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Colonial Development in Sub-Sahara Africa Essay

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Updated: Mar 6th, 2020


For almost a half a century after most of the countries in the sub-Saharan Africa gained independence and the self rule status from their colonial masters, these countries still struggle to gain efficient trends of development.

The stagnation in the pace of development in the region even after gaining independence raises the question about the models of development that were utilized by the colonial masters and the models of development that were later adopted by the Africans in this region.

A historical overview of most of the countries in the sub-Saharan region denotes the stagnation of growth and development for a substantial number of years long after the colonialists had left. At the same time, history denotes an accelerated pace of development in this region during the colonial rule.

It is only in the recent times that a number of countries in the region have begun to show aggressiveness in terms of the initiation of large economic projects that are geared towards transforming the region into a strong industrial and economic centre in Africa.

Therefore, this paper explores the variations in the models of development in the colonial times and post-colonial times in the sub-Saharan Africa.

This paper argues that while the colonial masters adopted a rapid pace of development that was based on the intense commercialization of development for the sake of making economic gains, the Africans could not sustain that pace of development as they took over from the colonial masters.

The paper begins by presenting an overview of the patterns of development in the region during the colonial period. This is followed by a comparative discussion of the aspects of development in the region in the colonial and post-colonial times. The greater essence of the discussion is the unearthing of the critical variations in the models of development in the two periods and the factors that promoted such differences.

Understanding colonialism and patterns of development in sub-Saharan Africa

One critical question that needs to be asked when exploring the history of colonialism and development in all regions of the world concerns the critical factors that attracted colonialists from their motherlands into different regions of the world. A study of the trend of colonialism across the world reveals that economic interests were the main forces behind the scramble for the world by the colonial masters (Abbott 1971).

According to Jennings (2009), the policy of the colonialists was clear and cantered on imposing controls in the countries in which they colonized to create a better landscape for the exploitation of resources that were in these countries.

An exploration of the trends of development in the East African region during the colonial period denotes the embrace of the trends that culminated in the formation of states, instead of the nations that were spread across individual countries. The colonialist pulled the communities in these countries together with the aim of forming a new form of society that would embrace the new trends of development.

This is what most commentators in the field of political science refer to as coercive utopia. Therefore, the development of key structures of economic functioning was vital as far as meeting the development goals of the mother countries were concerned. Most of the structures of development in the society during the colonial period were developed through political compulsion.

To a larger extent, it can be argued that the development that took place during the colonial period was largely based on aspects of coercion where Africans were pushed to support certain policies, even those that deemed unfavourable to the Africans (Jennings 2009).

Jennings (2009) observes that the pace at which the expansion of economic activities in sub-Sahara Africa took place was quite high during the 1940s. It is argued that this period denoted the period that the Great Britain, which was one of the dominant colonialists in the region, was facing a financial crisis.

Thus, there was a need for the colonial master to quickly create the avenues of economic expansionism in the region to aid in offsetting her economic needs. The economic losses that had been incurred during the world wars pushed the colonialists to pursue economic avenues in the region to cover for these losses and help the colonialists to return to economic glory (Jennings 2009).

The most critical thing that needs to be noted here is that the structures of development that were put in place during the colonial period were only meant to foster the economic benefits of the colonialists. This is why these structures were not quite important to the Africans when the colonialists left the region.

For example, the colonialists established production systems that could not be sustained by the Africans because Africans were used to traditional production systems and could only advance on the basis of the support and strengthening of such systems of production and not the imposition of a totally new production system that was industrial-based rather than agrarian in nature (Jennings 2009).

A good example that can be given here is the change from the traditional systems of agriculture that encouraged the cultivation of indigenous crops to the introduction of cash crops that were cultivated on a large scale. This is a pointer to the difficulties that later faced the African countries immediately after the colonialists had left (Fieldhouse 1986).

According to Seidler (2011), the colonial masters demolished the traditional institutions and formed the modern institutions that acted on a formal basis rather than the pre-colonial institutions in sub-Sahara Africa that were largely informal in nature. These institutions depicted the efficiency with which the colonial governments enhanced their activities in most countries.

The paths of development during the colonial period were determined by the efficiency of the institutions that were developed by the colonialists. The infrastructure that was developed courtesy of the colonial policy in sub-Sahara Africa was meant to speed up the pace at which the raw materials were produced to feed the industries in Europe and enhance the production of finished products to be sold in the colonies.

However, one thing that comes out is that at least some structures were left behind by the colonialists. These structures could be used by the Africans as a basis for development. This observation is based on the rationale that most countries in the region were plunged back into underdevelopment, irrespective of the presence of these structures that could have been used to foster development (Seidler 2011).

Models and forms of development in colonial and post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa

  • Models of administration and development of economic institutions in colonial and post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa

As noted in the introduction, almost all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa have faced difficulties in fostering their development agenda long after decolonization. Havinden and Meredith (1993) observed that the articulation of development by the colonialists in Africa advanced with their stay in the region.

They build their argument from the observation of the trends of development by the colonialists in the late years of the 19th century and the mid-years of the 20th century.

At this point, it is worthwhile to argue that the late 19th and the early 20th centuries in the history of colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa marked the period of familiarization and development of institutions and structures that could foster the economic activities by the colonialists in the region.

This observation is backed Seidler (2011) who ascertained that the colonialists took time to establish their control in the region before developing important institutions to help them foster their development agenda.

According to Abbott (1971), most of the development policies that were advanced during the colonial period were not focused on the economic development of the colonies, but they were largely focused on the development of the mother countries. This argument is picked from the assessment of the Colonial Development Act by Great Britain.

The origin of the policy pointed to the tackling of the economic problems that prevailed in the colonies, but in reality the policy did not address the economic nightmare in the colonies. Instead, it focused on the modalities of increasing production through the tightening of controls on the economy of the colonized countries (Abbott 1971).

Seidler (2011) observes that one of the factors that made it hard for the colonialists to develop workable institutions in sub-Saharan Africa was the intense decentralization and fragmentation due to the intense organization of the society along ethnic lines.

However, these structures re-emerged during the post-colonial period as communities within the sub-Saharan Africa sought to regain their glory through a reunification that was based on ethnic grounds.

To this effect, the colonialists had to break the structures that were established under the decentralized traditional policy frameworks through the introduction of the western structures of administration to reform the customs and laws that guided the functioning of the society.

The definition and scope of development by the colonial masters in sub-Saharan Africa changed as time progressed. The later years of colonialism saw the involvement of the communities in the Sub-Saharan nations in development (Seidler 2011).

However, it is apparent that the development that was fostered by the colonialists was based on exploitation of resources for the sake of the creation of wealth in the mother countries.

A reflection of the systems of administration deployed during that time, like direct and indirect rule, as well as assimilation and association denotes the need to either befriend or divide the local communities for the sake of easing the exploration of the resources in these communities (Fieldhouse 1986).

Seidler (2011) observed that security was a major factor in colonial Africa. Therefore, one of the things that are outstanding when looking into the aspects of development during the colonial rule in sub-Sahara Africa is the fact that the colonial governments enhanced security across all the colonies.

This is the only way through which they could have gained a stable environment for the enhancement of their economic goals in the region. The only lapses in security were witnessed in the form of the resistance against the colonialists by the Africans.

  • Dependency and the models of development in post-colonial sub-Sahara Africa

In his exploration of the trends of colonial rule and development in colonial Africa, Fieldhouse (1986) observed that the African nations were intensely converted into peripheral extensions of the western societies. The argument is founded on the fact that the structures that the political and economic structures that were developed during this period denoted capitalism.

Also, there is the issue of threading the African economies with the western society by the colonialists, which can be better expounded by exploring the broader subject of the state of dependency in the post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa (Fieldhouse 1986). When looking at dependency, the issue of economic autonomy and colonial rule comes out first.

The European countries embraced the idea of creating Africa nations in terms of independent economic units in the course of economic exploration of sub-Sahara Africa. The issue of the creation of independent economic units in Africa is backed by the fact that each colonial master was interested in enhancing economic exploration.

This could only work well through the separation of nations from one another. Patterns of trade that were fostered in the region in the pre-colonial times, which saw the interaction in trade between people from different nations, were cut off by the colonial masters.

However, it is critical to note that the post-colonial sub-Saharan African countries have been developing and implementing economic structures that are meant to promote economic cooperation to foster the development and economic independence in the region.

Contrary to the policies of development that segregated nations in the colonial times, there has been a realization among a large fraction of the African countries that economic integration and cooperation amongst themselves is their key tool as far as the elimination of the problem of dependency is concerned.

Although a number of aspects of dependency through aid and indirect economic and social support are still seen, such trends keep reducing each day. Stronger political and economic blocks have already been put in place in the region.

They include ECOWAS, the East Africa Community, IGAD, and COMESA, among others. In this respect, a number of commentators argue that the path of development that has been taken by the African nations denotes the move towards political decolonization.

Political colonization has often been fostered through the dependency cycle, which these countries seek to break by strengthening these bodies of development (Meyns & Musamba 2010).

What is being witnessed long after the decolonization is the struggle of the African countries to disentangle themselves from the economic ties that were established between these countries and the European countries?

Thus, one of the main variations between the models of development in colonial and post-colonial sub-Sahara African is the creation of wealth. This is what most African economies are doing. There is also the exploitation of wealth. This is what the colonialist did throughout their stay in the region (Fieldhouse 1986).

Jennings (2009) opines that the separation of the aspects of development is another common feature in the comparative analysis of the patterns of development in the colonial and post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

The colonial administrations in most of the colonies had to foster social development not as part of embracing the collective development of the colonies, but largely as a way of increasing the efficiency of colonial administration in the colonies.

The human aspects of development that are supposed to feature in the patterns of social development were not eminent in the social development programs that were designed by the colonial rules in East Africa, as well as West Africa and Central African regions. However, it is evident that a lot of social transformations took place courtesy of the social development policies that were developed and implemented by the colonialists.

The immense disentanglement of the Africans from their culture played a great role in the civilization and the westernization of the region. An example is the establishment of socioeconomic institutions like schools and health facilities to help in transforming Africans by dissolving the influence of traditions (Jennings 2009).

The contemporary development trends in the region depict peasantry for subsistence purposes rather than the development of agriculture on a large-scale basis for commercial purposes. However, it is evident that there have been significant improvements in the field of agriculture in the countries that lie in the sub-Saharan region in this post-colonial period.

Some of the modes of agricultural production that were begun by the colonialists have been sustained. Most of these aspects of development are eminent in the region where cash crop farming was highly embraced by the colonialists and the Africans have upheld the production of the crops, which are sold in the western markets. Coffee and tea farming are good examples here (Jennings, 2009).

As noted earlier, the colonialists in sub-Sahara Africa used coercion to enforce the policies of development that were meant to benefit their mother countries. In this line, it is important to note that the aspects of coercion are still evident in the modern development of post-colonial sub-Sahara Africa, only that there is a variation in the manner in which coercion is applied in aspects of political and economic governance.

Aspects of centralization re-emerged in Africa soon after decolonization, with both individuals and communities seeking to gain control through political dominance.

Therefore, bad competition through political dominance and other aspects of coercion have intensely marked the patterns of development in post-colonial sub-Sahara Africa. Individual leaders have kept developing poor political and economic policies that aim to help them amass wealth at the expense of the citizenry.

Vices like corruption, nepotism and tribalism have dominated the development landscape in this region for a long time. This is one of the reasons why it has been extremely difficult for these countries to gain stable grounds of development. This is reflected in the state of development that has so far been attained by these countries (Austin 2010).


From the discussion conducted in the paper, it can be concluded that most countries in the sub-Saharan region of Africa could not build on the structures left by the colonialists. Instead, they chose to put up new structures of development that they could hardly sustain.

However, certain aspects of development like the emphasis on commercialization are being slowly incorporated into the development landscapes in the region, although these aspects of development are highly impeded by the negative attributes of development that feature in the use of coercion to implement policies.

Moreover, most of the development policies in this region are still ill-informed, making it hard to meet the development goals. Therefore, it can be argued that the policies of economic development that were pursued by the colonialist wee better, only that they were aimed at enriching the colonies.

This is in comparison to the models of development adopted by Africans in the post-colonial period, most of which were geared towards benefiting individuals and communities besides being affected by aspects of dependency.

Reference List

Abbott, G. C. 1971, ‘A re-examination of the 1929 Colonial Development Act’, The Economic History Review, vol. 24 no. 1, pp. 68–81.

Austin, G. 2010, ‘African economic development and colonial legacies’, International Development Policy 1|2010, 11-32.

Fieldhouse, D. K. 1986, Black Africa, 1945-1980: Economic decolonization and arrested development, Routledge, New York, NY.

Havinden, M., & Meredith, D. 1993, Colonialism and development: Britain and its tropical colonies, 1850-1960, Routledge, London.

Jennings, M. 2009, ‘Building better people: modernity and utopia in late colonial Tanganyika’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, vol. 3 no. 1, pp. 94-111.

Meyns, P., & Musamba, C. 2010, The developmental state in Africa: Problems and prospects. Web.

Seidler, V. 2011, Colonial legacy and institutional development: The cases of Botswana and Nigeria. Web.

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