MMB Round Table

Revisiting the Berlin Conference in 2020: Are There Lessons for Africa’s Future?

The Berlin West Africa Conference, 1884, legitimized foreign regional control in Africa, creating the blueprint for the continent’s current map of 54 nations. Over 130 years later, what can Berlin and the larger period of European colonization reveal about Africa’s current geopolitical and economic development?  

It’s obvious, from spoken languages or even governing systems, that Berlin created a lasting colonial legacy on the continent. While the Conference is nicknamed the ‘scramble for Africa,’ Europeans nations had, for several years prior, begun to increase commercial interests and political power in many regions on the continent. 

Conquest before Berlin

For instance, by 1879, Great Britain and France developed a power share in Egypt, German annexation began East Africa, the Portuguese expanded expeditions throughout Mozambique, and King Leopold II of Belgium increased exploitative efforts in the Congo region. They achieved successes with military force, often extreme violent acts, missionary and religious persecution, and corrupt trade agreements. 

If Europeans were already there, why meet in Berlin? In a sense, the Berlin West Africa Conference was an opportunity to reinforce land claims. In months of deliberations, leaders set arbitrary borders, irrespective of existing nations, created confusion and oftentimes split one ethnic group between, for example, French and British rule. 

Not a Single African Player

From November 1884 to February 1885, every nation—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Sweden-Norway—took the opportunity to designate new areas and construct borders. Not a single African was present. 

Surprisingly, the United States also participated—why? History shows us no direct American colony on the continent, and yet, their participation signals a Western, or possibly, White Supremacist solidarity. At the same time in the 1880s, the U.S. government strengthened Jim Crow laws country-wide, furthering violence and discrimination towards its African American citizens. 

European and American readiness to meet diplomatically at the behest of German leadership, demonstrates a shared level of mutual respect not extended to the African nations they sought to rule. While there are economic motivations to the ‘scramble,’ the conference appears to be political and, possibly, an attempt to balance power relations amongst European or Western (the U.S.) peers.  

A key question is whether Berlin’s diplomacy, between European and American leaders, recreates and how? There is still no permanent African member on the United Nations Security Council nor has there been any African leadership in the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Do colonizer-colonized relationships recreate on the international stage? 

New Imperialist Efforts

Through colonization, Europeans prospered from African resource exploitation—raw materials, labor, land, and culture—ultimately reinforcing their political hegemony globally. The notion of Europe, the West, or whiteness became synonymous with development and civilization. With global perspectives skewed, how does that affect our collective notions of Africa? If so, how do engagements in international fora disadvantage Africans or create new opportunities to transform the narrative?

At the same time, approaches to colonization were not uniform, even for countries holding the same parent colonizer. On one hand, in Ghana, officials employed an ‘indirect’ rule, where local chiefs acted as intermediaries between citizens and British administrators. In cases of ‘direct’ rule, France considered Algeria as not a colony, but an extension of the nation, even allowing some to obtain French citizenship. Today, do the direct or indirect relationships cultivated during colonization still manifest?

In many modern cooperative blocks, like the CFA Franc or the Commonwealth of Nations, there is a clear link to the colonizer. As Africans work to develop infrastructure, strengthen gender equality, and governance, are these blocks beneficial for the future? Or do they continue to impose foreign imperialism?

Pan-African Ideals for the Future

With the physical maps and borders largely the same, it is difficult to disassociate Africa from Berlin. Colonization created our modern-day nation-states, but can African leaders and civil society defy this history to build one African identity? Would a more unified identity encourage intra-continental trade, a widespread transformation in democracy, or even spur youth empowerment and job creation? Is a return to Pan-Africanism the way forward for Africa’s development?

While the next generation cannot dissolve borders and backtrack over 200 years, there should be a celebration and reification of indigenous African knowledge and cultural understandings. Berlin cemented the present physical realities, but, if properly contextualized, we can envision and build an African renaissance which is inclusive, sustainable, and liberating for all. 


  1. Uzoigwe, G. (1990). European Partition and Conquest of Africa: An Overview. In A. A. Boahen (Ed.), General History of Africa, Vol. VII: Africa under Colonial Domination, 1880-1935 (pp. 10-24). Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  2. Conference at Berlin. (1885, February 26). General Act of the Berlin Conference on West Africa. Berlin.
  3. Grinker, R. R., Lubkemann, S. C., & Steiner, C. B. (2010)

Further Resources:

  • A. Boahen (Ed.), General History of Africa, Vol. VII: Africa under Colonial Domination, 1880-1935 (pp. 10-24). Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney
  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
  • Discourse on Colonialism by Aime Cesare
  • Part of my Soul Went With Him by Winnie Mandela
  • Orientalism by Edward Said
  • The Battle of Algiers: Film 1969
  • Black Girl: Film 1969
  • White Mischief: Film 1988
  • Lumumba: Film 2000

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