing crisis in Niger Republic and other Francophone West African countries. And a more insight on the behaviour of those African heads of states of the Economic Community of West African nation states, ECOWAS. The reasons why some of them have chosen the path they chose today, to ally with the Western powers instead of protecting the African interests of their fellow member nation state, Niger Republic. Hence, on why most of post-colonial African heads of states and African nation states themselves, behave and function in the way they do, almost 60 years after political independence.
The Legacy of the 1885 Berlin Conference European Colonialism in Africa
European colonialism, which began in earnest when the slave trade was officially abolished in 1860s, was not the first in Africa. Far back in antiquity, the Phoenicians and the Greeks had colonized Egypt and North Africa. These were followed by the Romans, who ruled in North Africa until the fall of the Roman Empire. Moreover, between seventh and eleventh centuries, Arab-Muslims invaded and occupied the region. In the modern time, European rule began in the area with the Napoleonic invasion, followed by the French colonization in the nineteenth century.
The effective colonization of Africa, south of the Sahara, however, began in the nineteenth century, after the abolishment of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The agricultural and mineral potentials of Africa have continued to make the continent a scrambling arena for the powerful European nations. To stop themselves fighting over the riches of Africa, these European nations held conferences in Berlin (1884-1885) and later at Brussels (1890). Again, at the Berlin Conference in particular, Europe partitioned and divided up the continent of Africa. Many African peoples or ethnic-groups were split as the new and often arbitrary, artificial boundaries drawn by the foreign powers came into effect. In most cases, many ethnic-linguistic groups sharing the same language and culture were often separated into different countries, and those with different cultures and languages were often merged with fractions of dismembered groups. Thus began the colonial policies, the disorganization and dispossession of the African cultures and traditional pattern of societal organization in the continent.
Moreover, when the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished, some of the freed slaves were brought back from America and settled at some of the trade posts, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. Under the pretext of protecting those settlements and of promoting what the colonial powers called 'legitimate trade', the foreign powers soon began to annex territories in the interior of Africa. Prior to this period, the traditional organizational structure was still intact. But with the backing of the Berlin Conference "Act", colonial administrative structures began to emerge. Right across Africa, frontiers were drawn without any reference to the ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural differences of the people. There was no reference to the people either. They were simply ignored. In a short time, ethnic groups and clans and even families found themselves split by new boundaries. The new decree issued by the colonial masters meant in principle, that henceforth people must beg for permission if they wanted to cross frontiers to visit their relatives. Again, the colonial boundaries have continued to be a source of tension and fighting in various post-colonial African nation states, a clog in the progress in the actualization of a real statehood in the post-independent Africa.
A sad example of the colonial partition of Africa is the case of Rwanda and Burundi, where two ethnic groups (Hutus and Tutsis), previously hostile to each other, were mixed-up arbitrarily and dumped together in two small States. The consequences are endless massacres as each ethnic group tries to use the government machinery to dominate the other. In other countries with similar situation, where there is no civil war, there is instability of government or domination of political posts by the most favoured ethnic-group/groups.
For instance, there is the case of Nigeria, where three large and powerful ethnic groups (Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba) that had been hostile to one another, were merged together with other neighboring minor ethnic groups. The consequences were the three-year genocidal Nigeria-Biafran War - the pogroms and massacre of the Igbos by the Nigerian State between 1966/1967-1970, and counting. The subsequent series of military coups, dictatorship, endless political tensions, lopsided political leadership, instability of government and Muslim religious violence and terrorism in the country.
There is also the case of Kissi ethnic group in West Africa, once a fairly large and powerful tribe. But after the partition they found themselves divided into three countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), where they constitute only a minority. The same with the case of the great Massai people of Eastern Africa, who as a result of the Berlin Conference "Act" found themselves divided in two countries, Tanzania, Kenya, where they remain minorities. There is also the case of the Luo people of East Africa, a very large and powerful ethnic group. But who were divided and merged with other dismembered ethnic groups in three countries, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan (South Sudan), etc., where they have been rendered almost incapable of rising to the highest leadership position of those countries. This situation is replicated all across the countries in sub-Saharan Africa - the enduring legacy of the Berlin Conference "Acts."
As the partition was going on, traditional chiefs who opposed the new set-up or the colonial policies were replaced without reference to the natives and the tradition that put them there. However, some of the traditional chiefs co-operated with their new masters and were rewarded as agents in the collection of taxes and the maintenance of law and order among their subjects. Colonial administrative structures were set up at major trade centers along the coasts, complete with military garrisons, to resist any local uprisings.