Some time ago, the British Government sponsored the unveiling of a monument in Kenya that marked attempts to preserve control of Kenya during the colonial era. While it is easy to say that colonialism was bad for Africa, I do believe that the Africans got much more out of the experience than they lost.
It is true that some alleged atrocities were visited on the Africans during the days of European control. However, the clash of cultures, which is what African colonisation was, is rarely without incidents that future generations won’t regret. Despite this, I am still convinced that imperialism and foreign conquests are not automatic evils.
Perhaps the best way the benefits of European colonisation of Africa can be shown is the rapid advances that occurred in Africa during and after the 19th century.
Except for a few cases, like the empires of Mali and Ghana, Africa was a patchwork of tribal communities that would have been totally unprepared for the modern world — without an external push. That push was to be European colonisation.
Again, with the exception of a few cases, most notably Timbuktu, there was no well-developed system of education on the continent. This is highlighted by the fact that, during the slavery era, many African rulers were compelled to send their elites to Europe for a good education. Most of the present education systems in Africa today had their origin during the colonial period.
The same is true of the systems of government in Africa today. Virtually all of them are patterned off European ones. Indeed, many of them are in fact upgraded colonial governments that were inherited at the time of independence. In fact, the few organised geo-political entities that existed in Africa before colonisation have given way to established nation states on account of colonisation.
Most of Africa’s present legal, financial and economic systems are of colonial origin and, in fact, are replacements for the indigenous systems that clearly had outlived their useful lives.
Speaking of outliving useful lives, we have European colonisation being mostly responsible for the virtual elimination of slavery in Africa – at least compared to what was there before. A clear example is what happened in Ethiopia during the Italian conquest. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian slaves were finally liberated after centuries of being denied freedom.
None of these developments on Africa were natural. If there was no European colonisation, it is certain that Africa would have been in a much worse state than she is in now.
So, while we remember the significance of that Kenyan memorial, let us not be ignorant of the clear fact that the benefits of colonisation to Africa far outweighed the costs.
Michael A Dingwall