What follows is my response to a group of friends about whether European colonialism was a net benefit to Africans. It’s a topic worth exploring in greater detail than my initial response on a WhatsApp group…
This is a double-edged question. Overall, I think the impact of the coming of Europeans in Africa is positive, this although they did a lot of evil. Massacres, genocides, punitive expeditions, et al.
I’ll speak as an ethnic Igbo who is also a twin. A big reason I have my life is European influence. While I don’t buy the fluff that it was Mary Slessor that ended the killing of twins, after all, the practice had been banned in the Calabar area 38 years before she arrived there, the truth is that her work helped make the practice of infanticide less acceptable. The real truth is that the Obong of Calabar who banned it in the first place lacked the state capacity to implement it, so it was the colonisers who implemented the ban ultimately.
Having talked about the personal, another truth is that life in our region was brutish, and there is no guarantee that we’d have found our way to the sort of Pax Africana that is necessary to build prosperity.
My paternal great-great-grandfather, Onwordi, had 22 children. Of these, only three boys, Obodechina (my ancestor), Okonkwo and Onwuka, survived to adulthood. It is important to note that in the telling of history in those days, they didn’t count women, so I have no idea how many daughters he had. 3 out of 22 (or 14%) is a huge attrition rate. On my maternal side, the person who lived around the same time as Obodechina was Ohule, who had only two of his sons, Arinze and Osakwe, grow into adulthood. Arinze is my ancestor, and I do not know how many sons Ohule had in the first place, but he had three wives. I have told these stories to point out that the introduction of modern medicine and the scientific method brought an end to all that attrition and greatly reduced the frequency of parents burying their kids.
Now, back to the issue of a Pax Africana, and for this, we have to leave Igboland and zoom out to what is now Nigeria. Circa 1850, when the Europeans slowly began to inch into Africa, in the area now Nigeria, there were three great powers, Benin, Oyo and Sokoto. Two of these were on the decline, and one had descended into civil war. Sokoto had, at the time, the largest slave population on Earth, and there is no record of any discussion within the Caliphate about the abolition of slavery, conversations which had become heated at the time halfway around the world and would a decade after lead to the American Civil War. In short, slavery in Sokoto continued until deep into the 20th century. It was European influence that put a stop to it. Again, a necessary tool to build broad-based prosperity, and equal rights before the law, simply did not exist in our frame of reference, and the fact that we have a shot at it today (in today’s Nigeria, not everyone is in reality, equal before the law) is the result of the Europeans coming to our lands.
Still on the slavery issue, in Igboland there was a thriving slavery that existed until around 1888. This slavery involved kidnapping people from elsewhere, and keeping them as servants, then when an Obi died, burying them along with him to serve him in the afterlife. I’m aware that the Yoruba had similar practices (Abobaku), but while the end was the same, I don’t know for certain the details of how the Yoruba practice worked. The pretext for the first Asaba Massacre (1884), in which the city was decimated, was to end this practice. Again, we had a society that was unready to give broad-based rights to all its residents.
Having said all of this, the biggest damage that European adventurism did to us is the damage of putting incompatible peoples together in so-called nation-states, and then proceeding to drive a wedge deep amongst us in order to solidify their rule. The second great evil they did from my perspective, was to solidify the idea of collective guilt. Those “punitive expeditions” regularly embarked upon by people like Hugh Trenchard formed the basis of what we call policing in Nigeria today. We have yet to recover from these, and while in many of these entities, identities are beginning to shift, there is no telling if we’ll ever make it out of the woods. One thing is certain, countries such as Nigeria would not have stabilised long after all of us who carry the passport of the country have gone.