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A recurring theme in my discussions on poverty and instability in Africa is colonisation and how it left deep scars on the continent. Some of the more strident voices talk about how colonisation is more or less responsible for the instability on the continent. I am reminded of some of these type of voices in India – talking about how the British reduced a fabulously wealthy land to one stricken with poverty.  On some occasions I argue, rest of the time I just sigh.

I think it is too simplistic to lay blame for all present day ills at the feet of colonisation.  This is a complex question and the answer is almost never a simple yes or no.

In relation to some factors I would YES.  Let me try and explain why

Before the Scramble for Africa started in the mid-late 1800s, this was a continent of numerous kingdoms that were independently governed by traditional and hereditary kings. They had little or no contact with the outside (even neighbouring) world. The exception being the coastal areas which had been reached by outsiders as far back as the 1500s.

The people who came first were primarily traders enroute to India. The early traders never really tried to penetrate the hinterlands – malaria, yellow fever, the impenetrable jungles were deterrents and frankly no one knew WHAT to expect in the interiors – it was just not worth it. The first people to penetrate the interior were missionaries and explorers. They came with the mission to get the 3 Cs – commerce, civilisation and Christianity to the Africans. Eventually the slave traders also penetrated but only on raids to pick up more ‘trade goods’ which had become scarce on the coast.

The Scramble redefined the continent. The Belgians, British, French, Italian and the Germans all got into it from a sense of realpolitik more than colonialism. Plus a lot of colonizing  actually happened through private enterprise under the flag of the State. One of the most famous entrepreneur / coloniser is Cecil Rhodes who dreamt of the land from Cape to Cairo under the Union Jack.

Commerce was the driving force and slave trade the most profitable. Interestingly, after slave trade was banned by European countries, many ‘colonies’ or ‘protectorates’ ended up being a drain on the exchequer back home. Ivory, gum and other trade did not make up for the money sunk in. The only possible exception to this must be King Leopold in the Congo. He traded in rubber and ivory. His was probably the most brutal regime in Africa in those days.

Given that most of the colonies were not remunerative, wars amongst ‘The Powers’, as they were called, would only be disastrous and hence the continent was carved up. The architect of the carving up was Bismark who called a meeting of The Powers in Berlin where this all happened.

The local kings in Africa had ABSOLUTELY NO SAY in the matter. Lands were carved up with scant respect for any natural or ethnic boundaries. You will see straight lines all over the map of Africa even today. This was not a land where nations were split at the point of a gun; this was a land forged at the point of maxim guns. 

Fast forward to WW II. The colonising powers were weakened by the war. African soldiers who had seen the world came back with ideas of freedom. End of colonisation was inevitable. Power was transferred hastily without too much preparations. The worst instance of transfer of power must be Angola where independence was granted in the middle of a civil war that was raging around the country.  The new governments were stuck with national boundaries set up decades before. Some of these boundaries made little sense. Look at the Sudan for instance. A vast territory encompassing two disparate groups that had almost nothing in common. The only reason for them being one country was that the British had wanted control over the Nile from source to mouth. They were even prepared to go to war (Fashoda incident) with the French to ensure that. All that it has resulted in is constant fighting for over 45 years; fighting which continues even after South Sudan has broken away.

There was hardly any nationalistic pride that would bind diverse peoples together. People from different tribes were kept together. Somalia and Botswana are probably the only 2 countries in Africa with most of the population coming from a single tribe.  

There is no doubt that these inequities and policies of colonial powers in African history are contributing to the instability even today.  To make matters worse, the Cold War exacerbated things as the Americans and the Soviets scrambled to control ‘their people’ – territory, raw materials and UN votes. Dictators were supported; brutal men (all men) who had scant respect for democracy, human rights or development of their own people. Tyrants who were not above slaughtering thousands of their own citizens to retain power. These despots knew how to play the game and feather their own nest as the US and USSR fought in Africa.

However, this is not the whole story. There is another part which forces me to say that it is wrong to blame colonisation for current instability.

Let us not overlook the fact that none of the African countries needed to stay that way. Blaming colonization and / or Western powers is a good argument and very convenient as well. The fact remains that most countries have now been independent for the last 4-5 decades. They could have broken free. Should have broken free. Colonisation and the cold war played out in Asia and South American as well. Those areas are not as unstable and fragile as a lot of States in Africa.

It is sadly true that Africans themselves have contributed to the instability over the last few decades. The naked lust for power and the ability to inflict unspeakable horrors on the people on the part of the tyrants. The people at large not revolting to throw off despots or revolting just enough to place one of their own in power. The inter tribal mistrust and hatred  have all contributed to the instability.

Also, there have been few leaders with a Pan Africa vision or even a vision for their own country. Some experiments (Nkrumah comes to mind immediately), did not take off. It probably needed someone like Jawaharlal Nehru or Vallabhbhai Patel in India to take control immediately after independence. Sadly Africa did not produce too many leaders of that calibre and vision.

This is all history. The continent is slowly but surely changing. Not always dramatically but there are some experiments give hope. Botswana has been stable and growing steadily over the last 40 years in spite (because) of the diamond and mineral deposits.  South Africa, Ghana are doing ok though they too slide back every now and then. In the recent times on the economic front Angola, Ethiopia, Gabon, Rwanda and Uganda are doing well.

The battle for development will be long and hard but there is hope.