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Imperialism is the policy of state aiming at establishing control beyond its borders over people unwilling to accept such control. Because of this unwillingness imperialist policy always involves the use of power against its victims. Therefore the logic of imperialism is power. It does not stand to reason. Power has no limitation. It is a victorious psychology. It longs for conquest.

The term imperialism as defined here dates back to the last half of the 19th century, but the phenomenon it describes is as old as civilization. Ancient and modern imperialisms have in common not only the end but many means. The ancient Roman Empire developed from the imperial strength of Rome vis-à-vis its weak neighbours. The Communist Russia and USA are using their ideological and technological weapons to spread imperialism over the world today.

In the 15th century A.D Portugal and Spain were the two most powerful countries in Europe. It was in order to avoid conflict between them that the Pope by his Bull divided the world into two parts between Spain and Portugal. With the Papal Bull Spain was given a freehand over South America while Portugal was free to colonize Asia without any interruption. But when other powers in Europe lke France, Britain and Holland, felt themselves sufficiently powerful enough to challenge Spain and Portugal, they asked the Pope if God had given the inheritance of the earth to Spain and Portugal alone. This commercial challenge led to the decline of Spain and Portugal, and prepared the

way for the struggle for the mastery of the earth among France, Holland and Britain.

Holland went down. But the world did not change. The struggle continued between the two giants- France and Britain. This battle was fought in the high seas, in continental Europe, in America, in the Far East and lastly but not the least in Africa. Here other European powers emerged and joined in the struggle. This is imperialism or domination of the weaker outside world in its nakedness.

European imperialism in Africa had confirmed the assertion of Bertrand Russell, a world famous philosopher-critic and an opponent of modern war, in his book- The Principles of Social Reconstruction published in 1916 that is during World War I “Much of the vital energy of the world runs into channels which are oppressive. The Germans have shown themselves extra- ordinarily full of vital energy, but unfortunately in a form which seems incompatible with the vitality of its neighbours. Europe in general has more vital energy than Africa, but it has used its energy to drain Africa through industrialism, of even such life as Negroes possessed. The vitality of the Southeastern Europe is being drained to supply cheap labour for the enterprise of American millionaires. The vitality of men had been in the past a hindrance to the development of women, and it is possible that in the near future women may become a similar hindrance to men”. European imperialism was not restricted to Africa only. Towards the end of the 19th century Poland was portioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia. And in Africa British imperialism swallowed even white settlements like the Orange Free State and Transvaal in South Africa.

At this juncture it is pertinent to ask the following questions.

•      What factors led to the imposition of European imperialism on Africa? Why was this successful?

•      What was the African reaction to European conquest?

•      What was the motivation behind the European political and economic policies in Africa?

•      Were European imperialisms the cause of African underdevelopment? Or were they the reasons for the political instability in Africa today?

•      Was European racist theory a mere justification of their imperialism? Or can it be supported by any existing historical and sociological explanations? These are the questions to focus attention on.


The factors that led to European colonization of Africa were political, economic, social and strategic. Before the 1800s the

relationship between African States and European powers was on an equal basis. But as from the beginning of the 19th century, this relationship underwent a dramatic change. The Europeans were no longer contented to trade with the coastal states of Africa. They wanted to occupy and dominate the continent in order to ensure the effective exploitation of Africa in an age of industrialism. European occupation of Africa was carried out with such a haste and speed that it was known as the scramble for and partition of Africa. Before the end of the 1890s the whole of Africa except Liberia and Ethiopia had been divided among the European powers- Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Belgium.

Liberia was saved from European expanasionism by American influence that protected the free slaves from America who were settled in Liberia.

The survival of Ethiopia from the onslaught of the Europian invasion was due to her own strength and diplomacy. Menelik II Emperor or the king of Ethiopia during the period had an agreement of protection with Italy which was written in both Italian and Amaric languages purported Italy’s right to protect Ethiopia. This treaty of protection was one of the tactics that the Europian powers used to claim territories in Africa but in the case of Ethiopia the strategy backfired. Instead Menelik II used the opportunity offered by the treaty to acquire sufficient arms and ammunition from Italy to equip and train a strong army.

Later when Italy attempted to execute the terms of the treaty by imposing her domination on Ethiopia, there was a misunderstanding in the interpretation of the treaty. In the one written in Italian there was protection while in the one written in Ethiopia or Amaric language there was no protection.

Consequently, when Italy wanted to carry out her own side of the agreement there was a stiff opposition from Ethiopia. With a well trained army, equipped with Europian weapon the Ethiopians defeated Italian forces. The defeat of a Europian power by an African kingdom reverberated throughout Europe. This made it easy for Ethiopia, an independent and powerful kingdom, to be reckoned with by other European powers.

Notwithstanding, Menelik II was not contented in preserving the independence of Ethiopia but he also took part in the

scramble and partition of other territories in Africa. He said that he could not sit idly by if distant European Powers came to scramble and apportion Africa, Ethiopia, an ancient kingdom should take part in the scramble. Therefore he was regarded as a scrambler for Africa who happened to be an African. His action contributed to the expansion of Ethiopia. He signed treaties with Britain, France and Italy which defined the boundaries of Ethiopia with British spheres of influence in the Sudan and Kenya and French influence in French Somaliland and Italian influence in Italian Somaliland.

The causes of the scramble or European imperialism need a close examination. One of the factors which led to the scramble was political change in Europe. The emergence of Germany had destroyed the balance of power in Europe. Because of Bismarck’s fire-eating diplomacy and Prussia’s military skill, France was defeated in 1870 and lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany Otto von Bismarch was the Prussian Prime Minister and architect of the brilliant scheme to unify Germany under the aegis of a dominant Prussia. It was largely Bismarch who engineered the circumnstances which led to the Franco – Prussian war, the total defeat of France, the emergence of a powerful German State and the forging of a German empire.

This defeat temporary dimmed the prestige of France in Europe and Asian states especially Japan. The rise of Germany was also a challenge to British sea power. Italy was compelled to take shelter under the new nation. Austria was afraid to move. France wanted an empire in Africa in order to make up for her loss in Europe. At first Bismarck encouraged France in this design so as

to distract her attention from Europe and to increase the chances of her collision with Britain in Africa.

Furthermore, the possession of an empire was regarded as prestigious, the sign of a first-class power. Even Italy, a small power wanted to play big, and, therefore, looked forward to empire -building in Africa. Imperialist historians were writing and praising the importance of empire-building. Therefore imperialism became once more fashionable.

But some writers maintained thatthe economic factor was at bottom the most important that led to the European occupation of Africa. The Industrial Revolution in Europe had led to mass production of goods; accumulation of surplus capital and need for raw materials to feed the industries. The European market was saturated. Therefore, the Europeans needed markets elsewhere for their manufactured goods and an access to raw materials; land for the investment of surplus capital which was accumulated by financiers and bankers. Even Bismarck, who disliked the possession of Empire, was forced by the German businessmen to take part in the scramble. Consequently in 1884 Germany sent out Nachtigal to occupy Togoland and Cameroon, while in1884/1885 when the Berlin West African Conference was underway, Carl Peters was busy occupying Tanganyika now Tanzania for Germany.

The discovery of gold in 1886 in South Africa in the Witwatersrand, the richest gold deposit in the world then hastened the scramble and partition. European prospectors

thought that more of such treasures might be hidden inside the bowels of the continent.

Moreover, Europe had feelings of guilt of the crime they committed against Africa through the Trans Atlantic Slave trade. Empire builders thought that they could compensate for this by bringing the benefits of European civilization to Africa. This feeling of humanitarianism was entertained by the missionaries and traders who were the fore-runners of European imperialism in Africa. This social factor was also aided and abetted by the theory of racism. Although this myth of European superiority had no historical or sociological basis but it made the Europeans feel that they had a mission of carrying world history on their shoulders.

The Industrial Revolution had caused mass unemployment in Europe. This problem in addition to criminals and prostitutes had constituted a social problem in Europe. One of the quickest solutions was to find colonies in Africa where the European undesirables could be dumped. In 1820 some Africans were removed from- their homes in South Africa to create room for the five thousand British Settlers. This was the root of apartheid in South Africa but nobody couid foresee it that time.

The last factor which led to the scramble for Africa was the need for the possession of strategic points in Africa. Places like Egypt, Morocco and South Africa had extra advantages for commercial and military reasons. In the event of war any foreign power that controls these strategic points would have an advantage over her enemies. The occupation of Egypt by Britain in

1882 was motivated by the strategic consideration of the Suez Canal which linked Britain with her possessions in the Far East.


The European occupation of Africa was an act of aggression and international brigandage. Consequently, the Africans did not sit idly by while the European powers seized their land. There was a violent reaction and resistance to European expansionism. This opposition led to many wars between the intruders and modern Africa’s ancestors.

The traditional opposition to the European colonization of Africa was the first expression of modern African nationalism. Therefore such men as Samori Toure of the Mandika in Guinea, Prempeh 1 of Asante in Ghana, Kosoko of Lagos, Jaja of Opobo, Nana of Itsekiri, Attahiru of the Sokoto Caliphate, all from Nigeria;Lobengula of Rhodesia, Abdel Qader of Algeria,Urabi Pasha of Egypt and Menelik 11 of Ethiopia were traditional nationalists.

Traditional African nationalists failed to prevent European occupation of Africa because of the technological gap in military and industrial efficiency. Moreover some Africans did not fully grasp the situation and its future implication. They were preoccupied with present time orientation. No wonder why some allied with the Europeans against their fellow Africans. And an agricultural community like Africa could not fight a continuous and prolonged war with an industrial society, where specialization and division of labour were highly developed. Nevertheless, the traditionalist African reaction was very important in many

respects. It was a source of inspiration and pride to the twentieth century African nationalists. The European won the war but they did not win the heart of the peoples whose nationalism was driven underground to erupt again in the twentieth century, which eventually led to the emergence of African independent states.


After the occupation of Africa, the European powers started to rule the areas which they colonized. There were two main systems of colonial government. They were called direct and indirect rule. The British used indirect rule in their colonies, while France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Belgium used direct rule. In both systems the colonial powers appointed African agents to act as chiefs or intermediaries between the indigenes and the colonial officials. The main difference was that the British tried to find the traditional chiefs while the other powers were not so much after the appointment of traditional Chiefs but appointed anybody or even straw Chiefs that helped them to maintain their colonialism.

Nigerian Historians disagree strongly among themselves in the terminology or concept of Indirect Rule. Some maintain that Great Britain used Indirect Rule in the administration of her colonies in Africa. But others argue that there is nothing indirect in the Indiret Rule. In other words, all the systems of the colonial administration in Africa including French, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian, Italian and German systems were direct rule.

With careful analysis there is more logic in the terminology of direct rule because the colonial administrators dealt directly

with Africans whether they were African traditional rulers or chiefs or subjects all of them are Africans. They were not foreigners like the Lebanese or Greeks or Syrians who were agents of the European companies in Africa.

Professor Obaro Ikime, a specialist historian of the British colonial administration in West Africa is throphet of indirect Rule. While Dr Uzoechi, a great historian of international standard is the Angel of direct rule. History is an argument without end. Whatever system directness or indirectness what is certain is that Africa was colonized, dominated and exploited by the imperialists for about one hundred years (1880-1960).

The important thing was that the Africans had lost their freedom. Most of the so- called traditional chiefs or colonial agents had lost their hold on their subjects because the basis of their legitimacy had been eroded. However, they continued to stay in power because they were propped up by the colonial officials, the police and . the army.

In the colonial system the educated elite had no place. In the British colonies the so- called indirect rule which operated in the villages was in the hands of the traditional rulers while the central government (the legislative Council and Executive Council) was monopolized by the British officials. The French wanted to make their subjects French citizens, which could be achieved through education. This citizenship could win the elite a place in the French National Assembly in Paris. Some elite in the French territories at first believed in this bogus theory of assimilation and aspired to achieve it. But later they found out that this was like a

pie in the sky. Assimilation was a failure. In all the colonies the educated elite were frustrated by the colonial system. No wonder that many of them turned to be professional agitators and radical nationalists from the early stage of colonialism.


The political situation was aggravated by the economic policy of the colonial government. The colonial economy was geared towards the effective exploitation of Africa. Some of the features of the economic policy were that colonies must be self – supporting; the import and export trade of the colonies must be handled by the colonial powers and the colonizers had subsoil rights. The export and import trade were monopolized by European big businesses like the SCOA, CFAO and UAC, while the internal wholesale and retail trade was in the hands of the Lebanese and Syrians in British West Africa; and in British East Africa and South Africa, It was handled by the Indians and finally in the French West Africa, It was managed by Greeks and Italians. Consequently the indigenous business men were discriminated against in shipping, banking and internal transportation. The colonial situation was worsened by forced labour, heavy taxation, land alienation and conscription into the army during the First and Second World Wars in which Africa had no stake. The system of forced labour and heavy taxation was more drastic in the French, Belgian and settler colonies. Between the forced labour, conscription and heavy taxation there was nothing to choose. They were all cruel and bloody.

Agricultural development during the colonial rule was geared to the development of cash crops which were to feed European industries. Much emphasis was placed on this to the negligence of food crops. Some colonies depended on the growth of one kind of cash crop, mono culture, which had a serious implication for the colonized.

Even the colonial system of communication was aimed at the effective exploitation of the colonies. Railways and harbours were built to connect the mines and cash crop producing areas in the hinterland in order to ensure quick evacuation of t

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