Left-leaning activists have a propensity for protesting the weirdest aspects of bad things. Rather than protest female genital mutilation and the stoning of women desiring basic human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, local feminists would rather concern themselves with pronouns and petty aesthetics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the decolonisation movement, where protesters use the word “decolonise” like it’s a loaded handgun, and level it at everything from mathematics textbooks to the posters on the walls. This is all while decolonisation may have an actual and principled use in the real world.
This is not to say that colonialism is necessarily bad. Colonialism is a method of historical conquest and expansion, and like all forms of historical conquest and expansion, it should not be painted in the same brush. Some aspects of colonialism were morally and pragmatically good. A poignant example is the historical Hindu practice of sati, whereby a widow was sacrificed upon the funeral pyre of her dead husband – whether she liked it or not. British imperialists banned the practice and eliminated it in India. They actively banned a hellish practice and uplifted the place and rights of women in the region.
Colonialism was bad for many reasons, but it also had many benefits. Most notably bringing rights to the impoverished in stratified societies. Yes, British imperialism still stratified its colonial subjects, but often much less than they had been stratified before. And let us not forget that British imperialism is what allowed the slave trade to be destroyed. Without colonialism, we would not have been able to eliminate the slave trade.
This is not to say that colonialism is all good decisions and liberating the natives from their backwards ways. Colonialism has a lot of bad practices to answer for, and thus there is a lot to rightfully decolonise – especially in Africa.
One such thing that the colonisers left Africa with is a map of artificial borders and arbitrary lines, forcing Africans into nations that do not reflect their cultural, political and economic needs. These borders, for the most part, exist to this day, and have resulted in civil wars, genocides and bad governance.
Nigeria contains three major ethnicities that should be in at least two or three separate countries. South Africa comprised multiple countries and even more tribes before being forced into one country in 1910. Rwanda is split into two ethnic groups that have historically engaged in one of the most brutal genocides in history.
Colonisation was about empire building, and empires are founded in the idea of shoving groups into one political entity. It sometimes works for empires. Rome functioned as a multi-ethnic society for a long time. And under the British, Ottomans, French and other colonisers, multi-ethnic and diverse societies were able to govern melting pot societies without much violence. The violence came afterwards, because the empire disappeared.
Empires provide a legal framework and an important hegemonic institution in colonial territories. This is for multiple reasons, depending on the colonial overlord, but notably the empire provides a multi-ethnic territory with a uniform system of government, access to a greater society, laws and enforcement, and threat of major force.
Once empires started to shrivel and states were decolonised, this imperial check and balance was gone. Colonies were left with their colonial borders but without their imperial oversight. And it has resulted in ethnic conflict and war as people who don’t belong in the same nation are forced to live in a single country.
Why stick to colonial borders? It has been acknowledged a hundred times over that Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya… the list goes on… is a fabrication of now-dead empires. Why, then, do we insist on maintaining the charade?
The people of Africa would do infinitely better if we divided and reformed the borders of countries to link up national identities that actually do exist and separate countries that would rather not be single countries.
Colonialism imposed a system of order on local Africans that is now seen as abhorrent, but we still maintain the largest crime of all. If we are serious about decolonisation, we should decolonise the borders that ensure that African states will remain floundering relics of empire. We should embrace decentralisation and secession.
Rather than the United States of America, the Soviet Union, and United Kingdom siding with the Nigerian government against Biafra, the world should have supported this demand for self-determination for an Igbo state. Rather than laugh at Cape secession, South Africans should contemplate Zulu, Xhosa, Gauteng and many other forms of local secession.
Colonialism never ended. But it is no longer the Europeans’ fault. We live in colonialism of our own making. We maintain the negative colonial institutions that have already caused so much harm to this continent.
South Africa, Nigeria, and many other African states are empires. Colonial empires, because they contain many groups of people who have had a foreign form of governance imposed on them. Zulus, Igbos, Sothos, Yorubas, Shona, Matabeles, Afrikaners and all the other cultures of Africa do not belong in empires constituted along arbitrarily drawn lines. They belong in nations that reflect their cultural identity and their own system of government.
Perhaps when Africans truly govern themselves, and aren’t dictated to by other Africans, this continent can finally have its golden age.
- Africa’s Obsession with Sovereignty Endangers Human Rights
- What is Decolonisation and How Do We Achieve it at UCT?
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