There is no respectable argument favoring colonization such as that imposed on much of Africa between 1881 and 1914 by the more powerful European nations, yet it is not unreasonable to contemplate the thought that as bad as things were then, many Africans may have been better off then than they are now.
Look around the map of today’s Africa: While several of its 53 nations are free of fear, others such as Nigeria serve as the worst examples of post-colonial political and military ineptitude.
The recent abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls by Baku Haram, the militant Islamist terror group, drew the world’s attention — and scorn — but the troubles there had been raging for a long time and were barely noticed in the west.
As in Nigeria, clashes between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic have taken a terrible toll. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of the nation’s citizens have been displaced by the conflict.
In March of last year, a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka ousted President Francois Bozize and although they have since lost power, the Christian and Muslim militias have continued to battle for control.
The newly formed nation of South Sudan only last week found the path to peace between warring factions that had resorted to outrageous brutality against each other, and it’s too soon to predict the new accord will have any lasting effect.
We’ve even seen relatively sophisticated nations such as Egypt dangerously destabilized — whatever happened to “the Arab Spring”? — as rival political and religious segments of the population have found it virtually impossible to live peacefully with each other or even to respect each other’s rights.
So there may be a general impression that post-colonial Africa is coming apart at the seams, and that’s certainly the case in several countries.
In 1870, just 10 percent of Africa was controlled by European powers, but by the beginning of World War I in 1914, that percentage had risen to 90. In fact, only two African nations, Libya and Ethiopia (then known has Abyssinia) enjoyed independence.
Generally speaking, historians accept the premise that this crude gobbling up of African nations is what helped persuade European nations to stop fighting each other in the latter years of the 19th century.
But if colonization translated into peace in Europe, it brought an intolerable downside for the people of Africa. Although the colonizers would argue that they introduced a new and better form of civilization to the lands they’d seized, the natives nevertheless were deprived of political independence and often regarded by their European masters as primitive and inferior.
The plain purpose of colonization was to strengthen the economies of the European powers. Any advances in the way the resources of the colonies were harvested and any improvements in education and governance may have brought long-term advantages to those colonized, but in the short term they were strictly designed to benefit the foreigners.
There is a brighter side: Jesse Driscoll, a student, and Jeremy Weinstein, his political science professor at Stanford University, have examined the turmoil in Africa and concluded that “most (former colonies) have gone from independence to the present day without falling prey to civil war, despite extraordinary ethnic, religious, and tribal diversity.”
They credit the Organization of African Unity (OAU) with “creating a strong norm of non-interference by African countries into each other’s internal affairs.”
Still, unrest is common and the colonial powers (some more than others) failed to prepare their colonies for independence … or to teach religious or ethnic tolerance.
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