More than three decades after most African nations became independent, there is no consensus on the legacy of colonialism. With most African countries still only tottering on their feet and many close to collapse, some people ask whether the problem is due to Africa's colonial experience or inherent adequacies of the African?
For apologists of colonialism the answer is simple. Whatever may have been the shortcomings of colonial rule, the overall effect was positive for Africa. Sure, the colonial powers exploited Africa’s natural resources but on the balance, colonialism reduced the economic gap between Africa and the West, the apologists argue. Colonialism laid the seeds of the intellectual and material development in Africans. It brought enlightenment where there was ignorance. It suppressed slavery and other barbaric practices such as pagan worship and cannibalism.
Formal education and modern medicine were brought to people who had limited understanding or control of their physical environment. The introduction of modern communications, exportable agricultural crops and some new industries provided a foundation for economic development. Africans received new and more efficient forms of political and economic organisation. Warring communities were united into modern nation-states with greater opportunity of survival in a competitive world than the numerous mini entities that existed before.
Africa is in political and economic turmoil today, defenders of imperialism say, because it failed to take advantage of its inheritance from colonial rule. It was, they summarise, Africa’s inadequacies that made colonisation necessary and the outcome of post-independence self-rule suggests that the withdrawal by the colonial powers was premature.
Critics of colonialism dismiss such arguments as racists. They maintain that colonial rule left Africans poorer than they were before it began. Not only were African labour and resources super-exploited, the continent’s capacity to develop was undermined. Guyanese historian Walter Rodney in his book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ contends that under colonialism "the only thing that developed were dependency and underdevelopment." As far as Rodney and other critics was concerned "The only positive development in colonialism was when it ended." Under imperial rule African economies were structured to be permanently dependent on Western nations. They were consigned the role of producers of primary products for processing in the West. The terms of trade in the western controlled international market discriminated against African nations who are unable to earn enough to develop their economies.
Colonialism bred political crisis
In disrupting pre-colonial political systems that worked for Africans and imposing alien models, colonialism laid the seeds of political crisis, say its critics. By redrawing of the map of Africa, throwing diverse people together without consideration for established borders, ethnic conflicts were created that are now destabilising the continent. The new nation-states were artificial and many were too small to be viable. Fewer than a third of the countries in Africa have populations of more than 10 million. Nigeria, the major exception to this, was imbued with ingredients for its self-destruction. Western multi-party democracy imposed by colonial powers polarised African societies. "It was the introduction of party politics by colonial administration that set off the fire of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria," wrote one Itodo Ojobo in the New Nigerian newspaper in 1986.
It is difficult to give an objective balance sheet on colonialism. Those who contend that it made no positive impact are as dogmatic as those who present it as the salvation of Africa. What is unequivocal is that it was an imposition of alien rule. Whatever may have been its pluses and minuses, colonialism was a dictatorial regime that denied peoples’ right of self determination. It brought death, pain and humiliation to millions of its victims. The notion that colonialism was a civilising mission is a myth - the system was propelled by Europe’s economic and political self- interest. However, to meet their economic and administrative needs colonial powers built some infrastructure, like railway to carry export commodities, and they educated a few Africans to help them run the colonies. But nowhere in Africa were positive contributions made to any substantial extent. Countries like Nigeria and Ghana, which were among the better endowed colonies were left with only a few rail lines, rudimentary infrastructure and a few thousand graduates. This was better than others. For instance, the Portuguese left their colonies with very little. At independence in 1975, Mozambique had only three dozen graduates.
If the legacies of the different colonial powers were rated by Africans today, the powers that bequeathed the greatest amount of western culture to its colonies would likely score most votes. Only reactionary aristocrats in northern Nigeria would today thank the British for keeping out western education in their region. It is clear to most northerners that they were placed at a disadvantage to the south by the educational gap between the two regions. When Flemish missionaries in the Belgium Congo learnt African languages to teach local children in their mother tongues, the children did not thank them. Young Congolese protested repeatedly and demanded to learn French because this was the way to gain access to the wider world.
It is impossible to say what would have been the shape of contemporary African history had colonial rule never taken place. Some Western historians have argued that most less developed regions of the world, particularly Africa, lacked the social and economic organisation to transform themselves into modern states able to develop into advanced economies. "If they had not become European possessions the majority would probably have remained very much as they were," wrote Cambridge historian D.K. Fieldhouse.
African nationalists dismiss this claim. "It is not true that Africa couldn’t have developed without colonialism. If it were true, then there is something wrong with the rest of world which developed without it," the late Nigerian politician Moshood Abiola told a conference in 1991. Africans point out that Japan, China and parts of Southeast Asia were never colonised, yet they are today major world economies. These countries, however, had certain attributes in the nineteenth century that enabled them to adapt more easily to modernisation than might have traditional African societies in the same period. The Asian nations had more educated labour force and were technologically more advanced. Most importantly, their ruling classes were more ideologically committed to social progress and economic development.
It is, of course, a presumption that modernisation is desirable. The fact that western society is more complex than traditional African society does not necessarily mean that it is better. Complexity does not equal human progress. Pre-colonial African societies were materially less developed than societies in other regions of the world, but they were no less balanced and self-contained than any elsewhere. Africans were no less happy or felt less accomplished than Europeans or Japanese. Who is to say whether people living in agrarian societies are less developed as human beings than inhabitants of industrialised ones?
However, had Africa not been colonised, the likelihood is that its elites would still have wanted to consume the products and services of western industrial nations. It is unlikely that African chiefs and traders would have been content with the simplicity of communal life to shut off their communities from Western advances. If during the slave trade, rulers and traders happily waged wars and sold fellow humans to buy beads, guns and second-hand hats, one can only imagine what they would have done if faced with offers of cars, televisions, MacDonalds etc. Undoubtedly, without colonisation African societies would still have sought industrialisation and western type modernisation, as have peoples in virtually every other region in the world.
As there is no basis to assume that Africans would have independently developed electricity, the motor engine and other products of advanced technologies, it is fair to suppose that if Africa had not been colonised it would today still have to grapple with problems of economic development. Africa would have needed to import western technology and therefore would have had to export something to pay for it. Like other pre-industrial societies, African nations would invariably have had to trade minerals and agricultural commodities for western manufactures. So Africa’s position in the international economy, particularly as a producer of primary products for industrialised countries, should not be blamed solely on colonialism. It is largely a function of unequal development.
'Real or false Independence?'
Many African nationalists and critics of colonialism see the independence gained from the withdrawing colonial powers as only partial liberation. Some call it ‘false independence’. Full or real freedom, they believe, will come with economic independence. African nations are said to be currently in a phase of neo-colonialism - a new form of imperial rule stage managed by the colonial powers to give the colonised the illusion of freedom. At the 1961 All-African People’s Conference held in Cairo neo-colonialism was defined as "the survival of the colonial system in spite of the formal recognition of political independence in emerging countries which become the victims of an indirect and subtle form of domination by political, economic, social, military or technical means."
The implication is that western powers still control African nations whose rulers are either willing puppets or involuntary subordinate of these powers. The main economic theories supporting the neo-colonialism concept come from the dependency school developed in the late 1950s by Marxist economists who initially focused on Latin America. According to them poor countries are satellites of developed nations because their economies were structured to serve international capitalism. The natural resources of the satellites are exploited for use in the centre. The means of production are owned by foreign corporations who employ various means to transfer profits out of the country rather than invest them in the local economy. So what these countries experience is the ‘development of underdevelopment’. The unequal relations between developed and underdeveloped countries make economic progress impossible for the latter until they break economic links with international capitalism. Only by becoming socialist can they hope to develop their economies. Some theorists went further to postulate that revolution in dependent countries would not be enough because of the structure of world capitalism made any national development impossible. Only the ending of capitalism at the centre would permit underdeveloped nations to achieve development. As desirable as it would be for African nations and indeed the world to become socialist, the experiences of former Third World nations that have transformed into advanced economies, made the generalisations of the dependency school less credible in the 1990s.
However, there is still the tendency to view post-fifteenth century African history solely in terms of the continent’s subjugation by western nations. History is discerned as a plot; a cut and dry conspiracy by white nations to keep black peoples subordinated. Grey areas are overlooked. African involvement in the making of their own societies is discounted in favour of a view that focuses on outsiders as the active element.
Blaming all of Africa’s problems on colonialism and the machination of neo-colonialists strikes a cord with many educated Africans angry at the west because of its historical humiliation and exploitation of their continent. Western-bashing also plays on the guilt of white liberals who are happy to bear the burden of the historic sins of their ruling classes. Some right wing whites, still regretting the end of the Empire, may be flattered by it because it acknowledges the all-embracing supremacy of the white man.
Simple clear cut ‘them and us’ explanations of complex developments are rarely helpful. Focusing on imperialism has drawn attention away from internal forces that are crucial to the understanding of the African condition and which, unlike external demons, can be changed ordinary Africans. At every Organisation of African Unity summit African leaders and ministers who have looted their nations’ coffers are applauded for speeches that mix cries against regional marginalisation and criticism of the IMF with insincere pleas for African unity and calls for debt forgiveness. Not so long ago these reactionary leaders only had to spice their speeches with some anti-imperialist rhetoric to be acclaimed at home and abroad as defenders of their people. It took little effort for reactionary leaders to sell themselves to their own people and to liberals in the West as representatives for the oppressed. There was an expectation that leaders from the Third World would by the fact that they were from the oppressed be radical in their vision for their people and indeed the world. It was somewhat similar to the popular perception of the black nationalist movement in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. As long as black nationalists verbally attacked whites, they qualified as militants. It did not seem to matter that some of these so-called black radicals were reactionary in relation to other social groups, including abusing black women. A few were down right crooks who exploited poor blacks and for whom politics was merely an opportunity for individual gain.
The fatalistic view that Africa is caught in a neo-colonial straitjacket has hampered the growth of popular political movements for social and economic change in the continent. The message often implied by people who stress external causes of underdevelopment is that nations must endure poverty until there is a revolution that pulls them out of the international capitalist orbit. If African nations are trapped in underdevelopment, there appears to be little point in seeking internal change. This pessimism perhaps helps to explain why few political movements in Africa campaign for fundamental social and economic transformation. Opposition and pro-democracy groups tend to limit themselves to condemning state corruption and human rights abuses.
At independence former colonies became free nations, able to chart for themselves whatever course they had the ability and determination to follow. They could have, as some did, nationalise foreign owned corporations. They could have stopped primary commodity exports and ended imports from the West. Of course, such radical policies would have consequences. But these were more likely to have involved the elite losing the benefits of foreign aid than Western powers sending in gunboats to kill ordinary Africans. If Cuba, only a few kilometres from the capitalist mega-power, the U.S., could pursue an independent economic agenda and survive, there is no reason why African nations could not have done the same. They did not because it was not in the interest of their rulers to do so and not because they were shackled by neo-colonialism.
Integration into global market
The prime legacy of colonialism was the integration of colonies into the international capitalist economy. The main force keeping economies in the global system and sustaining imperialism is the market itself. For people with the means to pay the market is a very seductive place, offering everything and anything. It enables African elites to consume products of western civilisation without having to go through the difficult and long-term process of building the productive base of their societies. It is far easier to shop in the global market than try to build industries yourself.
When considering the economic conditions of people in the world it is useful to think of them as belonging to different layers in the global pyramid. At the bottom are the absolute poor, the majority of humanity who are too impoverished to participate fully in the economic, cultural and political life of their society. At the apex of the pyramid is a tiny minority of super-rich. In between are layers of people of varying degrees of wealth and access to local markets and the global economy. The richest fifth of the world’s population consumes more than eighty per cent of global wealth. Most Africans are in the bottom fifth, consuming less than 1.5 per cent of global wealth. There are a few African elites among the top fifth and many more are scrambling to get there.
The wealth pyramid is a better way of considering income distribution than seeing it strictly in national terms. For instance, to say that Nigeria is poor because its GDP per capita income is less than $300 per annum says nothing about the affluence of the country's rich minority that feed off its resources to maintain its position high on the global pyramid.
Africa’s poor gained little or nothing from colonialism. But its elites bloomed as a result of it. They were given a ladder to climb the global pyramid. African millionaires who today live on the upper layers of the pyramid with bank accounts in Western capitals, certainly owe their fortune to colonialism. Without opportunities created by the linking of Africa to the western world, it is unlikely that indigenous ruling classes would have catapulted themselves from pre-capitalist levels of wealth to modern bourgeoisie affluence. So the answer to the often posed question, ‘did Africans benefit from colonialism’ is, the elites definitely gained while the poor majority did not.
Having tasted life as consumers in the international market, African elites became ardent believers in the global economy. Imperial powers no longer needed to administer their colonies, at least not for reasons of economics. Local ruling classes would out of their own volition keep their nations in the market and direct the bulk of their national resources and capital to the west.
The strength of the global market is its attractiveness to classes of men and women who have the wealth to participate in it. For the wealthy, the market offers the means to realise all material dreams. For those who aspire to become rich, it is the "open sesame". The market is an alluring, even corrupting force that requires strong ideological or moral commitment to resist. It was its appeal that eventually subverted socialist regimes in the former Eastern Bloc and is now transforming China. Much of the trouble in Africa today stems from a scramble to climb the global pyramid.
The idea of progress
The most subversive act of colonialism was to introduce into the minds of Africans and peoples of other pre-capitalist societies the idea that material progress and prosperity were possible for the masses of people. Ordinary people in pre-colonial times assumed that their material conditions were fixed. A good harvest may provide a few more yams to eat but the idea that living conditions could be fundamentally altered was alien. The prospect that rather than trek miles to fetch water, running water could be piped into homes was unknown. With colonialism came the idea of progress - that humanity is capable of improving its condition of existence - today can be better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. After or even before people’s basic needs are met, there is an endless world of consumer products and services for self-satisfaction. Africans learnt that they live in a world that offers a variety of experiences that were beyond their wildest dreams. Like people elsewhere in the world, they want what the West has.
More than anything else, it has been peoples’ desire for material improvement and wealth that has given western civilisation its overwhelming strength. Its main power has not come from its armies or colonial administrators or even its multi-national corporation bosses. It is the simple fact that most people in the world believe in material progress and desire most of the things the West has to offer. Coca cola sells in 200 countries and the brand is recognised by the majority of humanity not because it was physically forced upon the world but because through the power of advertising people have taken the drink as a symbol of progress and modernisation and of course many people like the sugary elixir.
It was the allure of modernity, with its promise of greater material self-fulfilment, that subverted African societies during colonialism. It was not the handful of European troops sent to conquer and maintain colonial order that was irresistible, but the power western materialism. Subjugated Africans may not have liked the arrogance of the colonisers, but they wanted the civilisation that the Europeans had to offer.
Virtually every nation in the world, whether colonised or not, has had to deal with western hegemony. Antonio Gramsci defined hegemony as an order in which a certain way of life and thought is dominant and one concept of reality prevails throughout society. The dominant ideology permeates every facet of human existence - taste, morality, customs, religious and political principles. Since the nineteenth century the West has defined human development and set the pace of change which others have followed. The West has not imposed its will on the world by force but by the sheer attractiveness of its civilisation and the belief in the desirability of material progress and prosperity. It is able get people in other nations to desire what it desires and thereby manipulates their aspirations. This is the bedrock of imperialism. It is what enables it to control and use the resources of underdeveloped nations in a manner advantageous to the developed nations and at the expense of the economies of underdeveloped countries.
The dilemma facing Africans is how to deal with the overwhelming presence and power of western civilisation. If the desire of Africans for modern facilities - electricity, pipe borne water, cars, modern medicine, television etc., is legitimate, then we should accept the position of 19th century evolutionists that western civilisation is of a higher material order to African civilisation. It is able to meet the new aspirations of Africans, which traditional society cannot. Putting aside for a moment the physical unpleasantness of colonialism, it can be argue that its failing was not to have sufficiently transformed African society and laid solid foundations for modernisation. It introduced the idea of material progress, but did not give people the tools to build the new civilisation that would enable them to realise their new dreams. Africans came through the colonial experience full of desire for modernity but without the wherewithal to create the coveted civilisation. Besides the shortage of skills and infrastructure, Africans lacked an appreciation of the total and complex nature of the transformation from simple agrarian society to modern technological civilisation. Having blamed Africa's material backwardness on colonialism, independence African thinkers and leaders believed that the removal of the external force would automatically result in modern development. There was little understanding that modernisation required radical internal changes.
Modernisation requires internal changes
The 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx thought imperialism could play a progressive role by creating in underdeveloped countries the basis for a similar process of industrialisation that took place in the West. He thought that colonial powers should destroy primitive pre-capitalist cultures and lay the material foundation for modern western society. For Marx all societies were destined to be like Europe. "The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed, the image of its own future," he wrote. Some African nationalists accuse Marx of ethnocentrism. These nationalists do not understand that modernisation is as much a cultural phenomenon as a technological achievement. Marx was correct - it is impossible for a pre-industrial culture to create and sustain an industrial civilisation.
The idea that societies head in the same general direction seems proven by the development of the global economy. Nations that have made economic progress have irrespective of ideology, undergone similar processes. Development has involved capital accumulation, industrialisation, the transformation of productive forces through machine technology and the introduction of factory systems of production. It entailed urbanisation, the rationalisation of thought and changes in social beliefs and institutions, including family life. Investment in physical and human capital has been indispensable. In all developed countries, the economy was given primacy in the political system. Perhaps most importantly, development has been underpinned by certain values, including efficiency, hard work, precision, honesty, punctuality, thrift, obligation to one’s duty and wealth creation. All modernisation involved a move away from traditionalism
There have been differences in the methods of organisation adopted by modernising nations. Under socialism, the means of production were state-owned and emphasis placed on ideology in the mobilisation of workers as against private ownership and wage labour under capitalism. Nevertheless, both socialists and capitalists followed the same fundamental steps to economic development. "Development" said the American economist J.K. Galbraith "is the faithful imitation of the developed."
African nationalists find this basic idea difficult to accept. Despite the failure of African Socialism there remains a belief among some African thinkers and writers that there is an African way to development that is different from the European path. No one has been able to describe this African way in any detail. However, the search for an African model continues. Some liberal western writers have supported the notion that Africa is a special case and not subject to the laws that govern societies in other regions of the world. British economist Michael Barratt Brown in his book ‘Africa’s Choices’ said his old friend Basil Davidson had in his book ‘The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State’ given him a clue to the explanation of Africa’s development problem. "African society was different and apparently immune to economic rationality which is the basic assumption of European political economy," said Brown. I am not sure how Davidson shows Africa’s immunity from economic rationality. In his book Davidson argued that Africa’s crisis is due to it being forced by colonialism to abandon its traditional systems and values for unsuitable western institutions. Brown also quotes several African writers who believe that an African way to development exists. They included Hassan Zaoual of Morocco who wrote "The African model exists and is alive but it is not a model of economic rationality."
I do not know how economic non-rationality can possibly result in development, which occurs in the material world and not the spiritual domain. Development is not abstract art, where any combination of brush strokes and colours can pass as a completed picture. What we have seen in Africa is a tragedy in which intellectual opposition to the West has prevented African thinkers from developing a coherent ideology for change. Ironically, in its penchant to criticise colonialism and defend the integrity of traditional African society, African political and economic thought has been trapped by its own myths.
The search for an alternative model continues, but it is unlikely that one will be found. It is an uncomfortable truth that if the objective is to improve the material conditions of the people, then most of the institutions and values introduced into Africa during colonialism are more conducive to modernisation than are many traditional ones. Modern institutions and principles such as representative democracy, judiciary, banking, factories, provide more effective means for meeting the new desires of Africans than what existed in pre-colonial societies. Every society, whether capitalist or socialist, that has developed has used the same set of institutions. What differentiate modern societies are the ethics and rules applied in the operation of the institutions. Leaving aside variances in ideology and cultural style, there is a single modern civilisation in the world. The same features of this civilisation exist in every nation that has modernised. Similarly, values that are venerated in modern nations are alike. They include, efficiency, innovation, inquisitiveness and time-keeping. Even social customs are similar. For instance, monogamy, women’s rights, individual freedom are the accepted standard in most societies.
Nineteenth century evolutionists may have been correct. Nations have evolved to share the same civilisation. In the move to the new way of life modern nations left behind pre-industrial institutions, customs and beliefs. So where does this leave us in terms of evaluating the impact of colonialism? European powers had no right to exploit Africans and impose their culture on other people. But having been drawn into a more advanced civilisation Africans and other non-westerners have to master the new civilisation to strengthen themselves and benefit from the advantages.
Tunde Obadina is director of Africa Business Information Services