Differences Between French and British Colonial Policies In Africa

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Colonialism is an imposition of a more developed culture over a less developed one, backed up by expansionist and economic adventurism. European capitalist countries established political, economic, military and cultural hegemony over other parts of the world which was initially at a lower level and therefore could not resist domination.

Originally, it was the idea of protecting a market for industry at home, to the idea of creating a new protected market for industry by seizing colonies abroad. This was so in the late 19th century.

However, in the early 19th century, ‘colonies’ had been thought of mainly as places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. where Europeans could go and settle.

Later, the meaning of the word ‘colony’ assumed another dimension. Some writers now see it as “colonies of exploitation”, where Europeans would not settle but where European money could be used to increase production and create new markets and sources of raw materials.

As enthusiasm for such colonies grew, people began to press governments to establish them and create new markets for national industry which, they expected would be protected from the competition of goods produced in other countries by high tariffs.

Differences (British & French Rule)

There were certain differences between British and French colonial policies in West Africa.

In the first place, the French regarded all her colonial territories in West Africa as one political unit, which was part of the Republic of France. The British adopted a more pragmatic approach by allowing each territory to be administered separately.

Secondly, the British adopted the indirect rule policy, which was based on the philosophical doctrine that there was no identity between European and African cultures. As such, the British embraced a political system in which the traditional institutions continued to rule the people although with oversight by British officials. On the other hand, the French introduced the direct rule system or assimilation.

The objective was to impose a uniform set of rules and institutions on all the territories regardless of differences in size, geography, and distance from France, type of social organization and level of economic development.

Thirdly, the British were more tolerant of the local chiefs than the French. Britain actually integrated the traditional institutions into the political administration of the territories by giving them executive and judicial powers. They treated the chiefs with some respect and dignity.

But the French showed a lot of contempt and disrespect to the traditional institutions. They deposed chiefs, discontinued titles and fragmented traditional areas. In some cases, traditional chiefs simply disappeared and sometimes the chieftaincy institution was abolished.

Fourthly, the French had a clear idea of their colonial mission and therefore developed clear policies like the assimilation right from the onset of colonialism. The British adopted what could be called an incremental or muddling through approach to decision making. The British developed their policies in a gradual form.

Fifthly, the French in pursuit of her assimilation policy allowed the election of Africans as members of the French parliament in Paris. The British did not allow real legislative bodies to be established in her colonial territories nor did she permit Africans to be elected into the British parliament.

Sixthly, the British left the establishment of schools in the hands of missionaries and the private sector and, as a result a large number of people, especially in the coastal areas, beneiitted from Western education. French education was accessible to only a few and was therefore elitist.

Finally, political parties, trade unions and other mass organizations, which challenged colonialism, developed quite early in British colonial territories whereas they had a late start in French speaking West African countries.

In spite of all these differences, it may be misleading to talk of any real differences between the two colonial powers. The fact of the matter is that the British and French colonialism had similar colonial objective, namely, the exploitation of the territories to satisfy metropolitan interest.

As such, their policies were primarily geared towards achieving this purpose. There might be differences in style but the differences only helped to mask the basic colonial structure of exploitation and subjugation.

It is difficult to determine which of the two colonial systems is more beneficial to the African people. But a simple analogy will clarify the issue. Today, for example, the French national football team looks like a typical African team as it is dominated by several players of African descent. The same cannot be said of the England squad.

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