Colonial Influences Still Found in African Life


Europe has been migrating away from Africa and the colonial era for some time. What is challenging to change from this moment in human history are the routines that two generations of families experienced during this era.

The Berlin Conference in 1885 formalized what became a scramble for land in Africa. Governments arbitrarily divided the continent between themselves and began to administer their colonies. When they decided to stop this practice 70 years later, what remained was very different than what was there before.

Although there are a handful of exceptions, most African countries are some of the world’s most impoverished today, and the influence of Europe is partially to blame.

Europe Established Three Colony Types in Africa

When European governments scrambled to capture Africa and its potential wealth, three different colony structures were used to establish authority.

  • Centralized States. Swaziland, Rwanda, Lesotho, Benin, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Botswana are all examples of this governance option for the European colonies.
  • White Settlements. Colonists came to South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to create something similar to the settlements made in the Americas during the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • Uncentralized Societies. Some areas of Africa were so undeveloped that white settlers didn’t want to be there, and limited government was available to centralize. South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Sierra Leone ended up seeing hybrid methods of development.

Some would argue that without colonialism, Africa would not have had the same chance to raise income levels and living standards. The counter-argument to that idea is that all groups, absent the influences of Europe, would have eventually established the same global contacts as every other country and government.

That implies missionaries would have gone to Africa to build schools, teach religion, and make other improvements. Global organizations, such as the League of Nations, would have worked to stop coerced labor. Many of the countries would have worked on building up their export profile – as they were before the shift to colonialism.

The atrocities during the colonial period in Africa would have also disappeared.

Did Colonialism Restrict African Development?

There is no question that European colonialism restricted the economic development of the African continent. 

In the places where white settlers came to establish new wealth, land grabs became their legacy. There was no thought to the displacement of others, even to the extent of creating racially unequal government structures. Apartheid in South Africa was an authoritarian culture based on white supremacy that dominated every aspect of society.

That emphasis on white superiority would stop until the 1990s.

When Europe decided to leave the African continent, two generations of people suddenly had to learn how to self-govern. Many of them turned to history’s lessons, settling for tyrants, despots, and oppression because that was the only governing processes they knew. It has been another 30-50 years of militaristic influence – and only now are things changing. 

Africa is catching up to the rest of the world. When it does, each family’s experiences will make the continent an influential member of the global economic picture.

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