A few decades ago, I fell ill with the killer disease malaria for the first time in my life. At the time, I was a teen back in Nigeria about to take WAEC, the West African Examinations Council series of tests for West African secondary school leavers. It was three days to the first exam test. The disease struck me low—I could hardly stand, could not eat, could not sleep, had hammering headaches and a drenching fever. I considered applying for an exam postponement, but my mother would not hear of it. She took me to the family doctor, who gave me a Nivaquine injection. Presto, the next morning all the debilitating symptoms were gone except for some mild weakness which also went away later that day.

I don’t know all the traditional medicines that were available for malaria in pre-colonial Nigerian societies, but I am sure they would not have been as speedily effective as the chloroquine (yes, that now notorious drug touted without proof as a Coronavirus cure by a mendacious president) in the injected drug. I know some people in the village took the leaves from a tree known as dogonyaro (the neem tree), boiled it and strained the liquid which they drank. Some contemporary research suggests that it has some benefit. Some of my friends took it, but I did not see the same sort of rapid improvements I experienced with the Nivaquine injection.

Dogonyaro (neem) tree

This post examines the positive things colonialism brought to West Africa, as distinct from the negative things it ended.

Modern scientific medicine is one. Some traditional cures were undeniably useful—the general belief is that West African herbalists developed many cures for things like snakebite. It is also reported that in some parts of Northern Nigeria, a crude form of vaccination against smallpox was practiced by scratching the skin with a sharp object and rubbing in fluid from the pustules of infected people (see Baba of Karo, p 46. She reports that infants sometimes died from this form of inoculation). Other West African peoples practiced it too. Unfortunately, most other traditional medicines were just as ignorant and dangerous as some of those practiced by Europe before the advent of modern scientific medicine.

One of the most important things colonialism brought West Africa is the idea that things could be made better. In the words of Nigerian writer and economic commentator Tunde Obadina, “The most subversive act of colonialism was to introduce into the minds of Africans and peoples of other pre-capitalist societies the idea that material progress and prosperity were possible for the masses of people. Ordinary people in pre-colonial times assumed that their material conditions were fixed. A good harvest might provide a few more yams to eat but the idea that living conditions could be fundamentally altered was alien. The prospect that rather than trek miles to fetch water, running water could be piped into homes was unknown. With colonialism came the idea of progress—that humanity is capable of improving its condition of existence—today can be made better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. After or even before people’s basic needs are met, there is an endless world of consumer products and services for self-satisfaction.” (from the essay, The Myth of Neo-Colonialism.)

This idea of progressive material prosperity was not just new for West Africa, it is new for virtually all human societies, part of the huge social transformations brought about by the technological changes of the industrial revolutions that occurred around the world in the last 250 years. Before the 18th century, most people expected to live the way their ancestors had lived for generations. These new ideas brought by colonialists to tradition-bound African societies paradoxically taught natives that it is not only material things that are improvable:  they could fight colonialism, challenge it, change it, and even overthrow it. The colonized peoples figured out that, unlike traditional society, things were not immutable because “that is how we and our ancestors have done it since time immemorial.”

West Africans found that they could take the colonialists to court; they could play on the conscience of the colonialists; they could strike and demand better wages.  This knowledge was and remains a mixed blessing for Africans: they know that material progress is possible, but most ordinary people do not enjoy this material progress, and the African elites do not seem to know how to make it possible for everyone.

Colonialism also brought education. Some schools were founded by the colonial governments and many of them introduced by missionaries. One of the great ironies of African colonial history, often passed over by strident opponents of colonialism, is that the most effective leaders of the struggle against colonialism and for independence were educated in colonial-missionary schools. These clear products of colonialism showed how the oppressor could be fought using methods drawn from the oppressor’s own culture.

For example, Nmamdi Azikiwe (or Zik, as he is more popularly known), one of the leading African fighters for independence, was educated in a missionary school—Hope Waddell Secondary School in Calabar—before he went to university in the US. A man of prodigious energy and can-do spirit, Azikiwe was a persistent thorn in the side of the British colonialists in Nigeria and Ghana. They tried everything they could to tarnish his reputation and discredit him to no avail.

Great independence crusader Nnamdi Azikiwe

One of his celebrated accomplishments happened after he was “rebuffed” for a loan in a “curt and condescending way” by a British bank manager, despite having enough collateral. He had gone to request a credit extension to run one of his many anti-colonialist newspapers.  Deeply offended, Zik wrote the white manager promising that he would create an African bank that would not discriminate against Africans. With the help of friends, family, and African subscribers, and a call to supporters—an early form of crowdfunding—he founded the famous African Continental Bank, a dominant pro-African bank in colonial and post colonial Nigeria.

In Ghana (the Gold Coast colony), Achimota School (formerly Prince of Wales College and School), also nurtured opponents of colonialism. The famous secondary school was founded in 1927 by Sir Frederick Gordon Guggisberg, the governor of the Gold Coast colony that became the independent country of Ghana. Another great African nationalist, Kwame Nkurumah, went to school there, where he learned the ideas of black nationalists like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Dubois.  Nkrumah organized strikes and protests against the British until they granted the Gold Coast independence, with him as first Prime Minister of the new state of Ghana.

Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana and great independence fighter

Even in the North of Nigeria, where Western education was discouraged to please the Islamic Emirs and teachers, and missionaries were forbidden to open Christian schools (something that led to the subsequent retardation of the region, a future cause of conflict) the future leaders of the country like first Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the de facto head of independent Nigeria, the Fulani aristocrat Ahmadu Bello, were educated at the elite Barewa College (formerly Katsina College, founded by Governor-General Hugh Clifford in 1921), where they were taught British manners and English elocution. 

Students graduating from Barewa College in 2017
Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, a Fulani prince who was the de facto ruler of Nigeria when Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was Prime Minister

Africa therefore made some progress under colonialism, no matter how meagre, no matter how incidental to the real economic purposes of European imperialism. Some of my friends argue that Africa should have been left alone to develop at its own pace. The problem with such an argument is that Africa was colonized precisely because it was not developing at its own pace. It had 500 years of contact with Europe during which it was unable to organize itself against invaders or borrow and master the techniques that would have enabled it to defend itself against European encroachment.

Powerful regions and nations tend to exploit and colonize weak regions and nations that have something they want. It has been ever so since the beginning of recorded history. Educated African elites should accept this instead of moaning about colonialism and neo-colonialism at every opportunity. They should be figuring out what to do so it does not happen again.  African elites must learn to work with whatever history has given them; they must learn to make lemonade from lemons, or more appropriately, edible garri (a West African staple) from poisonous cassava.


Baba of Karo by Mary Smith

The Industrial Revolution in World History by Peter Stearns

African Perspectives on Colonialism by A. Adu Boahen

The Politics of Africa’s Economic Stagnation by Richard Sandbrook

Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an emergent African nation by Robert L. Sklar

Why the West Rules—For Now by Ian Morris

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