Africa is quietly marking an important centennial between November and February, but it is not an occasion for trumpets, speeches or champagne.
It is the 100th anniversary of the Berlin Conference, an extraordinary conclave of European diplomats that divided Africa into spheres of influence and ushered in an era of colonial rule whose effects still can be seen across the continent.
At a time when African famine is again on the front page and when the West is viewing the continent and its daunting problems with a mixture of sympathy, horror and disdain, it is instructive to recall those days when Europe carved up Africa like a Christmas turkey, with each participant fighting for his favorite piece. Many of the problems that haunt Africa today have their origins at that diplomatic table.
The conference was a brief breathing spell in what became known as the "scramble for Africa." After nibbling at the edges of the continent for several centuries, the Europeans in the 1870s began a mad rush into the interior. Armed with superior weapons, Bibles and makeshift treaties, imperial agents laid claim to more than 10 million square miles of territory and 100 million people in the space of a decade.
It was a haphazard, chaotic process and one that threatened several times to plunge the European powers into war. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who abhorred chaos and wanted to ensure Germany a piece of the spoils, decided it was time to lay down some ground rules. His French and British counterparts, who were the main competitors in Africa, agreed.
Fourteen western nations attended the three-month session. Conspicuous by their absence were those who had the most at stake -- the Africans. But there was little hypocrisy: no one pretended the lines were drawn for any interests other than those of the countries at the table. The interests of Africans were never a factor.
"The Europeans came and assumed command of African history," wrote British historian Basil Davidson, "and the solutions they found were solutions for themselves, not for Africans."
The Africa of a century ago consisted of several hundred independent states, some large and powerful and well advanced, others smaller, weaker and more primitive. When the Europeans finished drawing their lines, these states had been condensed into about 40 pieces of territory.
It was not an easy or neat process. Ethnic groups were cleaved into fragments -- the Ovambo were split in half by the boundary line that divided Portuguese Angola from German South-West Africa.
Others were combined with disparate neighbors. The Ibos and Yorubas of the West African coast found themselves thrown together with the Moslem Hausas and Fulanis of the north into a country that became Brid Nigeria, where their rivalries helped trigger the Biafra war and continue to echo to the present.
The Germans were given title to what became Tanganyika not because they had claimed it, but because the British thought it best to placate Bismarck. Similarly, Portugal was given reign over territory 22 times larger than itself mostly because Lisbon's British allies used the Portugese as a tool to deny African land to their principal competitors in Paris. Belgium's King Leopold won the grand prize: the mineral-rich lease to what became the Belgian Congo.
At first, Africans paid little attention to the new lines, which seemed to have everything to do with European rivalries and little to do with them. But gradually the paper lines on the map became real borders, not only to the Europeans but to the Africans themselves. Africa's acquiescence became part of its general acceptance of the standards, mores and ideas of the Europeans who sought to rule it.
One of the great issues for African intellectuals during the independence movement following World War II was whether to accede to those borders, draw new ones or have none at all. The movement for a United States of Africa had strong intellectual and emotional force behind it.
But that idealism was undermined and ultimately overruled by the stronger reality of power politics and the ambitions of those who inherited governments from the Europeans. In the end, the Organization of African Unity, designed to bring Africans together, became a tragicomic monument to their enduring separation.
But borders alone do not make nations, and this has been one of the cruelest lessons recent history has taught Africa. In countries such as Angola, Uganda, Burundi, Nigeria and even South Africa, the concept of nationhood is at best only marginally understood. Most of these countries lack a George Washington -- someone from the political or cultural past whom everyone can admire and who provides the glue to hold diverse groups together.
Lacking that glue, Africa has become atomized into smaller, conflicting groups. People identify themselves by tribe, ideology, profession, religion or economic class, seldom by nation.
Thus it is not too surprising that in the 27 years since Ghana became the first colonial state to gain independence, Africa has suffered through a dozen wars, 70 military coups and the assassination of 13 heads of state. It has 5 million refugees -- more than any other continent -- and they, too, are part of the harvest of maladjusted borders and nations that exist mostly on paper.
In analyzing Africa's woes, Africans themselves tend to blame their problems on European colonialism. Westerners, on the other hand, tend to treat the continent as a blank slate whose real history only began at independence and whose problems can be laid at the feet of corrupt African leaders and misplaced priorities.
Both, of course, are right, and both are wrong, but the Westerners who during the last three decades have been so free with their advice and criticism of the new Africa should not forget that it was their ancestors who designed, constructed and launched the continent's modern history 100 years ago in Berlin.