The Impact of Colonial Legacies on Ethnic Violence in Africa

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Did the colonial era leave behind the legacies of violence, mistrust, corruption and other negatives that have come to define the continent Africa or her leaders simply refuse to leave the shadow of the past behind?

It is been said time and over again especially now in the twenty-first century whenever the issue of colonialism is brought up as a subject for discussion there is the wide clamour that it should not be discussed because mankind has advanced beyond that history and it should now look ahead into the future instead of being weighed down by the many negatives of the past; that the problems in some-if not all-African countries today have nothing to do with the colonial past but with leaders who simply refused to peel themselves off the ideology, principle and shadow of that side of history.

To those who are wont to clamour for such silence on the subject, they are indirectly saying that if history ought to be discussed, either a part of it should be taken or the beautiful side of it should be applauded without giving room to its ugly side so that amends cannot be made. It is like saying; let us discuss the majestic thrown of the British Monarch without highlighting the progress of its ascension or that of the French or other colonialists.

But with the continual conflicts either in the area of wars, hunger, politics, economies, religious, et-cetera, to sweep the legacies of colonialism under the carpet would be a great disservice to the growth and development of the continent.

There was the scramble for Africa. The virgin land. A continent which was thought of as not having any ideological progress of its own of if it did was barbaric and as such, such ideology should be refined and ‘civilised’. This led to empires such as the British, French, Portugal and other minors wanting to be the first to have intercourse with this promising virgin and to feel and take with them the beauty and sweetness of her. Of course for their own selfish reason. In the selfish pursuit of this humiliating scramble to lay possession over her, one thing was achieved, and that would be the first legacy of colonialism: the death of the psychology of a people and their continent!

If there is anything that can easily destroy the confidence of any human being, is to tell that person that his/her existence is inferior and as such that person is unfit to be called a human being and should not be deemed to have a life. Or to tell that person that a tried and tested method he or she once knew and used is bad and nothing was done to put in place to gradually let that individual realise that a different method can be applied to achieve the same method.

These was what the colonial lords did, criticised what they met when they invaded the continent and along with it came with the destruction of what the people once hold so dear to their hearts leaving them to start swimming in the pool of confusion not knowing whether to stick to the familiar turf or embrace the alien concept of the colonialists. Does this psychological breakdown and confusion still hovering round the continent to this day?

With the violence and wars and distrust all over the continent with a brew of power drunk leaders who think the only way they can stay relevant is by doing everything violently and cheatingly possible to retain power one would say the continent has not found that healing. And the possibility of finding that healing can be so far-fetched because the colonialists have build their continent on those philosophies and till date African leaders and her people still look far ahead into those western philosophies while continuously relegating what would have been a growing and established philosophies and map to her development and progress.

Let us take West Africa for example. Nigeria for instance where the larger part of the country experienced a blissful system of government where the traditional heads of the clan or community were highly regarded and rules and laws made by these heads were regarded and obeyed to the later. The political beauty of that system that saw the British colonialists coming in without having to experience the kind of difficulties they were confronted with elsewhere.

This particular system formed without the help of any outsiders was the pride of the people because it worked for them and with it the people were able to maintain balance in law and order amongst the people. A system the colonialists would have help to foster, but it became a tool they used to get at the people through some corrupt Chiefs thereby stealing the pride of a people, destroying her dignity and making them a subject of inferiority and confusion. In an attempt to get out of this confusion and epileptic state of confusion, violence became one method of establishing and authority.

The British, the French, the Portuguese, the Germans and the other colonialists all rode into their various colonies on high horses; they carry with the nagging air of superiority over their subjects. The scenario could best be described as in George Orwell’s classic where all animals were supposed to be equal but some had to be more equal than the other; we are all human beings with the same features, but you must not forget the fact that these features are more pronounced in some than in others was the hypocritical attitude of the colonial masters then.

The British on their part did not see any reason why they must accept those who were under then as equals, not when these Africans had been brainwashed by western cultures and ideology that they had to be forced to reject their own way of life in preference to the British ways of life and the marriage between an African to a Briton was regarded as an ‘unforgiveable sin’ which could atimes be punishable by death.

Though the Portuguese, perhaps could be regarded as more lenient in terms of their preachment of equality especially in the area of marriage, the fact still remained that one must remain perpetually inferior while the other continued to ride on his high spotless horse of know it all; to the Portuguese, to be classed as civilised. The African must prove themselves proficient in the Portuguese language and culture to the neglect to the authentic traditional African life the people had been used to all the years before the colonialists found they ways into the continent.

The French was not in anyway different from their colleagues in the scramble to have a piece of the action of this virgin; for an African to be accepted as a proper human being, he or she must be ready to give up his or her ways of life and follow the ‘superior thoughts and deeds’ of the master.

And to this day, that wound inflicted on the psyche of the continent and her people has not been able to find a complete healing despite the many efforts by some educated and enlightened Africans to show the light-so to speak- to the rest of other Africans who are still in the dark. The superiority of the colonial masters and the need to impress on the minds of the Africans that they emanated from the dungeon of darkness and they would remain there until the end of creation instilled in the minds of the people the seed of fear, distrust and suspicion amongst the people, which till date is difficult to erase. As far as some of the Africans are concerned, whatever does not come from the west or their former owner and without their stamp on it does not fit into the proper definition of authenticity and civilisation.

The aftermath of all these, the distrust, suspicion and inferiority complex, is the legacy of violence where one party or group would want to prove a right of superiority or equality instead of seeing the frailty all humans share.

On the administrative front, that air of superiority was still the there. The air of possessiveness was never hidden, to possess the land and deal a severe blow on the continent and leave it completely useless or half baked so that the people could never recover from that uselessness. And of course the determination to set the people apart divisively and partition the continent without taking the ethnic groupings, their languages, their traditions and cultures into consideration was paramount because it was the only way they could posses the rich economies of the vast continent.

Their modus operandi was like the biblical Tower of Babel where the people spoke different languages and confusion and misunderstanding amongst one another prevented them from building the high tower to touch the throne of the heavens. When humans are not together, they can never pretend to be together.

As earlier stated, the British Empire for instance met a well established system of governance in place in some of the places they colonised so it was easy for them to win the people over to themselves to carry out their exploitations and deception. The British Empire capitalised on the Indirect Rule system to get to the people by identifying with the traditional leaders who had the command of their people either by doctoring them or by the use of force to work as administrators for them.

It should not be forgotten that colonialism was dealing with two group of human entities; one which was thought to be uncivilised, simple and naive and the other group of human entity which was capitalist minded and technically powerful and was prepared to use that advantage against the other group to selfishly enhance itself in return for little or nothing.

Perhaps one could argue that the wide scale of corruption that pervades the continent has it birth in those wrong dealing between the colonial empires and the select few African administrators who liaised between the higher power and the common Africans. There was the interplay between superiority and inferiority complex and the colonial masters having rubbished the ways of life of the Africans and forced their upon them as the more superior and genuine would have forced the ‘fortunate’ chosen African administrators into thinking that they had become a part of them and must think ‘white’ while the others they were supposed to administer were just another commoners who should enjoy all the disregard and ill-treatment.

The house African slaves and the ordinary African slaves where the former had completely forgotten that whether one operated from the house and being clothed in khaki and eat crumbs and remnant of his masters’ nutritious meals while the ordinary slaves had to work himself to the point of death in excruciating sun and heavy down pour sometimes completely naked or half naked, that both of them still remained slaves and both of them too had travel that long journey together in the cultivation of what they believed in and cherished.

A legacy that is sill amongst Africans to date, unfortunately! Political criminals in three piece suit or flowing garment with fine words regarding themselves as next to God with the toga of messiahship, playing mind games with a people who had already been beaten and held down by poverty to inflict further economic and political punishment upon them.

There was France too. The arrogance of the French was there. There was that system of assimilation. Be accepted as French by doing away with everything that has to do with your culture and tradition and most importantly, language. There is no weapon far dangerous than taking the language of a people and crushing it to the ground. The French did this likewise other colonialists. The Tower of Babel yet again. The possibility of meeting God is undefined unless you must go through me. In other words, total obeisance to the French to the life of bliss was demanded.

The French ruled from their native country by the appointment of chiefs with total disregard for the various traditional institutions that were in place when the visited; their interest was complete loyalty from the subjects. They set up two colonial federations, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. In both, French were appointed, the laws were passed by them which must meet their approval and which must be followed.

It should be noted again and over again that the major intention of the colonial masters was to vandalise the economies of the continent whether by the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Germans or the Belgians. Their mission was to acquire the land, enforced labour, stop inter African trading systems they met when they came, the introduction of cash crops. The continent was chiefly regarded as a ground for raw materials for the various European industries while the continent continued to remain unindustrialised. An instance of this was the transfer of massive wealth by the Belgian colonial rule from Zaire to Belgium.

And what benefit did the Africans get from all these exploitations? Laughable jobs as clerks in a heavily bureaucratic system which the Africans could never fit into, mocking education that saw only the Africans being able to work with the missionaries and read the bible, further devaluing and tearing apart the African belief system setting in its wake religious confusion whether to carry on with their rather pragmatic system of worship or to follow the metaphysics and philosophy of the new religion.

Every continent, every country of the world has its wealth of mythology and the African continent was not exempt. The problem with the majority of the African countries or regions before the coming of the colonial masters was that they were orally spiritual and their spiritual beliefs were not documented anywhere; they were passed by words of mouth and the colonial lords saw this as an avenue to introduce Christianity or Islam or whatever other belief system upon the people in other for them to get to the very heart of their original intent of liquidating the economies of the vast continent.

The colonial masters went about to proselytise the traditionalists into accepting what to them was new, strange and foreign and negation to their polytheist way of worship; they were brainwashed or forced outright to believe in a monotheist worship of a one God who expect them to exhaust the realm of patience for them to get the good things of life while the colonialists continued to plunge into the wealth of the continent with abandon.

A look into the religious belief system of the Yoruba people of Nigeria of west Africa for example indicated that it was more or less not any different from the pretentious monotheist worship brought about by the colonialists where there is supreme deity somewhere above the earth and for mankind to get to that supreme being one must go through a certain ordained channel of sonship.

The Yoruba religious philosophy that there is a phenomenon called fate or destiny [Ayanmo] and one must be destined to be one in spirit with the supreme deity called Olodumare-the divine creator of all things. That the deeds and thought of each person here on earth in his/her physical life interact with all living things; every individual has to achieve this transcendence of their passage to that destiny in Orun Rere by the amount of good deeds and thoughts…

“One’s Orí-Inu (spiritual consciousness in the physical realm) must grow in order to consummate union with one’s Iponri (Orí Òrún). Those who stop growing spiritually are destined for Òrún-Apadi (the realm of the forsaken). Life and death are cycles of existence in a physical body while one’s spirit evolves toward transcendence. This evolution is most advanced in Irùnmolẹ (being human: a compound word derived from “oní irun”, the unique hair that distinguishes humans from beasts; “imo”, having knowledge of one’s destiny; and “ilẹ” on the land.)

Iwapẹlẹ (well-balanced) meditation and sincere veneration is sufficient to strengthen the Orí-Inu of most people. Well-balanced people, it is believed, are able to make positive use of the simplest form of connection between eniyan and Olu-Òrún: adúra (petition or prayer) for divine support.

Prayer to one’s Orí Òrún can produce an immediate sensation of joy. Ẹlégbara (Eṣu, the divine messenger) initiates contact with Òrún, and transmits the prayer to Ayé; the deliverer of àṣẹ. Ẹlégbara transmits prayers without distortion. Regardless of the form of prayer or offering, Ifá is called upon in times of major decision making. Orunmila and Ifa are interchangeable. All communication with Òrún is energized by invoking àṣẹ.

In the Yoruba creation myth, Olódùmarè (also called Olorun) is the creator. In the beginning there is only water. Olódùmarè sends Obatala to bring forth land. Obatala descended from above on a long chain, bringing with him a rooster, some earth, and some iron. He stacked the iron in the water, the earth on the iron, and the chicken atop the earth. The chicken kicked and scattered the earth, creating land. Some of the lesser gods descended upon it to live with Obatala. One of them, Chameleon, came first to judge if the earth was dry. When it was, Olódùmarè called the land Ife for “wide”. Obatala then created humans out of earth and called Olódùmarè to blow life into them. Some say Obatala was jealous and wished to be the only giver of life, but Olódùmarè put him to sleep as he worked. But it is also said that it is Obatala who shapes life while it is still in the womb”.

With the example of the Yoruba myth, which of course transcends other parts of the continent, one is made to believe that a strong religious belief system was in existence before the colonialists came despite the lack of documentation.
It was this system that was forced to be silenced or completely destroyed either through methodical reasoning or through the use of violence; the same mythology and violence which still exist in many African countries to date.

In the midst of all these negatives, does it mean that the colonialists did not leave any positives behind when the various countries of Africa started to gain independence? One would like argue that the negatives far outweigh the positives so there should be no room to elaborate on the virtue of colonialism in Africa. This is wrong in its entirety; one thing was certain, the coming of the colonial masters into the continent and when they eventually left-leaving their shadows behind- brought Africans to the reality of looking at the broader picture of existence that it could not be defined in one prism.

What is the way forward? According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, “The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image.”

Africans, especially her leaders should not join the bandwagon of those who believe that the past is just another past and should be forgotten while the thoughts and deeds should be geared towards the future, no, the legacies of the past should be studied and there should be the sincerity of finding a long lasting solution to the negatives; a vibrant and functional educational system where the continent shall start re-working on her psychological failures over the centuries, looking inward and using the wealth of the continent to better the lot of the people, banishing unnecessary fears that would prevent the continent’s growth, learn to trust one another and not to see the other African next door as a stranger who should not be welcomed into her presence. And of course fight corruption at all fronts.

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Eberekpe Whyte is a Journalist and the author of: Abule Oje, Evwri El-Rustic, Songs of Heart, The Ink; My Pen, Black Britain, Number Tense Dawning Strict, Sacred, Baby Ps, London! And several other unpublished manuscripts.

2 Comments
  1. Andrew Sacks says

    Great work! This is the type of eye-opening, straight-talking commentary and analysis all thinking people should read.

  2. Gabriel Constans says

    Thank you Eberekpe for this thoughtful and informative article. Especially appreciate your pointing out how emotionally devastating colonialism can be to one’s sense of self and personal identity and what it does to your spirit.

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