Confronting Britain’s Colonial Legacy in Africa
As Queen Elizabeth II is laid to rest, African experts highlight the impact of British colonialism on the continent.
The news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death on September 8, 2022 triggered a variety of conversations – most controversial among them, what to make of the British monarchy and its colonial legacy. Colonization was a brutal event under Queen Elizabeth II, who served since 1952, and remains the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
Determined efforts to paint the Queen as just a “ceremonial head” only pose a looming question: why did the monarch make no intervention as the British government continued to advance colonization at the expense of the territories it conquered? As African leaders pay tribute, memorializing the late royal in their respective countries, dissenting opinions have arisen regarding the impact of British colonization in Africa.
In Uganda, where homosexuality is still a punishable offense, the country’s anti-gay legislation is a holdover from British colonial rule. When Uganda became a British protectorate in 1894, penal codes that criminalized homosexual conduct followed. This specific set of common law was spread throughout colonies under the British empire.
Uganda has retained this anti-homosexuality position as a colonial vestige. Violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people have been on the rise in the country, leading to murder in some cases. In 2019, the Ugandan police arrested 16 LGBTQ+ activists on charges of gay sex, punishable by life imprisonment.
“These homophobic laws are enforced without a full understanding of their origins and people aren’t encouraged to know this,” Grace Mutoni told OkayAfrica, a paralegal and HIV peer educator in Uganda. “There was never a time in our history that LGBTQ people were ostracized or punished for being who they are before we made contact with colonial Britain. Since the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, queer Ugandans have been harassed and treated like second-class citizens in their own country. They live in fear and this will always be Britain's legacy. In my life time, I have only heard the former Prime Minister Theresa May render a formal apology for Britain introducing homophobic criminal codes into countries it colonized.”
Around the world, people gathered to watch the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
Photo: STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
Elsewhere, the footprint of British colonialism looks like forceful land dispossession and detention camps. Kenya’s Mau Mau uprisings (1952 - 1960) was a rebellion against colonial-era land grabs. Kenyas were forced off their lands by British settlers and other Europeans colonists. In response, they waged a guerrilla war to reclaim their lands, which led to the British government torturing and detaining thousands in camps. Kenya’s struggle for independence would have land as a central issue.
“The land question is one of the lingering effects of British colonialism in Kenya today and it’s also complicated,’’ David Neville Masika told OkayAfrica, a PhD candidate and lecturer from the Department of History and Archaeology, University of Nairobi, Kenya. “When the British colonial government seized lands in Kenya, they passed various policies to maintain their hold on these lands,” he says.
“One of these policies was granting settlers a free lease of 21 years, which was then increased to 99 years,” Masika continues. “Later on, it became 999 years. And these policies remained in place even after independence. As the colonial masters left, they handed over the land to a post-colonial government led by Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta came up with land settlement schemes that gave farmers between 15 hectares and 30 hectares of land. Kenya’s political elites took thousands of hectares for their own benefit. The masses didn’t get the lands they fought for. This is why the majority of Kenyans don’t own land till this day.”
Kenya had attempted to address its land crisis when it passed a new constitution in 2010. But Kenyan leaders renewed colonial land policies that extended the lease for another 99 years. “This meant that the common people were denied from getting their lands, which was supposed to be reverted to the Land Commission created from the 2010 constitution,” Masika added.
South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II's flag-draped coffin at Westminster Hall on September 18, 2022 in London, England.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In Nigeria, the scars from British colonial-imperial exploits aren't forgotten. This was perfectly illustrated when Dr. Uju Anya, a Nigerian professor in America, went viral over a tweet that wished the queen (not declared deceased then), excruciating pain in her last hours. In a follow up tweet, the academic explained the animosity towards the monarch, citing the Civil War between Nigeria and Biafra that led to the genocide of the Igbos in the ‘60s, an ethnic group she’s a part of. Britain took side with Nigeria, supplying them with weapons and intelligence.
Martin Ihembe, a Nigerian PhD student at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, South Africa, hones in on the complex nature of British colonialism in Nigeria. “The British imperial government imposed a trilateral federalism - the merging of the South, North, Western regions - simply for economic benefits,” Ihembe says. “In other words, resources were expropriated from Nigeria like cotton, cocoa, groundnut, palm kernel for the Industrial Revolution because of the current capitalist economy. It’s the same thing the French did in Senegal and Tanzania.”
Agitation for independence started in the South, according to Ihembe, due to a new middle class. But the North was given political power due to their sheer size. From the perspective of Britain, the North was better suited to rule post-independence. “The merging of different regions by the British started the problems and conflicts as we know them today in Nigeria,” Ihembe says. “But we can’t continue to blame colonialism for all our issues. Look at Singapore and South Korea who were colonized as well. Today, they are developed nations.”
There are calls for a more decolonial way of thinking and acting, especially by African countries that were former British colonies. “Decolonization can be in the form of knowledge production. Academic curriculum shouldn’t reflect Western paradigms and epistemologies, “Ihembe says. “Include in the curriculum frameworks to help Africans understand who they were before colonization. You also can’t develop Africa using a capitalist paradigm. Let’s devise developmental concepts that are original to us as Africans." This, amidst the current news headlines of the queen's significance, is an equally important conversation to have.