A nightmare for Africa

Junior (College 3rd year) ・History ・Chicago ・8 Sources

Between 1870 and 1900, the European nations engaged in what is known as ""imperialist aggression"" against the African continent, which included military incursions, political pressure, and ultimately conquest and colonization. The majority of African societies evolved various forms of resistance against European attempts to colonize their countries and impose alien domination during this time. Except for Ethiopia and Liberia, nearly all of Africa had been conquered by the early 20th century. While establishing several nations, imperialism in Africa also included numerous forms of exploitation that subjected many African states, including the Congo and Sierra Leone, to some of the worst conflicts ever witnessed in imperial Africa. Europeans scrambling for Africa has often been explained as an action involving superior European countries who seek to extend their power through the acquisition of new and weaker territories. Most of the nations in Africa suffered gravely in the hands of the Europeans who were seeking to expand their territories using the available and unexploited resources. There were three main factors that pushed the European imperialists into Africa, and these were economic, political and social aspects. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to narrate some of the negative impacts of imperialism in Africa before, during and after European colonization.

Understanding Imperialism

Imperialism takes place when a superior nation takes over an inferior nation or a particular region and controls its social, political and economical life. Imperialism on a broader context is a form of international hierarchy whereby a single political unit governs another polity. It is one of the oldest forms of a political institution established even before the industrial revolution characterized in the relations between the people of Rome, China, Mesopotamia as well as modern Europe. It entails governing within a close region as evident during the Ottoman and Habsburg empires or dominating overseas colonies as the case Europeans and African countries.

Once the industrial revolution began in the western countries, imperialism became a common practice as many European nations saw the need to hunt for new resources and raw materials that would economically empower them in the new world. Africa remained as one of the grounds that was never affected by the industrial revolution and barely exploited. Africa offered many natural resources such as diamond, gold, and rubber that lacked in the European nations. Since Africa was not motivated by the hunger for economic empowerment, the industrialized nations saw this as a great opportunity, especially since the demand for slave trade was on the decline. Western countries thus started scrambling for partitioning of various regions of Africa as a way of practicing imperialism. In no time, the monstrosities of imperialism began to become evident with people like King Leopold of Belgium being responsible for deaths of millions of Africans in Congo. However, decolonization was a significant event that saw the end of imperialism in Africa but still, these left weak state structures after independence characterized by political instability and continued impediments on the economic structure of these African countries. 

Theories of Imperialism in Africa

The theory of imperialism has often been associated with the presence of Europeans in Africa. The golden theories of imperialism in Africa originated from the idea of predicting the future instead of explaining the events in the past. According to these theories, imperialism was a policy recommended for the future entailing that oversees nations would at one point be needed for surplus capital. The mentioned perspective played a part in the development of imperialism, especially in Africa. Many theorists saw Africa as an opportunity not to colonize other nations but to perform aggressive foreign policies that would offer them an economic advantage over other countries. It can thus be seen that when the Europeans developed an interest in Africa, they were not really concerned with colonizing the existing states but to aggressively take over the existing resources.

Previously, before industrialization, the form of relationship that existed between the Africans and Westerners was that of free trade. The nations traded peacefully as a way creating a positive relationship but after the rise of industries and World War I, the demand to compete against each other altered the passive relationship to aggressive. The European nations demanded to have total control over the existing resources so that they can become superpowers.

Theories developed by later scholars such as Lenin encouraged the growth of colonial empires. According to these theories, Industrial Revolution in Western Europe created demand for independent sources in addition to overseas markets. These theories prompted the idea of monopoly capitalism and Africa offered a better opportunity or what was known as concealed premises. In understanding the economics of imperialism, many theories support the idea that it was the itch for the glory that caused many military officers to seek adventures in Africa soils but it was the pressure for a surplus that evoked events relating to imperialism. It is, however, important to understand that there is a difference between expanding the territories owned by capitalists and expanding capitalism. When a colony in principle becomes the dominant state and aggressively exploits the minor state through expansion of its territories, then this is defined as imperialism as it was witnessed with the European countries in Africa before and during colonization.

Imperialism in Congo

Till today, Congo remains among the top countries in Africa gravely affected by imperialism. When King Leopold of Belgium took over Congo, he concealed it as his source of wealth where he was honestly controlling the affairs of the country. Meanwhile, this was not the truth as various forms of atrocities were practiced as means of aggressively exercising his power over the citizens and the available resources. King Leopold’s form of imperialism caused death to millions of people and the effects can still be felt today.

Since mid-1800s Congo was considered a commercial ground by most of the European nations and therefore, most people approached the state to explore its business potential. As trade developed and business continued to prosper in this region, ownership of the country slowly began transferring to the foreigners who considered the state as their private and personal entity. Without realizing, Congo was losing its name and holding to foreigners who became the driving forces behind the country’s economy. As Congo gained a reputation for its commercial benefits, various European countries such as Portugal and Belgium started battling Netherlands in order to take over the resources.

The act of nations fighting over making Congo a free trade state is clear evidence that all the European countries ever cared about was the wealth they would make from Congo instead of the well-being of the country and its people or Africa in general. The scramble for Africa as seen in the case of Congo was to see what nation would have general control of the country. The battle for the state was never to revolutionize the country but to exploit the available market and resources while making the Western nations richer and more powerful. Colonization in a way was but a way of controlling the state of imperialism as many nations would have preferred for Africa to remain as their commercial ground instead of creating a political strife.

German Imperialism in Africa

Germany through history is recognized as one of the world’s largest colonial powers and the effect of its prowess extends beyond the colonized nations in Africa. Even before the French and the British, Germany had already established itself in countries like Tanzania, Togo, Cameroon, and Namibia and even after it had abandoned its role in these countries, the effect was still felt by large. German began its acquisition of Africa as early as 1881by taking over Tanzania, Togo, Cameroon and Namibia as their colonial grounds but unlike other nations, Germans were ready to exercise full power over their colonies such as restricting other nations from trading with these countries. Additionally, as time went by, most of the Africans began resisting conforming towards the demands of the colonialist and instead of coming to peaceful and unanimous terms, the German generals officiated war against the natives killing thousands of people in their military conquests.

In areas like Tanzania, the natives started resistance groups such as the Mau Mau who revolted against the Germans ways of governance and the unfair trade. As a way of controlling the uprising, the German authorities decided to starve the natives as a way of forcing them into submission. They condemned any form of trade and the large farms that sustained the populations were set on fire as means of limiting their sources of food. In the course of this, approximately 30,000 people died from hunger causing depopulation in the areas of the South Tanzania. The impacts of these atrocities could still be felt years later after the Germans had abandoned the country as the economy of such regions could not easily recover. These are examples of how Germans practiced their imperialism in Africa and it clearly shows that most of the Europeans never came to settle in Africa but instead they came to dominate over the natives and exploit the African regions.

The Colonial System

The colonial systems had different approaches under the British, German, French, Portuguese and Belgian rule. In most cases, the British policies were known as an indirect rule since their governance was supported by the local chiefs who acted as puppet administrators. The other mainly practiced direct rule whereby they took the opportunities as colonial officials. However, the key purpose of all the colonial system regardless of the policies was exploitative, aggressive and seeking to take advantage of the resources and the natives. Profits gained from the unequal and viciously enforced trades would return to Europe instead of developing the colonized countries; on the other hand, the Africans were often coerced to consume the manufactured goods from Europe as a way of creating a ready market. The set colonial laws, inflicted by force, invaded the lives of the natives, their rights to work and even reside in particular regions. Most of the people were limited to travel freely, practice their traditional religions as well as speak in their native language.

The colonial system believed and practiced imperialism both directly and indirectly. The main purpose of partitioning Africa among the European countries was not to bring about civilization instead they were looking for ways they can practice their power by dominating areas that were less civilized and exploiting the available manpower, resources, and market. The reason as to why colonialism is also known as imperialism is the idea that though the dominate states were seeking to interact with the colonies; they possessed an identity of a polity in that they would not interact with other states at equal levels. One state had to dominate the other by practice superiority through aggressive and selfish activities.

Imperialism in Business

Imperialism never ended by decolonization as many African countries gained independence. Instead, it was only made more practical as the European countries abandoned Africa and return to their home countries. The modern day imperialism is evident in the business world and this is a practice established by the first colonialist who established Africa as the best marketplace to promote their forms of trade. As previously stated, many theories try to explain imperialism in Africa by relating the idea to colonialism. In doing so, they miss the point whereby, colonialism is just one face of imperialism in Africa. As an alternative, imperialism should be viewed as a stage of capitalist development.

In business, the key characteristic of imperialism is the framework whereby international capitalist monopolies form a system of sharing the world among themselves. These international capitalist monopolies plunder the available materials and taking advantages of the natives as a mean of making themselves wealthier. Just like political imperialism, economic imperialism is concerned with expanding industrial capitals to countries in Africa that are less developed by people who were in the leading roles during the pillage of Africa. Today, big companies from developed nations look at Africa as the land of opportunity, an untouched territory waiting to be exploited.

The multinational corporations like Apple, GMC, Samsung, and Toyota among others have network subordinates in Africa to represent the parent companies. The act of dominating these developing regions shares significant characteristics with colonial imperialism. These multinational corporations understand the fact that they offer something special those other small companies in the developing countries cannot offer and this gives them the advantage to control the demanding market while overthrowing the others. Though their levels of competition seem to be passive, the fact that they aggressively dominate the immature markets in Africa is just as brutal as the colonialist. Another feature of business imperialism common with colonial imperialism is where the companies spend their profits. Just like the colonists, the multinational companies make profits from the Africans and carry it back to their home countries instead of developing the African infrastructure and develop more opportunities for the Africans.

Effects of Imperialism in Africa

Throughout history, imperialism has helped nations to extend their superiority and domination over weaker countries, as a way of expanding their power. As already noted, imperialism helps powerful polities to use colonies through using the available resources be it raw materials, human labor or even ready market. As Europeans started invading Africa, the first impact they had on the region is splitting up the land without considering the already existing colonies. In turn, this resulted in social disarray in Africa and a rise of cultural disputes that never existed before. Besides, whenever the colonist would face resistance from the natives, they would brutally torture and kill hundreds of African through mass murder or starvation causing depopulation in certain regions of Africa. Continuous exploitation of the available resources destabilized the economy of Africa since most of the materials and profits were taken abroad to help and develop the European nations. Throughout this time, Africa was robbed of its resources and unstable political and economic institutions were put in place causing the rise of poverty and political warfare continue to exist in Africa. In general, imperialism affected the social, political, cultural and social aspects of Africa thus disorienting the continent to the shape that it is today.


In various perspectives, people might argue that imperialism brought about civilization in Africa and thus should not be considered as a negative idea practiced by the western countries, but as seen in this paper; the negative effects of imperialism outweigh any positive development. Ambitions of imperialism in Africa were boosted by the growing economy and trade in Europe. As countries desired to be rich and affluent in the time of industrialization, Africa became the playground for the polities who promoted imperialism aggressively. Africans became subjects to various cruel exploitative practices. These practices caused Africans to develop resentment towards other Africans and Europeans. In conclusion, much was lost in this nightmare of imperialism and till today, many countries have not yet recovered from these practices.


Blackshire-Bekay, Carol Aisha. ""German Imperialism in Africa: The Distorted Images of Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, andTogo."" Journal of Black Studies 23, no. 2 (December 1992): 235-46. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784532.

Bond, Patrick. ""Bankrupt Africa: Imperialism, Sub-Imperialism and the Politics of Finance."" Historical Materialism 12, no. 4 (2004): 145-72. doi:10.1163/1569206043505211.

Etherington, Norman. ""Theories Of Imperialism In Southern Africa Revisited."" African Affairs 18, no. 324 (July 1982): 385-407. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a097433.

Lake, D.a. ""Imperialism: Political Aspects."" International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001, 7232-234. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/01266-3.

Udofia, O. E. ""Imperialism in Africa: A Case of Multinational Corporations."" Journal of Black Studies 14, no. 3 (March 1984): 353-68. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784064.

Wesseling, H. L. ""The Netherlands and the Partition of Africa."" The Journal of African History 22, no. 4 (1981): 495-509. http://www.jstor.org/stable/181300.

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