Current Date: 28 May, 2024

Impact of Imperialism on West Africa, Historical Insights and Legacy

Impact of Imperialism on West Africa, Historical Insights and Legacy 

Imperialism is the policy of extending a nation’s authority over other countries by acquiring territory or establishing economic and political dominance. 

In West Africa, this manifested as European powers taking control from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, disrupting established societies and economies. 

Prior to European colonization, West Africa was a mosaic of kingdoms and empires, such as the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires, known for their rich trade networks, scholarship, and sophisticated governance systems, which were profoundly affected by the advent of European imperialism during that era.

History of the Scramble for Africa 

The Scramble for Africa and imperialism in West Africa is intrinsically linked. The Scramble for Africa was a period during which European powers competed to acquire territories in Africa, leading to the colonization and annexation of most of the continent, including West Africa. 

This event is characterized by the hasty and competitive division of Africa by seven Western European powers, and it’s marked by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, which regulated European colonization and trade in Africa. 

By the end of the Scramble, nearly 90% of Africa was under European control, with only Ethiopia and Liberia retaining their sovereignty. West Africa was significantly affected, with establishment of European colonies, exploitation of resources, and the imposition of foreign governance systems in its national structures.

Political Impact of Imperialism 

The imposition of colonial rule in West Africa led to the dismantling of pre-existing political structures. In Nigeria, for example, the British implemented a system of indirect rule which utilized and subordinated local rulers to the British colonial administration to retain ultimate control over the territory. 

This system allowed the British to govern more effectively with fewer European officers, a strategy referred to as the “thin white line”.

In Ghana, then the Gold Coast, the British colonial government imposed taxes on the local population, which were collected by the local rulers. This taxation system was a significant departure from the traditional systems of tribute that had existed prior to colonization.

The Redrawing of Borders:

The redrawing of borders often ignored the complex tapestry of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups in West Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, which did not include any African representatives, carved up the continent into territories that suited European interests. 

This resulted in countries like Nigeria and Ghana having borders that cut across ethnic lines, leading to internal divisions that have had lasting impacts on national cohesion.

Introduction of European Legal Systems:

European legal systems were introduced to supplant or exist alongside indigenous legal practices. In British colonies, English common law was imposed, which often conflicted with local customary laws. 

For instance, in areas where the Islamic legal tradition was strong, the introduction of English law created a dual legal system that sometimes led to conflicts between the two sets of laws. 

The French, on the other hand, pursued a policy of assimilation in their colonies, attempting to “civilize” the local population by imposing French culture and legal systems.

Economic Exploitation

Extraction of Natural Resources: 

During the colonial period, West Africa’s rich natural resources were heavily exploited by European powers. 

The extraction of minerals, gold, and diamonds was particularly intense, with little regard for environmental sustainability or the well-being of local communities.

Introduction of Cash Crops and Disruption of Local Economies: 

The introduction of cash crops like cocoa, palm oil, and rubber by colonial powers disrupted traditional subsistence farming in West Africa. 

This shift forced local economies to depend on the volatile global market, often leading to food shortages and economic instability.

Forced Labor Systems and Their Economic Impact: 

Forced labor systems were widely implemented in West Africa, with colonial powers using coercion to meet their demand for cheap labor. 

This exploitation contributed to infrastructure development at the cost of African well-being, creating a legacy of economic disparity.

Social and Cultural Impact

Influence on Cultural Practices and Traditions: 

The colonial era saw a significant influence on West African cultural practices and traditions, with European customs and norms being introduced and sometimes enforced. 

This included changes in dress, language, and social etiquette, which often clashed with indigenous ways of life.

Introduction of Western Education and Christianity: 

Western education was introduced by Christian missionaries and became a tool for both colonization and eventual decolonization, fundamentally altering the educational landscape of West Africa. 

The spread of Christianity went hand-in-hand with this educational shift, leading to profound changes in religious practices and beliefs across the region.

Legacy of Imperialism

Imperialism in West Africa created enduring economic challenges, such as dependency on single export commodities and the disruption of local economies, which continue to affect the region’s development and political stability.

The cultural legacy of imperialism is reflected in identity issues, where the imposition of European languages and educational systems during the colonial period still influences the cultural identity and social practices in contemporary West African societies.


Imperialism in West Africa led to economic exploitation and cultural subjugation, leaving a legacy of structural inequities and identity crises that continue to influence the region. 

Grasping this historical context is essential for addressing the economic dependencies and cultural complexities that shape current West African affairs.

Micheal Animasaun

Micheal Animasaun

Michael Animasaun is an accomplished SEO expert and writer with an interest in cryptocurrency and its impact on finance and investment. He has a diverse background in writing, having covered topics such as sports, fashion, and history. This wide range of interests is reflected in the unique perspective he brings to his work. Michael is a passionate researcher who values knowledge and is always eager to learn more.