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Colonialism and a Dark Past

By Paul Sixpence

Ghana’s Dr Kwame Nkrumah addressed delegates at the All African People’s Conference in Accra, on 5-13, December 1958. He called for the representatives of the attending countries to actively pursue independence from colonialism. In the decade that followed more than 30 African countries regained independence.

Africa under the yoke of colonialism

The transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU) saw the commemorative history of Africa under colonialism being largely delegated to individual African nation – states. Continental commemorative initiatives today act subsidiary to national independence celebrations. However, as outlined in this article, it still remains essential for Africa to collectively remember the shared painful history of the continent under the yoke of colonialism. The communitarian nature of African societies point to a situation were the collective remembrance of human rights abuses can offer Africa an opportunity to redefine contemporary challenges and posit sustainable solutions to some of the most stubborn challenges afflicting the continent today. It is without doubt that colonialism negatively impacted the development of African social, political and economic systems. Africa’s colonial legacy is punctuated by exploitation, racism and the mass plunder of natural resources.

1876 – 1912 colonialism takes root in Africa

The late 19th century saw the intensification of imperial conquest by European nations. Between 1876 – 1912 five major European powers, namely, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain intensified their imperial agenda from the Cape to Morocco.1 It was during this period that the Berlin Conference of 1885 was convened, with the major aim of ‘slicing up Africa’ among the major European powers.2

Colonialism as an episode in Africa’s history brought with it a multitude of challenges to the people Africa. It was colonialism that introduced the mass exploitation of African labour and resources. Settler governments disrupted Africa’s political and economic systems. The disruption of Africa’s social, political and economic systems has manifested itself in post – colonial African nation-states that are unable to redefine socio-economic and political development in relation to the needs of the majority of their populations.3 Political and economic systems inherited by the post-colonial African governments were tailored to benefit the settler regimes. Without alternative political and economic systems on the table, Africa has no option but to rely on external partners for its development. The political stability and economic development of Africa is threatened by its history as much as the current leadership crisis on the continent. It is difficult to comprehend how the inherited systems which were centred on ‘exploitation without responsibility and without redress’4 can all of a sudden transform the development prospects of independent Africa.

A genocidal history

Throughout the 20th century a tale of violence and exploitation was to unfold in Africa. The violent occupation of African territory almost led to the extinction of certain groups of people, for instance, in South Africa the Khoi-San people were removed from their land, enslaved and killed by British and Boer settlers5. The same forces also hunted down the Khoi-San people in the Kalahari desert in Botswana as if they were animals.6 The history of the Khoi-San is crucial in articulating the rights of minority groups in modern day Africa. A reflection on the challenges faced by the Khoi-San people under colonialism also extends to the challenges that minority groups face in Africa today, from the remnants of the San communities in Botswana and Zimbabwe to the Kenyan Nubians.

The annexation of the Congo by King Leopold 11 was to be followed by a brutal period of violence orchestrated by Leopold’s army. In the rubber plantations of the Congo those who failed to meet rubber quotas had their right hands cut, even children were not spared.7 In 1896 a German paper reported that 1 308 hands had been gathered in one day.8 King Leopold maintained a 90 000 strong army to enforce his rule and one of his generals retorted that ‘only the whip can civilise the blacks.’9 It is estimated that 10 million people were killed in Congo between 1880 and 1920.10

Some of the social and political challenges that Africa is grappling with today are attributable to the extreme violence employed by the colonial settlers. The use of violence to subjugate indigenous populations created conditions of social death by dislocating African populations from their natural social sphere.11 Domination centred on racism and oppression; creating a state of mental warping in black Africans were they became dependent on the oppressor. This condition is otherwise known as the psychology of oppression. With a diminished sense of individual and collective self worth black Africans resigned their fate to the domineering forces.12 The use of violence for purposes of establishing hegemony and maintaining a state monopoly on violence was often seen by the colonial governments as the only way to sustain dominion over the people and territories under their control.

The sheer scale of violence and military organisation targeting the civilian population is to be repeated in post – colonial Africa. In pre-colonial Africa, civil-military relations were cordial, with the military drawn from the civil society.13 Military assignments were aimed at defending the nation, Kings and Chiefs did not give orders to their armies to terrorise civilians. This situation changed with the arrival of white settlers, who mainly drew their armies from hired mercenaries who were to be paid-off with land and mine claims. After independence African leaders inherited this security system that is inimical to citizens. The state security apparatus was not reformed at independence, its relationship with civilians is not governed by the principles of duty to national laws and citizens but rather it serves to instil fear in civil society so as to protect the establishment. Civil wars in Chad, Sudan, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and the 1994 Rwanda genocide illustrate the acrimonious civil-military relationship in Africa. National armies target civilians as legitimate targets, plunder resources and abuse the vulnerable, women and children.

Denial of basic fundamental rights

African nation-states under colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century were taken back to 13th century Europe in terms of human rights claims. Colonial Africa became like medieval Europe, there were no human rights for all but rather individual rights reserved only for the elite. Black Africans where denied basic political rights. Throughout African colonial territories, black Africans where not allowed to vote. In exceptional circumstance the propertied African elites were allowed to vote but nevertheless their vote did not count as similar to that of a white European.14 The denial of the right to political participation was aimed at blocking the ascendancy to power of majority governments. It is precisely because of this reason that Africans rose to challenge the unjust colonial systems, through social and political activism.

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer and poet captures well the social and economic stress brought to bear on African societies by colonialism in his novel, ‘Things fall apart.’ Achebe highlights a stable socio-political and economic system of the Igbo in pre-colonial times, which was to be disturbed by colonial forces. In the novel, the death of the traditional justice, political and social system of the Igbo as signalled by the arrival of settlers transformed the Igbo way of life. The Igbo were forced to abandon their way of life and in the process their collective identity was lost. It is through Achebe’s work that the effects of colonialism on African systems can be fully explored. Similar conditions were to lead to the destruction of powerful African kingdoms, namely, the Mandinga of Western Sudan, the Kush of Egypt and Sudan, Zulu of South Africa among other kingdoms found in West, Central, East and Southern Africa.



Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa : The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876  to 1912 (London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson) 1992

Thomas Pakenham (ibid)

Tafadwa Chaunzwa, ‘Democracy, Capitalism and the African nation-state’,, accessed February 26, 2012,

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications) 1973

BBC.2007. Racism: A History 'Fatal Impact’ [video] Retrieved February 22, 2012, from

BBC.2007. Racism: A History 'A Savage Legacy' [video] Retrieved February 22, 2012 from

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (London: Pan Macmillan) 2006

See supra-note 6

Adam Hochschild (ibid)

Ciaran Quinn, ‘Genocide: the violence and the silence’, in You’re History, eds Michelle P. Brown and Richard J. Kelly (London: Continuum Books) 2005

Brilliant Mhlanga, ‘On the Psychology of Oppression: Blame me on history’, Critical Arts 23, No. 1 (2009) 106 - 112

Brilliant Mhlanga (ibid)

Sabelo J. Gatsheni – Ndlovu, ‘Broadening Security Sector Reform Debate,’, accessed February 26, 2012,

Peter S. Garlake et al, People Making History: Book Three (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House) 1991


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