France since 1957 controls 85% of the national reserves of 14 African countries. All are FORCED to pay colonial taxes to France. The 14 countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon) in foreign currency at the Bank of France, and can only use 15% per annum, and when they exceed the limit of 15% they are obliged to pay 65% fee under the total amount of the “loan”.
(Find out what France did with Togo in 1963 three days after the country “conquered” its independence)
Haiti is one of the most miserable countries in the world due to the enslavement of Africans promoted by the French empire. Until 2004, Haiti paid about 77 billion dollars in colonial rates to France.
France “collects” about 500 BILLION dollars annually from countries that are hitherto coerced to pay taxes so that they are not destroyed by the French government.
The colonial powers were not interested only in natural resources and raw material in the lands they set foot on. They were also interested in the languages, religions and cultures of the indigenous peoples of those lands. Therefore, colonialism both had economic-commercial and cultural-political objectives. On the other hand, it is possible to say that France left more permanent effects at cultural and political levels. For instance, it is very hard for an African country to vote against the national benefits of France at the UN today.
French imperialism found itself new markets, capital, raw material and cheap labor force and established colonies or protectorates in Africa by claiming that it was their mission to “civilize” the “primitive” folks. France, for instance, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, did not do much to prevent the ethnic clashes and genocide in Rwanda during 1994. Due to its right to veto, the French responsibility in Rwanda was never questioned at the UN or international war crime tribunals.
To maintain its dominance in Central Africa better, France established a federal structure called the “French Equatorial Africa” in 1908 and united Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Gabon. These countries are all independent states and are in political conflict with eachother today.
It is not possible to speak of a good vicinity in North Africa either. For example, Morocco has serious problems with Mauritania and Algeria because of West Sahara issue and political reasons. In some cases, African countries tend to co-operate against eachother with the country that colonized and exploited them. That is why, it is not really possible to speak of an African solidarity, unity.
It is complex to access the benefit or the harm of colonialism whether it is in Africa or elsewhere. Colonisation has been the norm for centuries and it took the West two world wars to understand that colonial aspirations were threatening the very survival of the humankind. Africa has a long history of interaction with nations of immediate vicinity namely the Europeans, the Arabs and the Ottomans. The downfall of Ancient Egypt could be attributed to the tenacious assaults of the Romans which led to its conquest a bit more than 2000 years ago.
After the Romans lost ground, the Arabs took up their place … After the Ottomans rose as a regional power, they took over the area and as they experienced their own decline, the Europeans came along. It’s of course a little more complicated than that, but it’s just to give an idea.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so does power. Power has both a political and economic dimension and Africa still appears to be the playground of all major powers and aspirants: USA, Russia, China, UK, France, the Gulf States, etc.
Did colonialism benefit or harm the Continent? The best way to answer it is to put it into context. I will focus on the European colonialism that happened between 1880 – 1960 for the most part. It is worth pointing out that , it mostly lasted less than 100 years. It was preceded by the Industrial Revolution and the Slade Trade and was shaped by three major wars : the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.
1- Motivations for the colonisation of Africa
The aim of most nations has always been to be the most advanced and powerful. That’s why (aspirant) European nations rushed to conquer new territories when they felt they could. Africa after 1850 was considered the last frontier for colonial aspirations. Indeed, the Americas and Asia were almost already unavailable for countries with imperialistic ambitions.
By 1850, most of the Americas was made up of nascent nations with a significant share of former European colonialists (British, Spanish, French, etc.) that either fiercely fought for their independence or were on the verge of doing so. This period also marks the growing rise of a new major power: the USA – larger than all of Europe combined while geographically far away from the continent and its unending confrontations. There was therefore very little room for maneuver on that continent.
Asia (including the Middle East) on the other hand, was made up of large kingdoms that were often already known by Europeans. The Arabs were kicked out of Southern Europe few centuries ago and some South East Asian nations were active part of the Silk Road. The access to that continent was either through ocean, the desert or from countries like Russia and Turkey.
In some cases, attempts for colonization (India, Vietnam, etc.) turned successful, in others only partly (Hong Kong/Macao – China) and many others, it failed. The Opium War waged in China solely enabled the UK to obtain Hong Kong in 1841. If China was made up of a multitude of small kingdoms, they would probably not have been able to resist. However, the Qing dynasty had already organised that vast territory and overalll created a certain sense of unity that allowed them to resist colonisation.
That was unfortunately not the case for most of Africa. The continent was made up of an immense and diverse share of tribes and kingdoms, some being well-established, others still building up and others struggling with the slave trades (the most famous ones being the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Arab Slave Trade) and other unfavorable conditions. This map represents just the most prominent African kingdoms in 1850. Some were just too small to fit into the map:
By 1800s, a lot of European traders had established trading posts on the African coasts. Some Europeans made reports about local kings they were trading with for centuries. That’s when the infamous Atlantic Slave Trade ended. European nations were engaged in the slave trade and later in their suppression (especially the UK). Some kings had built their economic model on this slave trade. They found themselves without resources. The kingdoms, which were victims of it, could have been nourished by a desire for reprisal. By force of circumstance, the Europeans found themselves in the midst of political rivalries from which they were able to take advantage of.
In 1850, as the map suggests, some Europeans countries had already occupied some stretches of land on the continent:
Given that they were mostly present on the Coast, the interior of the Continent was sparking a lot of fascination. The tropical diseases were not a huge problem anymore since a lot of vaccine were being developed in flourishing European Universities and Laboratories (cf. white man’s grave). The Europeans started developing a mounting interest into that vast area. This period also marks the early years of the Industrial Revolution.
The need for labor turned into a demand for raw materials. Africa is geographically close to Europe and some Europeans personally knew the local kings and chiefs. It’s simply the continent with the largest potential for colonialisation : vast unexploited land, small and less advanced nations, diverse geography, etc. Therefore, all major European countries rushed to the Continent. As a result, much of Africa was transformed into western colonies within nearly 40 years (1860-1900). Here is the map of the continent in 1900:
Since the colonies were supposed to make the country more powerful, the colonial powers usually tried to make them productive. This was not often done directly for the good of the inhabitants of the colonies but there were occasions where it was the case. There has been a lot abuse of human rights, looting, forced labor, etc. during the colonial time. Some believe that the world wars I & II were the result and the continuation of atrocities committed in the colonies.
Indeed, while Africa was colonized, Europe was shaken by two of the most deadly wars in history: the First and Second World Wars. Africa was often used as a proxy battlefield that provides human resources to the belligerent armies.
Here is the picture of a Senegalese (French: Tirailleur Sénégalais). Senegalese Tirailleurs were a corps of colonial infantry in the French Army. They were initially recruited from Senegal, French West Africa and subsequently throughout Western, Central and Eastern Africa. At the end of the Second World War, a lot of Africans were well aware of the way the UK, France, etc. fought against the brutal and imperialist Nazis. Fighting alongside with them inspired them in their own battle against the cruelty of the colonial experience. Few years later, most African countries were asking for their independence.
Colonies were not on the same footing. Since the goal was to make benefits, colonies that could offer much (productive land, mild climate, access to the sea, the geographical and cultural proximity of colonial power) generally received more attention (investment, immigration, etc.). The best examples are : South Africa, Namibia, Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe), Algeria, Tunisia, etc. Those colonies/protectorates were often the first to be granted semi-autonomous institutions: South Africa as Dominion of the British Empire and Algeria as a French region.
Colonies that were not so well endowed, such as the landlocked Sahelian colonies (Niger, Mali, etc.), received less attention because any investment was costly and the conditions of living were difficult. Some of them were known as the white man’s grave referring to the high mortality rate among white missionaries and colonists, due to the tropical climate, diseases, and sanitation.
The benefits and the harms of a situation are both relative and subjective concepts. Would every agree if one says that the Apartheid system was beneficial because under it, South Africa built some of the nicest and best-equipped cities/universities/etc. in Africa?
Would everyone agree if one says that the Hitler administration brought some benefits to Germany because of the impressive Reichsautobahn built during his time?
I would advise everyone interested in the topic not to have a black and white approach but to carefully read about the history of the affected countries and make their own judgment.
2- The Harms of the colonial time
The destruction of former economic and cultural models
It was harmful to the African societies and cultures. Indeed, for many states, the natural evolution of society was frozen and swiftly substituted with a completely different model. Those are the main states in Africa in the 16th-17th centuries:
This is Europe during the same period:
Same as in other continents, Africa has his own civilizations, built its own cities, universities, has been trading with other nations (mostly the Arab world), etc. This is a picture of the University Timbuktu in the Mali empire. It was established in 982 BCE:
Then came the Atlantic slave trade but also the less know Arab Slave Trade. For almost 400 years, the daily life for many of Africans was like that:
It is important to note that this was done with the complicity of some local rulers. In the meantime, internal wars and natural conditions were shaping the continent same as everywhere in the world. The population on the continent barely grew even before the colonial time.
Deprived of their workforce, most kingdoms ended up destroyed and fragile. The kingdoms that profited from the slave trade were in the meantime weakened. Indeed, the trade became high unpopular across the Western World and was successfully abolished by most of them. The Arab Strade also lost steam. On the other hand, Europe was experiencing a lot of changes: the industrial revolution, the first signs of political stability, a population boom, a fierce economical, military and political competition, etc. Without less than 20 years, Africa had new borders and suddenly looked like that:
Enemy kingdoms & tribes now had the share the same boundaries. The same kingdom/tribe is now scattered throughout 4-5 nations. People now had to think French, British, Portuguese, etc. because it is the civilized way and to work to the power of the colonial master. People were sometimes not allowed to express criticism, were sometimes treated as sub-humans and reduced to forced labor. In many cases, access to education and administration was reduced to a small elite which later one favored conflicts in the independent African countries. It is not that far away. It is less than a century ago. That’s why the harm is still visible nowadays.
The Death toll
The most traumatising harm caused by colonial time is certainly the violence and cruelty of many colonial administrations. For example, the Herero and Nama genocide was a campaign of racial extermination and collective punishment that the German Empire undertook in German South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) against the Herero, Nama and San people.
In Kenya in 1952, the British had bloodily repressed the Land and Freedom Army— which they pejoratively called “Mau Mau”— and was determined to maintain their grip on that country.
Te Cameroon Independence war certainly caused 100,000 – 200.000 civilians deaths between 1956 and 1964. The country had less about 4 millionsinhabitants. At a 1962 conference, a journalist from Le Monde claimed 120,000 had been killed since 1959 in the Bamileke region alone.
3- The benefits of the Colonial Time
The benefits for Europeans are obvious.
Economically, this has created a huge dependence on the West marked by the very unbalanced trade flow. African countries still massively import western manufactured goods while exporting their raw materials. Finished products and services provide a lot of jobs in Europe while raw materials generate very few jobs in Africa and conversely fuel conflicts, corruption, and mismanagement.
Here are the exports of Nigeria in 2011:
Here are the imports of Nigeria in 2011:
This pattern is no different from that of the colonial times. Africa’s development may lie in getting a good understanding of that legacy. Most countries that emerged after colonization had a hard time adapting from that economic model.
On another note, this has allowed the Western culture to definitively establish itself as the dominant culture globally. Because of their huge diversity, a lot of African countries maintained the formal colonial language as the unifying ones. Here is the map of the the business languages in Africa nowadays.
It almost almost perfectly match the map of European colonies in Africa close before the waves of independence in 1960:
What about the benefits for Africans?
As the objective in some cases was also to make the colony productive, to spread Western civilisation and sometimes to welcome the population arriving from colonial powers, schools, universities, infrastructures, hospitals, etc. were built. That has mainly benefited the colonies (South Africa, Kenya etc.) that had much to offer.
Namibia was one the latest African countries to become independent (1990) and it is hard to miss the marks of the colonial influence when visiting the country. The country is currently one of the most prosperous on the continent:
The University of Makerere in Uganda, which is one of the best in Africa, traces its origin from the British colonial time.
The East African railways as well:
Many colonial industrial exploitations are still in operation today. This is a tea plantation in northwestern Cameroon. It was initiated by the Germans and is still around 100 years later:
There are still territories under colonial administration, including in Africa:
- Reunion Island (France)
- Ceuta and Melilla (Spain)
- Mayotte (France)
- Canary Islands (Spain)
- Madeira Island (Portugal)
Those are mostly small territories but could be cases for comparison, especially Mayotte:
Mayotte is an overwhelmingly Muslim island midway between the northern coasts of Madagascar and Mozambique. The territory is a French Overseas Territory and the people on the picture are manifesting here against … illegal migrants. The migrants are mostly from neighbouring islands of the Comoros. The Comoros voted for independence in 1974 while Mayotte decided to stay under French jurisdiction. The Comoros experienced much political unrest after independence, whereas Mayotte remained relatively stable under colonial administration. That is the reason why 95% of the population have finally voted to become a French department in a referendum organized in 2009.
Since then, the citizens of Mayotte all have French nationality. They have freedom of movement in almost 188 countries: they have access to a modern health system, they can study and work anywhere in Europe without applying for a visa. They can study in Quebec with the same rates as a local, etc. There is no way the people of Mayotte would get the same benefits if they had voted for independence in 1974. Even neighboring Mauritius, which is one of the most prosperous African countries, is not there yet.
The colonization of Africa also gave rise to a strong pan-African movement that led to the creation of the African Union.
It has also connected Africa with very various regions and within its own boundaries. This has created economic ties that are still perceptible now. Here are Ghana main export partners:
Most of them are related to the former British empire.
Colonization has been the norm since the first civilizations arose. Some African kingdoms had as well colonial aspirations at some points: the Moors in Iberia, the Bantus, the Egyptians, the Bantus, etc.
European colonisation has taken on an indescribable “industrial” dimension, which has given my Western power an advantage, but not necessarily to the benefit of the colonised territories.
Not only colonization, but decolonization has been very prejudicial to Africa. The independence of African countries took place during the Cold War. Killing pro-independence leaders (Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, etc.) to support the presidents on the sole basis that they are pro-European, pro-capitalist (Joseph Kabila) or pro-Communist, has been the main prejudice to the transition to totally independent countries. Some of them have fuelled wars that have lasted until now.
Leadership is very important to nation-building, especially when a country is a heterogeneous mix of people from different cultures, languages and religions. Africa is just recovering from it. What Africa needs are leaders who put their people at the center of everything and who make everyone work in their diversity, whether at the national or continental level. It’s only recently that this kind of leaders are beginning to emerge and it’s not always easy to chase out the previous ones or correct their heritage.
In any case, it was brutal, destroyed a lot of local societies and gave a lot of Africans a low self-esteem that is hard to eliminate. Nevertheless, Africa can leverage this heritage through training and turning its younger generations into an educated, multilingual and competitive workforce capable of trading with the whole world.