Colonialism and Liberation

The second half of John Ilffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent” is mostly dominated by colonialism, which can pretty much be summed up by the quote:

“Most Africans went into colonialism holding a hoe, and came out of colonialism holding a hoe, albeit a more advanced hoe.”

This one point pretty much summarized what colonialism brought to Africa. There were technological advances, first with the construction of railways and later with the mass introduction of the automobile, in particular the minibus, but as a whole Africa lost a further 50-70 years of development to its colonial overlords. Even worse, many systems were put in place which had repercussions still evident today.

In keeping with his overall theme – the struggle with population – Ilffe once again presents an interesting problem I never would have considered: Colonialism led to further labor shortages. I, and possibly most people, had always imagined a colonial world where the Europeans keep the Africans working in order to extract as much wealth from the continent as possible. Since Africa was already under-populated thanks to disease and slavery, the continent as a whole was already short on labor. When the European nations set up full-scale colonies they began to require many Africans to work in support positions, i.e. porters, household staff, etc.

Take, for example, my current living situation: Here we have three white people living in a house and our support staff consists of a maid, a handyman, a gardener, a fixer, a driver, and 4 guards. That’s 3 people supporting each white person, but that’s in a contemporary Africa where population is not as scarce, but if you take that system and put it in 1920’s Africa which is tremendously short on labor, and I’m sure the ratio of supporting Africans was higher than three to one, then you’re left with empty fields and starving people.

Ironically, the British recognized this problem only to have their solution backfire. This quote from Britain’s Colonial Secretary in 1948 pretty much sums it up:

We apply better health arrangements only to be faced with a population problem of appalling dimensions. We have to feed that increased population while they employ agricultural methods and ways of living hopelessly inadequate for such numbers . . . We must expect a troublesome period ahead. We cannot pursue development schemes fast enough to absorb all of the rising generation in useful wage-employment. We cannot get for all of then a place on the land and many of them would not wish it. They cannot on their present economies enjoy all the services which they begin to demand. They clamor 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.

Once again, population plays the key to Africa, but for once it’s population explosion rather than decrease which is changed the direction of the continent.

Then we’re left with the liberation of Africa. In so many articles I’ve read lines about how optimistic the world was about Africa as it gained independence. Economic takeoff seemed inevitable. Nigeria experienced amazing growth in all sectors throughout the 1960’s and was a poster child for Africa. All over Africa countries were on an economic and population boom. What happened? Oil prices shot up in the 1970’s and in one way or another destroyed all the progress.

I quickly noticed that there is little to no railroad transportation in the parts of Africa I’ve seen. In the rest of the world, there you can’t go to a city without seeing a train track somewhere, but Africa relies on trucks and cars. I can imagine what a 5-fold increase in the price of gasoline would do to this place. For most countries it stopped all growth in its tracks and sent countries into decline. For oil producers, such as Nigeria, it brought wealth but the increased currency strength destroyed agriculture and manufacturing because they couldn’t be competitive. During the 1980s, when oil prices tanked, countries like Nigeria were left broke and without any other source of revenue.

John Ilffe’s book really doesn’t go into the brutality of the civil wars that took place over the past few decades, other than to mention that some of them occurred. Rwanda received three sentences. But the focus of his history is on the theme of population growth as the main issue in Africa, and war and conflict were more on the periphery. I’ll touch on these issues more as I dive into a number of book I’ll be reading while here in the DRC, including Bryan Mealer’s “All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of Ware and Deliverance in the Congo” which covers the incredibly bloody war here, and “The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacekeeping” which dives more into the UN’s involvement in the DRC.


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