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Education in Africa has helped to entrench colonial systems

Monday September 12 2016

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In the past two years, South African university students have been removing statues of white colonial leaders, in what they call resistance to the neocolonial state of the higher education curriculum. 

Social media campaigns, such as #RhodesMustFall and #Decolonising, led to the destruction of Cecil Rhodes' statue at the University of Cape Town. 

Perhaps the questions that Africa needs to ask are:

1) Is the removal of physical symbols of colonialism conclusive in decolonising the African mindset?

2) What, if any, is the role of higher education in the process of decolonisation?

Unlike other colonised regions of the world, Africa has taken a very different, non-coherent approach to dealing with its past. 

India attained her independence largely through peaceful means, through the leadership of such icons as Mahatma Gandhi. Its tone towards Britain, its former colonial power, has never been intractable. Likewise, nations like Singapore and Hong Kong attained their independence without conflict. 

For much of Africa, however, independence came as a result of bitter struggle. Violence has never been a conclusive solution, but with education and information, the continent can begin to deal with her problems in a more peaceful way.

The best weapon for decolonisation is education. It is a well-tested, sustainable strategy. Many African countries that waged wars to deal with colonialism have failed, years after attaining independence, while others wallow in the poverty that conflict engenders.   


Zimbabwe may have removed all the names associated with colonialists, but its people have had enough of empty Africanisation, hence the increasing uprisings, which are bound to be very expensive.

While the renaming of Salisbury as Harare may have brought a sense of freedom to the people of what used to be called Southern Rhodesia, many youths now believe the renaming has done no good, and that it has in fact added misery and extreme poverty.

Africanisation of land in several African states accelerated productivity loss, poor resource management and excessive land subdivision. Today children are stunting and poverty lurks in the land of plenty.

Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from how Asia dealt with its colonial legacy. As the colonialists eased out, some Asian countries embraced them and their discipline. They leveraged colonial systems to advance socially and economically, so much so that today we admire their resolve to succeed.

They maintained the colonial systems of education, only improving where necessary. In Singapore, a broadcaster could not be allowed on TV unless he or she could speak perfect Queen’s English. 

From virtual shantytowns, they used colonial discipline and planning tenacity to develop smart cities comparable to any in the developed world.  By copying the best from the West, they leapfrogged us while we regressed. 

Africa’s combativeness and past geopolitical differences forced colonists to treat independent African leaders as their colonial replacements. 

In turn, African leaders pretended to destroy colonial systems physically, but in truth did nothing to liberate people from the effects of colonialism using education. 

This, indeed, helped to entrench the colonial systems that are firmly in place and technology has helped to sustain them.


Today, Africans yearn for British education, which is regarded as the gold standard for learning across Anglophone countries. 

The internet, which can easily equalise access to quality education across large areas of Africa, is shunned by most governments and, in any case, is often bereft of African content or context.

In the meantime, the education systems we proudly put in place as African are failing the test of local values. In Kenya, for example, we have never been able to settle on an education system that would take us to “Caanan”.

Even if we destroyed every symbol of colonialism, the absence of African-led content in African schools, within a globalised world with increasingly open access models, puts Africa comfortably on the path to re-colonisation. 

Virtually all the textbooks in higher education are from the West and most academics prefer Western case studies. Funding of research within institutions of higher learning is largely unheard of across Africa.

Whilst the European Union’s future strategy is to mandate full open access to research papers by 2020, the very few existing African publications charge fees for access. Academics may have noted this, but policymakers are not paying attention.

Last week, as I gave a keynote speech at the University of Eldoret’s third International Interdisciplinary Conference, dubbed "Innovative Research for Sustainable Development", a lecturer from Uganda asked much the same question.

I concurred with him, noting that if African countries cannot do research and orient other researchers to Africa, if Africans does not tell her stories, and if Africa does not use local case studies to teach, then indeed we shall have allowed ourselves to be dominated. 

South Africa is still a young democracy after years of apartheid, but unlike many other African states, it had a good start with Nelson Mandela at the helm.

Statues did not bother Mandela. He was more concerned about the education of his people. He once noted, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He certainly did not say that if we destroyed symbols of colonialism we would change the world, yet this is what we are doing.


Mandela could have led South Africans in removing every piece of colonist history, but he didn’t. Some wanted him to change the country name from South Africa to Azania but he did not buy the idea.

He chose reconciliatory leadership, and the Azania People’s Organisation (AZAPO), a liberation group, called him a sell-out. 

His was a rare leadership that we need to deeply understand at this moment, when the cancer of flouting terms in office is beginning to relapse.

Rather than fight illusions of colonialism, we should take the war to those leaders opposed to education as a tool for liberation. It is widely apparent that some leaders undermine education in their countries, which they perceive to be a major threat to their continued hold on power. 

A recent article in The Economist shows that only a handful of countries can be considered free, and a majority are not free. Many seek to stifle academic freedom, which is a major catalyst of change. 

The risk of not resisting the decline of freedom and increased abuses of human rights is that, in the long run, the Africa Union (AU) will revert to the old ways, where no African country could question or condemn what was happening in its neighbourhood.

In return, they too won’t ask. 

It is a dangerous policy that would lead to the displacement of people, disrupted education and undermined economic development. 

History tells us that Uganda was once an African leader in education, but disruptions caused by Idi Amin have taken decades to reverse.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twittter:@bantigito