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Consequences of colonialism: wounds that do not heal

Centuries of foreign rule have shaped the world up to the present: in many countries, unstable governments, economic weakness and ethnic conflicts are a direct or indirect consequence of colonialism

Colonialism permeates everything. It is the first truly global phenomenon; it was through it that the worldwide connection of the whole of humanity with one another came about in the first place. It has countless faces, appears in extremely different forms - and yet develops a concentrated force, as it were: For almost 500 years it has determined world history like no other factor before.

From the 15th century onwards, Europeans invaded all regions of the world to explore and settle, to trade and rule, to exploit and steal. And whatever the motives, the overall result is as simple as it is unheard of: Europeans (and later Americans and Japanese) submit the world.

The outcome of this global project of conquest is devastating: it encompasses genocide, kidnapping and economic looting in unprecedented dimensions. The latest research suggests that in the century following the arrival of the conquistadors in America, 56 million indigenous people died - around 90 percent of the indigenous population - mainly as a result of imported diseases.

In addition, by 1866 the Europeans had deported more than twelve million Africans as slaves to their possessions on the other side of the Atlantic. And an economist estimates the total value of all goods stolen by the British in India - for example through extremely high taxation of the indigenous population, the profits of unlawful monopolies and simply by stealing - to the unimaginable sum of 45 trillion US dollars.

Today almost all former overseas territories are sovereign states, but the legacy of colonialism continues to have an effect: in the minds of the people, in the structures of the new states, in dependencies that are now much more subtle, but often no less formative.

The consequences of colonialism

There are not too many examples of countries that have been able to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism and have been consistently successful. These include the settlement colonies in North America and Australia, for which the indigenous people paid a terrible price.

Another example is South Korea, once colonized by Japan, which - albeit late - has become the wealthy, democratic model student among the former colonies. It was still very poor in 1960, and its per capita income was even below that of communist North Korea.

But the country benefited from the happy strategic decision of those responsible to rely on export products such as steel, textiles and inexpensive radios and TV sets at precisely the time when there was particularly high demand for them around the world. In addition, there was considerable support for South Korea from the West, as an important military partner directly on the Cold War front. And history also includes the fact that a large part of the economic upswing was achieved under a military dictatorship (even if it has since been overcome).

Other post-colonial states in Asia have taken a less positive turn: India and Pakistan, both emerged from the British Empire, brought foreign rule to a still smoldering, sometimes bloody, ongoing conflict between the two states.

The Philippines, first occupied by Spain and then by the USA, have been struggling with severe rural poverty since colonial times. And Vietnam has been experiencing economic successes for some time, but the war for self-determination against France and the United States previously demanded a huge blood toll.

On the other side of the world, freedom struggles and independence movements are much longer behind: Alongside the USA and Haiti, the European territories in South America in particular were among the first colonies to break up around 1820. Part of the legacy of the overseas empires, however, is that the societies there are strongly divided into indigenous groups, descendants of European settlers and descendants of African slaves. Politically, the former South American colonies also remained extremely unstable. In the 20th century, military regimes or dictators came to power in almost every country.

Post-colonial Africa

But in the eyes of many commentators, post-colonial Africa in particular appears to be a failed continent. In fact, the ten poorest countries in the world can still be found there today, six of the ten most corrupt countries are African.

But it's not that simple: Africa is three times the size of Europe, a continent of extreme diversity. There are over 3000 ethnic groups there and more than 2000 languages ​​are spoken. Africa, that is 54 countries, each with very independent country biographies and equally individual colonial fates, depending on geographic location, colonial power and the duration of domination.

And yet, certain patterns of problems seem to be emerging (which in many cases also apply to some non-African countries).
Many post-colonial countries in Africa still lack support from their own people. Historically, these states are also artificial and alien entities. They follow the political model of the colonial rulers, with a unified national territory and a central government, with codes of law, justice, bureaucracy, the military and national currency. That was new for the locals - previously the societies were organized as small associations of persons or as premodern empires around a ruler, but without clearly defined territory.

Therefore, the adaptation of the European model was difficult from the start. Above all in the rural and poorer population, there was (and is) great skepticism towards the state, as it was the colonial rulers' tool of oppression. Why should one show a special loyalty to this now? There was no such thing as a civil society - that bourgeois thinking and acting that sustains a democratic state in everyday life.

In addition, the new states did not function well from the start. The colonial rulers left behind an administration, but it was often only rudimentary because the organization of the overseas territories always had to be as economical as possible in order not to burden the “mother countries” financially. It was based on the collaboration with the local elite, which was one of the great pillars of colonial rule.

Cold War dictators

After achieving independence, the new governments continued this system, so they continued to rely on personal networks, relatives, friends and loyal supporters. That was often necessary in order to be able to lead the new state at all - but the transition to state-destroying corruption and nepotism was already fluid.

And so it was only a matter of time before many of the young countries drifted into political crisis. In the beginning almost all post-colonial states in Africa had democratic constitutions. But in the face of economic problems and the failure of the corrupt new governments, one-party regimes - and ultimately dictatorships - soon prevailed in many places.

Much happened with the tacit tolerance of Moscow and Washington: Both camps had few problems with dictators because they were considered stable partners in the Cold War.

Genocide in the former colonies

In addition, many Africans were particularly loyal to their own ethnic group. And that was also related to the colonial era. Because the foreign rulers were downright obsessed with the African "tribes". In a complicated, unknown world of many small communities and clans, these groups seemed to promise order to Europeans.

Those linguistically and culturally shaped peoples often actually existed. But it was only the colonial rulers who gave them the greatest importance, sharpened differences between them, created or deepened opposites - in order to create supposedly clearly defined units that were easier to control. And also to play one group against the other.

The colonial rulers thus played a major role in increasing ethnic awareness in Africa and not infrequently turning into racism. When different ethnic groups were then forced together in the new nation states - whose borders mostly followed the layout of the colonies - internal conflicts threatened, which in extreme cases led to genocide.

For example, in Nigeria, which became independent in 1960: the Islamic Fulbe-Hausa groups lived in the north of the country, the Yoruba and Igbo country in the south, with several ethnic groups, some of them Christian and some of Islam, in between. Under a rather weak central government, tensions between the individual groups soon increased - until the Igbo declared themselves independent.

Only with a bloody war that killed two million people was the government able to force the renegades back into the state in 1970.

Effects of Colonialism in Rwanda

The number of victims was also high in Rwanda. There, the German and later Belgian colonial rulers had deliberately intensified and sharpened the contrast between the arable Hutu and the Tutsi who specialize in cattle breeding through legal regulations and preferences, although the two groups hardly differed culturally and linguistically.

After independence in 1962 there were repeated persecutions, massacres and pogroms between the two groups. Since the government was dominated by the Hutu, who made up 85 percent of the population, the international community tried to bring the Tutsi minority to power in the early 1990s. But the backlash was severe: in 1994 radical Hutu committed a massacre, around 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered.

In most African countries, the internal conflicts were (and are) less bloody - but even where traditional chiefs peacefully claim power in rural regions to this day, they weaken the authority of central governments.

Economic weakness of the colonial states of Africa

The biggest problem facing the post-colonial states of Africa, however, is their economic weakness. Because poverty and differences in prosperity are still glaring in many areas of the continent. And that too is largely a legacy of European foreign rule.
The economic direction of the colonies was clear and one-sided: the dependent territories supplied raw materials for the world market and in turn imported industrial finished products from the West. An industry of its own to meet the needs of the country was hardly established.

The economic structures of the post-colonial states were very similar to those of the colonial era - mostly the result of a conscious decision by the new state rulers. The high phase of the declarations of independence around 1960 coincided with the global economic boom. The demand for raw materials was great and still growing. It seemed sensible to continue to rely on the old economic orientation.

The ex-colonial powers also supported this, it was useful to them: development funds were mainly used for the extraction of raw materials. Although there were approaches to industrialization in some countries, investments were primarily made in prestigious large-scale projects that produced uneconomically and whose technology quickly became obsolete.

But this policy led to disaster. With the oil crisis of the 1970s came a decline in the global economy and Africa's states, particularly dependent on world trade, were hit too hard. The demand for raw materials fell, prices fell.

At the same time, loans were cheap and seemed to be the right help in times of need - and so began the African debt crisis. In 1996, mathematically, all development aid for the continent was used up solely for servicing the debt of the countries.

Since then, many African countries have been stuck in a vicious circle: the weak economic performance has been followed by too few investments of their own, too little of their own industry and too little sustainable growth. Many people have long been looking for a livelihood beyond official markets anyway: more than half of the people in many large cities work without ever registering their activity - and thus also: without paying taxes and social security contributions.

This in turn has dramatic repercussions: a lack of tax revenues paralyzes the public purse, the states can offer little to the citizens, state fatigue remains.

Weak states, weak economies: It was precisely because of this double problem that many African countries remained dependent on the former colonial powers. For example, France enforced treaties in its African colonies that forbade Gabon, for example, from looking for its own trading partners for certain raw materials: Paris secured a monopoly on “armaments-relevant raw materials”, the export of which to other countries was banned “for strategic reasons”. To this day, the French in their ex-colonies buy coveted resources such as uranium well below world market prices.

China as a new player on the market

Meanwhile, a new state is pushing its way into the African market: China has been investing billions there for almost 20 years, in the financial industry, but above all in the oil and mining business. Since 2009, the People's Republic has also replaced the USA as the continent's largest trading partner.

In this way, the Asian country secures important raw materials in Africa - oil, minerals, wood - and, conversely, sells machines, electrical appliances and other finished products there. And weapons, too, in ever larger quantities.

The Chinese commitment follows patterns that are reminiscent of the colonial era. The President of the Central Bank of Nigeria sees the Chinese influence as "a new form of imperialism". And the former South African President Thabo Mbeki recognizes the danger of “a repetition of colonial conditions”.

Reparation was discussed again and again after the end of colonial rule. Experts have tried to put a figure on the harm and suffering Europeans have caused in the world; and again and again there were demands for concrete reparation payments to be made. The highest sum that a commission has put forward to compensate for the consequences of slavery and colonization in Africa is a whopping 777 trillion US dollars.

The global question of the legacy of colonialism

And yet there is movement: French President Emmanuel Macron declared that he would work to ensure that Africa's cultural assets return to their homeland.

The mass transport of works of art and ritual objects to Europe was a long-neglected chapter of colonialism. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the art made in sub-Saharan countries is no longer on the continent. France alone would have to return 90,000 objects from a colonial context.

The publicly discussed topic is particularly sensitive for museums in the former colonial powers. Museum directors are now required to give an account of the origin of their collections to themselves and their visitors. They have to check what is rightfully in their showcases and what has been stolen, acquired under dubious circumstances or blackmailed.

But at least this opens up a chance to make amends. The discussion about the return of the works of art seems small in view of the extent of the European subjugation of the world and its consequences. But the symbolic value of the debate is greater. Because it hits the core of the still burning, global, all-pervasive question of the legacy of colonialism - and how to deal with it.