The present-day existing connection between Africa and Western colonizers dates back as early as the 15th century, wherein European explorers and traders traveled through African coasts searching for trading links to increase their power and influence in Europe. It was only until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that European colonizers were racing to increase their global power and acquire more territories to control varying degrees of economic resources to their advantage. This period is known as the “Scramble for Africa”. The terms and conditions for the Scramble and acquisition of colonies in Africa by the Europeans were put into proper perspective during the Berlin West African Conference 1884-1885.
The British policy of Indirect Rule was an administrative strategy of governance exercised by Britain throughout all her colonies in Africa, including Cameroon. Some sources hold that the policy of Indirect Rule was the plan to use existing tribal structures and traditions as conduits for establishing rules and regulations while English officials worked behind the scenes and could exercise veto power. In some cases, the British designated a person to act as “chief” in settings where there was no hierarchical structure in place. The British policy of Indirect Rule was manipulative, and repressive and widened the inequality gap. This led to numerous cases of political instability within British colonies back then and even till the present day.
A closer look at the colonization of Africa through the lens of the British, reveals that the British were one of the most dominant colonial powers in Africa and played a major role in the colonization of Africa from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. British interests in Africa were largely driven by economic gain, with the acquisition of natural resources and new markets for British goods.
What is the current situation of African Restitution from Britain?
We will not be doing justice to the African people if we fail to mention the aspect of looting, illegal and unethical transportation of African Cultural Heritage to public and private institutions within Europe, and Britain in particular, as one of the adverse effects of colonialism. The looted African cultural heritage was mostly looted during colonial times, either through raidings or coercion that subjected the natives. However, most colonialists in possession of these precious African heritage claim that they were not forcefully obtained from the natives, but were given as gifts and bounties by natives and chiefs who collaborated with the colonialists.
Specifically, in the case of artifacts of Cameroonian origin, the British Museum makes mentions of approximately 1,079 related objects in their keeping. These artifacts, either objects or human remains were collected from mostly the North, Western, and Northwest Regions of Cameroon. The museum also provides particular details of the object, where they were found, their origins, and possible dates of acquisition (by the Museum). Although the museum failed to mention how these objects were obtained, we can easily argue that some of these objects were forcefully obtained or acquired by British explorers during the colonial period. This is because some of these objects appear to be fundamental and indispensable features of the cultural and traditional life of the originating tribes which only disrupted the traditional systems of the colonies.
Unfortunately, a majority of restitution claims have been met with strong resistance and unwillingness to return these objects by the British. Instead, they are looking toward temporal loaning of these artifacts. Lauren Bursey’s article on Colonial-Looted Cultural Objects in England states that the legal Acts prohibited the return of museum collections by Board of Trustees except in the cases where:- a) the object is a duplicate; b) the object is – in the opinion of the Board of Trustees (of that museum) – “unsuitable for retention in their collections and disposal would not be a detriment to the interests of students or members of the public or has become useless; c) the object is loaned or transferred to another national museum; or d) the object has become useless for their collections because of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms.
The way Professor Abba Tijani, the head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), puts it, the legal argument against restitution is an excuse that will not stand because “if the British Museum would advise the government, then the government will accommodate it” and also because Britain cannot refuse that these artifacts are stolen. Christopher Kopp also reiterated that “it is us Europeans who should ask for loans—after we have legally returned all looted African treasures to their rightful owners.”
Colonialism never did us any good
Although being fair was not a rubric of the colonizer’s administration of African locals, we cannot help but, to be fair by acknowledging the fact that the fight for the abolition of the inhumane Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was led and spearheaded by Britain after banning the acts of slavery and slave trade throughout all British colonies in 1833. Asides from the abolition of the slave trade, Colonialism also led to the systematic division of African states, separated by physical geographical boundaries. While some argue in favor of the colonizers, that this action brought order and stability, we would like to refer to the fact that it is thanks to this geographical partition that we have today, unequal distribution of size and resources amongst African states. This has amounted to more than half of the past and ongoing internal and inter-state conflicts in Africa today. Take the case of the 1998-2000 border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, 1994 Nigeria and Cameroon dispute over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula. These conflicts can be effortlessly traced back, to be a result of the Scramble and colonization of Africa by the British, in this case.
Moreover, still taking the case of Cameroon, we can easily link the current state of underdevelopment of Southern Cameroon (which was administered by the British as part of Nigeria), as an effect of British rule. This part of Cameroon was underdeveloped due to the neglect it received from the British Empire, despite being a major source of raw materials and means of transportation that facilitated the trading and exploration activities of the British at the coasts. As author Amazee Victor rightly put it in their write-up, this part of Cameroon was considered to be a mere liability, explaining the low pace of development in this area. Some sources also hold that as compared to British Cameroon, French Cameroon had a much higher gross national product per capita, higher education levels, better health care, and better infrastructure than British Cameroons.
In addition to the above, we agree that the wave of nationalism and Pan-Africanism which rapidly spread in Africa in the 1950s was fundamental to the independence of African states, it is important to mention that this feeling of African solidarity did not develop from thin air. Far from it. Africans developed self-consciousness and the zeal to make their decisions themselves because of the negative experiences they had witnessed at the hands of the colonizers. For instance, it was due to the neglect suffered by British Cameroons that led to the rise of nationalists like JN Foncha, S. T Muna, A. N Jua, and E. M. L Endeley. As explained by George N. Njung in his article titled “The British Cameroons Mandate Regime: The Roots of the Twenty-First-Century Political Crisis in Cameroon ”. These nationalists fought hard for the independence of British Cameroon and its secession from Nigeria, as was the case, thanks to the British policy of integration. Unfortunately, because the colonizers, with the help of the League of Nations (now United Nations), only sought to guard their interests, British Cameroon was forcefully led to vote in favor of reunification with French Cameroon. This laid the foundations for the ongoing Anglophone problem that has been tarried since the 1917 partition of Cameroon and only aggravated with the increased marginalization experienced by the English-speaking part of Cameroon, at the hands of the dominant French Cameroon.
Moreover, the justice and administrative system put in place by the British, in British Cameroon which is still existing today, was a step towards institutionalization that bypassed and halted the pre-existing traditional apparatus that flourished within all African societies long before the colonial period. To date, due to the neglect of Britain, the French system of justice in Cameroon is prioritized at the expense of the British system of justice. This has resulted in a series of protests and riots by English-speaking lawyers in Cameroon, who continue to advocate for equal opportunities like their French-speaking counterparts.
British colonialism of Cameroon brought about unintentional benefits which were solely in the interest of the colonizers. However, the development of British Cameroon was considered a risky investment during the colonial period. The process of colonialism resulted in the unethical looting of African cultural heritage, which still affects Africans today. The looting deprived Africans of their true identities and roots, compelling them to adopt the photocopy identities of the colonialists. The solution to the loss incurred by the looting of African colonial heritage is for Britain and other perpetrators to return the artifacts and pay reparations.