Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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.”

An image of people in a pub watching the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on TV screens.

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.

An image of South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II's flag-draped coffin at Westminster Hall on September 18, 2022 in London, England.

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.

Photo Credit: Klaus Vedfelt

How “Japa” Became the Nigerian Buzzword for Emigration

"Japa" is Yoruba for “to run, flee, or escape.” The word takes firm root in the aspiration that young Nigerians have to leave the country for good.

While migration is a natural human experience, an array of circumstances illustrate reasons for relocation. In Nigeria, it’s a serious endeavor, often triggered by economic hardship. In recent years, the pursuit for a better quality of life overseas has taken on an anxious, nerve-tingling quality. Colloquially known as "Japa" — which is Yoruba for “to run, flee, or escape” — the word takes firm root in the aspiration that young Nigerians have to leave the country for good.

It’s both a disavowal of patriotism and a new cultural personality. On TikTok, Japa has been launched as comic material, including nuggets and tips on how to navigate moving to a different country. Tweets about Japa continue to surge. With origins from the 2018 Naira Marley song of the same name, the word has shifted into the lexicon of Nigeria’s young demographic as a marker of discontent.


How did we get here💔😭😭😭 #fyp #viral #anchivibes #getyourpvc #consequencia

“I think there has been a general concern in Nigeria about the increasing desperation of young people to seek greener pastures abroad by any means possible,” Femi Odugbemi, producer of Movement Japa, tells OkayAfrica. The series premiered late in 2021 on Showmax, and sharply mirrors young Nigerians and their sensibilities around survival and emigration.

“What became my motivation for telling the story of Movement Japa is the understanding that beyond the desire for a better life, many young people were also fleeing the country in response to the failure and corruption of public institutions that should serve them."

Japa is a continuum of other mass exoduses and their triggers. Nigeria’s economic downturn in the '80s drove many citizens out of the country to survive. Because of the health sector crisis (unpaid wages, endless strike, and poor infrastructure) doctors are now synonymous with the country’s brain drain.

Chris (we're using a pseudonym to protect privacy) came to the UK in 2019. Now a GP trainee and doing better for himself, he doesn’t regret his decision to leave. “It was after Youth Service, after finishing my housemanship as a doctor that I decided to relocate because I got tired of the situation in Nigeria like poor healthcare and education," Chris said. "I come from a poor background, and I had to save a lot to help my relocation. I have a couple of friends who are coming to the UK to do their Masters, but also using it as an opportunity to escape Nigeria.”

Ernest Udor, a tech expert who has been in Canada since 2016, now assists Nigerians in leaving the country. Through a WhatsApp group titled Nigerians 4 Canada, Udor informs members of the latest Canadian immigration policies, universities for study, work prospects, scholarships and grants, and so on. “I talk to many young people in the group who want to move to Canada because of the faulty education system in Nigeria and poor funding,” Udor said. “Nigeria has failed them considering the academic strike that has put students at home for several months and jeopardizing their future. I don’t blame them for leaving and even though we usually joke about Japa, we know this is serious at the end of the day.”

Nigerian passport

Photo Credit: Osarieme Eweka

For other Nigerians, their decision to leave the country was sealed after the Lekki Shooting in 2020. In a tragic turn, peaceful demonstrations against police brutality led to several (young) protesters gunned down by soldiers. A movement that rode on infectious patriotism spearheaded by the country’s youths had the same youths drowning in hopelessness afterwards.

“We grew up hearing that we are the future of Nigeria but something died within me when it happened,” Temi Craig, a student who had turned 21 a day before the shooting, told OkayAfrica. “We were nothing to the government and that’s why we were disposable. I couldn’t bring myself to believe in Nigeria any longer. I knew right there that my future was far away from the country.”

Certain factors play into the odds of migration. Socioeconomic background can enable people to relocate, or can make it considerably difficult. While middle-upper class Nigerians experience little to no financial barriers in moving overseas, poor Nigerians usually don’t have the means. It is why class warfare continues to drive many civil protests and strikes in the country.

From a middle class Nigerian family, 37-year-old Imo Ekanem was born in Lagos but raised in Italy. She believes that class status has a role to play. After arriving in Italy in the '80s, because her dad had a scholarship, they stayed back because the quality of life was better. “My dad went to the art university in Tuscany, my uncle was a doctor in Italy, and my aunt started nursing in Italy and continued in New York and others worked in the bank mostly in Nigeria," Ekanem said. "They are not rich but comfortable. Now in Italy there’s a huge wave of African refugees from African countries through the sea, with many Nigerians among the West Africans. I don’t think my family would have done something like that.”

With help from young Nigerians, Japa has gained cultural momentum but it translates differently for millennials and Gen-Zers. Due to better financial outcomes accrued from job experiences and retention, millennials in Nigeria fare relatively better in making the decision to emigrate. On the other hand, Gen-Zers still move through a precarious space of university strikes, comparative unemployment, and low income from entry-level jobs.

Mass relocation comes with consequences. In Nigeria’s Kaduna, 112 doctors are reportedly left on the state’s payroll, which is inexorably failing to bridge the doctor-patient ratio (1:7000) in the country. Beyond healthcare delivery, nation building needs its best hands and Odugbemi strengthens this sentiment: “Human capital is really Nigeria’s biggest asset. We are a young country with over 60% of 150 million under the age of fifty," Odugbemi said. "Effectively the future of the country is dependent on the youth population building the country through their creative energies, their innovation and capacities. Every young person fleeing Nigeria in desperation carries with them a vital place of that future. It is an unaffordable price to pay for inefficient systems, corrupt institutions and poor planning.”

Nigeria city

Photo Credit: Peeter Viisimaa

Nigeria’s upcoming elections in 2023 is the country’s biggest conversation. As such, it is hatching new desires to relocate, as many feel that they are saddled with unattractive choices in presidential aspirants. It has precipitated fear around the elections as a tipping point, a palpable feeling that things could worsen in Nigeria for the next eight years.

However, hope is seemingly seeping back into public imagination with Peter Obi, the Labour Party’s presidential candidate. His biggest supporters are young people who, once more, are being funneled back into patriotism. If Obi wins and produces tangible change, a counterculture would be ignited, one that requires staying back to fix the country’s issues.

get okayafrica in your inbox


William Ruto's Presidential Win Clouded by Odinga's Rejection

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga is struggling to deal with his loss to current Deputy President Ruto, and may influence civil unrest.

What the US Anti-Abortion Ruling Means for Africa

With difficulty in accessing safe abortions in Africa, the overturning of Roe v. Wade could portend further challenges to reproductive rights on the continent.

An Attack In Nigeria's Ondo State Has Resulted In The Death Of Over 50 Churchgoers

The mass shooting took place during service at St Francis Catholic church this Sunday, and marks one of the deadliest attacks in recent history.

Meet the Female Artists Making Waves in the Nigerian Art Scene

Historically, Nigeria’s art scene has been dominated by males. However, there is a new crop of female Nigerian artists who are starting to disrupt the scene.


The Harm Nigeria's Anti Cross-Dressing Bill Would Do

Earlier this month, the Nigerian House of Representatives introduced a bill to prohibit cross-dressing in Nigeria. The bill is an insidious update on the same-sex marriage (prohibition) act of 2013.