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Reversing the curse of Berlin

Africa suffers from a curse, invoked in Europe. The Berlin conference of 1884 to 1885 carved Africa up into territories that reflected the compromises of European imperialists rather than the interests of African populations.

Africa’s ancestors eventually wrought their revenge: as many African states gained their independence by 1961, the Berlin Wall was being erected. A city that had symbolised the division of Africa now symbolised the division of Europe.

The European curse of artificial borders caused untold suffering in post-colonial Africa, with border conflicts, autocratic leadership and the Cold War’s proxy wars.

In the post-Cold War era, United Nations debacles in Somalia and Rwanda forced the African Union, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) — most of them primarily economic organisations — to adopt security roles.

However, these institutions remain weak, lacking financial and logistical means. An African standby force is to be established by 2010, built around five sub-regional pillars to undertake peacekeeping missions. But the AU has struggled to conduct the tuneful symphonies of Africa’s security concert. AU missions to Burundi and Darfur effectively had to be taken over by the UN.

We start our voyage at Africa’s southern tip. Apartheid South Africa embarked on destructive military destabilisation that forced post-apartheid South Africa to tread carefully. Thabo Mbeki has been an energetic peacemaker on the continent, though current xenophobic attacks will greatly damage the country’s pan-Africanist credentials. A 2001 SADC security protocol urged South Africa and its 13 neighbours to coordinate their security and foreign policies, but the current crisis in Zimbabwe has exposed the enormity of their ambitions.

Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah called for an African high command in 1963: a supranational standing army to liberate the continent and to protect Africa from external intervention. Today Nkrumah’s heirs in West Africa have gone furthest in devising a security mechanism. Following civil conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau, Ecowas — largely led by its regional hegemony, Nigeria — dispatched peacekeeping missions to these countries, as well as to Côte d’Ivoire.

The Great Lakes region of Central Africa contains some of Africa’s most spectacular landscapes: rolling hills, dense forests, rising mountains and lush valleys. Recent events have, however, turned a natural paradise into a man-made disaster: the Great Lakes have become infested with ethnic crocodiles of the genocidal species.

Rwanda and Burundi are tragic twins seemingly fated to repeat cycles of bloody massacres. The conflict in the Congo has involved seven foreign armies and myriad militias and mercenaries in a country destroyed by the 31-year autocratic misrule of the Western-backed Mobutu Sese Seko. Foreign armies eventually withdrew and the UN sent in peacekeepers, though instability remains.

Two major challenges in this region are the lack of an effective security institution and the absence of a regional hegemony.

Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere left an enduring legacy in three African sub-regions. He strongly supported the liberation struggle in Southern Africa, ordered his troops into Uganda to end the tyranny of Idi Amin and was the indefatigable mediator in Burundi until his death in 1999. Nyerere’s heirs in East Africa are members of Igad, a sub-regional body originally created to combat drought and promote development. Igad members, however, remain deeply divided: Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war; Uganda and Sudan supported each other’s rebels; Eritrea clashed with Djibouti and Sudan; and Ethiopia’s occupation of Mogadishu revives the bitterness of the Ogaden war of 1977/78.

The Maghreb region has often been compared to a bird with Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia constituting the body and Morocco and Libya the necessary wings for the bird to fly. But this is a bird that has been so incapacitated by conflict that it has had difficulty lifting off. Morocco and Algeria have used the Western Sahara as a stage to play out their rivalry over leadership of north-west Africa since 1975.

The UN has thus far failed to hold a referendum in the territory, as the United States and France have desisted from applying pressure on their recalcitrant Moroccan ally. The Arab Maghreb Union has been rendered dormant and no regional peacekeeping has occurred. However, Maghrebi leaders have played important continental roles: Libya’s Moammar Gadaffi pushed for an AU and a federalist ”United States of Africa”, while Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika played a key role in Nepad and peacemaking in Ethiopia/Eritrea.

In concluding this journey that stretched from the Cape to Casablanca, it is important that we return to Berlin where we started. After the Cold War ended in 1989, events in Berlin would once again greatly affect Africa. The fall of the Berlin Wall appeared to lift the curse of Africa’s ancestors over the division of Europe, while Africa suffered increasing marginalisation.

African leaders must now organise a new Berlin conference. After detailed planning, they must proceed to Ethiopia — the seat of African diplomacy — and reverse the scandalous act of cartographic mischief inflicted on the continent by European statesmen in Berlin more than a century ago, so that this curse can finally be lifted.

Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town

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