One of the most successful ideological projects in contemporary history has
been European colonialism, or what Marxists used to call imperialism. Vladimir
Lenin called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism. The growth of
capitalism imposed certain demands on the European bourgeoisie. They needed to
find new sources of raw materials for their industries, areas to invest surplus
capital, new markets for their manufactured products and cheap labour.
However, this imperial aim needed an ideological
justification. It could not be justified with the self-interested economic reasons
above. Hence the European bourgeoisie presented colonialism to itself and its
audiences at home plus to its victims in “backward” societies as an altruistic
mission for the benefit of the colonised; bringing the three Cs i.e.
Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce.
Christianity was the spiritual emancipation of
native souls from devil worship, civilisation European administrative and
cultural enlightenment, and commerce was liberation of natives from poverty and
misery and deliver them to economic prosperity. Colonialism consolidated in
large part because the colonised were ideologically won over to the belief that
it was for their good.
Today, all poor nations are involved in a
struggle to achieve these colonial aims using different words. What colonialism
called “civilisation” is what is today called development, Christianity gave
way to a secular religion called democracy and commerce represents our
obsession with international trade and foreign direct investment. Practically
every country in the developing world is engaged in a titanic struggle to
achieve these colonial goals.
The nationalist struggle for independence was not
a rejection of the colonial project but rather the agency for its
implementation. They argued that white elites were hypocritical. They were not
helping Africa become like Europe. Instead they were exploiting the continent
for themselves. The nationalist leaders for Africa’s independence, therefore,
did not seek to dismantle the colonial state or even change its aims. Rather they
sought to inherit it and use it to exploit Africa’s resources to achieve what
colonialism claimed was its mission – to civilise Africa.
Karl Marx had argued that capitalism inherently
carried the forces of self-destruction – which he termed “the grave digger
problem.” For Marx, the more successful the bourgeoisie are in their project of
accumulation, the more they would produce a class, the proletariat, whose
interests would be at conflict with the interests of capital. Marx then
predicted that at it’s most successful, capitalism would destroy itself i.e.
the proletariat would rise and overthrow the capitalists and take control of
the means of production.
Marx’s prediction on capitalism failed in the
economic sphere but succeeded in the colonial world. Colonialism would
inevitably educate Africans with the formal education of Europe; thereby
exposing Africans to European (capitalist) ideals of civil liberties,
self-government, equality, etc.
Yet for a small foreign minority to rule over a
large native population, it required an ideology of racial superiority.
Therefore, the more successful colonialism would be in Europeanising natives,
the more it would produce a class of African elites who would seek its
African nationalist leaders at independence were
equally the most exposed to Western ideas. For the most part they had grown to
admire modern European life and equally despise traditional African life. Their
ambitions to modernise Africa were only equalled by the claims of the
colonialist to “civilise” the natives. The postcolonial state has been
overzealous in trying to take the colonial project of civilisation/development
to its logical conclusion i.e. to entrench these colonial aims using African
personnel and legitimating the colonial project domestically.
However, the pursuit of development, democracy
and good governance always seems elusive for many African elites. This is a
cause of political tension. Because Africa continues to lag far behind in
achieving these goals, it reinforces racial superiority in Europe and
entrenches racial inferiority among Africans. Many African elites talk in
derogatory fashion against African leaders. This is because our nations fall
short of the colonial ideal. In other words, this pursuit of an ever-elusive goal
has returned with a vengeance – it continues to reinforce colonial racism.
I am aware that throughout history, conquered
peoples have adopted the systems and goals of their conquerors. Ancient Greeks
had conquered parts of the Italian peninsula and established Greek colonies
there. The local Italians adopted Greek ways. Most of Europe adopted systems of
its Roman conquerors. That Africans should seek to emulate European is not
unique to Africa or to this age.
However, the conflict between African and Western
elites, or between African elites today over governance reflects the great
success of the colonial project. When Africans complain that our continent
lacks good governance, they are saying African leaders have fallen far short of
the governance ideal that we find in Europe. When Africans complain that their
countries are poor, they are saying they have not attained the levels of
economic development of Europe.
Marx had predicted that capitalism would spread
to “backward” societies through a continual process of destruction and
replacement of their social structural and create replicas of the Europe. When
one looks at the developing world today, you can only marvel at the precision
of this prediction. Many poor nations may not have been transformed by capitalism
to look like Europe; but the desire to achieve this is the defining political
aim in all of them.
Indeed, the quarrel between African leaders and
their Western critics is not over the aim. Rather it is over the adjustments
that African leaders have to do domestically to make this colonial project
work. Colonial institutions evolved organically out of a very specific historic
experience in Europe, were nourished by a nutrient culture, norms and values.
These were then transplanted to Africa through colonial conquest and in the
postcolonial period through foreign aid programs and copying and pasting as
However, often times these institutions do not
fit our specific circumstances. It is attempts to make these institutions fit
the local context that explains the disagreement between African ruling elites
on one hand and African opposition groups and their Western cheerleaders on the
other. Listen to the criticism African elites make of their leaders and
governments. Implicit in these criticisms is that African leaders are not as
good as European leaders because they have failed to turn our nations into
imitations of Europe – rich, secular, rational and liberal democratic!
This is a slightly edited version of a speech I
gave at the Egmont Institute in Brussels on the relations between Africa and
Europe in September 2018