The big question: Is Africa a prisoner of its past?
The transatlantic slave trade, colonial domination and the ‘scramble for Africa’ all had a profound impact on the continent’s economic, political, social and cultural structures. But what is their legacy today? In the latest issue of BBC World Histories magazine, six historians share their opinions on how Africa’s past has shaped what are often arbitrarily designated modern nations...
This article appears in the June/July issue of BBC World Histories magazine
Illustration by Davide Bonazzi.
Emma Dabiri: “It is far easier to continue the centuries-old trope of African barbarity, or at best incompetence”
During a recent appearance on Irish television, controversy ensued after I suggested that we don’t need any more “white saviours” in Africa. To my great surprise, I was immediately met with a comment about “darkest Africa” from a fellow panellist. Though this is a phrase with which I am all too familiar, I have not heard it employed with any degree of seriousness in years. Nonetheless, it was a stark reminder that many continue to perceive the continent thus.
As Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent Oxford professor of history, declared in 1962: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at the present there is none – there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness… and darkness is not a subject of history.”
The fact remains that Africa’s past has been almost entirely obscured by an infrastructure that sought to – that seeks to – legitimise the damage that Europe did to it, and to its people: devastation that the forces of global capital continue to perpetuate through various means of exploitation and extraction.
Africa remains a prisoner of the lies told about its pre-colonial past, and of the legacy of its colonial history. The kidnapping of millions of able-bodied young people in their prime, the destruction of complex societal organisation, the decimation of often egalitarian and socially just spiritual belief systems and philosophies – all these paved the way for the creation of fictitious states. They allowed the engineering of narrow, fixed, nationalistic ethnic identities to replace the far more fluid affiliations that existed previously, as well as the installation of despotic leaders supporting the interests of political and economic elites in the global north.
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Any meaningful acknowledgement of this remains a long way off. Instead it is far easier to continue the centuries-old trope of African barbarity, or at best incompetence, and the myth of ‘well-intentioned’ intervention (though Africans, mysteriously, rarely seem to benefit from these interventions).
When you next hear the phrase “darkest Africa”, or any of its multiple iterations, reflect on the words of Nigeria’s first Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka: “The darkness so readily attributed to the ‘Dark Continent’ may yet prove to be nothing but the wilful cataract in the eye of the beholder.”
Emma Dabiri is a social historian, writer, broadcaster, and teaching fellow at SOAS University of London.
A wooden headdress featuring a representation of a slave trader (with European-style hat) and an enslaved female figure. “Africa remains a prisoner of the lies told about its pre-colonial past, and of the legacy of its colonial history,” says Emma Dabiri. (Getty Images)
Alfred Zack-Williams: “From the slave trade to the colonial project, Africans have been impelled to adapt to new situations and political economies”
I have often contemplated this question: what would have been Africa’s destiny had Christopher Columbus’s 1492 project not materialised? Columbus’s arrival in the Americas gave a fillip to ‘early globalisation’, yet for Africans it marked the beginning of global humiliation and the loss of political autonomy. The ensuing Atlantic slave trade caused millions of Africa’s most able people to be carted away from their homelands. The result was economic, political and social disruption from which Africa is yet to fully recover, as witnessed by internecine conflicts impacting on Africa’s social, political and economic development. Furthermore, the upheaval accompanying the slave trade reduced the ability of the pre-existing formations to resist colonial infiltration.
Though the slave trade set in train material and moral devastation, as the noted historian of Africa JD Fage pointed out, the rise of states such as Benin, Ashanti and Dahomey is closely connected with demand for slaves by Europeans. Dahomey made a quick transition from a slave port to a major palm-oil market when slavery became illegal. Equally, the Gold Coast was transmogrified into a major cocoa exporter with the same enthusiasm with which Africans appropriated western education.
These are examples of how Africans have confirmed the edict of Heraclitus of Ephesus: “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Far from being a prisoner of its past, Africa has been all too ready to try new ideas, commodities and forms of governance, as well as to accommodate ‘strangers’, some of whom have surreptitiously transformed themselves into their oppressors.
These references to Africa’s early encounters with Europe point to the fact that, though its past has not been all auspicious, Africans have not been contemptuous of new ideas. From the slave trade to the colonial project, Africans have been impelled to adapt to new situations and political economies. They have survived the modernisation project. Now they can claim to be the first to experience the full destructive force of western neo-liberalist capitalism, thanks to neo-colonialism.
Alfred Zack-Williams is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Central Lancashire.
A cyclist passes a wall painted with the Coca-Cola logo in Uganda. “Africans have survived the modernisation project; now they can claim to be the first to experience the full destructive force of western neo-liberalist capitalism,” argues Alfred Zack-Williams. (Alamy)
Martin Meredith: “The new states of Africa possessed no ethnic, class or ideological cement to bind disparate peoples”
Sixty years after the dawn of Africa’s era of independence, the colonial past continues to have a profound impact on much of the continent. Almost all of the modern states of Africa are artificial entities constructed by European powers during their scramble for territory at the end of the 19th century. By the time the scramble was over, 10,000 African polities had been merged into 40 European colonies or protectorates.
The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described simply as terra incognita. When drawing up the boundaries of new territories, officials frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, paying scant attention to the myriad monarchies, chiefdoms and other societies on the ground. Most colonies encompassed scores of diverse groups that shared no common history, culture, language or religion. Some spanned the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south, throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim in latent hostility.
Colonial rule, imposed with authoritarian vigour, held together the new territories effectively enough. But after little more than 70 years, faced with a rising tide of anti-colonial protest and insurrection, European governments handed over to independence movements.
The new states of Africa, however, were not ‘nations’. They possessed no ethnic, class or ideological cement to help bind their disparate peoples, no strong historical and social identities upon which to build. For a relatively brief period, the anti-colonial cause provided a unity of purpose. But once the momentum to oust colonial rule had subsided, so other loyalties and ambitions came thrusting to the fore, precipitating ethnic rivalry and tension, often exploited by politicians for their own ends.
From the outset, African leaders became preoccupied with the problems of political control, of holding the state together, of simply staying in power. Decades have been lost in internal conflict and instability. Whatever challenges they have faced, though, African governments have remained adamant that the boundaries they inherited from colonial rulers should remain in place. The past thus continues to cast its shadow.
Martin Meredith is a historian, journalist and writer. His latest book is Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Gus Casely-Hayford: “Colonialism was underwritten by bad history. We should set right those appalling histories with a new body of thinking”
Africa is as much a victim of a constructed past as it is a casualty of its actual history – and we have a responsibility to set right both of those.
Much of our understanding of Africa’s past – and, indeed, its present – was confected during the Enlightenment. During the 18th and 19th centuries, philosophers and intellectuals skewed and tainted our perception of Africa and its cultures. The words of men such as Locke served to justify slavery, the thinking of men such as Hegel and Kant intellectually underwrote colonialism, and the theories of men such as Hume were used to justify racism. Hume famously observed of people of African descent that “not a single one was ever found who presented greatness in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality”, pointing out that “so fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour”.
Africa and peoples of African descent have struggled to break free from these appalling perspectives. The intellectual underpinnings of this thinking continue to cloud so much of our current educational approach. You see the legacies of these terribly jaundiced views in the way that Africa is still framed in museums, the way it is reflected in the media and taught in our schools.
Simultaneously, it must not be forgotten that running alongside these unfortunate phenomena are the actual profound legacies of slavery, colonialism, post-independence wars and political mismanagement. Thankfully, these are issues that are increasingly written about, and huge energy is quite rightly deployed in addressing them. But the west owes Africa another debt. Colonialism was underwritten by bad history – and we should now work to set right
those appalling histories with a new body of thinking that better addresses the indigenous pre-colonial stories and traditional African cultures.
Gus Casely-Hayford is research associate at the Centre of African Studies, SOAS University of London. He is the writer and presenter of two series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa on BBC Four, and Tate Britain’s Great British Walks, currently showing on Sky Arts.
Agoli-agbo, the last king of Dahomey (now Benin), greets his subjects in 1894, flanked by Frenchmen. His predecessor, Béhanzin, went into exile after defeat by the French, who incorporated Dahomey into the vast colonial territory of French West Africa. (Getty Images)
Marika Sherwood: “Lines were drawn on the map to define colonies. Histories of warfare and historical boundaries were ignored”
Africa has four ‘pasts’: the period before the trade in enslaved Africans, the trade itself, colonial rule, and ‘independence’. Before the 16th century, Africa was divided into what were effectively nations. Some had hierarchical governments under chiefs or kings; others were what we might call socialist, with decisions made by elders. Some ambitious kings enlarged kingdoms by conquest. Trade between nations was common.
In medieval times, slavery was as common in Africa as in Europe. In Africa the enslaved usually worked in their masters’ fields, and in many cultures were absorbed into their owners’ families. Presumably, when the Europeans began trading in humans in Africa in the early to mid-16th century, those selling slaves to them imagined that the people they exchanged for European goods (often guns) would receive the same treatment.
As Europe’s empires grew, more enslaved Africans were required. Trading stations were set up along the African coast, and deals concluded with local kings and chiefs. Slaves were the prisoners of war resulting from conflicts now fought only for their acquisition. So there were many wars, and kidnapping raids deep into the interior. It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were exported, and that around four million died in the process of enslavement.
With the arrival of machinery and the emigration of millions from Europe, the need for slaves in the Americas ceased. What Europe then wanted from Africa was its raw materials. So in 1884 the great European powers met in Berlin to divide Africa among themselves. Lines were drawn on the map to define colonies. Histories of warfare and historical boundaries were ignored. The British imposed ‘indirect rule’: kings and chiefs were ‘persuaded’ to keep the peace and supply labourers. In many instances these wars flared up after independence; for example, the vicious Nigerian civil war (or Biafran War) of the late 1960s was fought to prevent the secession of the Igbo peoples from Nigeria.
Marika Sherwood is a historian and author specialising in issues of slavery and colonial Africa.
Biafran demonstrators call for secession in July 1968 during the Nigerian civil war. ‘Nations’ created by colonial powers forced together disparate ethnic groups, leading to numerous conflicts after independence. (Getty Images)
Hakim Adi: “Military intervention is just one characteristic of the ‘new scramble for Africa’”
In 1945, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and other key figures in African independence movements gathered at the famous Manchester Pan-African Congress. They demanded an end to Africa’s colonial and arbitrarily imposed borders, condemned the alien political institutions imposed on the continent by Europe’s colonial rulers, and demanded an end to an economic system that they referred to as the “monopoly of capital”. Nearly 75 years later, millions of Africans still have no power to determine the borders, political institutions and economic system that hold the continent in their grip. In this sense, Africa is still struggling against the legacy of its colonial past.
However, today Africa has additional problems. There’s the military intervention of the US Africa Command (Africom), a key weapon in the United States’ intense economic and military rivalry with China and other emerging powers
in a new scramble for Africa’s resources and increasingly important markets. Then there is Nato’s military intervention, which has resulted in regime change and total destabilisation in Libya but also evident in many other African countries. Such intervention has been used in former French colonies Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, and increasingly in the ‘war on terror’ in other parts of west Africa.
Military intervention is just one characteristic of the ‘new scramble for Africa’, however. The impact of neo-liberal globalisation is also evident in the many examples of neo-colonial economic intervention and domination. Enslaving economic ‘aid’ from powerful nations is used as subsidy for multinational companies, and to force African countries to privatise their utilities, or to purchase products or services abroad at the expense of their citizens. There are also the many unequal ‘partnership’ agreements – for example, the Cotonou Agreement signed with the EU in 2000, includes an economic dimension but also demands that African countries submit themselves to the International Criminal Court, which appears to try predominantly Africans and has no interest in the crimes committed during the colonial era.
The anti-colonial struggles of millions of Africans have led to much progress since 1945 – yet the struggle continues.
Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester, and co-author of Pan-African History (Routledge, 2003).
The June/July issue of BBC World Histories magazine is available here.
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