Does the West really know best?

Early one Saturday morning, an Instagram post by a former colleague in Calabar prompted me to check Google for a little-known fact about the city’s history – that it was once the capital of the Southern Protectorate, a British colony that was eventually joined to the Nothern Protectorate and became Nigeria just over 100 years ago.

Although I had the information I needed, I found myself reading on and delving into the origins of how the country was formed. All the decisions were made in London and carried out by British authorities to benefit British companies and, ultimately, the British economy. So far, so good – that is the very basis of colonialism as we know it. However, I was so struck by one paragraph that I had to read it three times. It was classic colonial-era logic but closely resembled views I have heard expressed by modern-day Nigerians, out of concern for their country.

“The British economic policy for Africa at the time was founded on the belief that if African peoples were brought to embrace European civilisation , with its emphasis on law and order, their economic resources would be more effectively and thoroughly exploited to the benefit of all. It was optimistically and simplistically believed that the problem of African economic development was largely the problem of law and order; that once the slave trade was suppressed the chaos and anarchy believed to be the bane of life in Africa would disappear and African endeavour would be channeled to the collection of the national produce of the tropical forest for the satisfaction of European needs. The view came to be held that Africans, by themselves , were incapable of maintaining law and order to the level needed to bring about the much-desired economic revolution, and that only European rule could do it.”

Better to be British

Less than two hours later, chef Godwin and I were en route from the local market. As he surveyed the chaos of the traffic on the Lekki Expressway caused by poor planning, driver indiscipline and the absence of trained traffic police, he made a comment that “if our colonial masters knew it would be like this, maybe they wouldn’t have left and things would be better” or something similar. I was so shocked that I said nothing. Godwin was born in 1981 and I doubt that he knows very much about Nigeria’s colonial history. However, he inspired me to write this post, so I interrupted his kitchen prep and asked him to explain his earlier remark.

He cited examples of how his father was able to stay in his village and make humble but steady progress under the British. Then, he compared it with the experience of his own generation and how the greed, selfishness and cronyism of Nigeria’s political class have made it almost impossible for all but a few to succeed. I have a different view of how continued colonial rule may have played out but it’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience. And, having said that, I’ve heard similar views expressed back home in Jamaica, where some older folks yearn for the discipline and order that was prevalent in the society pre-independence.

US foreign policy has created havoc

As British influence waned in the latter half of the 20th century, the United States of America began to impose its ‘values’ on the developing world, all in the name of freedom and democracy (and the control of scarce resources). During the Cold War of the 1970s, they caused untold chaos in Jamaica in a bid to halt Cuban and, by extension, Soviet influence. In subsequent decades, with crude oil at stake, they have engaged in ‘regime change’ whenever they have disagreed with leadership in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, amongst others. 

I’ve been wondering what would happen if Americans defied current election forecasts and foisted a President Trump upon the rest of the world. Could other nations join together and implore the UN to impose sanctions on the US while we cobble together a coalition force that re-installs Obama or selects Hilary Clinton as the preferred choice of developing countries? It may sound ridiculous but that’s only because most of us have accepted this notion that the West has all the answers to questions of governance, even when we have so many recent examples of previously prosperous countries that are now close to collapse due to US and/or British intervention.

Have we squandered the benefits of independence?

Many Nigerians are now wondering about the state of law and order here, after an extraordinary week in which several senior judges were arrested with huge sums of cash in local and foreign currency in their residences. And yet, even in a situation that would constitute a crisis in other nations, the loudest and most influential voices are questioning whether the judges were arrested by the right agency and if it was correct to disturb such eminent citizens so early in the morning. Apparently, the correct agency (I’m not sure which) should have sent the justices invitations, with sufficient notice, to have a chat about allegations of bribery and money laundering. No doubt, they would have complied and all would be well.

South Africa, for so many years a beacon of good governance due to the influence of Nelson Mandela, is slowly descending into the mire of corruption that has plagued much of the continent. They were already battling to correct the injustices of apartheid but had the resources to do so over time. Now, as law and order falters, there are real fears for their long-term future under the ANC, a party that barely resembles itself.
In the last few years, the Jamaican economy has been heading in the right direction after many false starts. The current successful IMF programme has been adopted by the newly-elected government and they have been keen to spread the benefits of the potential prosperity to all levels of society. However, a serious upsurge in crime is threatening to derail the progress being made and it poses a real threat to tourism, the main earner of foreign exchange. So, once again, the issue of law and order is a major factor.

How did Asia succeed with less resources?

Conversely, the ‘Asian tiger’ economies of the East have thrived as relatively orderly societies, despite having almost none of the mineral riches to be found in Africa. Singapore is the model for many developing countries, having created an amazing economy on a diet of discipline, training & education, investor incentives and a low incidence of corruption. In fact, 50 years ago, Jamaica and Nigeria were miles ahead of Singapore economically and much more likely to succeed.

No amount of wishing or praying will bring back some benign colonial reality to developing countries in Africa or the Caribbean. No one is coming to save us. So, what to do?

Could it really be true that “Africans, by themselves , are incapable of maintaining law and order to the level needed to bring about the much-desired economic revolution”? I would like to think otherwise but we will have to answer for ourselves.

Quotes on colonialism:

“I would say colonialism is a wonderful thing. It spread civilization to Africa. Before it they had no written language, no wheel as we know it, no schools, no hospitals, not even normal clothing.” Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) 1964-79

“Debt is such a powerful tool, it is such a useful tool, it’s much better than colonialism ever was because you can keep control without having an army, without having a whole administration.” Susan George, political and social activist

This article is deliberately provocative, to prompt discussion and feedback. I would love to hear your view in Comments below.

15 thoughts on “Does the West really know best?

  1. The seeming inability of African governments to maintain law and order is a direct consequence of weak institutions brought about by corruption. Corruption weakens institutions and renders them ineffective. Until we contain this cancerous plague (and contain it we can), the system of might equals right will, to a large extent, prevail.


    1. I think you’ve got it spot on. Too much power concentrated in very few hands with no checks and balances. It’s unusual in a country to have all three branches of government – executive, legislative and judiciary – riddled with corruption, and very few truly independent regulatory bodies. Where will the change occur first?


      1. Just seeing this Michael. If the Judiciary can purge itself of corrupt elements, I believe we’ll do just fine cos ultimately, actions will have consequences. Let’s hope the current effort to clean up the Judiciary yields the desired results.


      2. Your article is a remarkable effort to bring into focus; the degeneration of the African political and economic machinery, and by implication the black individual on the world scene.

        Iam of the view that failure of the necessary machinery needed for the basic survival of any nation, never mind growth of that nation; had eluded the largest populated African nation through the years and this has definitely made the west more silently disdainful towards those of the entire African origin and increasingly so through the years.

        I agree that the British looked out for themselves, and I also agree that all former British Colonies outside of the US, and France (the very old ‘western’ colonies) are still struggling, and still kindly referred to as “The developing world”. These include Ghana, Egypt, India, etc (now India/Pakistan); you name it. They are all scraping up a living.
        China on the hand is now a “threat”, although 60 years ago was considered a hopeless country. This seems to suggest that the failing former British Colonies, are very oblivious of the origin of their problems, and sadly; way too slow to learn.


      3. Hi Samuel, I love your analysis. Nigeria should be leading Africa in governance and economic growth. However, I don’t think that anyone in government thinks about the wider issues and how actions at home affect the perception of Africans around the world.


  2. We are not yet prepared to have the right conversations. In Nigeria it has been a failure of leadership even from the home. I am quick to agree that the colonialists created Nigeria for their own ends but it was also the same thing for India. The enlightened amongst are duty bound to look for a way out of this morass and communicate it to those within our sphere thereby drumming up support


  3. Hey Willie, this one is really deep and disturbingly true. I hope it does engender the kind of discussion that may lead to corrections in the system and adjustments of some beliefs so many world leaders hold at present


  4. A thought-provoking piece. As a student of development, I believe gaining independence and taking charge of our developmental projects is in order. The problem has been allowing those colonial and post-independence organs of government/ system of organisation, rule and order to weaken. If we can strengthen our institutions and have the fortunes of having the “right ” people (or even an inspirational leader), we may start to enjoy some sanity.


    1. Hi Charles. Another reader mentioned weak institutions and I’m sure this is a big part of the problem. There are so many smart, capable people with integrity in Nigeria but almost none are in politics. We live in hope!


  5. I believe the human trait of greed is the culprit at work in the African psyche. The majority of those who have aspired to power never really cared about their fellowmen or country anyway and have sought a way to generate wealth by raping the country. A rapist never did care about their victim, only their warped sense of gratification. So you see the parallel.

    They never had the guts or patience to generate wealth through business. Integrity is way off the radar for these self-seeking rascals who are like ticks, sucking the life-blood out of the struggling economy. The tick remains on the dog until it is removed and crushed under foot, releasing the stolen blood. Harsh maybe, but therein may be the way forward.

    When the judiciary sells out then there is no clearer writing on the wall than that. How long will good men keep silent and do nothing? When will corruption become the bane of society rather than the modus operandi? As long as greed and fear continue to run rampant then change may be a long time coming.


  6. Such a thought provoking piece. It seems the system is such that even well meaning people who go into politics either get eaten up, sidelined or get disolussioned.
    Are we to sit by the side and accept things as they are? Or should the successful ones who gained through hard work, sacrifice and special skills band together and see if they can put someone forward with integrity to go for leadership. There must be a way to alter the course of corruption, grafting and the negative effects they are having on the social and economic aspects of the society.


    1. Hi Taylor,
      I think that the middle classes have to do what they’ve always done – put forward candidates from their ranks that they can hold accountable. I wrote about this in my previous post two weeks ago, ‘Complacency is a threat to democracy’. Thanks for reading and responding.


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