Ask an educated African today whether colonialism did anything good for Africa, and you are likely to get the answer, “Absolutely not!” Most—especially those Africans living and educated abroad—will give you a litany of evils that colonialism allegedly brought to the continent.
However, at the great risk of being roundly abused for telling obvious truths, I will argue the other side of the story. It is clear to me that many young Africans today do not know what the people who experienced “The Great Change” had to say about it. Colonialism, despite its many flaws, had a few things going for it. It did bring some important benefits to Africa. None other than the eminent Ghanaian historian Adu Boahen, no friend of colonialism, admits as much. (see African Perspectives on Colonialism.)
What was West Africa like before colonialism? It was a highly heterogeneous place with a few stratified and bureaucratic societies, mostly Islamic, some societies in between, and numerous small unstratified tribal entities. The place generally suffered from the usual problems of fractured and fractious tribal regions around the world. I have discussed these problems in an earlier post here
For example, in the forest regions, wars and inter-tribal feuds were endemic. This is no stereotype, but a characteristic of many of the tribal societies that have been studied around the world. Even in the more hierarchical regions, in empires such as the Sokoto Caliphate, there were wars and slave raiding on a regular basis.
So what is the most important benefit that colonialism brought to Africa? It forcibly brought Africa into the modern world and integrated it into the emerging global economy. The first benefit therefore is peace because in order to carry out their economic objectives, the colonial powers had to impose a colonial peace on warring and slave raiding states and tribes. It is impossible to organize a colonial economy of colonial resource extraction in a climate of personal insecurity and constant disruption.
As I mentioned in one of my early posts, Pulitzer Prizewinning author and UCLA professor of geography Jared Diamond tells us that, “When tribal warfare is finally ended by forceful intervention by colonial governments, tribes people regularly comment on the resulting improved quality of life that they hadn’t been able to create for themselves…”
It is therefore useful to hear what West Africans of the time said about their precolonial world, and what they thought of the coming of the colonialists, rather than what Africanist historians with an ideological ax to grind have to say today.
“I heard that when the Eru [i.e. Aro] people began to come to Awka to look for slaves, our ancestors’ land was always the first place they visited,” Ishiwu Ogbene says in Igbo Worlds, the collection of oral testimonies about precolonial Igbo society, edited by Elizabeth Isichei. Igboland is in South Eastern Nigeria. Ogbene was 94 when his testimony was recorded in 1973. “There were many wars between them (Eru) and Awka people and the fighting took place in that place always.”
Ogbene’s people migrated to escape the slave raids. But they did not escape incessant warfare. Where they eventually settled, his people “fought many wars against Ibagwa. They also fought against Obukpa, Ovoko, Iheaka and Ihoro. The last of the wars started in the year I was born. This Agha Ukwu (Great War) lasted for five years….Our fathers fought so many wars that even today the Ibagwa people and the Ihoror people fear and hate them. They know that only the coming of the white man saved them.”
In A Chronicle of Abuja, a history written in Hausa by indigenes Mallam Hassan and Mallam Shuaibu, and commissioned by the Emir of Abuja (now the capital city of Nigeria), we learn that,
“…Ibrahim was one of the warrior Emirs who did his utmost to guard the land of Abuja and prevent it from falling into the hands of the Fulani as all the surrounding country had long since fallen, and he helped the Pagans in other parts to fight the Fulani, for, because of the slave raiding, they dared not live in the open country to farm or trade, but fled to the forests and the hills, though many of them were caught and taken to be sold in other districts.”
It is important to note that the Fulani were pre-European colonizers of the Sahel region of West Africa, creating an Islamic Caliphate or empire in Northern Nigeria in the early 19th century. The Sokoto Caliphate became the second largest slave society in the world in the 19th century surpassed only by the American slave South. Before the British and French showed up in West Africa, the bad guys in that region as far as the “pagan” tribes were concerned, were the jihadist Fulani conquerors and slave raiders.
Hassan and Shuaibu continue:
“…the coming of the British was the Mercy of God, that the chiefs of Abuja might rest from their strife with the Fulani, that they might live in peace with them now that the raids were at an end, and in friendship and marriage. And the Pagans came out of the forests and down from the hills to farm and trade in the open country, and those who had been taken away as slaves were restored to their homes.”
We also have Baba, a Hausa woman of the same region, talking about her experiences in the book Baba of Karo by the anthropologist Mary Smith. Baba says,
“When I was a maiden the Europeans first arrived. Ever since we were quite small the malams [teachers] had been saying that the Europeans would come with a thing called a train, they would come with a thing called a motor-car….They would stop wars, they would repair the world, they would stop oppression and lawlessness, we should live at peace with them….At that time Yusufu was the king of Kano. He did not like the Europeans, he did not wish them, he would not sign their treaty. Then he saw that perforce he would have to agree, so he did. We Habe [another name for the Hausa, who had been conquered and colonized by the Fulani] wanted them to come, it was the Fulani who did not like it. When the Europeans came the Habe saw that if you worked for them they paid you for it, they did not say, like the Fulani, ‘Commoner, give me this! Commoner, bring me that!’ Yes, the Habe wanted them….
The Europeans said that there were to be no more slaves; if someone said ‘Slave!’ you could complain to the alkali [native court judge] who would punish the master who said it, the judge said, ‘That is what the Europeans have decreed.’”
Of course, there were parts of Africa where the colonialists made things worse, such as in King Leopold’s Congo, and in Namibia. But the statement by Jared Diamond is essentially correct. The people of my grandmother’s generation, who experienced the coming of colonialism, were in agreement that it was a good thing because it ended the parlous insecurity of tribal existence.
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
African Perspectives on Colonialism by J. Adu Boahen
West African Narrative by Paul Edwards
Baba of Karo by Mary Smith
Slow Death for Slavery: The course of abolition in Northern Nigeria, 1897-1936 by Paul E. Lovejoy and Jan S. Hogendorn