Colonialism in Africa

How did the colonial experience differ in different countries in Africa? To what extent does colonialism still exercise an enduring effect?

Colonialism in Africa was mainly structured through three systems: white settler-run states, indirect rule and direct rule. Even within these categories the experience differed, as Crowder has emphasised in his discussion of the differences between French and British indirect rule. Each of these systems has had a lasting effect on the societies that were colonised. For example the confiscation of land to farm by white settlers still creates dilemmas for modern day Zimbabwe. Favouring one ethnic group to rule indirectly, such as in Uganda or Rwanda, creates a division in society that cannot be easily reversed and that is going to make peaceful governance more difficult. In many cases the unfavoured class during colonial rule still suffers to this day; in some cases it appears to the sceptic that liberation fighters were actually fighting not against colonialism, not to change the system, but to seize control of it to exploit for their own benefit.

I thought Mazrui’s discussion of Africa’s apparent receptivity to foreign culture and religion was interesting, especially when considered in light of Amilcar Cabral’s argument for the importance of indigenous culture for liberation struggles. Attempts to replace local culture and with foreign language and religion seem a pretty enduring legacy of colonialism. However, Mazrui’s point that France now needs francophone Africa to justify its place as a global power, is thought-provoking. France clearly still benefits economically from its colonies but could French Africa gain the advantage from the colonial experience in the future?

Lastly, discussion around the nature of China’s role in Africa touches on Mazrui’s concerns over the potential for recolonisation. An article in the Financial Times this week stated that the greatest amount of foreign investment in Africa comes from the West – China ranked seventh in the list for greenfield capital expenditure in 2014. France was the highest foreign direct investor, followed by Greece, the US, China and Belgium. Is the criticism focused on China therefore a little neo-colonial in itself, serving to protect these countries’ investments and influence against uspurption by another power?


Ali Mazrui, Africa and other civilisations: conquest and counter conquest, in J. Harbeson, D. Rothschild, Africa in World Politics, Boulder: Westview Press, 110-35

M. Crowder, 1964, Indirect Rule: French and British-style, Africa, 34: 197-205

A. Cabral, 1970, History is a weapon: national liberation and culture

Courtney Fingar, West leads direct investment into Africa, Financial Times, 6 October 2015


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