A one-armed bandit
Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 12
By 1935, most of the African continent was well and truly in the clutches of European colonialism and for the Africans at the time, it probably felt like that grip would be held forever.
Fast-forward a few decades and it turned out that colonialism was just as fleeting as any other institutions built on force and oppression.
By 1980, the colonial system had been uprooted from over 90% of Africa. The colonial age lasted, in most parts, for less than a century. In the history of a continent and of a people, this is a pretty short timespan.
The incredible feat of uprooting colonialism is a fascinating topic that we will discuss in future editions. But today we will focus on the impact of colonialism on Africa - in particular the political, economic and social repercussions.
The impact of colonialism on Africa is a fairly controversial topic. Some writers claim that colonialism was a blessing or, at worse, minimally harmful to Africa. Whilst many historians attest that the beneficial effect of colonialism on Africa was virtually nil.
On the former end of the spectrum lie American writers Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan, who in their five-volume work titled Colonialism in Africa, conclude:
“We do not share the widely-held assumption that equates colonialism with exploitation… We accordingly interpret European imperialism in Africa as an engine of cultural transformation as well as political domination.”
At the latter end of the spectrum sits Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, who explains:
“The argument suggests that, on the one hand, there was exploitation and oppression, but on the other hand, colonial governments did much for the benefit of Africans and they developed Africa. It is our contention that this is completely false. Colonialism had only one hand - it was a one-armed bandit.”
Here we will look at some key consequences of colonialism across politics, economics and society.
Although likely not what Gann and Duignan were talking about when describing colonialism as ‘an engine of cultural transformation’, one reaction to European imperialism was the birth of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism.
The former created a sense of identity among the various ethnic groups inhabiting each of the new states of Africa; while the latter helped create a sense of unity with the black populace the world over.
The rise of African movements, community groups, religious sects, newspapers, conferences and congresses saturate the colonial era; all helping to foster a sense of togetherness and community.
Obviously this was an accidental by-product of the colonial regime. No imperialist ever set out to create and nurture African nationalism.
An intentional creation of the colonial system, however, was the weakening of indigenous systems of government.
Most African states were captured through acts of war and the murder or exile of existing native rulers, leaving the indigenous political systems in disarray.
Some colonial bodies, such as the French, did away with traditional rulers, instead appointing arbitrary ‘chiefs’ who essentially served as administrative officers.
The British and the Belgians, on the other hand, retained traditional rulers and even created traditional positions where they did not previously exist.
The rationale was to control colonies through these proxies, using traditional rulers to enforce unpopular measures such as forced labour, direct taxes and compulsory recruitment to colonial armies.
This manipulation of indigenous ruling systems resulted in a loss of prestige and respect in the eyes of their subjects.
A common argument for the positive economic impact of colonialism is the provision of infrastructure. The perception being that colonialism was not all bad because Europeans commissioned the building of roads and railways, in effect introducing new forms of transportation to the African continent.
The truth, as you might expect, is a little more nuanced than that. In reality, roads and railways were constructed not to open up African countries, as has been the purpose of modern transportation systems elsewhere in the world, but merely to connect areas with natural resources to areas where these resources could be extracted and sold.
Infrastructure was thus created to facilitate the exploitation of native resources and to extract and send indigenous wealth to European countries.
In addition, the building of infrastructure in resource-rich areas of Africa led to sharp economic differences between countries and even within the same colonies. Areas not naturally endowed were completely neglected, which exacerbated regional differences and tensions.
In the words of Saint Lucian economist, William Arthur Lewis:
“Tribal differences might disappear easily in the modern world if all tribes were equal economically. Where they are vastly unequal, tribal difference is called in to add protection to economic interest.”
A significant social consequence of colonialism was increased urbanisation - i.e. the increase in the number of people living in towns and cities. That isn’t to say that urbanisation in Africa did not occur before colonialism.
The kingdoms and empires of Africa had political centres such as Koumbi Saleh, Benin, Ile-Ife, Kumasi, Gao and Great Zimbabwe; and commercial centres such as Kano, Jenne, Sofala and Malindi.
However, there is no doubt that the pace of urbanisation was greatly accelerated as a result of colonialism.
New towns such as Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, Takoradi in Ghana, Enugu in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya, Harare in Zimbabwe, Lusaka in Zambia and Luluabourg in Democratic Republic of Congo came into existence during the colonial era.
However, the creation of these new cities did not coincide with better living conditions for Africans.
The benefits attributed to urbanisation such as: job creation, wealth creation, better social services (such as transport, healthcare and education) were largely reserved for colonial settler communities.
Again, as with infrastructure and political structures, changes were implemented for the sole benefit of the coloniser. Wealth was unevenly distributed creating grossly inadequate provisions for the African.
One example can be seen in Nigeria; according to research from Walter Rodney, in the 1930s Nigeria had twelve modern hospitals for the 4000 European settlers in the country compared to only fifty-two for the 40 million-plus Africans in the country.
Another example can be seen in education, where Africans who were lucky enough to find a place in colonial schools were taught from a Eurocentric curriculum.
In the words of Gordon Guggisbery, the Governor of the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), speaking in 1920:
“One of the greatest mistakes of the education in the past has been this, that it has taught the African to become a European instead of remaining African.”
To conclude, we can see that some of the effects of colonialism can be construed as positive and others as negative. It should be noted that the perceived positive impacts of colonialism were not deliberately calculated or intended by the colonisers.
That being said, the idea of positive versus negative effects of colonialism are generally argued by historians who are far removed from the African continent.
What was the view of the Africans who experienced the colonial invasion firsthand? How do they perceive its impact? Did these Africans who had their land, wealth and dignity taken from them feel the exchange for a few roads and railways was worth it?
To many who lived through this history, the answer is no.