With the arrival of Europeans in West Africa in the 15th century, which preceded formal conquest and pacification, missionaries took the lead in introducing Western education as an indispensable tool for effective evangelism. Subsequently, the various European colonial governments appropriated education as a means of consolidating colonial rule in West Africa. By the middle of the 19th century, Western education began to produce a new, educated elite, at the core of which were “liberated slaves” in Sierra Leone. Western education produced its own contradictions. On the one hand, it produced educated hybrids who were alienated from their own peoples and cultures and who collaborated with Europeans to entrench colonialism in West Africa. On the other hand, the new elite, educated both in Africa and overseas, subsequently morphed into the new nationalists who became valuable agents for the liquidation of European imperialism in Africa. The emergent institutions of higher learning and the three new universities in West African founded in the aftermath of World War II became hotbeds of intellectual discourse just as the debate over the need for adaptation and Africanization resurfaced. Following the end of colonial rule, the “new elite,” now expanding in number, continued to provide contentious, neocolonial leadership and direction for development in postcolonial West Africa. Thus, despite its undesirable effect on European colonialism, Western education played into the hands of the educated elite who appropriated and deployed its latent, potent force in order to dislodge Europeans from Africa.
Apollos Okwuchi Nwauwa
By the early 1400s, diplomatic representatives and pilgrims from the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia had traveled to the Italian peninsula for political and religious reasons. In doing so, they inaugurated an era of Ethiopian–European relations that unfolded for more than 200 years: Ethiopians reached multiple locales across Latin Europe to forge political alliances, acquire technology, and pursue religious knowledge. They drew the attention of European observers, especially those with an interest in the overseas. Secular and religious personalities, but also average merchants, began their quests for the Ethiopian highlands, lured by the tales of their visitors who were believed with growing certainty to be subjects of the mythical Prester John, the imaginary Christian sovereign believed to rule the Indies. Their journeys enabled cultural exchanges, technological transfer, and the forging of one of the first Euro-African political alliances, that between the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Portugal. In the 15th century, Ethiopian pilgrims flocked to Rome, and diplomatic representatives found hospitality in the Venetian Republic and at the Aragonese and papal courts. Concurrently with Ethiopian arrivals in Europe, European adventurers and representatives began reaching Ethiopia, eventually leading to the establishing of Portuguese–Ethiopian relations. The exchanges climaxed with a Portuguese military intervention to support the Ethiopian monarchy against the sultanate of Adal in 1541. In the decades following the conflict, Jesuit missionaries began operating in the country: after a difficult inception in the 1620s, the fathers experienced ephemeral successes, followed by a dramatic expulsion that ended early modern Ethiopian–European relations.
In an era of calamitous climate change, entrenched malnutrition, and the chronic exclusion of hundreds of millions of people from access to affordable energy, food, and water, evaluating the policy options of African states to address these challenges matters more than ever. In the Nile Basin especially, a region notorious for its poverty, violent instability and lack of industrialisation, states have invested their scarce resources and political capital in a “hydraulic mission” in the belief that they can engineer their way out of international marginalization. Incumbents have bet on large-scale hydro-infrastructure and capital-intensive agriculture to boost food production, strengthen energy security, and deal with water scarcity, despite the woeful track-record of such a supply-side approach to development. While ruling elites in the Nile Basin have portrayed the hydraulic mission as the natural way of developing the region’s resources—supposedly validated by the historical achievements of Pharaonic civilization and its mastery over its tough environment—this is a modern fiction, spun to justify politically expedient projects and the exclusion of broad layers of the population. In the last two hundred years, the hydraulic mission has made three major political contributions that underline its strategic usefulness to centralizing elites: it has enabled the building of modern states and a growing bureaucratic apparatus around a riverain political economy; it has generated new national narratives that have allowed unpopular regimes to rebrand themselves as protectors of the nation; and it has facilitated the forging of external alliances, linking the resources and elites of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to global markets and centers of influence. Mega-dams, huge canals and irrigation for export are fundamentally about power and the powerful—and the privileging of some interests and social formations over others. The one-sided focus on increasing supply—based on the false premise that this will allow ordinary people to access more food and water—transfers control over livelihoods from one (broad) group of people to (a much narrower) other one by legitimizing top-down interventionism and dislocation. What presents itself as a strategy of water resources and agricultural development is really about (re)constructing hierarchies between people. The mirage of supply-side development continues to seduce elites at the helm of the state because it keeps them in power and others out of it.