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Mapmaking and Warmongering in Africa

The Middle East's seemingly perpetual instability is often attributed to the the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which partitioned the Ottoman Empire between France and Great Britain. The same could be said of Africa, where the colonial powers' capriciously drawn borders have been fueling conflict for decades.

PROVIDENCE/LONDON – Why are some regions plagued by seemingly endless instability? In the Middle East, one widespread argument, which even the Islamic State expounds, puts much of the blame for chronic conflict on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret deal agreed 100 years ago by France and Great Britain to divide between them the soon-to-be-former Ottoman Empire. According to this view, while the “lines in the sand” drawn by the diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot served the short-term interests of the colonial powers, the arbitrary partition of the region spurred a century of violence, organized and otherwise.

Whether or not the Sykes-Picot Agreement is the main reason for the Middle East’s troubles, one thing is certain: the imposition of capriciously drawn borders by colonial powers has not been a uniquely Middle Eastern phenomenon. African countries have had the same experience – and may have suffered even more as a result.

During the “Scramble for Africa” (which lasted from roughly the late 1860s until 1905), European powers signed hundreds of bilateral and multilateral agreements that partitioned the largely unexplored continent into protectorates, free-trade areas, and colonies. The event that most symbolizes the colonial carve-up is the conference that Otto von Bismarck organized in Berlin from November 1884 until February 1885, where an area twice the size of Germany and France, the Congo Free State, was presented as a gift to Belgium’s King Leopold II.

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