History matters. And it is often the case that when we talk about the past, we are really talking about the present. We are trying to explain why we are where we are. The current debates over colonialism and the fury about Queen Elizabeth’s role in it are no different. They are, at heart, about trying to explain why some peoples and parts of the world today are wealthy and successful while others aren’t.
No matter how sensitively you try to approach it, colonial history is an inherently divisive issue in Britain. It cannot be otherwise in a country where the descendants of those who were colonised live alongside the descendants of those who did the colonising. One’s story of successful expansion is the other’s reminder of humiliating subjugation.
Akala poignantly expressed this in his book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire: “Even at five years old, we already know on some level that, in this society at least, we are indeed lesser citizens with all the baggage of racialised history following us ghost-like about our days. We are conquered people living in the conquerors’ land, and as such we are people without honour.” It is an emotion rarely voiced and so rarely captured in polls or surveys.
In my fellow African immigrant circles, when we complain about racism in the West, we often sum up the situation with something along the lines of: “Well, it’s not their fault, it’s because we’ve had to leave our countries to come and live in their country, that’s why they think they can misbehave towards us.” Our situation is psychologically easier to handle because we came here of our own accord, usually as adults, and can at least envisage somewhere else in the world we could go if things were to become unbearable here. This allows us an empowering sense of autonomy.
But Akala was speaking about those who, like him, were born here, in the land of their former conquerors, and who can’t envisage living anywhere else. Britain is all they know. Naturally their frustrations at the current status quo are often stronger. Why is it that they have to live in the land of their former conquerors? Why do their life options seem restricted in comparison with their white peers? Why is it that they live in a world where even if they feel Britain is a white supremacist hellhole, they can’t simply say: “Sod it, I’m jumping on a plane and moving to an African or Caribbean country where I won’t have to deal with white racists?”
Race is sometimes, but not always, a relevant proxy for the key dividing line in our world which is between so-far successful groups and so-far unsuccessful groups. The Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, Emiratis and increasingly the Chinese are not on the same side of this divide as Kenyans, Pakistanis or Yemenis. They are, along with most white or white-majority nations, in the successful group camp.
It is no coincidence that, even though they’re not white and have been victims of racism and colonisation in the past, you won’t find too many Singaporeans or South Koreans today focusing on the ills colonialism rendered their societies. Successful nations and peoples usually find the present quite satisfying; when they discuss the past, it’s generally for the feel-good reason of reminding themselves how far they have come. It is not that a South Korean may not face racism here in Britain, but that, like Jewish people today, they always have the option of a wealthy well-developed ancestral homeland they can move to, if need really be. This knowledge creates a completely different psychological dynamic.
A lot of effort, however, is put into recalling the colonial pasts of nations not doing that well today for two major reasons. First, to convince the world that this is not the result of current misrule, but because of problems that have their “root causes” in colonialism and, possibly, slavery as well. In other words, something attributable to external forces beyond their control.
The second aim is to bring white folk, Westerners especially, down a peg or two. This group tends to consider itself more civilisationally advanced as a result of having built several dozen successful states across the globe. No amount of political correctness can hide this. Their sense of superiority at having built “developed” societies while we are still “developing” engenders in us a strong psychological need to make the point that the only reason they are so rich, and we are not, is because they robbed us through colonisation and slavery and caused the problems our nations face today.
Olivia Rutazibwa outlines this position: “It is only through sustained colonial amnesia in knowledge production in [Western] society that the ills in the global South are systematically and almost exclusively attributed to the now and the local (over there)… this allows for the sustained… presentation of Western actors as firefighters when they are more often than not the arsonists.” What is thus needed, according to Rutazibwa, is to “first and foremost foreground the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial encounter as the sites from which any thinking about development-related issues need to be addressed”.
In other words, you simply can’t discuss any development issues of Nigeria or Pakistan today without first discussing colonialism. Indeed, there wouldn’t even be a Nigeria today, a country comprised of hundreds of ethnic groups speaking some 500 different languages, if not for British colonialism. Though colonialism is often portrayed as having divided Africans, it actually forced together thousands of formerly disparate communities, city-states, empires and autonomous groups into 54 Western-style nation states.
Nigerians over the years have countered by arguing that this forcing together of overly (culturally) different peoples has created an “artificial” country that struggles to develop consensus on national norms and forge a sense of nationhood. The practicality of this point is valid in Nigeria’s case, but we should also be aware that this is precisely the argument some deploy against multiculturalism in Western societies. They say white Europeans shouldn’t be forced to live with so many people from different cultures with different value-systems. So this particular critique of colonialism is a slippery slope. We can’t argue “forced” multiculturalism is bad for African states but good for Western ones.
What is certainly the case, however, is that colonialism brought massive disruptions to the ways of life of millions of people in colonised territories, rubbishing their cultures, belief-systems, values and traditions — all the things Queen Elizabeth is praised for upholding here in Britain. Postcolonial Africans are yet to recover (and may well never recover) from this assault on their identities and are still trying to figure out what exactly they are or want to be. People were also killed, something that cannot be glossed over. Colonialism wrought serious damage.
But it is not to blame for everything. It is fanciful, for example, to suggest that the $600 billion stolen from the Nigerian people by Nigerian rulers since independence is down to colonialism. If that had been used to fund roads, schools, hospitals, universities and power systems, Nigeria would be in a very different place today. We would definitely not be in a situation whereby three-quarters of Nigerians aged 18-24 want to emigrate to richer pastures, including often to the land of their former conquerors, Britain.
Nonetheless when the issue of corruption among African ruling elites is discussed, the fact that these stolen funds are often deposited in Western banks is often raised along with the implication that it is the white man who is again robbing Africa of its wealth. I cannot imagine that, were it to emerge that Boris Johnson had stolen £2 billion from the UK treasury and deposited it in a bank in Dubai, there would be people more concerned with the role of the Emiratis in the whole affair than in the fact Johnson stole £2 billion from Britain.
Yet a tranche of white Westerners lap up these anti-colonial arguments. They nod their heads, displaying an incredibly paternalistic and patronising attitude to Africans, painting them as helpless children who, even when they steal from their people, probably do it because the white man has told them to. All this only serves to downplay the role of corrupt African leaders in impoverishing their people: how thrilled these rulers must be as those useful idiots make the “corruption is all the West’s fault” argument for them.
And no, accounts of massive corruption in African states are not exaggerated stereotypes. In a 2021 survey of citizens in 34 African countries, an average of 58% said corruption was getting steadily worse. And not just among their elites; a third of respondents had been forced to bribe the police at least once in the past year. They also rated their civil servants, judges and local government councillors as very corrupt. Worse, 71% said “ordinary citizens risk retaliation or other negative consequences if they report corruption to the authorities”, proof they see it as a systemic arrangement. Is that the white man’s doing as well?
Of course there are global structural hangovers from the colonial era that impede the progress of African and other (poorer) global South countries today. Western countries have far more influence over and within major international organisations — from the UN to the IMF and World Bank. African countries have very weak positions in these institutions because they lack financial muscle, determined by their position in the world economy. Basically, the more you pay, the more you say.
The general stance of Africans who live in Africa is certainly not to blame the former colonialists for the problems of their countries today. They place the blame squarely on their ruling elites as a cursory glance of a newspaper in any African country will evidence. A majority — 59% — of Africans aged 18-24 believe that the impact their country’s former colonial powers have on their education systems is positive, while a quarter (25%) disagree. A majority — 57% — also feel trade relations with the former colonial power have a positive impact, while 27% disagree. Surprisingly for me, 47% even think the former colonial power’s impact on their country’s culture and identity is positive and 46% think their access to its natural resources has a positive effect, compared with 32% and 36% who disagree, respectively.
Six in ten, meanwhile, believe that foreign companies have been allowed to take advantage of their country’s resources without sufficiently benefitting or contributing to the local populations. These figures suggest the majority of African youths who actually live in Africa have quite different views from those in the West who are attempting to speak on their behalf — usually Guardianistas or their equivalents in the US. Kehinde Andrews’s The New Age of Empire at least makes the argument explicitly. Most others hide behind implication to generally say the same thing.
Any white person who would suggest colonialism is not one of the “root causes” of Africa’s problems today is engaging in colonial amnesia, white denialism (both real but over-exaggerated phenomena), or is simply a racist. This tactic has the dual advantage of putting whites on the moral and psychological defensive as well as rallying Africans and other black folk to join in repelling the racist denialists. And if any black people in the West suggest colonialism does not really explain all African problems today, the tactic will be to portray them as “brainwashed” by the white man, dim-witted coconuts or mercenaries who in order to reap the rewards of pandering to white prejudices, are enabling “ahistorical” arguments that ignore the legacies of colonialism and slavery. An “ahistorical” argument is any argument that does not firmly point to the white man as the root of Africa’s problems today. White people who make the “colonialism is the root cause” argument will be praised as “thoughtful” and generally given the thumbs-up for showing how informed they are; they get it.
But who is this helping? Certainly not the 500 million Africans who currently have to survive on less than $1.90 a day or the hundreds of millions more who live on $2-$5 a day which is still serious poverty. It is not helping those living in countries with 50% or higher unemployment rates who are dying of easily curable diseases because they often lack access to basic healthcare. It is not helping the Africans who often live under governments that often think nothing of unleashing open violence on them to stay in power.
It is, at best, helping some black folk here in the West who might genuinely feel better believing white people have what they have while black people lack what they lack because of colonialism.
The root cause of Africa’s problems today is not colonialism or Queen Elizabeth — it is the way it is being ruled. And until that changes, the status quo will remain the same, no matter how many times we yell “colonialism”.