Europe's Legacy in Africa: Domination, Not Democracy
Howard W. French
New York Times
, January 16, 1999
By the late 1960s, scarcely a decade after Africa's great independence wave had begun, many of the continent's
new political creations already had begun to resemble disasters. With no ready answers to their problems,
many African leaders struck upon a new strategy for explaining their failings to impatient populations while
simultaneously drawing more outside aid: blaming the European colonizers for Africa's seemingly intractable
But if this approach was at least temporarily successful in many cases, the increasing stridency of the claims
made against the West, set against the backdrop of the growing despotism of the new leaders, quickly
backfired, as both foreign sympathy and assistance dwindled.
For the next two decades or so, conventional wisdom largely rejected African assertions of outside
responsibility for the continent's problems, and many in the West argued, often with a growing vehemence of
their own, that Africa's bad leaders were primarily to blame rather than any European legacy.
In the closing years of this century, though, historians, political scientists and other students of African affairs
have begun a searching re-examination of the continent's recent past. Increasingly they have concluded that
many of its most persistent curses -- from the plague of ethnic hatred widely known as tribalism to endemic
official corruption -- have powerful roots that are at least partly traceable to European subjugation and rule.
Among the writings that helped forge this reconsideration are works like "Citizen and Subject: Contemporary
Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism," by the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani. Mamdani's 1996
book draws extensively on colonial records to show how Europeans administered their new subjects through a
deliberately authoritarian form of indirect rule -- for which the author coined the term "decentralized
despotism" -- that greatly reinforced or even created notions of ethnicity, helping set the stage for the tribal
conflict that wracks the continent today.
Another work, Basil Davidson's "Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State," depicts the
European process of decolonization in Africa as one of hasty, even offhand decision-making filled with a
disdain for Africans and their history and an unquestioning arrogance that assumed that the political structures
of the West were appropriate for Africans even when they had been given no preparation for making them
In these and other scholarly works, African specialists have made the point that the example left by European