A sliver of land here, a blob of earth there – at first look the shapes of African countries don’t make a lot of sense. But when you know the history of events that led to the formation of modern Africa, you’ll understand why Togo and Benin are such long and narrow nations, why The Gambia follows the length of the navigable Gambia River and why the borders of Algeria and Egypt mostly consist of straight lines.
Banjul, officially the City of Banjul and formerly known as Bathurst, is the capital of the Gambia and is in a division of the same name.
During the late 19th century the European powers engaged in [what is now known as] the Scramble for Africa, statesmen and diplomats of countries like France, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain and Portugal met in Berlin, Paris, London and other capitals to divide and distribute the African land mass and resources among themselves. Territories were traded (e.g. Britain gave Germany the North Sea island of Helgoland in return for Zanzibar), land was swapped for fishing rights (e.g. Britain gave parts of northern Nigeria to France in return for fishing rights off Newfoundland) and compromises were reached to keep the peace (e.g. the French gave parts of Cameroon to Germany in return for their recognition of French rule over Morocco).
Tragically, the European powers had no idea (…or didn’t care) about the consequences of the invasion, annexation and colonization of African territory. Not only did they work with inaccurate maps, they also had no idea what Africa’s interior looked like. As a result, very little attention was paid to thousands of established kingdoms, chiefdoms and tribes that existed throughout Africa. Many were split apart by the newly agreed upon borders, many were joined into countries despite long-standing antagonisms between the tribes, not to mention the latent hostilities that existed between Muslims and non-Muslims. By the time the Scramble for Africa was over, roughly 10,000 societal entities in Africa (e.g. states, tribes, ethnic groups) were amalgamated into 40 European protectorates and colonies.
What followed were many battles of resistance between the local population and their colonial rulers. Some were settled with little bloodshed but others resulted in brutal repression. The Germans, for example, conducted a major genocide in German East Africa and German South West Africa by wiping out three quarters of the Herero people and half of the Nama people between 1904 and 1908, only to lose Germany’s entire African holdings during WWI. It all made very little sense and was based upon much naivety, greed and an insatiable appetite for power on part of the Europeans. (Since then, Germany has apologized for the atrocities it committed within its African protectorates.)
Of course, many factors were considered when the Europeans divided up land and drew lines across their African map (e.g. rivers, mountain ranges, known resources), but one important reason why many countries now feature strange shapes and forms is this: the colonial powers wanted ocean access as well as land mass or navigable rivers that reached into the continent’s interior. So, next time you look at a map of Africa and you wonder why The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal and its greatest width is a mere 48 km (30 mi) across the Gambia River, just envision a few old men drawing lines across an African map while bargaining over resources they don’t own and dividing up territory without having a clue about the suffering and injustice they are just about to cause.