Module Ten, Activity Three

The Political Heritage of Colonialism in Africa

You have already been exposed to a number of modules that dealt with colonialism. In Module Six: The Geographies of Africa, you were introduced to the reasons why Europe colonized Africa and the impact of colonialism on the movement of peoples, who were forced to seek employment, both within their own countries and in neighboring countries. Module Seven B: History of Africa provided a more comprehensive overview of colonialism and the varied reactions of African individuals and societies to the colonial experience. In Module Nine: Economies of Africa, you learned about the dramatic changes in economic practice that were introduced during colonialism.

This learning activity will have a different orientation. The news about Africa that we get from news sources, be it television, radio, newspaper, or web-based news services, tends to be negative. We read or hear stories of civil wars, human rights abuses, and corruption in government. In the final learning activity in this module, you will have the opportunity to explore news stories on Africa in more detail. You will be able to test the accuracy of popular news images and representations of Africa. To help you understand current politics in Africa and the news stories that you read and hear, this lesson will try to provide some historical perspective.

This lesson will focus on the political heritage of the colonial state and political systems. Do you remember what heritage means? Heritage is comprised of ways of practice, ways of doing things and understanding, that are passed down from one generation to the next. You can think of political heritage as being ways of practicing politics, political attitudes, and political institutions that are passed down from one generation to the next generation.

You will remember from Module Seven B that with a few exceptions, most of the more than 50 colonies created by the European colonial powers had no previous history as political kingdoms. That is, each colony created a new "country" that combined different ethnic groups that prior to colonialism had been separate political groups.

The colonial states created new governments, political practices, and political institutions in Africa. These practices and institutions were passed on to the new governments at independence. This activity will focus on three aspects of the colonial political heritage that are important to understanding politics and government in post-colonial Africa.

1. State/government Capacity
2. Human Rights and Democratic practice
3. Ethnicity and Social Pluralism

Political Capacity:

What does political capacity mean? Capacity is ability to carry out tasks, to meet goals, to get assigned work done. Political capacity, then, is the ability to carry out the tasks and functions that governments are supposed to do.

What are some of the main tasks of governments? Here is a sample list:

  • Guarantee protection, security, and basic human rights for all citizens.
  • Provide economic infrastructure needed for economic activities: roads, communication networks, ports, railroads, etc.
  • Help stimulate economic growth: encourage investment and job creation.
  • Help provide basic social services for all citizens: schools, health care, adequate housing, clean water, etc.

Can you think of other important tasks of governments? You may not agree that all these tasks should be undertaken by the government. Which tasks, in your opinion, are not suitable for the government? Who should undertake these tasks?

A government must have capacity to fulfill tasks expected of it, no matter what these tasks may be. To fulfill any tasks, governments are dependent on at least three important factors:

1. Institutions that specialize in meeting specific needs. As you will remember, institutions are organizations that have specific functions in a society. For example, schools meet very specific social needs. Schools provide children with the skills that they need to become productive adults. Schools also help provide students with the attitudes and values that society deems are important.

To be effective, governments are dependent on efficient and productive institutions that carry out specific functions of government. Governments are dependent, for example, on the institutions of the police force and the military to guarantee security and protection of citizens. Governmental institutions are given a special name-they are called bureaucracies. Individuals who work for the government are called bureaucrats.

2. Skilled and dedicated bureaucrats. Each governmental institution needs individuals with skills relevant to meeting the goals of that institution. For example, trained lawyers are not needed to staff a health system. A health system is dependent on skilled nurses and doctors in order to meet the health needs of a country. An adequately trained and specialized work-force, in turn, is dependent on a well developed education system.

3. Revenue. Finally, the development of a well trained governmental workforce that staff efficient government institutions, that in turn provide needed government services, are all dependent on revenue. Revenue is money that is available to the government. Without adequate revenue, governments cannot provide citizens with necessary services. What does this have to do with colonialism and its heritage to African governments? A great deal!

Module Seven B African History and Module Nine: African Economies gave detailed overviews of colonialism. You learned that the colonial state was capable of the use of violence and the threat of violence to keep local populations under control. They also had the capacity to force African farmers to grow certain crops, or to leave their homes and become migrant laborers working on distant farms or in mines. However, in spite of this ability to control people, the colonial state did not develop the capacity to fulfill important tasks of government.

You learned that throughout Africa, colonial governments did little to provide basic education and health care for the majority of the populations of their colonies. Most colonial governments did little to promote economic specialization and diversification (Module Nine: African Economies). This situation was due in part to lack of revenues. Since there was little economic diversification in colonial African countries, colonial governments were not able to collect sufficient revenues necessary to develop economic infrastructures.

Consequently, while the colonial state developed the capacity of the police force and military, to maintain law and order, colonial governments did not develop the capacity to meet basic functions of government, including education, health care, housing, and providing a basic economic infrastructure necessary for economic development.

The political inheritance of African governments at independence included government bureaucracies that did not have the capacity or the orientation to meet the tremendous challenges that confronted independent African governments.

Human Rights and Democratic Practice

From the time you started going to school, you have been encouraged to embrace democracy, democratic values, and the importance of human rights. Indeed, you are exposed to the importance of democracy, democratic values, and human rights through the media, family discussions, and religious teachings. Moreover, almost every government in the world claims a commitment to democracy and basic human rights.

However, in spite of a shared commitment to the concepts or ideas of democracy and human rights, there is no universal agreement on the definition and practice of democracy and support for basic human rights. You may look at the way government is practiced in another country that claims to be democratic and decide that based on your understanding of democracy that the country is not democratic. Indeed, based on the media's representation of many African governments, you may decide that many African governments are not democratic, or that basic human rights are not protected by some African governments.

The next lesson in this module will return to the issue of democracy in Africa. The goal of this section is to help you understand the relationship between colonialism and democratic practice and respect for human rights in Africa.

What are Basic Human Rights?

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This important declaration begins with a short Preamble (as does the U.S. Constitution). The Preamble is followed by 30 Articles. Each article details a basic human right.

Please read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, either on the web by  by linking to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (

These basic human rights can be divided into several categories:

  • Rights and freedoms for all individuals "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." (Article 2). These basic rights include the "right to life, liberty and security of person." (Article 3). Which other articles are aimed at protecting the rights of human beings as individuals?
  • Political rights include the rights of individuals to participate in their own government and provide protection against abuse and oppression by governments. Which other articles relate to political rights?
  • Freedom of thought and religion. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change religion either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. (Article 18)
  • Economic rights. These rights include the right to own property (Article 17) and the right to employment (Article 23) and an adequate standard of living (Article 25). Identify other articles that are related to economic rights.
  • Social or Distributive Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also guarantees right to adequate health care for all (Article 25), a safe and healthy childhood (25), adequate housing (also Article 25), and adequate food (Article 25), and the right to education (Article 26).
  • Cultural Rights. "Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the share scientific advancement and its benefits (Article 27).

Please note that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, more than a decade before the first African colonies gained their independence, and over 40 years before South Africa gained its political independence!

Now that you have investigated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can explore the human rights record of colonial governance in Africa. Review in your mind what you have learned about colonialism in Africa in Modules Six, Seven B, and Nine.

1. What evidence is there as to whether colonial governments protected the basic individual rights of African citizens? Is there evidence that colonial government abused individual human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for full political rights for all citizens. What was the colonial record on political rights?

3. Basic economic rights include a right to adequate employment, the right of workers to organize in unions, and protection against forced labor. How respectful were colonial governments of these rights?

4. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for basic social and distributive rights, such as education, healthcare, and housing. What was the colonial record on meeting these basic social rights?

5. In your own assessment, how might the human rights practices and colonial governments have affected the way newly independent African governments viewed human rights?

6. We know that a democracy is government of the people, for the people, by the people. How democratic were colonial governments? What example of democracy did colonial governments set for post-colonial African governments?

Ethnicity and Social Pluralism

Have you ever heard of the terms "tribe" or "tribalism?" You may think of groups of Native Americans that are sometimes referred to as tribes. Or you may have heard news stories from Africa that refer to the problem of "tribalism." American newspapers and television reports on Africa often refer to "tribalism" as a primary cause of political problems throughout Africa. What, then, is this thing called "tribalism?'

Two centuries ago at the end of the slave trade, when Europeans began to move into the interior of Africa for the first time, they used the term "tribe" to describe the groups of Africans with whom they came into contact. Why did they use this term? Perhaps they used this term because they thought that all non-European peoples organized themselves into "tribes." Whatever the reason, it is clear the Europeans viewed "tribal" organization as less modern than European social and political organizations. Europe in the 19th century was organized into nation-states; Europeans considered "tribal" organization to be less modern, even "primitive," in comparison to a "nation-state."

The belief that African societies were "tribal" in structure impacted the way in which colonial governance was organized. In turn, colonial politics helped create the ethnic social organizations that were dominant in most Africa countries at the time they became independent. Indeed, ethnicity, a much better term than tribalism, became one of the defining characteristics of post-colonial politics in Africa.

How did Colonialism impact the creation of ethnicity or social/cultural pluralism throughout Africa?

The answer to this question can be explained, in part, by the nature of the colonial state. As you learned in Module Seven B: Histories of Africa, there were different types of colonial government in Africa. The British, French, Belgians, Germans, and Portuguese all governed their colonies somewhat differently. The French, Belgians, and Germans, for example, practiced a system of direct rule that required European officials to be present throughout their colonies. The British, however, in most of their colonies, practiced a system of indirect rule that depended on traditional leaders to govern local areas on behalf of the British. There was a third category of colonial rule. This was the often brutal direct rule of European settlers in Southern Africa: South Africa (Dutch and British), Southern and Northern Rhodesia (British), Angola and Mozambique (Portugal).

However, most colonial government lacked political capacity. Colonial governments tried to develop strong institutions of law and order such as the police and army, but they were weak in other areas of government. The "weakness" or lack of capacity of government institutions forced colonial governments to be dependent on the help of Africans in governing themselves.

In developing a system for using Africans in the colonial government, colonial administrators often made use of what they considered to be traditional leaders. Remember that most Europeans at this time had the notion that prior to the coming of colonialism, African societies were naturally grouped into "tribes." For colonial governments, the easiest way to bring Africans into the system of government was through the use of traditional or "tribal" structures.

The attempt of incorporating "tribal" structures into the colonial government did not work well in most situations in colonial Africa. Why not?
1. In establishing colonial control in many African colonies, the European colonizers had to use force in establishing control. In the process of conquering an area, the traditional rulers were defeated and local systems of governments were seriously disrupted if not destroyed. When the colonizing powers realized that they needed the assistance of traditional leaders to govern, it was very difficult to re-establish the power of these authorities.

2. In societies where colonial governments did bring in traditional authorities to help govern, there was often strong resistance on the part of colonial citizens who viewed these traditional leaders as collaborators.

3. There were areas in Africa that had a tradition of stateless societies as you learned previously in this module (Activity 2). In these contexts, the colonial government was forced to create traditional leaders and institutions where none had existed. This proved to be a very difficult task. In spite of these difficulties, colonial governments continued to act as if traditional "tribal" systems were the best method of bringing Africans into the colonial government. These practices helped in the creation of a social and political system that accentuated ethnic differences.

Historians who study colonialism point out another way in which colonialism assisted in the creation of ethnicity in Africa. Beginning with the conquest of Africa, European powers depended on strategies of "divide and conquer" and then of "divide and rule." In gaining control of African colonies, European powers often played one nation or kingdom against another. This tactic made it easier for the European power to gain control of particular areas. Once colonial rule was established, governments often accentuated differences between ethnic groups making them suspicious of each other. This tactic of divide and rule helped to establish a political system that promoted division based on ethnicity, rather than unity based on a common national identity. Imagine the difficulties that a country like Nigeria would face when it became independent if people did not think of themselves as being Nigerians, but instead identified themselves by their ethnicity-Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, or one of the other 70 ethnic groups in Nigeria.

Moreover, for a system that plays one group against another to work, it has to benefit one group more than it benefits others. The privileged group will naturally do all that they can to politically protect their privilege, while the disadvantaged groups will attempt to change the situation so as to gain their own advantage. Can you see how these practices would cause real problems for independent African governments?

Your Turn

1. Map exercise:

Colonialism 1914 Map


This map shows the new colonies created by European nations between 1885 and 1914. Your teacher will download and distribute copies of this map.

Using information provided above and in Module Seven B: History of Africa, on your copy of the map label each colony according to the approach to rule used by each colonial government. Use the following categories:

Direct Rule
In-Direct Rule
Settler Rule

2. Writing Exercise

This is your chance to pretend to be a world leader! The date is 1960, and after nearly 80 years of colonial rule, your country has just gained independence from European colonial control, and you have been elected as the first president of Azania (not a real country)!

Just as when a U.S. president is inaugurated, at your inauguration, you will be expected to give a speech. Write a brief speech that mentions the following themes:

  • words of celebration and jubilation.
  • optimism for the future
  • indication of what the future holds for your country and its citizens.
  • policy promises for the next decade-jobs, education, health care, housing, etc.

Note of caution: Indication that due to aspects of the colonial heritage, it may be difficult for the country to meet its political, economic, and social goals.

Go on to Activity Four or go to one of the other activities in this module