The Role of European Colonialism on Political and Economic Life in Africa


The role of European colonialism on Africa’s political and economic development cannot be overstated.


Europe’s colonial heritage has plagued Africa with frail state institutions and stagnant economies that yield under development in African postcolonial nation states. These conditions haunt Africa to this day – and it prevents the continent from unlocking it’s economic and political potential in the postcolonial period.

In terms of economics, the growth rate of per-capita income of African countries in the post-colonial period has been stagnant compared to the world average. For instance, over the period of 1960-1973, the average growth rate of African countries per-capita GDP has only been 2.0%.


By contrast, the world average was 3.0% and the OECD average was at 4.2% [1]. Over the 1981-1999 period, the numbers showed an even more desolate picture – with African countries displaying a negative average growth rate (-0.1) as compared to a 2.9% for OECD countries.

European colonial domination is one of the reasons for the low average growth rates of per-capita GDP in Africa. Africa perfectly illustrates the impact of European colonial ruins because – nowhere else was colonization so-far reaching and homogeneous in nature as in the African experience that began at the end of the 19th century.


Africa’s economic hardships can be directly attributed to the fact that European colonial powers colonized Africa not in order to create future viable sovereign countries but to serve their own European interests by exploiting the continents riches [2].


The colonial experience in Africa has had a significant negative impact on economic growth, both directly and indirectly, primarily by altering the traditional modes of economic production and by provoking political instabilities.

Nation building is no simple process [3]. The process has proven to be especially strenuous for non-homogeneous populations. Africa is diverse to the point where large groups of people are distinguished by their own customs, language or separate identities – and this is something European colonial powers failed to account for in the original colonial period.


In sub Saharan Africa, several of the nations that achieved independence during the decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s have continued to be beset by problems of integrating ethnic groups within the nation – as illustrated by the experience of Nigeria.

Previous European colonial arrangements have fermented many newly independent African nations that have a mix of diverse people – each with their own separate ethnic loyalties and traditions.


It is important to note that Nigeria has a multitude of distinct ethnic and linguistic groups – which include but are not limited to the Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa-Fulani. When Nigeria first won independence from the British in October 1960, new problems began to emerge due to the previous British colonial arrangements.


In the post-colonial period, British colonial influence made omnipresent the fact that Nigeria was a state that encompassed many ethnic traditions, each claiming their own separate heritage, language and culture.


British colonial rule failed to account for this diversity and built a state that was incompatible with the demographics and needs of the Nigerian people.


Somalia is also grappling with the sins of the previous European colonial order. In Somalia, the fluidity of clan divisions complicates efforts to formalize new political boundaries to replace those of the original colonial divisions.


The commitment to colonial borders has been challenged by African scholar Makau Matua – who claims that in order for democracy to function in an African country like Rwanda and Burundi, partition is indeed necessary [4].


A suitable solution to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, would be for the united nations panel to redraw the maps of Burundi and Rwanda to create two new states: one for the Hutu, the other for the Tutsi. This would reduce conflict and minimize Africa’s political misfortunes.


European colonialism brought racism, discrimination, inequality and seriously warped many African political and economic institutions [5]. In the post-colonial period, the African experience of modernity is fraught with tensions at every level of the communal and social setting – and these tensions can be directly attributed to the cultural, political and economic decay that came as a result of barbaric European colonialism [6].


The post-independence Africa is confronted with how to have a true identity, a new culture that is truly African in nature. African countries must begin to dismantle the previous remontants of the colonial order that has yielded decades of corruption, ethnic division, a weak body politic and stagnant economies.


Sources [1] Bertocchi, Graziella, and Fabio Canova. "Did colonization matter for growth? An empirical exploration into the historical causes of Africa's underdevelopment." European economic review 46, no. 10 (2002): 1851-1871. [2] Spears, Ian S. "Reflections on Somaliland & Africa's territorial order." Review of African Political Economy 30, no. 95 (2003): 89-98. [3] Davis, Thomas J., and Azubike Kalu-Nwiwu. "Education, ethnicity and national integration in the history of Nigeria: Continuing problems of Africa's colonial legacy." The Journal of Negro History 86, no. 1 (2001): 1-11. [4] Wa Mutua, Makau. "Why redraw the map of Africa: a moral and legal inquiry." Mich. J. Int'l L. 16 (1994): 1113. [5] Heldring, Leander, and James A. Robinson. Colonialism and economic development in Africa. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012. [6] Arowolo, Dare. "The effects of western civilisation and culture on Africa." Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 1, no. 1 (2010): 1-13.