European Colonialism in Africa Is Alive

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By plundering Africa’s resources and carving it up into artificial states, Europe’s colonial powers created vicious cycles of violence, poverty, and authoritarianism that are playing out to this day. But overcoming this legacy will require much more than toppling statues in Bristol.

PROVIDENCE/LONDON – Last year, as the Black Lives Matter movement was intensifying across the United States following Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, Europe was facing its own battles over racial justice. And, as in the US, public symbols and monuments were at the center of the fray.

In Bristol, demonstrators tore down (and threw into the harbor) a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century parliamentarian whose company transported more than 80,000 slaves from West Africa to the Americas. In Oxford, students demanded (not for the first time) that a statue of Cecil Rhodes – the personification of European imperialism’s brutal extraction of African riches – be removed from Oriel College’s façade.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, protesters forced the removal of statues of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo ruthlessly as his private fiefdom until images of his atrocities provoked an outcry and forced him to cede control of the territory, which became a Belgian colony. And in France, activists attacked the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the author of the Code Noir that institutionalized slavery and forced labor across French colonies.

Of course, removing statues doesn’t solve much in itself. But that doesn’t mean removing them is without justification. Dozens of recent empirical works, narratives, and case studies that we have reviewed in “Historical Legacies and African Development” suggest that the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism is still very much alive. To paraphrase William Faulkner, the European past in Africa is never dead. It is not even past. And it continues to shape the continent.


Europe’s involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa long preceded the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the continent was arbitrarily carved up among colonial powers. Shortly after Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, Europeans established the transatlantic slave trade. In subsequent centuries, at least 12 million Africans were captured and enslaved – typically by other Africans – and then sold to Europeans in the ports of West Africa, where they were transported under brutal conditions to the sugar and cotton plantations of the Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South. Meanwhile, another eight million Africans were destined for the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades, which provided labor for North Africa, the Middle East, and the sugar islands of Reunion and Mauritius.

To what extent, and in what ways, do these developments between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries still matter? One answer comes from Harvard University’s Nathan Nunn, who has merged shipment data on slaves’ ethnic affiliations with anthropological maps delineating ancestral homelands. This work shows that the areas affected the most by the slave trade – such as modern-day Angola and Nigeria – are on average poorer than those that were shielded from it by rugged terrain or remoteness from the coast (as in the case of Botswana).

Subsequent studies have uncovered intriguing mechanisms to explain this pattern. For example, by disproportionately targeting males, slave trades affected population dynamics. In addition to reinforcing polygamy and spurring gender violence, changes in sex ratios led to underinvestment in education. To this day, educational attainment rates appear lower for ethnic groups that were more heavily affected by past slave trades.

Moreover, a history of enslavement goes hand in hand with social distrust and authoritarian norms and attitudes, most likely stemming from the intergenerational transmission of violence. Hence, Nunn, alongside Princeton University’s Leonard Wantchekon, conclude that “differences in trust levels within Africa can be traced back to the transatlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades.”


Though the slave trade began to wane with the abolition of slavery in Europe in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the evils afflicting Africa soon took another form. Rather than providing labor to colonies in the Americas, Africa became a source of minerals and raw materials vital to Western industrialization.

At gatherings like the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-85, Europeans carved the largely unexplored continent into protectorates and colonies to feed their hunger for gold, silver, rubber, palm oil, groundnuts, and – after the onset of World War I – cotton. European leaders were in such a rush to partition the continent that they did not even wait for explorers to report their findings. According to Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister at the time: “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”

The artificial design of colonial structures had lasting consequences, because most of the lines drawn in Berlin hardened into borders that endured after independence. A cursory glance at Africa’s map illustrates this legacy. African borders follow latitudinal and longitudinal contours more closely than in any other continent, partitioning hundreds of ethnicities, leaving Hausa in Nigeria and Niger, the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya, the Jolas in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, and so on. Somalia’s national flag speaks directly to the deleterious consequences of the European colonizers’ arbitrary border-making. Its five-edged white star symbolizes the country’s desire to reunite people who were split between Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, French Djibouti, the Italian and British Somalilands, and Kenya’s northern provinces.

Because colonial-era divisions have long fueled regional conflicts and instability, the artificiality of African borders is inversely related to the incomes of those living within them. In the literature, “artificial states” are defined as “those in which political borders do not coincide with a division of nationalities desired by the people on the ground.”


In our own research, we combine anthropological maps on the spatial distribution of ethnic groups at the time of independence with geo-referenced data on civil conflict from recent decades. The result is a large sample of evidence on the violent legacy of ethnic partitioning.

Not only are partitioned ethnicities’ historic homelands battlegrounds between government forces, militias, and rebel groups, but civilian violence in these areas is more intense compared to non-partitioned areas close to the same border. Since the early 1960s, roughly one-third of partitioned groups have been involved in a vicious cycle of ethnic civil war and repression, compared to one out of five for the non-partitioned groups.

But the repercussions of artificial borders don’t stop there. The colonial legacy has left Africa with a large number of landlocked economies. Out of 49 countries, 16 do not have sea access. While the Democratic Republic of the Congo is roughly the size of Western Europe, it must rely on a tiny 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) strip to access the Atlantic Ocean. Fully landlocked countries, like Zambia, Burundi, Uganda, Malawi, and Burkina Faso, continue to struggle to connect to international markets.

Moreover, the costs of being landlocked are arguably higher in Africa than elsewhere, owing to the prevalence of conflicts in neighboring countries. For example, Zimbabwe and Malawi depend heavily on the Beira and Nacala corridors to access the Indian ocean; but these were mostly shut during the Mozambican civil war (1977-92).

Finally, the Scramble for Africa produced many countries where even rudimentary assertion of state power – collecting taxes and providing security – is a constant challenge, owing to peculiar shape (like Senegal), tiny size (The Gambia and Togo), or sprawling heterogeneous topography (the Congo, Angola, and Mali). The adverse implications for investment, the provision of public goods, and modernization have been obvious.


The colonial era still heavily influences African societies, polities, and economies. When colonization started, ideological opponents as far apart as Rhodes and Lenin thought that the continent would benefit from infrastructure investment, the gradual exit from subsistence agriculture, and education. But while there appear to have been some improvements in living conditions and regional development metrics in areas close to colonial railroads and Christian missionary schools, the fact is that Europeans invested hardly anything in Africa.

Where they did intervene, it was solely to promote their own narrow interests. Rather than facilitating commerce and local industrialization, railroads were built to connect agricultural or mineral-rich areas with ports, allowing Africa’s riches to be transferred to Europe and the Americas. In Mozambique, which is larger than France, Europeans built only three (non-connected) rail lines, linking the ports of Maputo (Lourenço Marques), Beira, and Nacala with the interior of what is now South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. In Ghana, which is approximately the size of the former West Germany, the British built just two (non-connected) lines, linking the port cities of Sekondi and Accra to inland gold-rich and cocoa-farming areas.

Education and health care, meanwhile, were “outsourced” to the missionaries, while other core state functions (security and tax collection) were handed over to private companies that ruled the interior brutally. Under this arrangement, which allowed colonial administrators to reduce financing costs, Rhodes’s British South Africa Company controlled vast areas in Zimbabwe and Zambia, while the Firestone Natural Rubber Company dominated Liberia (and its politics).

Concessionary companies also ruled large swaths of French Congo, central and northern Mozambique, Cameroon, and West Africa’s Gold Coast. Leopold designated huge parts of the Congo Free State to private companies like Abir and Anversoise, which then extracted rubber, minerals, and ivory, coercing local chiefs and militias and, when necessary, deploying the infamous mercenary Force Publique.

The rule of the chicotte, a bullwhip made of hippopotamus hide, was to have lasting adverse consequences in the Congo. A comparison of areas just within and just outside the historical boundaries of rubber concessions reveals significant negative influences on education, living conditions, and health. Leopold’s ghost continues to haunt the region. His model was copied by the French in the Congo, the Germans in Southwest Africa (Namibia), the Portuguese in Central and North Mozambique, and the British in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), among others.

Because colonial administrators assumed so little responsibility, various forms of indirect rule were developed over time. The scant infrastructure that was built came largely from the work of Africans who had been incarcerated without due process. When concessionary companies were short of workers, colonial administrators would often come to the rescue by introducing various forced-labor schemes. Big regions, including what is now Burkina Faso, Botswana, and Mozambique’s, Namibia’s, and Ghana’s northern territories, were designated as “labor reserves” from which chiefs would forcibly recruit workers for plantations, mines, and railroads.

The early colonial apparatus thus evolved into a gatekeeper state with minimal if any obligation to the local communities. As Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University has stressed, colonial-era “native” rule was sustained by empowering favored local elites and tribal chiefs, who then went on to control the politics and economic levers of post-independence African countries, creating the conditions for persistent conflict, poverty, and autocracy.

Even today, the resilience and entrenched power of provincial leaders continues to pose a challenge to many central governments’ ability to achieve a monopoly on violence, enforce contracts, or collect revenues.


Confucius eloquently counseled that one should “Study the past to define the future.” Former European colonial powers – and Americans, who have their own legacy of slavery and colonialism to reckon with – should take this advice to heart. The darkest episodes of the colonial era should be part of students’ core curriculum. That goes for the Herero and Nama genocide in Namibia, the Salazar-Caetano wars in Angola and Mozambique, Mussolini’s use of chemical weapons in Ethiopia, British brutality in putting down African resistance, such as the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, and the cruel forced-labor practices and killings by British and French colonial forces across the continent.

As European relations with African countries evolve, Europeans must move beyond offering pity and remorse. They have a responsibility to understand Africa and their own countries’ role there. Germany’s recent offer of financial aid for the Herero and Nama communities in Namibia suggests one constructive way forward. But, of course, no amount of money will make up for the suffering and lasting impact of past atrocities. Even in strictly material terms, the amount that has been looted from the continent is too large for direct compensation.

But Africa, too, must look forward, notwithstanding the importance of the past. Locked into poverty-trap dynamics, many parts of the continent need productive investments. The colonial legacy has left deep regional disparities in living standards and education. Foreign aid, when properly targeted with input from local communities, can be beneficial. But it will never be a panacea. Likewise, private initiatives can help, but not if they are completely unfettered.

Above all, Europe, the United States, and China must not allow a Scramble for Africa 2.0. They need to hold multinationals accountable for corruption, extortion, tax evasion, and the ruthless exploitation of Africa’s natural resources.

Judging historical figures by contemporary standards and toppling their statues may feel satisfying and make for good TV. But, ultimately, this way of engaging with the past is counterproductive if it is not accompanied by a positive alternative. We should erect statues commemorating Africans’ struggle for freedom, like the one of a joyful Nelson Mandela overlooking the Palace of Westminster.

Likewise, directing research funds toward Africa-based scholars would help create a more balanced understanding of the European legacy and its impact on the continent today. We must appreciate the past to realize a future that benefits Europeans and Africans alike.



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