Africa: British Colonies

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Africa: British Colonies






Colonialism by its very nature has racist connotations. British colonialism in particular was structured as a dictatorship, using violence to pacify the colonial subjects and to maintain order. There was no input from the colonized in the way that they were governed: The British Colonial Office in London made all the decisions concerning the colonies. The British also tended to choose a preferred ethnic group over all the others in the countries that they colonized. These preferred groups, usually a conservative minority within the country, were supported to the extent that they worked against the interests of their fellow Africans. For example, the British chose the Arab minority to lord it over the majority Africans in the Sudan and favored the Fulani in Nigeria. The British preferred ethnic societies with dictatorial and hierarchical systems like their own, and they recruited members of these ethnicities in disproportionate numbers into the colonial military. At independence, these soldiers often staged coups and removed the democratically elected civilian governments of their countries.


It is important to note that the advent of British colonization of Africa coincided with the era of scientific racism as represented by social Darwinism (survival of the fittest). The British believed that because they had superior weaponry and were therefore more technologically advanced than the Africans, that they had a right to colonize and exploit the resources of the Africans in the name of promoting civilization. But it is inherently contradictory for an invading force to usher in “civilization.”

Britain had many colonies in Africa: in British West Africa there was Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Southern Cameroon, and Sierra Leone; in British East Africa there was Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika and Zanzibar); and in British South Africa there was South Africa, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (Malawi), Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland. Britain had a strange and unique colonial history with Egypt. The Sudan, formerly known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, was jointly ruled by Egypt and Britain, because they had jointly colonized the area. The joint colonial administration of the Sudan by Egypt and Britain was known as the condominium government. The British system of government affected the type of racial or ethnic problems that all of Britain’s African colonies had during the colonial period, the immediate postcolonial period, and from the 1980s into the twenty-first century.


Ethnic rivalries were not serious in precolonial Africa. The majority of ethnic nations lived in their independent small polities. There were, however, some large conquering empires: the Bugandan Empire in Uganda; the Zulus in South Africa; the Mwene Mutapa Empire of the Shona people in Zambia, or Great Zimbabwe; the Benin Empire; the kingdoms of the Yoruba (Ife, Oyo, and Ibadan); the Ashanti in Ghana; the Fulani Empire in northern Nigeria, which even tried to extend into regions of Sierra Leone; the Kanem-Bornu Empire around the Lake Chad area of northern Nigeria; and the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, who lived in small democratic states with the few exceptions of some representative monarchies. But things changed with the British Empire’s entrance into Africa.


The British employed various systems of governance in their African colonies. These were through the agency of (1) trading companies, (2) indirect rule, (3) the settler rule, and then the unique joint rule of the Sudan with the Egyptians known as the (4) condominium government.

Trading Companies . In the early years of colonialism, Britain granted private companies large territories to administer in Africa. Companies such as the United African Company and United Trading Company in West Africa, the Imperial British East Africa Company, and the British South Africa Company were formed by businesspersons who were interested only in exploiting and plundering the rich natural resources of the territories of Africa that they were allowed to govern. Illiterate African leaders were conned into signing over their sovereignty to the British. The British government provided charters for these companies, but the companies themselves paid for the expenses incurred in establishing and administering the colonies. To support their administrations, the companies set up their own systems of taxation and labor recruitment.

The Imperial British East Africa Company, founded in 1888, colonized Kenya for Britain, ruling there until 1893. The British South Africa Company, established in 1889 under the control of Cecil John Rhodes, used excessive force and coercion to colonize and rule Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe); the company reigned over these colonies until 1923. None of these private companies were very profitable, so the British government eventually took them over.

Company rule on behalf of Britain was very harsh on the Africans as the companies practiced an apartheid-like system during their rule. In spite of the numerous blunders of these companies in running colonies in Africa, the British government allowed most of them to rule for a very long time. Interested only in making profits, the companies were ill suited to administer territories or colonies, and they found that doing so was neither easy nor profitable. To increase their profit margins, they employed racist and draconian policies. Unfortunately, the adverse policies they enacted were continued when the British government took over administration of the colonies. These policies had far-reaching effects that lasted into the postcolonial period.

Indirect Rule . Indirect rule, the brainchild of the British colonial administrator Frederick Lugard, became the main system the British used to administer their African colonies. The British used African traditional rulers to work on their behalf and help subjugate their fellow Africans. Although these Africans were nominally “ruling,” the actual decisions rested with the British colonial officers. Lugard first experimented with indirect rule in northern Nigeria where the Fulani had established the Sokoto caliphate and emirship. As the system seemed to have worked in northern Nigeria, Lugard exported the system to southern Nigeria where it failed woefully in the Igbo areas of eastern Nigeria. Still Lugard took the system to East Africa where it again failed. Lugard wrongly believed that all the African societies were monarchies and that those that were not could become so with the establishment of chiefdoms.

In West Africa, the British had no pretensions about their attitude toward their colonies and colonial subjects. Britain did not want to be paternalistic like the French colonialists, and it did not practice the assimilation policies of the French. Thus, Britain did not attempt to make English persons out of the Africans. Although the British claimed that they used the indirect rule system because they wanted to preserve their colonies’ indigenous cultures, the main reason was to minimize the cost of running the colonies while at the same time maximizing the exploitation of the resources. Britain ended up inventing new cultures for its colonies, thereby destroying the indigenous cultures. The British created new leaders (chiefs) who were invariably corrupt and who did not have the mandate of the Africans and were consequently not respected by the people they governed. Thus, this strategy more often than not failed woefully, as in Igboland in Nigeria.

In northern Nigeria, where the indirect system seemed to have worked, the ethnic relations were horrible. The Fulani emirs were very autocratic and corrupt. Non-Fulani and non-Muslims rioted many times to protest the misrule of the Fulani over them. Another aspect of misrule was the creation of synthetic political groupings by forcing the amalgamation of ethnic groups and native nations that had previously been independent, forming a polity dominated by British interests. Such a situation and the struggle for scarce resources helped to exacerbate ethnic tensions. During British colonialism in Nigeria, there were numerous massacres of minorities. These episodes of genocide have continued into the early twenty-first century.

The British policies in West Africa and East Africa led to the ethnic consciousness or subnationalism of most of the ethnic groups in these colonies. Ethnic rivalries between the major groups in Nigeria—the Igbo, Hausa-Fulani, and Yoruba, who constitute about 65 percent of the population of Nigeria—started during the British colonial period. Some of the ethnic groups, such as the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa, did not have pan-ethnic consciousness, and they resisted the British colonial structure. In Nigeria, the main political parties formed around ethnic affiliations: The National Convention of Nigerian Citizens, founded by Herbert Macaulay and championed by Nnamdi Azikiwe, was primarily centered in the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region; the Action Group, led by Obafemi Awolowo, was based in the traditional Yoruba area of the Western Region; and the Northern Peoples Congress, led by Ahmadu Bello and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was dominated by the Hausa-Fulani and based in the Northern Region. It was in the interest of the British to promote ethnic tensions in their colonies. The creation of antagonistic political parties helped to delay independence agitations within the colonies, and enabled the British to continue their uninterrupted plundering of resources in Africa. The case of Nigeria was similar to the situations of other British colonies in West Africa— Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana.

Under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana may have been spared ethnic rivalries to a considerable extent. In Sierra Leone, the British fomented tensions between the colony of Freetown, which was dominated by former slaves, the Creoles; and the rest of the indigenous population, the Protectorate of Sierra Leone.

Settler Rule . Another system of British colonial administration was the settler rule system that occurred where Britain had large populations of European immigrants. These immigrants settled and established direct rule over the colonies in Africa especially in southern and eastern Africa. They planned to make Africa their permanent home. British settler colonies were founded primarily in South Africa, Southern and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe and Zambia), and South-West Africa (Namibia). Settlers from Holland, Britain, Germany, and Portugal colonized these areas. In addition, settler rule was practiced in Kenya, a British colony in East Africa. These settlers, who came to Africa to exploit the natural resources, made sure that laws were enacted or forces created that enabled them to dominate the numerically larger African populations, economically, socially, and politically. In colonies with settler rule, there was harsher treatment of native Africans than in the colonies with the indirect rule system or where there were no sizable white settler populations. West Africa was spared settler rule because of the harsh hot climate and because of malaria. Malaria

killed so many early European adventurers and colonial agents in West Africa that Europeans nicknamed it the “white person’s grave.”

Settlers regarded themselves to be naturally superior to the “natives,” as the British called their African colonial subjects. They saw the Africans as people who must be subjected and who were good only for being domestics to the white settlers. The methods of oppression and repression by the European settler populations were not known in precolonial Africa. At least the internal conquerors in Africa prior to the Europeans did not see themselves as genetically superior to the conquered. The white settlers appropriated to themselves to the exclusion of the Africans all the good and arable lands. These lands were designated “crown property.” This practice was notorious in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Kenya. Some of the postcolonial and independent African countries did the same thing; government officials nationalized huge tracts of communal lands and distributed it among themselves, their families, and their cronies. This occurred in Nigeria, for example, when the government passed the Land Use Decree of 1977.

The settler colonies later unilaterally declared independence from Britain. The first British colony in Africa to do this was South Africa. In 1910, after the Boer War (1899– 1902), the British gave all administrative and political powers to the European settler population in the provinces ofNatal, Cape, OrangeFreeState, andTransvaal. However, the British removed Swaziland, Basutoland (present-day Lesotho), and Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana) from the Union of South Africa. These provinces became independent countries later.

The settler British colonies in Africa that declared their independence from Britain instituted minority governments. The worst case of minority governments was the apartheid government of South Africa. The South African government under the Boer-led Nationalist Party legalized the separation of the races and the domination of the majority black population by the minority white population. In South Africa whites made up less than 20 percent of the population and the blacks 80 percent. Under the apartheid system, blacks were forced to live on nonarable lands and in urban ghettoes or townships. “Miscegenation” and marriages between the races were legally prohibited, and blacks had no rights in the running of the affairs of the country. The white minority government used violence and terrorism against blacks. They arrested, tortured, and killed innocent black men, women, and children. Later the barren lands allotted to blacks were divided into Bantustans and granted nominal independence.

The African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912 to fight the racial segregation and the racism of the black majority. Later, other anti-apartheid groups emerged, such as the Pan-African Congress and the black consciousness movement started by Stephen Biko. These groups were banned by the South African minority government. In 1964 Nelson Mandela and his fellow ANC members were arrested and tried for treason because of their fight for racial equality and for the end of the oppressive apartheid system. Mandela and his associates were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor at the notorious penal colony of Robben Island. In 1990, after he took office as president, F. W. de Klerk finally removed the ban on all previously proscribed political parties and associations, and released Mandela and the other political prisoners. After some detailed negotiations following the release of Mandela, elections were held in 1994, and the ANC won an overwhelming majority. Mandela became the first black president of South Africa; he was magnanimous in victory. He appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help bring closure to the bitterness of all parties.

Condominium Government . The joint rule of Egypt and Britain over the Sudan is the best-known example of “condominium government.” The Sudan was renamed the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan because of this joint rule by Britain and Egypt. The Sudan is made up of the Arabs and black Africans. The Arabs are in the minority and the various African ethnic groups in southern Sudan and western Sudan (the Darfur region) are in the majority numerically. The Arab minority has historically discriminated against the majority black Africans. These racial and ethnic rivalries have led to genocide and civil wars in the Sudan (first in the southern Sudan and now in the Darfur region of the Sudan) where hundreds of thousands have died and millions turned into refugees.

The British governor, James Robertson, originally left the Arab minority in power to dominate the majority black Sudanese, essentially creating a climate for the ethnic cleansing and genocide that has been an ongoing problem in the Sudan. Even the peace accord of 2004 between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has failed. The latter continually marginalized black Sudanese citizens from 1956 into the early twenty-first century.


The Sudan gained its independence in 1956. In 1957 Ghana (formerly Gold Coast) became the first black country in Africa to regain its independence from Britain. Ghana was followed by Nigeria and Somalia in 1960. In 1961 Tanganyika gained its independence from Britain. This was followed by Kenya in 1963 and by Zambia and Malawi in 1964. Gambia secured its independence in 1965. It took the countries with settler communities longer to secure their independence and establish majority rule. Zimbabwe got its independence and majority rule in 1980, and South Africa was the last to gain majority rule in 1994. The independence of the former British colonies actually exacerbated the ethnic rivalries because of the inimical policies of the British colonial administration. The British reluctantly relinquished their control of the colonies and tried to set up their African colonies for failure when they had regained their independence.

As soon as British colonies were free of British control, the ethnic rivalries that had been kept in check because of the nationalistic struggles for independence came out in the open. In Nigeria for instance, ethnic tensions escalated immediately after independence and culminated in the civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970. This war can be understood only as the conclusion of a series of events that began with accusations of electoral fraud six years earlier. In 1962 and 1963, Nigeria had attempted a census of the population. The census was rigged, as were the federal elections of 1964. The governments of Nigeria’s Western and Eastern Regions, which were dominated by the Yoruba and the Igbo, respectively, protested vigorously against the Hausa-Fulani, who were the major beneficiaries of the census and election malpractices. The Western Region was ungovernable because the leader of the Yoruba and the Action Group, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, had been imprisoned along with his close associates in 1962 on the treasonable charges of trying to overthrow the Hausa-Fulani-led federal government.

The corruption of the politicians, ethnic tensions, and the uprising in Western Nigeria led to the first military coup in Nigeria on January 15, 1966. Led by Majors Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Chukwuma Nzeogwu, and Adewale Ademoyega, and therefore known as the “majors’ coup,” this overthrow led to the deaths of the prime minister and the premiers of the Northern and Western Regions. The premiers of the Eastern Region, Michael Okpara, and of the newly created Mid-Western Region, Dennis Osadebe, escaped death. Some senior military officers of the Nigerian army also lost their lives. The coup was partially successful. General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the highest-ranking Nigerian military officer, was asked by the remaining members of the overthrown civilian government to take over the government. He established the National Military Government, suspended some parts of the constitution, and ruled by decree. He banned the ethnic and tribal associations. He also abolished the regions and instead installed a unitary government with a group of provinces. At first, students and members of the media hailed his policies. With British connivance, however, the Ironsi government was quickly overthrown by a Hausa-Fulani-engineered coup. On July 29, 1966, Yakubu Gowon, who secretly worked for British intelligence, assumed the office of head of state. The immediate repercussion of this coup was the ethnic cleansing of the Igbos living in northern Nigeria. It was estimated that about three million Igbos died in the subsequent Biafran war.

The purpose of the coup plotters, led by Murtala Mohammed and Theophilus Danjuma, was for the North to secede from Nigeria, but it was the British who advised them against seceding from Nigeria. Gowon divided Nigeria into twelve states but could not stop the genocide of the Igbo. The military governor of the eastern group of provinces, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, refused to accept Gowon’s coup and the subsequent lack of protection for the Igbo in Nigeria. He was persuaded to secede from Nigeria. In May 1967 he declared the independence of the Republic of Biafra, and Gowon declared war on Biafra. This war lasted until 1970, when Biafra was reincorporated into Nigeria. By the early twenty-first century, the ethnic rivalries in Nigeria had actually increased, with many ethnic and national groups calling for secession.

The case of Nigeria is similar to what happened in the other postcolonial British colonies in Africa. For example, in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, a civil war caused by ethnic rivalries resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens.

There have been ethnic and racial tensions in former British colonies in East Africa as well. In Kenya, where there was a settler population, the British took the Kikuyu lands in the Kenyan highlands and forced the Africans to work for them in a sharecropper type of arrangement. The Africans were levied high taxes, and the only way they could afford to pay the taxes was to work for the European settlers. The Kikuyu organized themselves and resisted the confiscation of their lands in what is known as the Mau Mau rebellion. The British colonial administrators used excessive force in suppressing the rebellion. The Kenyan African Union, a political party led by Jomo Kenyatta, was nonetheless able to force the British to grant Kenya its independence in 1963. He became the first prime minister and later ruled as president until his death in 1978. He was succeeded by his vice president, Arap Moi, who ruled until 2002, when he was forced to organize a multiparty election that was won by the opposition.

In Uganda, the military dictatorship of Idi Amin expelled the Asians (Indians), who were Ugandan citizens. During Amin’s regime (1971–1979), there were many ethnically motivated killings. About 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives, with the Bugandans suffering the heaviest toll.

In the southern African subregion where there were settler populations, racial and ethnic relations have largely improved in the postcolonial period. The one notable exception is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe since the late 1990s has promoted racial and ethnic tensions as a means of staying in power. South Africa, meanwhile, has become a model country where racial and ethnic tensions have decreased significantly since the gaining of majority rule in 1994. This achievement was largely accomplished through the legendary leadership of Mandela and his ANC government, who dismantled the notorious apartheid system and reconciled racial and ethnic difficulties. Mandela promoted a South Africa where all the races and ethnic groups would enjoy equal benefits of their country.

The British colonial policies planted the seeds of the racial and ethnic rivalries that led to the killings of millions of Africans in the former British colonies. Unfortunately, the custodians of political power have not yet divorced themselves from British colonial policies. First of all, the leaders of these nations continue to exploit ethnic rivalries and tensions to stay in power. Second, most of the ethnic tensions in these countries stem from the struggle for the limited resources that are not but must be shared among these groups. Third, there are hidden hands in the ethnic conflicts in Africa’s former British colonies. It is interesting that most of the ethnic conflicts are in the African countries with the most natural resources. It is in these countries that British and other foreign interests engineer civil wars so that they can continue to loot the resources of Africa. Finally, the constant interventions of the British in the affairs of their former colonies have not helped matters. They continue to covertly and overtly support their preferred ethnic groups and thereby continue to dominate and marginalize all the other groups.

SEE ALSO Mandela, Nelson.


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John Obioma Ukawuilulu

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Africa: British Colonies

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