The African Colonial State and its Political Legacy
Three features that make the African colonial state stand out:
o Conquest of Africa much more competitive than that in other regions. There were
multiple competitors for given territories
o Colonial-state building in Africa was a far more comprehensive culture than in Asia or
the Middle-East (although similar to that of the Americas). The Europeans were a lot
more convinced of their cultural superiority and these racist ideologies were therefore a
lot more elaborated during the colonization of Africa.
o The colonial expansion of Africa took place when European powers were far more
comprehensive and elaborated than in earlier centuries.
Phase I of the African Colonial State: Construction
Internal logic of the growth of the colonial African state based on: hegemony, security,
autonomy, legitimation and revenue.
o Hegemony being the key to security
In an attempt to stop the scramble of Africa to turn into a European War, 1884-1885 Berlin
Conference, the concept of hegemony imperative was developed. Basically, for a colonizer had
to validate his claim to an African territory by establishing the rudimentary infrastructure of
hegemonic institutions (military outposts, modest networks of administrative centers)- idea of
o Military supremacy was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony. African groups
would therefore ally with one power to either stop conquest but an other force or gain an
advantage over neighboring kingdoms.
But deployment of armies expensive use of indigenous force (as Indian experience taught
the British). Many colonial powers allied with local tribe enabling a lot less financial and
human losses. st
o Military technology added to this- first generation machine guns used for the 1 time
Military defeats of African tribes not always enough, they also needed communications routes
and frontier zones. In many countries task was initially delegated to the Private sector (ex.
Belgian Congo), but in many cases this failed and led to sanguinary plundering expeditions.
Again, the British applied its learning’s in India, and decided to adapt the indigenous structures
to colonial institutions. Intermediaries were political – indirect rule.
o This system worked well in Nigeria, who had strong structures and willing collaborators.
o But the success very uneven across the African region.
French colonial concept of institutionalizing administrative hegemony: based on more
pragmatic concepts of empirical adaptation.
o Bonapartist edict: There is no two authorities: French and Indigenous: they are one and
the same. This is called the “cercle’ (unit of administration) and its commandant is the
only one responsible. The indigenous chief is only an instrument- use of “politiques
o However the intermediary chiefs were chosen not for ancestral credentials but rather
with more priority given to malleability. It was important to co-opt leaders of influential religious order. They managed to co-opt them
at the price of material advantage and cultural advantage.
o The Christianizing culture project of the colonial state had to be set aside where Islamic
structures were to mediate – colonizer assuming an ironical tacit role as protector of
Economic intermediaries were, also, a requisite of the colonial state – ex: the Atlantic trading
system (initially a slave trade) in coastal West Africa. Other examples include cases of
mercantile communities or petty traders that were able to operate at low costs and small
margins. Friction among the different kind of traders and also with the bigger companies such
as the “Compagnie Francaise d’Afrique Occidentale.”
Thus militarily, politically and economically, the architects of the colonial state responded to
the hegemony imperative by rapidly constructing and apparatus of domination.
By WWI the basic framework had been established (although some zones not brought under
full control until the 1920s- EX- portions of Angola, Libya, Belgian Congo…)
However in many European parliaments and civil societies in the 1980s there was significant
opposition to colonial conquest. Thought that resources should be used inwardly within and in
the vicinities of ones own state. To overcome this reticence, advocates of imperialism pointed
to the flow of benefits that would ensue (they helped with balance of power, army size, coal-
While in Africa, the initial legitimation of the colonial state rested upon the perceptions of
European strength, ultimately underwritten by brute force, in Europe it was finally secured on
the basis of one overriding principle: the colonial state had to be financially self-sufficient. This
premise written into such documents as the 1900 colonial reform law in France…
Revenue imperative: Hegemony had to be self-financing. The African societies were called
upon to finance their own conquest- and urgent and immediate task. First big problem: the lack
of an existing revenue source in many parts of the continent, except for coastal West Africa
were trade in palm oil, textiles, etc, provided customs revenues and in South Africa after
diamonds and gold was discovered there and also in the Islamic states of the West Africa
interior and North Africa were a well-grounded fiscal ideology is implemented into their
Railroads- the existence of railroad lines, it was believed, would generate its own traffic for
ameliorization of the capital costs- implementation of colossal schemes like the French trans-
Saharan (French parliament even voted funds in 1879). Never materialized though.
Only one way to meet revenue imperative: organize African labor. Different ways of doing so:
tax directly through a form of capitation levy/ it could be conscripted for labor force on
European plantations. Or it could be coerced into production of such export crops as cotton,
which would then be subjected to export taxation.
Measures imposed to satisfy state revenue triggered revolts in many areas such as the Sierra
Leone Hut Tax war in 1896
Phase II: Institutionalization
Foundations had been laid and initial crisis of hegemony and revenue had been overcome and
except for South African and Southern Rhodesia the roster of postwar objectives for other
colonized states were things like perfecting its institutions, professionalization of its officials,
etc. Routinization of hegemony: pattern of dominat