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Why did the Berlin Conference fail at its mission?

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The Berlin Conference took place between November 15, 1884, and February 26, 1885. The organizer of the proceedings was Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany. Although representatives of 14 nations were in attendance, the main participants were those who had interest in and the ability to colonize Africa. These included Belgium, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Portugal. The purpose of the conference was to formalize the scramble for territory in Africa that had begun among European colonizing powers.

The General Act of the Berlin Conference stipulated a number of points. Agreements reached during the conference included the abolition of slavery throughout Africa. Belgium would retain control of the territories in the Congo that it already occupied, but this area would be considered the private property of King Leopold of Belgium. Ship traffic could move freely on the Congo and Niger Rivers, and the Congo Basin was open for free trade for all of the 14 signatory powers. Regions were defined in which each of the powers in Africa had control. The powers argued over a principle of effective occupation, which meant that they could only retain control over colonial lands in Africa if they established physical occupation, flew their flag, undertook administration, and maintained treaties with local leaders. A compromise was reached on this point which effectively turned the colonization of the interior into a free-for-all.

The main reason that the Berlin Conference failed is that it did not take into account the needs of the African people. The European powers divided up Africa into territories as it suited them, completely disregarding local geographical factors, tribes, languages, and ethnicities. As a result, the arbitrary boundaries instituted at the Berlin Conference and afterwards are largely responsible for the strife and violence that has long plagued the African continent. Additionally, the decisions at the Berlin Conference brought about appalling colonial oppression of African peoples by European colonizers. Because of the colonial divisions that originated at the Berlin Conference, Africa also got caught up in the bloodshed of World War I and World War II.

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The Berlin Conference was an attempt by Leopold II of Belgium to prevent any outbreak of aggression or hostility between France, Britain, and Germany when Germany began to expand into Africa. The Berlin Conference was meant as an opportunity for a dozen European countries and the United States of America to discuss and refine their policy towards Africa and come to an agreement that would be satisfactory for all parties concerned.

It did not altogether fail in its mission; it was agreed that all signatories would be able to trade freely through the disputed Congo Basin and that anyone attempting to possess a new part of Africa would have to notify the other signatories. However, the obvious difficulty here was that the conference still considered it "legal" to occupy parts of Africa provided that other European countries agreed to this. Furthermore, the wording of the Principle of Effective Occupation was vague and allowed the loophole that countries could occupy inland areas without obeying all the principles. This led to an argument between the French and the Germans about what the agreement actually entailed; British opinion was that because Germany had not long held any African territories, it was nitpicking over the terms of the agreement (knowing it could not gain any land) in an attempt to force France and Britain to surrender their own lands.

Ultimately, the conference did fail to set any strict guidance as to what responsibilities the European countries had in Africa and did not rigorously force any country to properly administer any land it conquered.

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