The long shadow of British imperialism in Africa 

Its forms have shifted and developed but big capital in the imperial metropoles still exert a vice-like grip on Africa’s economies and peoples but national liberation forces are developing a new agenda based on weakening the grip of the US dollar, creating new continent-wide financial institutions tasked with funding development and rebuilding the taxation capacities of African states, writes Jonathan White

From its earliest development, British capitalism grew in tandem with the exploitation of Africa’s resources and these relationships endure today. Colonialism emerged on the basis of the rapid transition of Britain and other European nations out of feudalism in the late 18th and early 18ths centuries. The early accumulation of capital in Britain and other parts of Europe was built in large part on the massive extraction of slave labour from the coastal trading towns of West Africa and the growth of settler communities of European farmers. Britain alone transported at least 3.4 million slaves out of West Africa between 1660 and 1807.  

As industry and trade in the European capitalist heartlands grew, so there emerged inter-imperialist rivalries between industrialising European states, competition that spilled over into their trading spheres in influence in Africa. The urge to control Africa’s wealth in primary commodities led to the formation of monopolistic companies struggling for control of coal, gas, oil, rubber and of course gold and diamonds. The late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’ was driven by these dynamics and brought in its wake the formation of a bureaucratic, militarised and racist colonial state machinery across Africa. Resistance to this expansion from peoples based on pre-capitalist agricultural social relations, among the Ashanti peoples, the peoples of Natal and in Sudan, for example, were brutally repressed.  

With the growth of working classes in capitalist relations of production in primary industries came class struggles, a degree of urbanisation and the formation of small bourgeoisie, tied to state machinery and colonial education system. Around these islands of capitalist development remained peasant subsistence farming, though these were subjected to the influx of White settlers, seizing the best lands and new European markets for cash crops. On this fragile basis were formed the first national liberation movements in early 20th century.  

The immense costs of the Second World War to many of the main colonialist countries, coupled with the growth of national liberation movements had a transformative effect on the field of struggle. Strikes in the Gold Coast mining industries, interacting with the fledgling national liberation movement, were met with brutal repression from British troops in 1948-50. The failure of the Labour government to introduce political and land reform in Kenya led to campaigning from Kenyan trade unions and the formation of Mau Mau among the Kikuyu peasantry, again meeting fierce repression.  

These anti-colonial struggles began to find support in the imperial metropole within the British labour movement. The Communist Party, for example, was active in exposing the repression in Ghana. But it was the formation of the Movement for Colonial Freedom that represented a step change in support for national liberation struggles in Africa, bringing the arguments for decolnisation deeper into the labour movement. Under the pressure of these developments, formal decolonisation followed quickly in large parts of West and East Africa in the early 1960s, (though not to southern Africa) and British imperialism began to retrench on a new basis. The growing understanding of this new basis was theorised by Kwame Nkrumah and others as ‘neocolonialism’.  

In the capitalist metropoles and the capitalist spheres of influence, monopolies continued to centralise their operations and grow in scale. In British-dominated Africa this meant companies like Anglo-American consolidating their grip over South African gold, coal and uranium. Unilever came to dominate West Africa’s economies, employing wage workers directly and using its monopoly power to hold down prices paid to peasant producers. Subsistence farmers were driven off the land into wage work and flowing into the cities, while cash crop farmers were driven into poverty. African workers were incorporated into a global division of labour where they formed a low wage proletariat in mining and agricultural production. Africa remained dependent on imported manufactures and as monopolies held down the prices of African exports, so the terms of trade worsened and foreign exchange reserves, which in Africa, as in other colonies had to be held in sterling in the City of London, were drained, forcing these states into increased borrowing. The other significant development, however, was that as British imperialism was forced into an increasingly subordinate position to the US, so US transnationals increasingly penetrated the entire continent, forming the basis for a new level of US state interference. 

The end result was that the newly politically independent African states inherited a vice of economic dependence operated by their former colonial powers, ratcheting up pressure on fragile national liberation movements. With the only options for alternative development in closer relations with the socialist powers or a Non-Aligned Movement, which the US regarded as just as dangerous, none of the politically independent states could expect a quiet life from the imperialist powers. And as Ruth First analysed in 1970, the colonial inheritance of under-developed industry, the relative weakness of mass organisations of labour and the existence of highly centralised, militarised and authoritarian state structures made these African states vulnerable to Western-backed coups.   

The influence of the US could be felt in the overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana. In Southern Africa, US and British imperialism first tolerated then later actively supported the South African Apartheid state in its internal repression and its external activities against national liberation movements in Namibia and Angola. These reactionary forces were checked to a degree by the support of socialist states and by internal support for national liberation struggles within the imperialist metropoles. US-backed South African intervention in Angola was defeated with massive military support from Cuba, while British support was weakened by the campaigning of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Interacting with the military struggles waged by the ANC’s military wing UMkhonto weSizwe, this sapped the legitimacy of Apartheid and National Party rule.  

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rolling out of financialisation and neoliberalism within the imperialist metropoles has brought a new wave of neocolonial domination. From the late 1970s, the US, Britain and Europe, multinational corporations and finance capital pressured states into a series of moves to increase the global mobility of capital. And as they did this, so these states and interests turned the multilateral financial institutions of the IMF and the World Bank into levers for further exploiting Africa.  

From the 1980s, the IMF and the World Bank promoted a new regime of desperately needed loans in return for massive structural adjustment programmes which required liberalisation policies. These were aimed at opening African economies up to greater penetration by multinationals and finance capital. African states were expected to shift the burden of taxation from corporations onto consumers, privatise state owned industries and utilities, cut government spending and create flexible labour markets.  

The effects of this were devastating for the peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa. Rising unemployment, falling wages, rising prices of basic goods, including utilities like newly privatised water and electricity and a massive growth of informal work. For African states it has meant falling tax revenues and weakening of any redistributive or developmental capabilities, together with entrapment in a lethal debt spiral. Most recently this has seen debt to institutions like the IMF and World Bank supplemented by debt to private finance capital in the imperialist countries, most notably Britain.  Since 2011, at least 21 African countries have issued Eurobonds, typically listing them on the London Stock Exchange and this new debt to private investors based in the City of London, creates a new financial basis for imperialism. 

Britain’s established multinationals remain highly active in extracting Africa’s mineral resources. In 2016 War on Want counted 101 companies registered in Britain operating in oil, gas, gold diamonds and platinum extraction. A new generation of international security firms have embedded themselves in African states’ weakened security apparatus, often with the active sponsorship of the US and British governments. The US, meanwhile, has used the financial dependence of African states to extended military bases across the continent. In 2021, there over 30 permanent and semi-permanent US bases in Africa.  

The IMF and World Bank mandated liberalisation also acted to fatally weaken both national liberation movements. Cuts to public sector jobs, education budgets and national infrastructure have undermined the institutions on which ideas of national development could germinate, while highly partial and uneven development has split fractions of African bourgeoisies off from working classes and peasantries. This has fuelled the resort to religious movements, most notably, but not solely Islamic, as well as the reinforcement of ethnic differences.  

British imperialism is not just history. Its forms have shifted and developed but big capital in the imperial metropoles still exert a vice-like grip on Africa’s economies and peoples. National liberation forces are developing a new agenda based on weakening the grip of the US dollar, creating new continent-wide financial institutions tasked with funding development and rebuilding the taxation capacities of African states. All this will be met with fierce resistance by finance capital and multinationals, including those operating out of Britain. The solidarity shown by anti-imperialists and supporters of national liberation movements in Britain must also evolve beyond debt forgiveness and making poverty history to promoting the rebuilding of national sovereignty in African states.  

Jonathan White is assistant editor at Theory and Struggle and Communist Review and is the author of Making Our Own History: A User’s Guide to Marx’s Historical Materialism, published by Praxis Press.

A shortened version of this article first appeared in Liberation journal earlier this month

The views expressed in the articles published on this website do not necessarily represent those of Liberation

Image: The 1884 Berlin Conference at which the colonial powers agreed a division of Africa. from the Illustrierte Zeitung / Creative Commons

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