Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Legacy of Colonialism

There are many nations throughout the world that are plagued by internal conflict.  The underlying source of the social and economic instabilities that are responsible for these civil wars can often be traced to the disastrous effects of colonialism.  The following are a few examples of the deleterious consequences of the imposition of foreign rule on the future prospects of an occupied country.


The Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Mathaai described her personal experiences growing up in Kenya.  She was born when Kenya was ruled by the British.  She watched as the beliefs and traditions of her people gradually died away as a result of the Western idea of progress.  The degradation of her local environment had a profound impact on her sensibilities.  Throughout the nineteenth century, western missionaries came to Africa followed by explorers, adventurers and fortune seekers in service of the European powers.  Missionaries came to Kenya towards the end of the nineteenth century.  They taught that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but in heaven.  The missionaries and the colonial administrators who followed them introduced new methods of exploiting natural resources such as logging, clear-cutting, creating plantations of imported trees, the commercial hunting of wildlife and commercial agriculture.  As a consequence of the implementation of these practices, hallowed landscapes were exploited.  In 1885, Britain and the other major colonialist European powers met in Berlin at the Berlin Conference to draft what came to be known as the "Scramble for Africa."  This conference formalized plans to achieve its ultimate goal - to lay claim to all of Africa within thirty years.

In Kenya, the British subdivided the country into different areas based upon the populations of different religious denominations who inhabited those regions.  In Maathai's region, there were Scottish Presbyterians and Italian Catholics.  In the 1910's, the British government encouraged British citizens to settle in Kenya, especially in the fertile highlands; these settlers received title deeds and the natives were relocated to the Rift Valley.  The British settlers introduced commercial agriculture and grew wheat, maze, coffee and tea.

As a result of colonial exploitation, the following changes in the natural environment took place:

·         Decimation of native plants for the purpose of growing so-called "cash crops" like tobacco

·         Importation of exotic plants for purely commercial purposes; this practice played havoc with the delicate ecological balance

·         Soil erosion as a result of extreme logging practices, especially clear-cutting

·         Imposition of agribusiness methods led to over cultivation and pollution of the soil and local environment with chemicals designed to improve crop production

·         Creation of commercial plantations supporting non-native trees i.e. Pine, Eucalyptus and Black Wattle, a species of Acacia normally found in Australia, for the timber and building industries - this had a profound impact on the natural ecosystem and its capacity to retain rainwater.


The impact of colonial rule on the native population was equally disastrous.  In the highlands, the area where Maathai was born, large British plantations usurped the native agriculture.  Although crops like tobacco brought in sizeable profits for the white settlers, native Kenyans were allowed to raise only pyrethrum as a cash crop.  In addition, the British imposed an income tax to be paid in money effectively transforming the livestock-based economy to a cash-based economy.  This kind of restriction imposed so much hardship; it was akin to slavery.

These practices imposed on the people of Kenya against their will solely for the purpose of exploiting the riches derived from the country's natural resources, had a destabilizing impact upon the nation's future.


As a nation, Nigeria was an artificial construct as a result of colonization by the British.  It was created from the remains of the Niger River Trading Company.  The Europeans helped themselves to vast territorial holdings in Africa as a result of the Treaty of Berlin as described above.

Northern Nigeria was populated by Muslims – the Hausa Fulani ethnic group ruled by emirs.  The people of northern Nigeria were relatively easy to control on account of the hierarchical nature of their social structure. The peoples of southern Nigeria, on the other hand, were more difficult to subjugate – they were fiercely democratic.  In order to subdue them, the British used religion, bribery, the influence of missionaries, and the power of the military.  It was British administration driven by economic considerations that carved out the Nigerian borders.  It was through the clever application of divide and conquer that the colonialists used the differences between the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba peoples in the west and the Ibo in the east to control the country and extract the economic resources of the region.

When the country won independence from the British in 1960, the bureaucratic and administrative organization of government remained in place allowing for future problems.  Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1958.  For over 30 years oil has provided over 30 billion dollars to the Nigerian economy.  However, this revenue fed corruption and enriched a small and well-connected minority of the nation's population.  The Ogoni people received no real benefit from their oil-rich land.  Quite to the contrary, they had no reliable electricity, no pipe-born water and they were not the beneficiaries of any significant social or economic projects.  In addition, their language was disappearing and they were effectively pushed into slavery as their environment became increasingly assaulted by irresponsible practices on the part of the oil industry.  The famed Nigerian author and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed for his attempt to mobilize opposition to the economic and environmental devastation wrought by oil production in his country.  Nigeria remains plagued by problems that had their roots in the practices established and employed by their previous colonial masters.


The examples cited above share numerous aspects in common with many other troubled spots throughout the world.  The excesses of colonialism have effectively outlived the colonial powers such as Great Britain, Portugal and Spain whose empires are no longer extant.  

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