The legacy of colonialism in Africa: Fifty years and counting

8th October 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

The year 1960 symbolised hope, prospect and freedom for seventeen states in Africa. For African states, independence signified the opportunity to adopt sovereignty and finally occupy equal footing with their former imperialists in the changing global arena. Beyond this, self-determination relayed the foresight of economic development and shared fiscal benefits. Fifty years after independence, the hopes and prospects envisioned are far from visible. Colonialism in its pure sense is no more, but neither is the economic self-sufficiency envisioned. Five decades after tears, sweat and blood poured for African autonomy, the continent is plagued with a range of tragedies that threaten African peace and prevent economic development.


Volumes have been written about Africa's troubles; both from an Afro-centric and Western perspective. Some standpoints suggest the continued prevalence of colonialism after fifty years of independence and the resultant failure for African growth.(2) Others focus on the benefits of colonialism and its potential to outweigh the perceived costs.(3) The common thread in many of the viewpoints is the appalling state of African countries. For this reason, this discussion paper commences with a brief overview of the nature of these seventeen African states since 1960, and where the factors contributing to the negative legacy in these seventeen states are identified. It furthermore establishes whether the legacy of colonialism remains a viable pretext for the problems facing African states.


Africa since the 1960 independence boom


Cameroon received independence from France in January 1960. Reports of human rights violations and long presidential terms, coupled with endemic corruption and economic mismanagement persistently plague the state to this day.(4) Togo was next to gain independence and in April of 1960, it followed suit. Togo's history since independence from France has however, been littered by military coups and unconstitutional changes to Government.(5) In June of 1960, Mali and Senegal ceased to be French colonies. Independence for Mali has been met with relative political stability and regular democratic elections.(6) Sporadic fighting between Tuareg factions and the military, however has led to deaths in the poorest region of Mali.(7) On the economic front, the Malian population has been faced with poverty, and threats to food security.(8) Although Senegal has experienced relative stability, conflict in the Casamance region of the state, remains a menace to overall peace.(9)


Also in June of 1960, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained independence from France and Belgium respectively. Despite widespread poverty and traits of a fledgling democracy in Madagascar, the state was considered relatively peaceful until early 2009. An uprising in January of 2009, instigated by Andry Rajoelina exposed the cracks of pervasive disgruntlement in the state.(10) Coup d'états and civil wars in the mineral rich DRC have marred its history since independence.(11) While conflict has been quelled in most of the country, the Eastern region of Congo remains racked by violence.(12) Somalia achieved independence from Britain in July of 1960. Clan-based factions, terrorism and the breakdown of the rule of law characterise the state, giving rise to the dual phenomena of piracy and warlordism.(13)

In August 1960 there were a spate of independences, as eight African states joined the ranks of their independent counterparts. Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic (CAR), the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon all received independence from France. Benin's first ten years of independence were marked by precariousness, caused by successive coups. With the transfer to multiparty democracy, relative equilibrium gradually returned.(14) Since independence in Niger, this poor West African state has been challenged by a history of rebellion and military coups.(15) Added to this are extended periods of drought, which continue to challenge food security.(16) Like many states in the West African sub-region, Burkina Faso has spent a large portion of its independence under military rule. A politically unsteady state has been the consequence of Burkina Faso's succession of coups and the possible illegitimacy attached to its present ruler, Blaise Campaoré.(17) Côte d'Ivoire may have commenced independence on positive economic and political notes, but a failed coup in 2002 plunged this state into political turmoil.(18) Civil war broke out from 2003 until 2005 and despite a host of peace agreements, the state is faced with a fragile peace and the potential for the resumption of war.(19)

Similarly, in Chad, the exhilaration surrounding independence was transitory, due to a swift turn to dictatorship and the preservation of authoritarian governance since then.(20) CAR's history since independence has been characterised by military coups and civil unrest.(21) A strong central Government gives rise to concerns on the democracy of the state.(22) The Republic of Congo has, like many of its African counterparts, struggled with a one-party system, civil war and one of Africa's longest serving presidents.(23) Its array of challenges since independence impede peace and security in that state.(24) Although Gabon has been confronted with autocratic rule since independence, it remains relatively stable and is one of the few states without a bloody past.(25)


Nigeria's independence in October 1960 was next in line. Nigeria's political history has not differed much from its counterparts, in that a series of military dictatorships wrenched the state into political instability. Corruption in this oil-rich state continues to beset Nigeria's national institutions, giving rise to questions on the viability of the state's democratic practices. Mauritania rounded up the year 1960 with its independence in November. The state's eleven experiences of coups since then have threatened the prospect of political stability.(26) However, with the election of Mauritania's first-ever democratically elected president in 2009, the state has shown some signs of departure from its previous trends.


The overarching trend in all the states mentioned above is that poverty features prominently and contributes to many of the political complexities therein.


Colonialism as a viable explanation for Africa's present state


As with many other global issues, establishing the root cause of Africa's political and economic turmoil is fundamental for understanding the dynamics of the African continent. Arbitrary boundaries have been largely responsible for ethnic conflicts on the continent. This is due to the forced separation of ethnic groups across states and the forced assimilation of others within states. Colonialism also replaced the pre-colonial governance structures with Western ones and created the culture of kleptocracy. This was through the creation of hierarchical ruling structures.

Within these ruling structures, colonial rulers placed Africans in positions of leadership and enticed them with status and or wealth. Economic rewards given to African elites were trapped within elite circles, creating a dominant class at the expense of other Africans and the continent's natural resources. Despite the demise of colonialism, the African elites remained and maintained their relationships with former colonialists. In this way, elites were continually rewarded for draining their states' natural resources. Colonialism furthermore created single-crop economies, which sentenced African economies to market-based fluctuations. Forced integration of developing states into the international trading arena augmented the already prevalent inequality between developed and developing states.


Despite these undeniable effects of colonialism, Africans have a part to play in the current state of the continent. With the realisation that colonial systems were detrimental to African prosperity, the onus fell on Africans to systematically abandon predatory methods of governance, in favour of more equitable ones. The extensive record of African experiences with war and poverty should suffice in deterring the monopolisation of power or resources, which contribute to the appalling state of African states. Corruption instead, remains an overarching problem in a majority of the African states mentioned. Challenges experienced in the first ten or twenty years of African independence could be dismissed under the pretext of growing pains - in this case, the departure from the legacy of colonialism.


Despite the independence of African states, some Governments of former French colonies are allegedly still linked to France. Chad and Côte d'Ivoire for instance, are some of the cases wherein political interference from France continues to obstruct efforts at forging ahead from the legacy of colonialism.(27) France has been accused of neo-colonialist practices, and while this may be true, this continuing Afro-French relationship is unsustainable to the degree it exists, without the assistance of African elites. Colonialism undoubtedly initiated unfavourable practices, but how feasible is it to continue allocating blame of injustices against Africa, to past eras and present opportunists, while African leaders persist in power grabbing and economic greed?




Half a century after colonialism, if all Africa's ills are blamed on colonialism, the African state is in danger of allocating the blame of present Government actions to the past era. In so doing, Africans play a prominent role in condoning corruption and maladministration on the premise of colonialism. This in itself is the replacement of Western domination with African-based domination, and continuing to refer to it as the legacy of colonialism. Persisting in using colonialism as an explanation for Africa's ills gives the perspective that despite having gained independence, African states are powerless to external influences, whether past or present. It follows that African states are capable of continuing with this negative legacy and not in changing it. This is arguable, given the positive developments in states like Ghana. At what stage in Africa, will it suffice for colonialism to no longer be given the fall for Africa's problems?


While the legacy of colonialism is an explanation for Africa's dire situation, fifty years after colonialism these negative effects in Africa should be fading away, instead of persisting or growing. An overall commitment to good governance and state well-being is fundamentally lacking in many African states. Africans therefore need to strike the right balance between the real legacy of colonialism fifty years later and the models of poor governance that exist on the continent in order to develop and progress.

Written by: Uyo Salifu(1)


(1) Contact Uyo Salifu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) Godsway Sappor, ‘Neo-colonialist ideas in Africa after independence', Modern Ghana, 05 February 2009,
(3) Tunde Obadina, ‘The Myth of Neo-Colonialism', Africa Economic Analysis, 23 January 2008,
(4) ‘Background note: Cameroon', The United States Department of State, 29 June 2010,
(5) ‘Chronology-Events in Togo since independence', Reuters, 14 October 2007,
(6) ‘Countries-Mali', World Food Programme,
(7) ‘Mali: Hoping to Eradicate Guinea Worm in Two Years', Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) News, 17 March 2010,
(8) ‘Countries-Mali', World Food Programme,
(9) Bineh Minteh, ‘The crisis in Casamance, Southern Senegal: A constructive conflict resolution approach', Senegambia News, 29 January 2009,
(10) Sebastien Berger, ‘Deaths as thousands riot in Madagascar', The Telegraph, 26 January 2009,
(11) ‘Democratic Republic of Congo country profile', BBC News, 10 August 2010,
(12) Carayannis, T., ‘The challenge of building sustainable peace in the DRC', Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, July 2009,
(13) Silva, M., 2010. ‘Somalia: State failure, piracy and the challenge to international law', Virginia Journal of International Law, 50 (3), pp. 553-578.
(14) ‘Background note: Benin', The United States Department of State, 13 August 2010,
(15) ‘Niger since independence', Agence France-Presse (AFP), 19 February 2010,
(16) Ibid.
(17) ‘Burkina Faso country profile', BBC News, 17 October 2009,
(18) ‘Côte d'Ivoire: "The war is not yet over"', International Crisis Group, 28 November 2003, Africa Report No. 72.
(19) Ibid.
(20) ‘Chad's long road to independence', Al Jazeera, 13 September 2010,
(21) ‘Background Note: Central African Republic', United States Department of State, 08 January 2010,
(22) Ibid.
(23) Laudes Mbon, ‘50 years after independence, Congo mired in poverty', Agence France-Presse (AFP), 14 August 2010,
(24) Ibid.
(25) ‘Exhibit Marks 50 Years of Gabon Independence', Voice of America, 17 August 2010,
(26) ‘Mauritania country profile', BBC News, 24 August 2010,
(27) ‘Chad's long road to independence', Al Jazeera, 13 September 2010,