I was taught that Modern Colonialism was a force for global good. Later I learned it was a system of exploitation, oppression and enslavement.

Modern Colonialism

World empires and colonies in 1914, just before World War One (Wikimedia Commons).

As the leaders of the Commonwealth of Nations – 54 mostly former colonies and territories of the United Kingdom – prepare to meet here in Rwanda in late June, I am reminded of a hot, humid late August evening 10 years ago when a group of African scholars boarded an evening cruise along Lake Austin in the capital city of Texas.

It had been an intense summer of studying and traveling for this select group of young entrepreneurs, who were now ready to celebrate their last evening in Austin with food, drink, dance and song.

At one point, someone began singing her country’s national anthem, and then others followed suit. As a Brit, I was struck by how many of them were in English and French.

Then came the U.S. American anthem. Last of all, I was called on to sing “God Save the Queen.”

I tried to get out of it, but there was no way that I could. The lines “Send her victorious … Long to reign over us …” literally stuck in my throat. I have never been so embarrassed in my life.

Modern Colonialism was not quite what I was taught.

I was born in Manchester, England, in the late 1950s as the British Empire was breaking up after World War Two. As part of my “Great British” education, I was taught that Modern Colonialism began about 600 years ago with the “discoveries” of other lands by sailors, traders and adventurers from Portugal and other European countries.

My teachers proudly told me that by the start of World War One in 1914, these colonised countries comprised about 85% of the world and that the “sun never set” on the British Empire, which stretched from Canada to Nigeria, from Hong Kong to New Zealand.

They also related a “single story” that Modern Colonialism had been an undoubted “force for global good.” While it is true that Modern Colonialism did bring some benefits in terms of infrastructure, education, scientific knowledge and trade, I began to learn as an adult another much more horrific story.

It was one of control, exploitation, oppression, brutality, theft, enslavement and cultural obliteration, usually by a minority of foreign “settlers” over their majority “hosts.” One far-from-isolated example was the racist Apartheid system in South Africa that ended only in 1991.

“The Europeans opened Africa up to the modern world, but they didn’t understand how things worked here,” said Congolese entrepreneur Parfait Lukuka. “So they destroyed and replaced things without helping us to look after ourselves once they were gone”.

Irish historian Joe Kearns added: “We lost the Four L’s: our Land, our Language, our Liberty and, of course, our Lives.”

Healing, reunification and recovery

I now live in Rwanda, which officially freed itself from its Belgian colonial overlords in 1962 but not from their sinister influence that helped lead to the Genocide of 1994, which was conceived by extremist elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population.

The current government estimates that at least 800,000 and probably more than a million members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group and some moderate Hutu were slaughtered by armed militias and ordinary citizens in just over three months.

France also bore “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” for the Genocide even if there is no evidence of complicity, according to a recent official report.

Since 1994, it has been a long, hard road back to societal reconciliation, healing, reunification and recovery for Rwanda.

On the one hand, the Rwandan government has worked closely with other countries and multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank, to educate and empower women and establish a strong and stable economy. That has resulted in the highest number of women in a legislative body in the world and one of the fastest economic growth rates in Africa.

On the other hand, President Paul Kagame has aimed to take an independent path and “decolonize” Rwanda from both Belgium and France through some controversial actions.

In 2008, Rwanda switched its official language of educational instruction from French to English. The following year it chose to join the Commonwealth of former UK colonies to balance out its membership in the OIF organization of francophone nations, which is now run by a Rwandan, Louise Mushikiwabo.

‘We have the power to determine the future.’

Rwanda has limited its involvement with China, which has invested nearly $100 billion throughout Africa in recent years and which some fear is creating a “neocolonial” form of economic dependence, subservience and financial obligation.

“Africa should not just wait to be exploited or influenced,” Kagame has said. “No. We should be part of the conversation… We have the power to determine the future.”

Kagame and other post-colonial leaders, such as President Akufo-Addo of Ghana, former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and the recently deceased President Magufuli of Tanzania, have all risked incurring the global community’s wrath by promoting another way to help Africans free themselves from the legacy of centuries of largely abusive foreign rule: decolonizing their minds as well.

“The mindset has to change,” Lukuka said. “There is still too much deference to outsiders. We have lost our African values, and we need to find them again, along with our honour and our self-respect.”

Lukuka recommends focusing on the education system, giving more focus to learning about African traditions, technologies and governance. Hopefully, a successful hosting of the upcoming Commonwealth of Nations meeting — one of the first major in-person international events since COVID-19 began — will help in this process.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What “single stories” have you heard about Modern Colonialism?
  2. How has Modern Colonialism affected those with and without power in the country that you live in?
  3. What could you do personally to mitigate the negative impact of Neo-Colonialism in your country or beyond?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Jeremy Solomons is an independent global leadership consultant and peace activist, based in Kigali, Rwanda, where he writes two regular columns on "Leading Rwanda" and “A Letter from Kigali” for the New Times newspaper. In the past, he was a Reuters reporter and correspondent in Hong Kong, New York and Frankfurt. Born and educated in the United Kingdom and naturalized in the United States, Rwanda is the ninth country he has lived in.

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DecodersThe world still bears the scars of Modern Colonialism