The Scramble for Africa: 130 Years After

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It was driven by adventure, greed, delusions of grandeur, dreams of empires, need for resources,
trade improvement, often overloads of ignorance­ and the total absence of empathy, forethought or consideration. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ 130 years ago, marked by the infamous Berlin Conference­, wound up in February 1885, was the climactic culmination of European imperialism into Africa.

Eight European nations had invaded Africa and established colonies long before the historically acclaimed ‘Scramble’. They left indelible marks on the African continent; its languages, cultures and governments of all African countries occupied. In most cases, the European languages and governmental systems supplanted the indigenous African languages and traditional government systems. The occupier’s Language remained entrenched, prevailing as the current official language of many of the countries colonised.

To identify any form of genuine indigenous governance by Africans of Africa and free of any European interference, history has to be retraced to the year 33BC during Roman Imperialism. That was after Mark Anthony, a Roman politician and general, and Cleopatra Vll, queen of Egypt, had become star-crossed lovers. Anthony’s rival, Octavian, finally defeated him, deposed the famous queen and annexed the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt into the Roman Empire. That was the advent of European invasions for millennia to follow.

From then, it took 14 centuries before the Portuguese Empire captured Ceuta in 1415 and later, the creation of Angola and Mozambique, probably the first two European colonies in Africa. Until approximately 1870, colonial invasion did not have much in the way of intensity or development, except along the coast line. Until then, the c­ontinent had not presented much economic or political value to Europe, they were trading posts at most.

After 1875 however, competition for raw materials by the European powers sparked bitter rivalry for conquest and expansion into the African interior. The Berlin Conference of 1885 laid down the rules for partitioning of­f Africa between the European powers. There were only two noteworthy independent states which retained sovereignty throughout this scrambling frenzy for occupancy in Africa; they were Liberia and Ethiopia. Liberia began its independence in 1847 as a colony of liberated African-American slaves.  Ethiopia, on the other hand, is an ancient nation which maintained its national independence throughout the centuries, except for a brief invasion by the Italians under Mussolini from 1936 to 1941.

This made Ethiopia the only notable exception – a strategically placed state at the Horn of Africa. By the early 1870s, Ethiopia was in danger of invasion from the British, French and Italians.

In fear of an invasion, Emperor Menelik II hatched a daring plan and exploited European rivalries for the benefit of his country. He played one against the other to obtain the modern weapons he needed to protect his country. He gave minor concessions to France in return for weapons, then did the same with the Italians for more weapons. Soon, Britain, and even Russia, joined in the arms race. Throughout the 1880s, Ethiopia grew stronger and stronger as the scramble for Africa went on around it.

However, by the early 1890s, Menelik’s plans began to falter and war became imminent, but Ethiopia, nevertheless, remained independent.

With reference to the ‘Scrambling’ era, the renowned author, Joseph Conrad, wrote in his 1905 novel, The Heart of Darkness, that by the 1890s, most of Africa’s ‘dark places’ had been placed under European control and the European powers were stretched thin trying to administer and protect massive, far-flung empires. Cracks were beginning to appear in their systems: riots, wars and the wholesale abandonment of commercial enterprises caused havoc in their empires. Things were falling apart. Conrad suggested that this was the natural result when men are allowed to operate outside a civilised social system of checks and balances. Power, especially power over people, inevitably corrupts.

Had there not been a ‘Scrambling for (and of) Africa’, the present crisis enveloping the North of Africa, which has become the springboard for hundreds-of-thousands of refugees, may never have come about.­­ had Africans been left to create their own future destiny, so many years ago.

This article was written by FREDERICK ERASMUS

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