The Sphere of Influence Theory in Colonial Africa

A map of colonial Africa in 1897 showing the European "sphere[s] of influence".

The concept of sphere of influence was the direct outcome of European partition of Africa in Berlin in 1884. In the years leading to this conference, European powers had entered into a fierce scramble for Africa with each imperial power using military force to secure strategic areas in the continent. This prompted the need to proceed with the scramble peacefully.

Background to the Establishment of European Sphere of Influence in Africa

Prior to the Berlin Conference of 1884, the race for Africa held out huge potentials for conflict among European powers. This situation also fed heavily on the rivalry and power struggle that characterised European politics of the time, especially the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

As European powers diverted their attention to Africa, new avenues for conflict emerged. French explorer Savorgnan de Brazza began his explorations in the Congo 1876 and opened the way for an eventual invasion of Tunisia in 1881. French activities in the Congo attracted the Belgians who also established their posts between 1879 and 1884.

The British, alarmed by the speed of French and Belgian activities in Africa, took over Egypt in 1882. The Germans, who had hitherto expressed reluctance in acquiring African colonies, bypassed the British and annexed the Kamerun (the German name for present day Cameroon).

The Berlin Act and the Sphere of Influence in Effect

In many of the situations discussed above, the competing European powers came very close to war. Others created hatred among the imperial powers. The need proceed with the scramble peacefully was the driving force behind the Berlin Conference of 1884 in which all colonial powers were represented.

The most important outcome of this conference was the agreement by each power to recognise and respect each other’s possession in Africa. This was contained in the Berlin Act of 1885. This act was therefore the official establishment of Europe’s sphere of influence in Africa.

The Berlin Act also called on all signatories not only to be present on the African coast but to be physically present in Africa’s hinterland with their missionaries, soldiers and administrators.

The making of Africa’s colonial boundaries was also important fallout of the Berlin Conference and its Berlin Act. The arbitrary lines drawn across Africa in Berlin became the final boundaries of European empires in Africa and this remained so after colonial rule even when these lines divided families, tribes and villages.

Demise of the Sphere of Influence Theory

The sphere of influence theory remained strong throughout the period of European colonialism in Africa. This situation only changed as colonialism came under challenge not only from within Africa, but from external forces which opposed imperialism especially the United States and the Soviet Union. These superpowers both helped to reduce European influence in Africa and to replace it with their own influence.

The Cold War that saw superpower conflict in Africa was largely a shift of the sphere of the sphere of influence from Europe to the superpowers. This greatly facilitated African independence which was another stage in this decline of European influence in the continent. Until the end of the Cold War, African allegiance was divided between the East and the West.

Though contemporary Africa still bears remnants of European influence such as language, culture, infrastructure and the physical presence of European soldiers on African soil, it is no exaggeration to say that this influence is under severe challenge. The principal source of this challenge is the presence of a new power – China.