Opinion

Africa and Colonialism

10 July 2005 at 21:22 | 1236 views

There is a very heated ongoing debate among African intellectuals everywhere on issues like debt cancellation, debt relief, reparation for slavery and so on. But the biggest issue that never fails to ignite sparks is colonialism and its consequencies.

Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe blames many problems on colonialism
Here, Biyi Bandele, a Nigerian playwright living in London, reflects on the legacy of colonialism.

When I was growing up in Nigeria in the 1970s, whenever there was a corruption scandal, or when yet another military coup took place, my parents would say, "what we need in this country is a good leader - what we need is a Kwame Nkrumah".

Ghana, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, was back in 1957 the first African nation to attain independence.

Dozens of other former colonies soon followed Ghana to independence, marking the emancipation of a continent. Of all the nations across Africa, only Ethiopia and Liberia had escaped the yoke of colonialism.

It is a legacy that’s left many Africans angry.

Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, General-Secretary of the Pan-African Movement, believes that the corrupt and despotic governments that preside over many African countries have their roots in the colonial power structure.

He has said that "the colonial government had absolute power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Naive visionary

Take corruption, the great scourge of Africa. For historians like Stephen Morrison, Director of the Africa Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, this modern day curse has its clear roots in the colonial era.

The colonial state was "inherently authoritarian", he told me.

"If you held power, it allowed an ability to skim and award contracts and the like - it promoted a corrupt form of government in many places," he added.

Kwame Nkrumah led his country to freedom - but also bankruptcy
There have long been arguments about the pernicious effects on Africa of colonial rule. But it is a complex picture.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first Ghanaian leader, once said that the policy of the colonial powers was to "create African states that are frail and weak, even if independent".

On the other hand, Robert Guest, author of The Shackled Continent, a book about Africa’s predicament, argues that even where post-colonial government resided in the hands of strong-minded leaders; men of integrity, they too were often undone by inexperience.

Nkrumah was a visionary but he was also nave - unlike many African leaders, his problem was incompetence, not corruption.

This was in contrast to Yakubu Gowon, the army officer who came to power in oil-rich Nigeria in 1966, who once quipped, "our problem isn’t money, but how to spend it".

Gowon’s regime was characterized by corruption in high and low places, and barely a year after he came to power, Nigeria plunged itself into a three-year long civil war which claimed over a million lives.

And the Biafran war was only one of many across Africa.

Victims

The post-colonial era was still in its first decade, but already all over the continent, things were falling apart - partially because, when Africa was split up between the great imperialist powers in the nineteenth century, the map of Africa was arbitrarily redrawn.

What Geldof and co are doing is infantilising an entire continent

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Families and whole tribes had been split up into separate countries. Rival kingdoms, who had for centuries shared borders and warred with each other, suddenly found themselves redefined as one people.

All the same, nearly 50 years since the end of the colonial era, is it time perhaps for us to stop blaming the trauma of that encounter for all our problems? Who truly is to blame for this?

To my mind, many of Africa’s most profound problems stem from the way Africans look at themselves: all too often, Africa suffers from low self-esteem.

All too often, Africans see themselves mirrored in the eyes of the west - of those rich former colonial powers who like to regard Africans only as victims.

And, all too often, Africans become the distorted images reflected in these mirrors.

Crimes of colonialism

There is a noble tradition of initiatives like Live Aid - attempts by well-meaning Westerners to fix Africa’s problems by raising money and awareness.

Commentators such as Yasmin Alibhai Brown argue such events are simply perpetuating the dependency culture created by colonialism, and that "what Geldof and co are doing" is "infantilising an entire continent".

Colonial government was responsible for millions of brutal deaths
Meanwhile, no western leader has yet formally apologised for the wrongs of the colonial era. So is it time now for former colonial powers like Britain and France to do so?

For me this is a difficult question to answer.

The crimes of colonialism seem self-evident. But on the other hand, I think the priority now is for Africans to look forward, not back.

Whatever answer we give is neither here nor there.

What is truly clear is that the solution to Africa’s problems lies neither in the hands of self-serving pop stars in Dublin, London or New York - no matter how well-intentioned most of them might be - nor in the hands of Western politicians, who cannot be bothered even to conceal their contempt for Africa.

Clearly, Africa does need the world’s help. But Africa’s destiny can be changed for the better only by Africans themselves.

To borrow Benjamin Franklin’s words, we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.

We must come together, not in a sentimental but ultimately pointless spirit of nationalist phrase-making, but to pull ourselves, together, out of this mess we’re in.

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