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"But being right, even morally right, isn't everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It's important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It's important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist."
-Anne Applebaum

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Essay on British and French Legacies in West Africa

BONUS LINK:  My entire (so far) grad school notes collection can be found here. 

British and French Legacies in West Africa

            Historian Paul Nugent’s comment that “Decolonization could never have simply been the negation of colonization” (Nugent, 8) is astute because it speaks to the varied levels of legacies felt from the colonial experience.  Comprehensively examining the continent-wide legacies of French and British colonialism in Africa is a monumental task best suited to lengthy theses and books by dedicated Africanists.  Given this wide range of colonial experiences throughout Africa’s numerous nations, there is an opportunity to investigate and compare a few countries within a region to cull details indicative of the overall colonial legacy experience. In this case it is worthwhile to examine the west African colonial legacy, specifically in Senegal and Nigeria. In these two nations, the post-colonial legacies surfaced as faltering political and economic systems.  There is also an underlying story of the effects of second-class French assimilation versus ignorant British attempts at both subjugation and the elevation of an “inferior” culture.  Ultimately the post-colonial developments are less about the mode of rule than about the efficacy of the specific rule and investment in that nation.
            The old Yoruba proverb states that, “Without children you are naked” (Iliffe, 69).  This captures well the notion of population growth, decline and stagnation as a theme of central importance throughout African history (Iliffe, 5).  Approaching the pre-colonial factors in this manner allows one to examine them generally and then focus on the post-colonially legacies specifically.  Otherwise, one is faced with the difficulty of associating pre-colonial causes with the artificiality of post-colonial borders.  Initial habitation (confusingly called “colonization” by Iliffe) cloistered around rivers in West Africa (Iliffe, 67).  This tended to occur in disparate small villages independent of one another throughout the second millennium.  High infant mortality rates, famine and disease all stunted and stagnated the population growth in this area.  Disease ranged from malaria to sleeping sickness and while some resistance was developed to the disease there was little beyond homespun remedies to combat them (Iliffe, 67-8).  Beginning in 1100, four hundred years of desiccation began; after a brief respite the Sahara desert continued to expand, stoking famine, which when combined with disease, would routinely destroy almost half of an affected population (Iliffe, 67-8).  While there is only scant reliable data, historians estimate that one in three children died within their first year of life.  This meant that women responded to the premium placed on children, giving birth on average six times but breast feeding them for as long as four years (Iliffe, 67-8).  Through the process of colonization this stagnant trend was reversed, accomplished namely by improved medical care that drove birthrates upwards and death rates downwards (Iliffe, 248).  It was then unfortunate that the European powers did not also build a capacity to support the population growth through a sound economic, agricultural and political base.
            Another important pre-colonial factor was the formation of the family unit.  One saw this primarily arise in West Africa through the role of the Big Man (Iliffe, 97). With such a marked focus on children as a means to propagate wealth, the more children a man had, the more powerful he could become.  The men who were most successful in this endeavor had multiple wives and even more children.  This ethos made woman extremely valuable as child-bearers but also served to dehumanize them by turning them into commodities.  It was not uncommon for these extended families to number as many as forty members, (Iliffe, 97).  These large numbers were vital because they meant a large workforce to labour in the fields of a west African region where land was plentiful but the people were not (Iliffe, 95).   Eventually, these enormous families would become villages and these Big Men chiefs (such as among Hausa and Malinke) (Iliffe, 97).  As African nations transitioned into independence, new versions of the Big Man would surface as autocratic rulers.   
            The role of religion, specifically Islam was an influential determinate in specific parts of western Africa.  In 1804, a jihad occurred that transformed a disparate Hausaland into the Sokoto Caliphate (Iliffe, 173).  Through this initial jihad and subsequent smaller ones the Caliphate exercised decentralized control over a 400,000 square kilometer area (Iliffe, 175).  Such a unique level of authority was only possible through the religious mechanisms of Islam.  The Caliphate model was spelled out in the Koranic law and Islamic history, giving it the authority of a written charter (Iliffe, 175).  Exercising control and taxation through the emirs, the Caliphate developed into a robust slaving society, continually adding numbers of slaves through dry season raids on the surrounding non-Muslim communities (Iliffe, 176-7). This religious framework eventually made Hausaland an intellectual, commercial and educational center (Iliffe, 176).  Thus, unlike other relatively developed areas in Africa, Hausaland possessed an administrative structure that could be easily assumed by the colonizer.  This stood in stark contrast to jihad efforts in the western savanna that were not able to unite the fragmentary society there (Iliffe, 178).
            Finally, there was no greater pre-colonial causal element than slavery due to its deleterious effect of population growth and its cementing of a native ruling elite.  In a region that needed to increase its population, the theft of roughly 11 million people in a 350 year period (from 1519-1867) was not only morally repugnant but also revealed the chasmic gap between the personal and the community at large in the region (Iliffe, 135).  The Africans who traded in slavery propagated this gap with a disregard for the value of and a lack of kinship with their fellow Africans.  These Africans traders captured and sold slaves, seeking to consolidate power and followers from among their own people through the acquisition of wealth and firearms (Iliffe, 139).  This new wealth fueled the ascension of a minority ruling class that thrived on the slave economy, using its firepower to dominate and control the surrounding population (Iliffe, 144).   The combination of a heretofore-unrealized power and a completely new economy, as well as an influx of wealth was an entirely new realm for the inhabitants of the region.  Never before had the political and the economic been forged in such a viable and lasting manner (Iliffe, 143).  In the Niger Delta and the Gold Coast the wealth and power of the slave trade merged with the Big Men to solidify a multi-class prosperous society (Iliffe, 145-6). 
            Much of the initial “scramble” for Africa stemmed from French governor Briere de L’Isle’s initiative to use colonial resources to reinvigorate the French economy (Iliffe, 193-4).  These efforts accelerated a sinusoidal counterbalancing race by the colonial powers of Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and Germany during the 1870s (Iliffe 194). This race culminated in the Berlin conference of 1884-5 that formalized much of the partitioning—tempering the previously accepted British dominance—and establishing regional free trade (Iliffe, 194-5).  While the continent was being carved up on paper, the actual subjugation and defeat of the African forces proved a much more difficult task.  This task would have proved impossible if not for the European’s advantage in firepower and the medical breakthrough of quinine prophylaxis (Iliffe, 198).  Perhaps most important was the manner by which colonial powers cemented and consolidated rule after World War I.  Their modus operandi to conquer resistant tribes with the use of African mercenary armies fit well into the overall colonial strategy of playing tribes off of each other to diminish their fighting capability (Iliffe, 198-199).  Ultimately most powers used the same tactics to “civilize” their claimed territories; however, afterwards the French occupation was more readily felt since a greater number of their citizens (per capita)
lived and worked in French African territories (Iliffe, 206) . 
            Perhaps the most lasting cause of later post-colonial developments came from the economic policies of the colonial powers.  The overall trend across flags was a lack of diversification—France and Britain were only using the colonies as source of tax and trade revenue.  Thus their focus was not on creating well-rounded independent economies with a broad manufacturing base (Nugent, 70).  Their focus was on harvesting one or two raw materials—this meant that later market variations would drive the nation’s fiscal destiny—a major source of instability. (Iliffe, 208-9).  France and Britain did contribute importantly to infrastructure of the nations (albeit selfishly) through the construction of railways.  These were necessary to harvest and sell the mineral resources—this natural resource pillaging was to be a trademark of the colonial experience (Iliffe, 211).  These railways also drew settlers to center around its hubs and stops (Iliffe, 214).  While these railway networks were important economically, their utility did not last beyond independence since they were not created (or maintained) to promote regional trade necessarily.  One sees this legacy today in trains that are unable to carry commerce across borders due to incompatible tracks and rail systems (when they are running).
            It is worthwhile to examine the administrative philosophy of the French and British mainly to examine their shared follies and false assumptions.  William Ponty, Governor general of French West Africa, summed up the basis for his nation’s philosophy of direct rule as due to “[African] hereditary rulers [being] nothing more than parasites” (Iliffe, 206).  At the most base level, direct rule meant molding the African governance system into a French framework of cercles and subdivisions (Iliffe, 206).  To make this artificial system work, France used African chiefs to manage at the canton and village level (Iliffie, 206). Ultimately even this direct rule went through Africans, though, because these chiefs still had to be selected and they still made decisions on some levels.  This practice lends credence to the argument that the contrast with indirect rule was not so drastic (Iliffe, 206).   An important difference, however, was the ideology of unrealized assimilation.  Initially France set out to rule its colonies as adoptive parents conferring citizenship upon the inhabitants of its colonies (Nugent, 14).  Given the immense land mass and population of their colonies they soon discovered this to be impractical (and possible dangerous to the ruling French majority) and switched their tack to one of association.  This came to mean an effort to improve and perfect the existing African society and structure—eerily similar to the British efforts (Nugent, 14-15).
            While many of France’s later colonies did not get to enjoy the privileges of assimilation, Senegal did and this was reflected in their eventual backsliding into the default comfort of the chiefs election system that France had instituted in the late 1940’s (Nugent, 129).  One sees the strength of assimilation, however, in the potential of the close business ties that President Leopold Senghor maintained with France following their independence.  This linkage to France turned out to be a double-edged sword since the French ensconced with the majority of their profits back to their own shores (Nugent, 199).  Despite their financial woes, Senegal has enjoyed a relative domestic stability that continues to make slow progress toward an international accepted liberal democracy. The pre-colonial legacy of Islam continues to be important as well; the marabouts playing a key connective role between the public-at-large and the economic and political system (Nugent 195-6).
            While the British embraced indirect rule (with exceptions in Southern Rhodesia and Kenya) to govern their colonies, it was only nominally different from the French method. Specifically the British first used indirect rule to harness the existing infrastructure of the Sokoto Caliphate—in doing this they kept the Islamic administration intact and only replaced the emirs (Iliffe, 207).  While this worked well in northern Nigeria, elsewhere the British did not find similarly robust infrastructures so they created them—guesswork that was fraught with error—as they tried to organize and categorize the various tribes in initially ignorance (Iliffe, 239).  British indirect rule sought to create a bureaucracy to “perfect” the existing African community and system.  What the majority of those at the British colonial administration did not realize was that by choosing a leader from among the Africans they actually undermined that leader’s legitimacy.  This was epitomized in the lamentation of Achebe’s character Captain Winterbottom (Arrow of God, Chapter 5) that “ The great tragedy of British colonial administration [is] that the man on the spot who knew his African and knew what he was talking about found himself being constantly overruled by starry-eyed fellows at headquarters.”  This disconnect between administrator and implementer was emblematic of the entire colonial experience; in many cases, indirect rule’s focus manifested too heavily in institutions—like court and not enough in infrastructure—like roads (Achebe, Arrow of God, Chapter 10, 103).  Ultimately every European power realized the same thing that the first French Governor of Morocco did when he proclaimed: “A Ruling class is born to rule, get it on our side” (Iliffe, 208).  This exploitative notion has lasting effects even today. 
            Nigeria has been at times a victim of its own size, resources and disparate ethnic groups.  Obafemi Awolowo’s famous quote that “There are no Nigerians” spoke to the artificiality of the British construct of fusing Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba together (Nugent, 89).  When the British left, chaos and civil war ensued amidst a haphazard series of military (or former military) autocratic rulers who attempted to maintain some semblance of governance for more than 30 years (Nugent, 92-3, 421).  This bred a broad dissatisfaction and mistrust of civilian leadership as well as a lack of faith in the abilities of military regimes to rule effectively (Nugent, 224, 422).  The inability of the ruling elite to account for the concerns of the general populace continues to be a sour legacy of the British occupation and its arbitrary borders.  Further effects of British colonialism are evident today in Nigeria’s one-dimensional dependence on oil revenue (and domestic subsidies) instead of a multi-faceted approach that focuses on building a manufacturing base and long-term infrastructure (Iliffe, 194; Nugent, 95-6).
            In 1948 Britain’s Colonial Secretary Creech Jones opened at the Cambridge
Conference with what was to be a precursor to the end of British rule by saying of African prospects for the future: “They clamour for the benefits of civilization without the economic basis to sustain them . . . We cannot for a long time hope to satisfy all the new appetites of the colonial peoples and consequently there must be discomfort and agitation.” (Iliffe, 250)  Jones’ blatant shirking of responsibility for the stunted economic system developed by the British is indicative of a legacy of disconnect between the ruler and ruled.  This disconnect led to the localization of politics—most African communities focused their efforts on resistance to colonial influence and on their family and tribal structure because they felt no connection to a government leaders that in most cases had little or no similarity to their own people—and who definitely were not concerned with that community’s best interests (Iliffe, 239).  This is also evident in the establishment of the cities as the center of commerce.  While urbanization did occur, it did not occur to the extent known in Europe, instead the cities remained relatively small (Nugent, 60-1) and a large gap still exists today between the urban political elite and the mass population living on the periphery. 
            Perhaps one of the most ill-fated effects, however, is the lasting legacy of slavery.  The long history of slavery in Africa has reinforced the social stratosphere.  One cannot easily escape a history that monetized one’s fellow human beings.  This was evident in the continuation of slavery in northern Nigeria until 1936 when it was finally outlawed (Iliffe, 213).  This mental mindset of innate superiority is reflected today in an entrenched political elite class and nominal multi-party system.  Furthermore, in the forging of the economic and political as a single entity one sees the fruits of corruption.  Because the two have been so long intertwined there is an accepted quid pro quo with regard to the rights of those in power.  Achebe captured this mindset well with his character Odili’s comment on the people’s rationale for accepting political graft and corruption: “Only a fool would spit out a juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth” (Achebe, Man of the People, Chapter 1).  This colonial “feeding” robbed the African nations of the learning experience of developing a political and economic system on their own.  Instead they have been forced to attempt to use European frameworks that have never worked, even before their independence. 
            The ultimate colonial legacy is yet to be realized—the harnessing of the raw power of a burgeoning population. Ironically, it is many of the factors that enabled the subjugation of the African people (breakthroughs in medicine and vaccines) that have contributed to its future through sustained population growth in the midst of a global stagnation (Iliffe, 219).  While pan-africanism never developed, there is an opportunity for Africans to unite as a community to address their own problems of continued instability and lackluster governance (Nugent, 79).  Key to these problems will be the role of women.  Throughout Achebe’s novels one sees the subjugation of women and only stuttering progress—only when you engage the neglected half of your potential workforce and intellectual base can serious steps towards modernity be made.  While it is fortunate that the time period of European colonization was short, it is unfortunate that in its brevity it left behind only broken administrative, economic and political systems.  This is evident in both Senegal and Nigeria, two of Africa’s more modern nations with excellent potential.  Both countries continue to find themselves mired either by an inability to break free from the colonial legacies of corruption (the latter) and governments disengaged from the concerns of the majority of their populations living on the periphery (both).  In Achebe’s novel Man of the People, his protagonist Odili comments that, “It is only when you are close to a man that you can begin to smell his breath” regarding the utility of combating corruption from the inside (Achebe in Man of the People, Chapter 8).  African nations have spent too much time during the colonial experience in the rank proximity to corruption and fiscal and physical slavery; it is imperative they make every effort to distance themselves lest they become too accustomed to the odor. 


Achebe, Chinua.  Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor Press, 2007; 1987.

Achebe, Chinua.  Arrow of God. New York: Anchor Books, 1989; 1974. 

Achebe, Chinua.  A Man of the People. New York: Anchor Books, 1989; 1966. 

Achebe, Chinua.  No Longer at Ease. New York: I. Obolensky, 1961; 1960.

Achebe, Chinua.  Things Fall Apart. Carmel, Calif.: Hampton-Brown, 2008; 1958.

Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. African Studies. 2 , New ed. Vol. 108. Cambridge; 

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nugent, Paul. Africa since Independence. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. It's commonly said that France had more influence on Egypt in their three short years than the British did in in their nine decades. The same might be said for the French in Africa. No Union Jacks on African flags, but count the former French colonies with some form of the tricoleur either in horizontal or verical orientation. Although lacking in execution, the ideals of the French Revolution still must resonate. Unlike the British, France still maintains thousands of troops across Africa. What beyond La Gloire explains continued French level of commitment on the Continent far beyond that of Britain? There must be many factors, but could the French be more skillful than the British, and perhaps Americans, in what the U.S. military calls "theater engagement?"