The Degradation of Indigenous Systems in Africa

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the summer 2017 Justice Denied issue is: What legacies of colonialism prevent indigenous peoples from achieving justice? Below, Ndubuisi Christian Ani describes how the continued interference of imperial states contributes to the degradation of indigenous systems and the exploitation of resources across Africa.

By Ndubuisi Christian Ani

The systematic degradation of indigenous systems in Africa is one of the colonial legacies that prevent indigenous communities from achieving justice in the face of continued colonial exploitation and elite corruption.

Colonized communities had their own highly evolved—and still evolving—systems that were brushed aside and replaced with systems that were neither context-specific nor without flaws. The colonial systems were imposed through force, racism, and propaganda.

A tweet by Hellen Zille, a top leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, in early 2017 highlighted the muted, but lingering, impression that colonialism saved indigenous groups from primitive and savage life. This impression remains not only among some former colonial powers, but also in the minds of many members of colonized groups.

Indeed, colonialism was engineered to make indigenous communities think negatively about their values and systems. Colonial powers treated indigenous knowledge, religion, and practices as primitive and irrational expressions of an inferior race. In the so-called sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, colonial schools were keen on Christianizing and indoctrinating local populations with Western values and practices, ignoring positive aspects of indigenous societies. This degraded existing values and capacities in such a way that Africans today continue to depend on former colonial powers and other global actors for solutions to contemporary challenges in terms of education, economic growth, peace and security, and governance, among others. As such, colonial oppression and exploitation of resources are often seen as the price that indigenous populations had to pay for the “superior” systems introduced by imperial powers.

Due to the pervasiveness of this view and the continued dominance of power politics, there is limited international support for redressing colonial legacies such as land grabs in countries like South Africa and exploitative deals made with weak states. At the continental and national levels, colonial injustices thrive because the new governance systems did not emerge from the socio-economic and political realities of indigenous populations. In Nigeria, for instance, indigenous leaders were sidelined for colonial stooges like warrant chiefs and, later on, educated elites who maintained the colonial order. These leaders did not emerge from indigenous dynamics, and so are disconnected from the people. A common trend in the post-colonial era is that elites tend to care less about societal needs and more about the dictates of foreign powers who provide support in exchange for local resources and markets. This allegiance is evident in France’s successful maneuverings to support “friendly” regimes of Francophone countries such as Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, among others.

Besides stifling local development, support and foreign aid from imperial powers mainly benefit ruling regimes. In oil-rich countries like Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria, some multinational oil companies based in imperial states collude with government officials to appropriate oil fields at very cheap prices. Hence, as imperial states exploit Africa through corrupt officials, African elites deepen the exploitation by stashing public funds in their foreign bank accounts. Indeed, Thabo Mbeki’s Report of the High-Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows reveals that the continent loses over $50 billion every year. Much of the illicit outflows are through multinational companies, while others are through criminal networks and corrupt local officials.

But because watchdogs operate within an international system that favors the rich and powerful, foreign multinational companies and powerful political actors evade justice. This is reflected in the growing inability of local communities to demand accountability or seek criminal prosecution of elites through their countries’ untrustworthy and weak judicial systems. Indeed, the 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance showed that rule of law has declined in 33 out of 54 African countries, and leadership accountability has deteriorated in all countries on the continent.

Given the current state of affairs, indigenous populations will continue to live with colonial injustices until local elites become more responsive to public needs. International standards must be aligned with indigenous interests, and the exploitation of Africa’s resources must end.



Dr. Ndubuisi Christian Ani is a researcher in the Peace and Security Research Programme of the Institute for Security Studies. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[Photo courtesy of Pixabay]

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