Are the after effects of colonialism to blame for most African countries current problems?

This claim seems to be a point of contention in this thread. The after effects of colonial expolitation, and more specifically the somewhat arbitrary geographical and political division of the African continent which crosses many historical tribal and ethnic boundaries, by colonial powers, is often blamed as the genesis for most of the current woes besetting African countries.

Is this a reasonable position, or are the after effects of colonialism not manifestly responsible for the current social and economic woes of many African countries? Would Africa still be a basket case even if it was never colonized?

One of the techniques that colonial powers used to dominate an area was to split a population into factions, and then pit them against each other. The most famous example is the creation of the Tutsis and Hutu in Rwanda. It is an extremely powerful way of preventing an up rising, by preventing a majority population. After a few generations, these divisions run deep and continue to cause division long after the colonial power has left.

The other major contributing factor has to do with the way colonial powers like to draw boundaries along made up or completely arbitrary lines. Most of the global political hotspots are along those lines. Thing Pakistan and India (Kashmir), or all through the middle east.

The final problem is that colonialism was based predominantly seeking out and dominating resources. After colonialism, the created groups were left to fight over who got control over those resources, often fighting across the created boundaries.

So yes, the after effects are a huge part of the problems in Africa. Not 100% of the blame, but certainly a large chunk.

In school, I learned that colonialism ruined Africa – same story everyone else learned. It was only later that I found out there’s more to the story. Martin_Meredith who writes on Africa said that we like to take complex events and dumb them down into a single-cause narrative gift-wrapped for our little minds to grasp. To simplify it as, “colonialism is the primary cause of Africa’s woes” is that nice dumbed-down soundbite.

Why is Ethiopia also poor? They didn’t succumb to colonialism. Now all of a sudden, that nice simple story we were told about Africa needs a better explanation.

It’s fashionable today to blame colonialism but not everyone agrees on that view. Some more books I have on this subject:

Martin_Meredith (historian, journalist, and biographer)

Tirfe Mammo (born in Ethiopia, PhD, teaches development studies in Sweden)

Admittedly, they are the minority view but I believe their analysis will gain currency if African remains poor while we move further in time away from the colonial period.

Just because they were never colonised for any substantial amount of time, doesn’t mean they weren’t affected by colonialism. Lord knows, the Italians tried.

But anyway, we’ve had this discussion before. Yes, of course colonialism had a profound and long-lasting effect on Africa, how could it not? Not just the arbitrary boundaries, but the genocides, the brain drains, the long-inculcated sense of cultural inferiority, the stripping of resources, the continuation of the process in the post-colonial Shadow War between West and East Blocs, these all have played a role in Africa’s current state.

How much of the current state is to be laid at the feet of all that, is a matter for some argument, personally, I put it as “the majority” and leave it at that.

We tend to think of “not a mess” as European. Europe conquered a lot of the world (the Americas, Australia, NZ, etc), and some places adopted or evolved similar cultures (Japan, increasingly China.) The ones who got screwed in all this (largely Africa, at least somewhat due to refusal to be completely dominated), we think of a “a mess” and it’s somehow their fault. I seriously doubt Africa would be such a hotbed of warfare, genocide, and starvation if it wasn’t for European interference, but I doubt it would be remotely European-looking, either, which is totally fine.

As of 2003, Nigeria was the happiest country on earth, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, and El Salvador; all countries that a lot of Americans think of as “a mess.”

I’ve wondered how much blame should be laid at the feet of the Congo Free State specifically.

Another possible explanation (one that is unpopular because of what it implies) is that due to differences in environment, which affected evolution over the last 50,000 years, the cognitive abilities of different people in different geographies are different resulting in different abilities to maintain a 20st century technocracy.

According to this paper, the ‘smart fraction’ (the top 5%) is correlated with things like level of democracy, GDP, patents, rule of law, etc). And it varies by geography with East Asian & western countries the highest.

I don’t know about the cultural and tribal issues in other parts of the globe, but asia and the middle east all escaped from colonialism around the same time Africa did, and they are generally doing better.

India, Pakistan & Bangladesh are all intermeshed together, they have had culture and military wars but all 3 are generally improving economically and politically.

Southeast asia had flirtations with war and totalitarianism in Cambodia, Vietnam & Laos. However now the countries are more stable and growing economically. I don’t know much about the ethnic and religious conflicts in SE asia, but political conflicts were common a few decades ago. Despite that, SE Asia is doing better than Africa on many fronts according to the HDI.

The middle east has some of the same problems of artificial divisions, attempts by dictators to seize the moment for their own benefit, etc. But generally they are doing better than sub-sahara africa. Myanmar (which is a military dictatorship with an ethnic war) has a higher HDI than most African countries.

So my point is that the same problems in Africa also existed elsewhere. Southeast asia was full of violence and war 30 years ago (they still have totalistic governments in Vietnam, Myanmar & Laos). The middle east has the same issues of cultural/religious divisions being made worse by political divisions, and India/Pakistan/Bangladesh have those problems too. But by and large all these areas are surpassing Africa anyway on the Human Development Index.

Either way, my point is that if colonialism and strife were the only causes, then Asia would also be a bigger basket case.

Hmmm . . .

-Deeply culturally biased (“based on our [European-cultivated] values, black Africans are dumb.”)
-Plays fast and loose with the facts (Pakistan is not doing well. It’s a prime and scary candidate for a failed state.)
-Simplifies a profoundly complex issue (“Africa is a mess, and here’s why: [see point 1].”)

Yeah, I can see why that’s unpopular.

The problem is that colonialism ended. The various colonial regimes were by no means perfect, but their average quality of government service was far better than either their predecessors, or their successors.,8599,1713275,00.html

There are many factors.

The first bad roll of the dice is environmental. Huge swaths of Africa are desert and Sahel. Deserts are, in general, difficult places to live. Access to food and water is difficult, which limits development and leads to conflict over limited resources. Around the world, the poorest regions are often desert. The rainforest presents it’s own issues. It’s difficult to grow food crops and nearly impossible to raise livestock. Disease flourishes in it’s humid climate. Around the world, people who live in rainforests are poor.

Colonialism caused a great deal of havoc. The great void of conflict that is central Africa is nearly all cases of “southern forest black Christians and northern arid semi-Arab Muslims fight for control of country.” It doesn’t take a genius to say that building a country made of two distinct climate zones and religions would lead to conflict. Nobody denies that poor border planning among distinct populations has lead to instability in the Balkans. Is it shocking that the same thing happened in Africa?

Then comes Cold War intrigue, right at the critical moments of independence. We’ll never know what would have happened if so many of Africa’s young leaders hadn’t found themselves shot by shadowy forces. Many of Africa’s longest running, most corrupt leaders are a legacy of this era.

Finally, comes modern corruption. Outside forces have a hand in this, too. Corrupt leaders are still being propped up. Business still fuels wars (for example, the modern gold business is funding the atrocities in the Congo.) Proxy wars are still happening- Sudan is more about China than anything else. Of course, plenty of the problems are internal, as well. Whatever it is, it’s a bad scene.

Of course, Europe went through a whole lot of messiness to get where it is now, or even to get where it was when Europeans started colonizing Africa.

Africa started with some civilizational handicaps, of course. Unlike Medieval Europe, Medieval Africa had (south of the Islamic regions) no unifying culture, religion, or written language. It was so far from everyplace else that all the great events of Old-World history simply passed it by. It was very hard, in pre-colonial Africa, to get from anywhere to anywhere else – no great inland waterways except the Nile, no horses (they didn’t bear up well to sleeping sickness), so neither goods nor information could move faster than a walking person could carry them. It was especially hard to get from the coasts, where contacts with the non-African world necessarily had to start, to the vast inland territories.

Except in all those cases where this isn’t true, like Australia or the US. In fact it seems like deserts are not significantly poorer than adjacent non-desert neighbours anywhere in the world.

If desert had more than a trivial effect we’d expect Zimbabwe to be doing much better than Botswana, for example. Yet Botswana is playing host to large numbers of Zimbawean refugees, not the other way around.

That’s why it get developed into farmland in areas where people have the money to do so.

This comes up with astounding regularity on these boards, yet nobody has yet been able to provide any evidence that there are more diseases in rainforests or that they spread more easily.

Can you produce such evidence?

You are confusing cause and effects. See your comment on the difficulty of producing food in rainforests.

Where people are poor they are forced to live in rainforest. They aren’t poor because they live in rainforest, they live in rainforest because they are poor. In contrast in wealthy places people don’t have to live in rainforests.

Huge chunks of the Pacific, from China to Australia were once rainforest, and the people who live there aren’t poor. They don’t live in rainforest either. That’s because, being wealthy, they removed the rainforest and turned it into productive farming and industrial land.

That makes it sound like the indigenous inhabitants of rainforests are there only because some stronger people chased their ancestors off the more desirable land. I doubt that is historically true.


I have no idea how you reached this conclusion. Here are some facts.

  1. Humans can’t live in rainforest at all. We’d starve to death if we tried. People have traditionally exploited rainforest either by hacking out farming patches within it, as is the case in the Amazon, or by living outside the rainforest for most of the year and just occasionally entering the forest for hunting, as is the case over the rest of the world. In parts of Africa there has recently evolved a secondary strategy, where HGs trade rainforest products and labour with farmers for food. But they are still not living in the rainforest per se.

  2. Rainforests being incapable of supporting human life, they are very much considered second rate habitats, much as deserts, mountains etc are. People occupied all those habitats, but like all animals they were always on the lookout for the opportunity to expand into better adjacent habitats. And the people occupying those adjacent habitats defended their territory to stop that. In some cases the people living in the less desirable areas probably were chased into those regions by stronger neighbours. In most cases it would simply have been a case of the population expanding to occupy all available niches, in the same way that wolves living in desert regions of North America aren’t chased there by stronger wolves, they simply expanded into that unoccupied habitat. If they are able to occupy better, adjacent ranges then they will do so at the expense of the current residents. Humans are no different.

Obviously if your desert is attached to an astoundingly rich country that is willing to subsidize you, it’s a lot easier. Where would the deserts of America and Australia be if we didn’t spend millions pumping in water and trucking in food? Really, if you want to play “gotcha”, maybe I should also point out that it doesn’t count if there are billions of dollars of oil under your desert either.

The soil from cleared rainforest is notoriously prone to erosion and generally has poor nutrients. As for tropical disease- dude, there is a reason why they are called tropical diseases. When I lived in Cameroon, those of us who lived in the wet humid areas were far more prone to parasites and the like than those of us in drier areas. It’s harder to keep wounds clean and attend to basic sanitation when there is mud and muck all over everything. Have you seen maggots crawling in a wound? I have. It happens when stuff is wet all the time.

Anyway, the point is not that all of Africa is marginal land. The idea is that there are areas where it is indeed difficult to find enough fertile land to support the sorts of societies we associate with “progress.” Furthermore, limited fertile land leads to conflicts over land use which is only exacerbated by colonial borders that make it so that some areas- like Niger- have only small amounts of arable land being fought over by numerous different groups.

The corrolary is that environmental differences are accompanied by genetic changes as groups adapt to their local environment. See books like ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’, or ‘A Farewell to Alms’ discussed here:

More detailed discussion here.

What has any of that to do with Africa’s current problems?

That their problems may be due, in part, to population changes in response to different environments & cultures. James Watson summarised this in his book ‘Avoid Boring People’:

Or as Michael H Hart puts it in ‘Understanding Human History’:

I think that claims about intertribal conflict can be combated by looking at examples where there wasn’t much conflict of this sort. There are poor African countries with much conflict. And there are poor African countries WITHOUT conflict. Without doing much research, up front - Madagascar. A nice, practically mono-ethnic nation populated by people who are culturally not even totally African due to Malay admixture. Still poor, though.

Likewise, in the advanced world you will find rich nations that have had a violent and turbulent history (Germany, Russia, China) as well as nations with relatively quiet and peaceful history (Canada, Sweden). And yet, the rich countries that had destructive wars finished those wars, rolled up the sleeves and rebuilt things back to the prewar level and even better. WW2 in Europe and Civil War in American South were no picnics - but they did not stop advanced nations from being advanced.

To take a more current example, the relatively advanced nation of Iraq did not collapse into the stone age because of the chaos of post-Saddam civil war. That’s because you can be advanced in war and chaos and you can be poor in total and absolute peace. Just like Madagascar. Or maybe Tanzania.