The Policy Of Assimilation

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Policy Of Assimilation – French Colonial Administrations In West Africa

Just in line with the scramble for Africa, the history of administration in West Africa involves largely the two big colonial powers – Britain and France.

France took over its territories in West African between late 19th century and early 20th century and the territories were: Dahomey (Benin Republic), Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire), Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Niger and Mauritania.

In 1919, the League of Nations gave Togo to France. Togo was administered by France different from her other colonies in West African. This is because Togo was a mandate and under the supervision of the League of Nations.

Thus, while the British employed the indirect rule system, the French and the Portuguese adopted a more direct approach, which in the case of the French was called assimilation or direct rule.

Policy of Assimilation

The first policy adopted by France in her West African territories after the Berlin Conference of 1885 was called assimilation. The word assimilation is derived from the French word “assimiler” which means, “to become part of”.

Assimilation, therefore, aimed at making Africans look like French citizens in all respects. It was an attempt by the French colonial government to make Africans (in their territories), speak, think, eat, live and behave like French people.

Africans were required to drop their own culture in favour of the French culture, which was supposedly superior to the African culture. As such, the policy of assimilation had two interrelated objectives, namely, first, to civilize the Africans in their territories and second, to transform the African society.

Reasons For The Adoption Of Assimilation Policy

The policy of assimilation was introduced for two main reasons.

Firstly, the policy was introduced to enable the French export their civilization, which by the early 19th century had reached its highest level.

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The French Revolution of 1789 had emphasized the triple principles of liberty, equality and fraternity and the French people believed that they had a duty to export these democratic ideals or principles to other countries. In this vein, the assimilation policy was a comprehensive colonial policy designed to transform the colonial territories and influence the lives of the people so as to make them part of the French civilization.

The second reason was economic. The French could only achieve maximum economic benefits if they linked the French African colonial territories directly to France. The colonial pact which ceded the overseas territories to France for example, stipulated that the countries must export their agricultural products to France and in return buy manufactured goods from France.

In other words, the territories could only, trade with France even where there were better or more profitable markets elsewhere. But while the agreement compelled the colonial territories to sell to, and buy from France, it did not oblige France to buy from her colonies.

Ironically, France determined the prices at which to buy from the colonies, if need be. So it was a one-sided agreement, which foisted a master-servant relationship on both parties.

The adoption of the policy of assimilation was therefore self-serving to the French.

Operation of the Policy of Assimilation

In the operation of the policy of assimilation, centralizing and unifying tendencies were unavoidable since the main purpose of the policy was to integrate the overseas colonial territories into the French political system.

Thus, unlike the British colonial territories where each country had a government of its own, all the French speaking West African countries were constituted into one political unit called a federation. Dakar was the headquarters of the federation.

The head of the federal government was the Governor-General who reported directly to the Minister for the Colonies in France. The Governor General was responsible for the peace and good government of the territories.

Each territory in the federation was headed by a Lieutenant Governor. He handled the administration of the territory and carried out the directives of the Governor General to whom he reported.

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The territory was subdivided into “cercles” for administrative purposes. The commandant was the head of a “cercle” and he was responsible to the Lieutenant Governor.

The cercles were further sub-divided into cantons. A canton was under the control of an African chief. The chiefs carried out the instructions of the colonial government in the cantons and they were, in the discharge of their duties, accountable to the commandant of the cercle.

The chiefs also assisted in the collection of taxes, organization of forced labour, and construction of public buildings.

An executive council of the federation was established to assist the Governor-General on policy matters. The body was headed by the Governor-General. The other members of the council were the governors of the various colonial territories, the representatives of Senegal in the French Parliament, official representatives of different parts of the federation and / 12 other people representing various interests. Each territory also has executive council.

The Governor General directly administered Senegal and the four communes of St. Louis, Dakar, Goree and Rutisque (the four communes were established in 1872, 1887, 1872 and 1880 respectively). The policy of assimilation was adopted only in the four communes. The people of the communes were treated as French citizens and made subject to French law. People living in other parts of Senegal and the other territories were regarded as subjects.

The French local government system was adopted in the communes. Each commune had an elected local council, headed by a mayor. Moreover, the communes were given the right to elect a representative to the French National Assembly in Paris.

Many African politicians who later held important political positions in their countries cut their teeth in the French parliament. People like Blaise Diagne of Senegal were elected in this way.

Qualifications For Citizenship In The French Territories

For a person to qualify as a citizen of the French overseas territories, he had to satisfy the following conditions.

  • He must have been born in one of the four communes;
  • He must be at least 18 years old;
  • He must possess a good working knowledge of-French;
  • He must be ready to renounce polygamy and accept monogamy;
  • He must possess adequate means of livelihood and
  • Surrender all rights conferred on him by customary law.
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The Subject

The people who lived in the French territories, other than the four communes, were called subjects. The subjects did not enjoy the privileges accorded to the citizens but were subjected to the “indigenat” one of the most dreaded aspects of French colonial rule. The indigenat was an arbitrary and on-the-spot trial of people by French colonial administrators.

Subjects were also subjected to compulsory forced labour. A subject could only become a citizen if he had received French education or served in the army or civil service. For example, Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first President of Senegal was not born in any of the four communes but was educated in France.

The Chiefs

There were several traditional institutions in the French-speaking countries in pre-colonial times but most of the chiefs were removed and mal-treated at the inception of the policy of assimilation. New chiefs, similar to the warrant chiefs in Eastern Nigeria, were appointed in some cases. Thus, while some had traditional authority, many others were imposed on the people. The chiefs were instrumental to the execution of government policies at the local level.

The Elites

Most of the educated people were trained at Ecole William Ponty at Dakar. The School was owned by the Federal Government. The conditions for admission to the school were very stringent. As such, less than 2000 students graduated from the school between 1918 and 1945.

Graduates of the school were recruited as middle level officers in the colonial service and as teachers in schools. Some worked in the private sector while few others joined politics.

The elites were generally exempted from forced labour, compulsory military service and payment of taxes. The seed of nationalism was first sowed among this group. They formed various associations, which provided a forum for the discussion of political issues. The educated elites criticized the policy of assimilation and succeeded in sensitizing the people to the ills of the French policy.


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