The problems of decolonisation–Africa

“In 1885, at the heyday of European imperialism, Africa was a continent apart. It had no nation-states, no caliphate, and no empire. It did not even have the crude military dictatorships that at that time passed for states in Latin America. It was a continent of clans, of segmentary tribes and of a few sacred  monarchies. Societies were what mattered, and the state was a construct many could live without. Boundaries did exist, but not in the European sense. They were linguistic, cultural, military or commercial and they tended to crisscross and overlap, without the neat delineations so much beloved by western statesmen since the treaties of Westphalia. Colonial European logic played havoc with that delicate cobweb of relationships. New borders were drawn not so much in violation of preexisting ones but according to a different logic. African borders had been porous membranes through which proto-nations were breathing, and the colonial borders that superseded them were of the pre-1914 cast-iron variety…”

Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War, p.1

Published in: on May 9, 2010 at 4:53 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. John,

    Thanks for this post… Prunier’s book looks fascinating. I must confess I had no idea of the scale of the conflict that occurred in Africa in the late 90s. Below is the URL for a brief but interesting – and generally positive – review of the book in the New York Times.


  2. […] pre-state societies I think the observations of Pruniere that I referred equally to in an earlier post apply equally to all pre-state societies, including Papua New Guinea. That is, the central […]

  3. This extract from Prunier’s book, read in isolation, seems to imply a highly idealised vision of Africa before European colonisation: a series of happy communities of noble savages living peacefully together until the white man with his pedantic ideas of nation states and rigid borders came along and spoiled it. I’m afraid the reality was rather different. Of course colonisation did great harm for many years in many parts of Africa, importing into some countries political oppression and denial of human rights, together with ruthless commercial and human exploitation. But each of those evils already existed in different ways throughout Africa long before colonisation, often in even crueller forms; and colonisation often curbed the more extreme forms of superstition, exploitation and repression that preceded it, while in some areas respecting and supporting local social and religious structures. There’s very little, for example, to be ashamed of in Lugard’s record in Africa. While almost all colonies were certainly exploited by the colonial powers for many years for their human and material resources, in many of them the colonial era also brought the beginnings of economic and social development. It is not by accident that one of the only two African countries never colonised by the Europeans, Ethiopia (it suffered military occupation for a few years but not any recognisable form of colonisation), remains to this day one of the least economically developed countries in Africa. No colonial power ever built in Ethiopia a proper infrastructure of roads and railways, introduced systematic education, started to eradicate the commonest diseases or shared even the most basic technological advances in agriculture. Colonialism is unacceptable for all the obvious reasons by our contemporary standards, but it should never be forgotten that it brought huge benefits as well as leaving deep scars.

    • It is not, I think, correct to read Pruniere as idealising pre-colonial societies or criticising colonisation.Clearly, colonisation provided great benefits. In the case I know best, Papua New Guinea, the eradication of malaria and the vast improvement in health, immediately springs to mind. What Pruniere was directing his comment to was the inherent contradiction between the ‘colonial’ state and pre-colonial societies based upon a non-nation state relationship of their peoples.This became a central difficulty in the decolonisation process and remains a difficulty in the newly independent states.
      I have elaborated upon this in my Post ‘The problems of decolonisation — pre-state societies’

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