Current discussions about the future of the global political economy frequently mention Africa's bright prospects as a potential powerhouse. Experts on emerging powers also highlight China's ascendancy as the new patron of this critical continent. Yet, it seems that analyses showing ambitious future projections are occasionally detached from certain structural impediments to socioeconomic development that derive from Africa's colonial past. This week I am in Abuja, Nigeria to participate in an international conference focusing on Islamic history and the impact of colonialism in Western Africa. Hence it seemed pertinent to elaborate on the long-term socioeconomic legacy of colonialism, which altered Africa's history forever and looks set influence its future as well.There is no doubt that African modes of thought, patterns of cultural development and ways of life were permanently affected by the change in political structures brought about by colonialism. The African political economy was also significantly transformed via the Atlantic slave trade, comprehensive processes of imperialism and various economic policies that accompanied colonization.
Prior to the spread of colonialism, Africa was not economically isolated from the rest of the world; on the contrary, African states were deeply engaged in international trade from the time of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. West Africa had specifically developed extensive links with international trading networks during the reign of local empires, like the sultanates in Ghana, Mali and Songhai. These states relied predominantly on taxing foreign trade, levying of customs, taxes from foreign expeditions and fees associated with administrative offices. The inception of the industrial revolution triggered a quest for the investment of accumulated capital and a need for raw materials, stimulating the "Scramble for Africa" by the colonial powers. European powers destroyed local dynamics by encouraging the development of a commodity-based trading system, cash crop agriculture and a trade network transmitting the total economic output of specified regions to colonizing states. Afterward, African nations were practically compelled to accept the international division of labor, which assigned them the compulsory role of producing raw materials and agricultural products. This assigned role is pretty much maintained even today in the perceptive maps of most global powers and local elites, despite decades of profound political and economic transformation in the international system. Another structural impact of colonialism was to take the control of the local economy out of the reach of local rulers and political elites via the formation of embryonic transnational corporations, tightly managing local processes of production, trade and capital accumulation. This inclination traditionally caused weakening of the political authorities that did not possess enough financial muscle or sociopolitical legitimacy to survive without the sustained support of actual or previous colonial masters. Despite substantial progress on the political front, this structural weakness seems to persist in many countries across the African continent.
Another structural weakness that makes most African states vulnerable in terms of socioeconomic development is related to the local architecture of education systems. Colonial education systems were essentially constructed to train clerks, interpreters, inspectors and bureaucrats that would take roles in institutional structures designed to exploit Africa's abundant resources. Since endogenous development, industrialization and technological progress were never contemplated training technical personnel, engineers, doctors, or researchers never became a top priority. While Western-style education and language skills are praised by some observers as the positive sides of the colonial experience, the poor technical and technological base of most contemporary states in Africa is a direct consequence of the weak foundations laid by the colonial administrations.
We could add dependence on monocultural economic structures, the weaknesses of the middle classes, intense tribal-ethnic-material struggles, fragile political authorities and frequent military coups among the long-lasting elements of the colonial legacy in Africa. Even today the education systems, transport and communication infrastructures, bureaucratic architectures, economic trading networks and military defense arrangements of many African nations are strongly tied to the former colonial powers. Therefore, the relative success of endogenous projects for socioeconomic development, structural transformation and global integration will derive from the ability of local actors to transcend existing pseudo-colonial restrictions and not allow the formation of new ones by emerging global powers.