scramble for Africa and its legacy, the

From The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Online Edition, 2016
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The Scramble for Africa refers to the period between roughly 1884 and 1914, when the European colonisers partitioned the – up to that point – largely unexplored African continent into protectorates, colonies and ‘free-trade areas’. At the time the colonisers had limited knowledge of local conditions and their primary consideration was to avoid conflict among themselves for African soil. Since no one could foresee the short-lived colonial era, the border design – which endured the wave of independence in the 1960s – had sizable long-lasting economic and political consequences. First, the ancestral homelands of about one-third of African ethnicities straddle contemporary international borders. The resulting ethnic partitioning has contributed to civil conflict by fostering ethnic-based discrimination and by allowing countries to destabilise their neighbours. Second, in Africa we observe the largest share of landlocked countries, which tend to trade less with the rest of the world and are readily affected by developments in adjacent politically unstable countries. Third, the Scramble for Africa resulted in several large countries characterised by highly heterogeneous geography and ethnically fragmented populations that limit the ability of governments to broadcast power and build state capacity.
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Over the past few years there has been renewed interest in economics on the historical origins of contemporary African economic and political development. This body of research fits the broader literature that links the vast differences in productivity across countries to important historical events like the colonial experience (Engerman and Sokoloff, 1997; La Porta et al., 1997, 1998; Acemoglu et al., 2001, 2002, 2005). Given the nature of these questions, economists have become increasingly willing to draw on neighbouring disciplines (history, political science, sociology and anthropology) and explore long-standing hypotheses among historiographers and political scientists using econometric methods and formal modelling. (Diamond (1997) offers an illustrative cross-disciplinary approach on the origins of contemporary institutional and economic development; see also Landes (1998) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2012)).
The resulting research has attempted to shed light on the consequences of some of the milestones in African history, such as the slave trade (Nunn, 2008, 2010; Nunn and Wantchekon, 2011), the role of colonial extractive institutions, ‘divide-and-rule’ policies during the colonial period (Acemoglu et al., 2014), ethnic partitioning and state artificiality caused by the Scramble for Africa (Alesina et al., 2011; Michalopoulos and Papaioannou, 2016) and the type of independence movements (Wantchekon and Garcia-Ponce, 2014). This fruitful cross-fertilisation has delivered new insights into the roots of African comparative development, highlighting the role of local actors and, in particular, that of ethnic and linguistic groups in shaping contemporary economic outcomes. (A comprehensive review of the historical arguments underpinning Africa’s economic trajectory is beyond the confines of the present article. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2017) summarise the literature on historical legacies and contemporary African development.)
Economic research regarding the long-lasting effects of colonisation is centred on the impact of ‘extractive’ colonial institutions (Acemoglu et al., 2001) that endured after independence and the limited colonial infrastructure on roads/railroads, education and health facilities (Huillery, 2009). Yet influential African scholars (Asiwaju, 1985; Wesseling, 1996; Herbst, 2000), have argued that the most consequential part of African colonisation was not colonisation per se, but the erratic border design that took place when Europeans ‘discovered’ Africa in the late nineteenth century. The artificial drawing of colonial borders, which endured after African independence, created landlocked, non-organic countries, inefficiently large (or small) in many cases, with peculiar shapes that make it hard for national governments to broadcast power outside their capitals, and where a sizable share of the population belongs to groups that are split by the national border. In this article, we start by providing a synopsis of the historical events surrounding the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century. Then we discuss recent work studying the long-lasting socioeconomic impact of various aspects of ethnic partitioning and state artificiality.
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Historical narrative

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The background
While Europeans have been intrigued by the Dark Continent since at least the Roman times, their contact with Sub-Saharan Africa had been minimal. With the spur of colonisation in the Americas in the fifteenth century, and subsequently in Indochina, one of the darkest episodes of African history commenced: the slave trade. Between 1500 and 1800 CE, more than 20 million Africans were sold as slaves, mostly in the Americas and to a lesser extent in Asia. Starting with Nunn (2008), who showed that the countries that suffered most from enslavement have underperformed economically after independence, subsequent work has shown that the intensity of slave raids has had long-lasting negative consequences by lowering trust (Nunn and Wantchekon, 2011), promoting autocracy and despotism (Whatley, 2012) and contributing to conflict (Nunn and Puga, 2012; Djankov and Reynal-Querrol, 2014; Fenske and Kala, 2015).
Anti-slavery sentiments in Europe and the Americas during the nineteenth century and subsequent legislation prohibiting slavery (though various forms of forced labour remained) shifted the focus of Europeans to Africa. (The slave trade was made illegal throughout the British Empire in 1807. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834 and throughout French colonies in 1848.) At the time, with the exception of North Africa and parts of South Africa (Cape Colony), the continent was unexplored, as local disease vectors, including malaria and yellow fever, were unfavourable to Europeans and opposition from the locals was considerable (e.g. the Zulu wars in Southern Africa and the Italo-Ethiopian wars). (Acemoglu et al. (2001) explore in detail the role of living conditions and local opposition to the type of colonisation. See also Easterly and Levine (2016) for recent evidence on the role of local geography on the share of European migration during colonisation.) In the mid- to late 1800s, explorers such as David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Gustav Nachtigal organised various expeditions exploring and mapping the continent. Yet European colonisers, mostly Great Britain and France, but also Germany, Portugal, Italy and Belgium, were in such a rush to get their feet on the ground that they did not even wait for the reports from the expeditions. The demand for minerals and industrial inputs was rising in the nineteenth century thanks to technological innovations, the expansion of railroads in Europe and North America, and the associated commercial revolution. During the nineteenth century Africa experienced a transformation that would come to define its subsequent development path. From exporting labour to the rest of the world, Africa became a key exporter of minerals.
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The Scramble for Africa
During 1860–1914, Europeans signed hundreds of bilateral and multilateral agreements partitioning Africa into spheres of influence, colonies and protectorates. Most of these agreements followed unilateral declarations of occupation by European powers. For example, the British annexed Lagos in 1861, raising claims to the hinterland of Nigeria. In 1866 the French claimed various parts of the Guinea Coast, while in 1893 they ‘acquired’ Ivory Coast. And in July of 1884 Gustav Nachtigal, acting on behalf of Chancellor Bismarck, hoisted German flags in Togo and Cameroon. (See Pakenham (1991) for a thorough description and eloquent narrative of the Scramble for Africa.)
There were many meetings and conferences in European capitals dealing with African borders. And in many ‘secret meetings’ European diplomats quarrelled about African soil. But the event that came to symbolise the partitioning of Africa was the Conference that Otto von Bismarck hosted in Berlin from November 1884 to February 1885; while the Berlin conference dealt only with Central Africa, it laid down the principles that would be used among Europeans to divide the continent. Three major principles regarding the partitioning of the continent emerged from the Berlin Conference (Wesseling, 1996).
The first regards the hinterland doctrine, according to which a power claiming the coast also had a right to its interior. A good example of the application of this principle is Gambia, which is just a sliver of land around the Gambia River. The British Crown Colony, established in 1889, covered only the area around the coastline and capital Banjul, and the hinterland was administered separately as a British protectorate. The applicability of this principle became problematic, as it was not clear what exactly constituted the hinterland. For example, at some point France demanded Nigeria, claiming that it was the hinterland of Algeria.
Second, the principle of effective possession required that Europeans had to base their claim on treaties with local tribal leaders. For example, in 1881–82, acting on behalf of King Leopold, Henry Morton Stanley signed treaties with local kings and founded Leopoldville (Kinshasa), opposite to Brazzaville, which was founded two years earlier after Pierre Savorgan de Brazza, representing the French, signed a treaty of protection with King Makoko of the Teke. Yet it was not always easy to assign zones of influence based on such treaties, because as Bismarck pointed out ‘it was too easy to come by a piece of paper with a lot of Negro crosses at the bottom’ (Wesseling, 1996).
Third, the effective occupation principle required that European powers exert significant control of the territory they were claiming. Yet with the insistence of the British this principle was soon diminished to apply mostly to the coastline, as Europeans preferred to rule the hinterland via local kings or appointed paramount chiefs (see Acemoglu et al. (2014) for the case of Sierra Leone).
An outcome of the Scramble for Africa was the creation of dozens of colonial artefacts with borders that follow latitudinal and longitudinal lines. While conspiracy theories on the origins of the border design abound, a careful reading of the archives and the historical sources point out the accidental – rather than intentional – making of colonial states (Asiwaju, 1985). The British prime minister, Lord Cecil Salisbury put it quite eloquently in 1890. ‘We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.’
Wesseling (1996) summarises the outcome of the Scramble for Africa and the situation on the ground during colonial times. ‘The partition of Africa was recorded by the Europeans on their maps, but the matter rested there for the time being.... In Europe conquests preceded the drawing of maps; in Africa the map was drawn, and then it was decided what was going to happen. These maps did not therefore reflect reality but helped to create it.’
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African states and borders at independence
The end of the colonial era in Africa started with the Second World War, as colonial powers weakened considerably and independence movements spread over the continent. (Wantchekon and Garcia-Ponce (2014) discuss the implications of the type of independence movement (rural versus urban insurgencies) for African political and economic development.) The official end of the colonial era began in the 1950s and 1960s when African colonies and protectorates become independent at a spectacular rate. Independence in North Africa took place in the 1950s (Libya in 1951, Morocco and Tunisia in 1956), while the liberation movements spread in the Sahel and in Sub-Saharan regions. Ghana’s and Guinea’s independence, in 1957 and 1958, respectively, was followed by more than 30 countries. The wave of independence ended with the former Portuguese colonies (Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) becoming sovereign states in 1974–75 after the fall of the military dictatorship in Portugal.
The nationalistic agenda of the newly minted states, the widespread optimism for future prospects and the reluctance of departing Europeans to deal with the issue of borders muffled the voices of many policy makers and experts who argued for comprehensive border realignment. Thus almost all African countries accepted the colonial borders in the founding chapter of the Organization of African Union (OAU) in 1964. Somalia objected to the partitioning of Somali tribes and clans across Italian, British and French Somaliland, as well as Northern Kenya and Eastern Ethiopia, and soon after the declaration of Somali independence devastating wars with Ethiopia and Kenya ensued, as the government in Mogadishu aimed to unite Somalis. Morocco also did not accept the borders with Western Sahara, a Spanish colony at the time, and Algeria (these disputes resulted in the so-called Sand War in 1963 and ongoing tensions between these countries). There were some other smaller disputes and objections, for example from Ghana and Togo regarding their border, which splits the Ewe people.
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Evidence of border arbitrariness
On some occasions Europeans did have knowledge of local geographic conditions and in a few instances they even had some understanding of local politics, as for example in the case of Swaziland and Lesotho. Naturally, one cannot establish that each and every bilateral border in Africa is a product of happenstance, and while it is hard (conceptually and econometrically) to establish – on average – border arbitrariness, there is evidence pointing to this.
First, the share of straight-line borders is by far the highest in Africa compared to other continents (Alesina et al., 2011). The ruler-straight lines of African states become more dramatic when superimposed on a lesser known ethnographic map drawn by the American anthropologist George Peter Murdock (1959), who compiled information on the location of African groups on the eve of the colonial era from various resources including military and missionary archives. Figure 1 depicts the 835 groups included in the ethnographic map and provides a unique, albeit imperfect, glimpse of the ethnic landscape at the turn of the twentieth century. While ethnic groups clearly overlapped and while it may be heroic to assign each group to a well-defined historical homeland, Murdock’s map provides a decent illustration of the historical location of the various African tribes across the continent. Figure 2 puts together the contemporary African political boundaries (as of 2001), the overwhelming majority of which follow colonial borders, and the underlying mosaic of historical homelands.
Perusing Figure 2 makes it clear that upon independence many groups found their ancestral lands split into different countries. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2014, 2016) classify as partitioned groups those ethnicities whose homelands have at least 10% of their landmass in different countries. There are 229 such ethnicities (27.7% of the sample). While there is clearly noise in Murdock’s map (as ethnic groups overlap and the mapping is quite coarse), this procedure identifies most major partitioned ethnic groups, as considered by African historians (e.g. Asiwaju, 1985). For example, the Maasai have been split between Kenya and Tanzania, the Anyi between Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and the Chewa between Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Second, Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) provide indirect evidence of border artificiality by showing that split and non-split ethnicities are on average quite similar across many dimensions. Their regression analysis reveals that there are no systematic differences between partitioned and non-split ethnic homelands among dozens of geographic and ecological features, including malaria suitability, land quality for agriculture, elevation and the presence of diamond mines or oil fields. Only land mass is associated with ethnic partitioning, with larger homelands more likely to be split, a finding that is consistent with an arbitrary drawing of lines. Using information on ethnic groups’ cultural and institutional traits (from Murdock (1967) and other historical sources), Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) further show that split and non-split groups fare similarly on average across many dimensions, such as the degree of pre-colonial political centralisation, the type of subsistence economy, the practice of slavery and polygyny, inheritance rules and class stratification.
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The consequences of the Scramble for Africa

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Ethnic partitioning
Studies in political science, history and sociology provide case-study evidence on the nexus between ethnic partitioning and conflict, while Alesina et al. (2011) provide cross-country ‘reduced-form’ regression results showing that countries with straight-line borders and in which a large share of the population comes from split groups underperform economically.
Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) examine the thesis of the African historiography that ethnic partitioning has spurred conflict and fostered animosity using within-country, across ethnic regions variation on civil conflict, exploiting a newly assembled dataset (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project – ACLED) that compiles news reports and other primary resources to obtain georeferenced information on incidents of political violence; the dataset includes battles between government forces, rebels and militias, violence against civilians and incursions from neighbouring countries. The analysis focuses on the period 1997–2013. The authors also use data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program Georeferenced Events Dataset (UCDP GED), which covers the period 1989–2010; this dataset covers only deadly events associated with major or minor civil wars, as identified by the UCDP-PRIO Armed Conflict Database.
Average effect
The empirical analysis in Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) aggregates the conflict data across country-ethnic homelands and compares conflict across historical ethnic homelands, located in the same country, controlling for various relevant for conflict features, such as natural resources, geography and ecology, and location. The econometric analysis shows that, on average, civil conflict is significantly higher in the homelands of partitioned, as compared to non-split, groups. This applies to conflict intensity (number of conflict events), the duration of conflict, number of fatalities and the likelihood of civil conflict. The strong link between ethnic partitioning and conflict is also present if we restrict the analysis to ethnic homelands close to the national borders so as to account for border-specific effects, which nonetheless could be driven by partitioning. The ACLED-based estimates imply that conflict intensity is approximately 40% higher in areas where partitioned ethnicities reside as compared to the homelands of ethnic groups that have not been separated by the national borders. Conflict duration is on average 55% higher in the homelands of partitioned ethnicities. The likelihood of conflict is approximately 8% higher in the homelands of split, compared with non-split, ethnicities. The effect of ethnic partitioning on conflict is quantitatively comparable to the effect of the presence of petroleum fields that the literature on conflict has documented as a reliable predictor of violence. The econometric analysis also reveals sizeable spatial spillovers; the negative repercussions of ethnic partitioning are not confined to split homelands, but also affect nearby regions.
Ethnic partitioning and type of conflict
One of the benefits of using the ACLED dataset is that it allows an examination of the different types of violence, shedding light on the actors involved. ACLED categorises events by main conflict factors, including among others government forces, rebel groups, violence against civilians and outside/external forces, which are either foreign interventions from international peacekeeping forces (such as the United Nations, the African Union or NATO’s involvement in Libya) or interventions from government troops of neighbouring countries (e.g. the fighting of Rwandan military forces in Eastern Congo and the military forces of Kenya against rebels in Southern Somalia).
The analysis yields two additional channel-revealing results. First, ethnic partitioning matters crucially for two-sided conflict between government troops and rebel groups and to a lesser extent for one-sided violence against civilians. There is no link between ethnic partitioning and riots or protests, which mostly take place in capitals and other big cities; and likewise there is no link between ethnic partitioning and conflict between non-state actors. Second, there is a 7% increased likelihood of a military intervention from a neighbouring country in the homelands of split groups as compared to non-split ethnicities. In line with the anecdotal evidence, this result suggests that neighbouring countries often use partitioned ethnicities to destabilise their neighbours. Moreover, when partitioned groups face discrimination and suffocation from the national government, they can retreat, regroup and rearm on the other side of the border where their co-ethnics reside.
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Ethnic partitioning, repression and civil war
In an effort to dig further into the underlying mechanisms, Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) use data from the Ethnic Power Relations (EPR) dataset (Wimmer et al. 2009) that offers a classification of formal and informal degrees of political participation of ethnic groups in the political arena and their involvement in ethnic-tainted civil wars after independence.
The empirical analysis shows that in the weakly institutionalised African countries, ethnic partitioning leads more often to major civil wars than relatively minor conflicts related to repression and political discrimination. Split groups are much more likely (11–14% higher probability) to engage in civil wars that have an explicit ethnic dimension, as compared to non-split groups. The likelihood of repression only is also higher for split, as compared to non-split, groups (9.4% versus 6.7%, respectively), but considerably smaller overall. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2016) complement the group-based analysis (at the ethnic homeland level and at the ethnicity level) on conflict, with results linking individual-level access to public goods and education level to the location and ethnicity of more than 85,000 households across 20 African countries using the Demographic and Health Surveys. The regression analysis shows that individuals who self-identify with partitioned ethnicities have fewer household assets, poorer access to utilities and worse educational outcomes compared to individuals from non-split ethnicities in the same country (and even in the same town or village). This pattern is not due to a generalised decline in the standards of living of households residing in split homelands; rather it is driven by the poorer economic performance of members of split ethnicities, irrespective of their actual residence. Taken together, the evidence from the EPR and DHS indicates that the consequences of ethnic partitioning are not circumscribed by the contours of a given ancestral ethnic homeland, but have significant repercussions for the members of partitioned groups, irrespective of their whereabouts.
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Country-level characteristics shaped by the scramble

Besides the partitioning of many African groups into more than one country, the artificial border design may have led to economic and political underdevelopment by producing artificial, non-organic countries. Scholars have emphasised the negative impact of various country-specific aspects stemming from the colonial split of the continent. While there have not been many systematic works studying these features in the context of Africa, we briefly discuss the key conjectures and evidence.
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Access to the sea
The Scramble for Africa led to the creation of many landlocked countries that do not have direct access to the coast. In Africa we observe the largest share of landlocked countries compared to other continents. Out of 49 countries, 16 are landlocked (Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan). The largest country in terms of area, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has access to the sea (Atlantic Ocean) via a tiny 30 km strip of land between the mainland of Angola (in the South) and the Cabinda enclave (which is part of Angola in the north). Close to 300 million Africans reside in landlocked countries; this number increases to 400 million if we include the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has barely any coastline. In an influential work, Collier (2007) argued that being landlocked increases the likelihood that the country will be subject to ‘poverty trap’ dynamics, since it is associated with various costs. First, transportation costs are higher and trade with the rest of the world is limited for landlocked countries (Storeygard, 2015; Frankel and Romer, 1999; Alcala and Ciccone, 2004). The costs of being landlocked are even higher for African countries that depend heavily on export proceeds from agriculture (e.g. Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda) or minerals (e.g. Chad, Zambia and Zimbabwe). Second, landlocked countries depend extensively on their neighbours for both exports and imports. Since neighbours are themselves often unstable, African landlocked countries face serious challenges. For example, Zimbabwe mostly exports to the rest of the world via the Beira corridor and port in Mozambique in the Indian Ocean. During the Mozambican civil war (1977–92), access to Beira was severely impeded or shut down altogether, putting the new regime under pressure. Likewise, almost all of Ugandan exports are channelled via the port of Mombasa in Kenya. The railroad connecting Mombasa to Uganda, the co-called Lunatic express, has been blocked on many occasions by protests or has stopped functioning because of conflict.
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Country shapes and size
Herbst (2000) has argued that the Scramble for Africa, by creating states with peculiar sizes and shapes, has had adverse long-run impacts. For example, the newly minted entities, particularly the inefficiently large ones, found it difficult to broadcast power outside their capital centres, effectively creating a ‘dual’ economic-institutional framework, with customary rules being dominant in the countryside and colonial-national institutions becoming relevant for the regions closer to the capitals. As a result of this, African countries have very low levels of state capacity (Besley and Persson, 2010). Fiscal capacity is also quite low, as in many African countries direct income taxation revenues are negligible. Legal capacity is weak, as courts are slow and inefficient and corruption is rampant. Because of the limited presence of courts and state authorities outside the capitals, many Africans settle disputes (especially over rural land) in tribal courts and seek the advice of traditional leaders and chiefs (Michalopoulos and Papaioannou, 2015). Quite often the state cannot monopolise violence, especially in countries with limited road and railroad infrastructure. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2014) provide some indirect evidence along these lines, by showing that differences in national institutions across the national border map into differences in regional development across the border only when they look at (ethnic) areas close to the respective capitals.
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Ethnic composition (fractionalisation, polarisation and inequality)
The Scramble for Africa has also shaped the ethnic composition of the newly independent states. While the link between ethnic fractionalisation, reflecting the likelihood that two randomly drawn individuals of a country do not come from the same ethnic group, and development and conflict is weak, there is a tight relationship between ethnic polarisation (which takes its maximum value when there are two groups of equal proportions) and conflict (Montalvo and Reynal-Querol, 2005a,b; Esteban et al., 2012). Alesina et al. (2016) show that differences in development and geographic endowments across ethnic homelands, which are the highest in Africa, map into underdevelopment (see also Huber and Mayoral, 2015). Alesina and Zhuravskaya (2011) show that ethnic segregation, which again tends to be higher in Africa than elsewhere, is linked to low levels of institutional development. These patterns are based on a global sample using cross-country regressions; and clearly ethnic heterogeneity is not solely linked to artificial borders and the peculiar way of partitioning of Africa during the Scramble. Yet clearly the latter did contribute to high degrees of polarisation and inequality across ethnic lines, and thus may have affected contemporary development via these mechanisms.
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The Scramble for Africa seems to have had considerable long-run repercussions for contemporary African political and economic development. The borders that Europeans drew on imprecise maps in their capitals in the late nineteenth century and the creation of colonial artefacts endured after African independence, shaping Africa’s economic trajectory. More work is needed to identify and quantify the role of the various aspects of the Scramble for Africa – related to country size, shape and fragmentation – on development. And since ethnic partitioning, arbitrary border design and state artificiality are not solely African features, future work should examine their impact in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and the Caucasus.
The authors thank Jon Temple for his comments.
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How to cite this article

Michalopoulos, Stelios and Elias Papaioannou. "scramble for Africa and its legacy, the." The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. Online Edition. Eds. Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics Online. Palgrave Macmillan. 15 December 2017 <> doi:10.1057/9780230226203.3965

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