COLONIALISM AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE
An Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of Ibadan on
Thursday, 5 June 1980
Peter P. Ekeh
Professor and Head,
Department of Political Science
University of Ibadan, Nigeria
© P. P. Ekeh
First Published 1983
All Rights Reserved
ISBN 978 121 152 8
IBADAN UNIVERSITY PRESS, NIGERIA
COLONIALISM AND SOCIAL STRUCTURE
By Peter P. Ekeh
A university derives its importance and significance from the opportunities its
members of academic staff have to participate in a time-open tradition and high
culture of academic excellence to which all of us who practice in it, irrespective of
our particular disciplines, are sworn to contribute. This high culture of academic
excellence in universities has survived over the centuries not only because it has
good foundations in human civilization but more especially because it possesses an
outstanding attribute of all surviving high cultures: it has a built-in tradition of
renewal and restatement. Inaugural lectures are one major technique instituted by
universities for the preservation and renewal of their commitments to the
understanding of humanity in its various manifestations.
By accepting to participate in this ancient tradition of inaugural lectures the
University of Ibadan has declared itself fully committed to contributing to the task
of highlighting the problems of humanity, with its concomitant concern for the
understanding of natural phenomena which man seeks to domesticate. With respect
to the composite discipline which I represent this evening it is enough to say that
mankind is the social scientist’s parish and it is the ultimate subject area of inaugural
lectures from the Faculty of the Social Sciences.
These higher objectives of the institution of inaugural lectures must be borne in mind
by this university and those persons its faculties so graciously call upon to deliver
them. According to my lights, inaugural lectures, at least in our usages in this
university, constitute attempts by representatives of our faculties to highlight special
human problems in the idiom and language of discourse for which the disciplines in
these academic faculties are distinguished. They are given in the hope that by
attending to the academic understanding of such selected human problems the
inaugural lecturer serves humanity in the unique way and with the special abilities
with which academics are endowed.
The title of my lecture is happily brief. But I fear that “Colonialism and Social
Structure” may mislead many to expectations of an elaborate review of the world
history of European expansion by colonization, with the tag “social structure” as a
social scientist’s afterthought. In fact, however, my range of attention is smaller than
that and “social structure” in the title is more than a social scientist’s convenient
addendum to my concerns. Barring the pre-modern forms of internal European
expansions by the Greeks and the Romans, it may be said that outward imperial
expansions in the West have led to two principal forms of colonization. The first,
beginning in the seventeenth century, was the classic form of colonization in which,
in this case, Europeans rendered surplus by social and economic crises in European
nations, sojourned overseas to conquer and settle new lands in the Americas and in
Australasia. After a lull in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, the second
form of European colonization took place when European expansion outwards
resumed seriously into Africa and Asia in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
But the character of this later form of expansion was different from the previous type
of colonization in the Americas and Australasia. The European expansion of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries consisted of the export of surplus capital, not of
surplus persons. The awkward experiences in Algeria, Rhodesia, and Kenya and the
bizarre developments in South Africa, notwithstanding, the colonization of Africa
and many parts of Asia, and of the Indian sub-continent before these, was intended
to create new economic structures and opportunities receptive to the expansion of
In this lecture my area of concern in colonialism is restricted to its African form as
it emerged in the late nineteenth century, with all its consequences continuing unto
the present time. As an area of intellectual discourse, colonialism in this form has
received very little attention in the mainstream of any of the disciplines in the social
sciences. It is therefore not surprising that its conceptualization remains diffuse and
fragmented. As it has been used over half a century in various sources, colonialism
in Africa seems to connote three distinct aspects of the social reality in areas that
experienced European conquest and rule in Africa (and Asia), in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. First, colonialism has been understood to refer to the activities
of European colonization. Secondly, and separately, colonialism has also been used
to denote the reactions, of those who were subjected to European conquest and rule,
In these conceptions of colonialism, there is a distinct attempt to understand the
motives for the actions of the ruler and the ruled. We must agree with Aime Cesaire
(1955, 10-11) that the motives of the colonizers were “neither evangelization, nor a
philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance and
tyranny, nor a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, nor an attempt to
extend the rule of law”. I would even agree with Cesaire that greed and lucre were
the real motives of the colonizers. But men’s motives are frail and in the long run of
little worth in the analysis of social movements. Indeed, in spite of the emotive
power in these two strands in the conceptualization of colonialism, their limitations
seem self-evident. It is as limiting to restrict our understanding of colonialism to
colonization and reactions to colonization as it is to reduce the meaning of the
Industrial Revolution to industrialization and the Luddite reactions to it in England
or of the meaning of the French Revolution to the bizarre excesses of Robespierre
and the Jacobins.
The study of colonialism in Africa has suffered because, as Georges Balandier so
fruitfully pointed out in the early fifties, the two aspects of colonization and reactions
to colonization were falsely separated. Balandier was convinced that colonialism
would gain a fuller meaning if they were studied as part of the same colonial
situation. Thirdly, then, colonialism has also been conceptualized – although its use
is thin in this tradition – as the complex of the relationships between the colonizer
and the colonized, between the elements of European culture and of indigenous
culture. In the distinct style of French collectivist thought, from which this definition
emerges, colonialism is seen as “a force acting in terms of its own totality”. As
Balandier saw it then,
any present-day study of colonial societies striving for an understanding of
current realities and not a reconstitution of a purely historical nature, a study
aiming at a comprehension of the conditions as they are, not sacrificing facts
for the convenience of some dogmatic schematization, can only be
accomplished by taking into account this complex we have called the colonial
situation (Balandier, 1951; 35).
The colonial situation, which Balandier rightly believes to be the proper sociological
conception of colonialism, would thus encompass the activities and even the
dispositions of both the colonizer and the colonized, especially in their interactions
(e.g. Mannoni, 1950). Balandier’s “la situation coloniale” is a handsome
contribution, the tenets of which have been largely ignored in subsequent attempts
to master the multi-faceted reality of colonialism in Africa and Asia.
But Balandier was writing in the early fifties at the height of European colonial rule.
His emphasis on the current realities was understandable, because even these were
not sufficiently presented then. However, a major limitation of the concept of the
“colonial situation” is that it does not make sufficient allowance for the supra-
individual consequences that flow from the colonial situation and that transcend the
space-and-time specifications of colonization and reactions to colonization. Now
that we have lived beyond colonial rule itself we must update our sociological
conceptualization of colonialism over and above the colonial situation. We must
search for the totality of colonialism as a reality sui generis, as a phenomenon in its
own right. Fourthly, then, in addition to the disparate activities of the colonizers and
the colonized, and in addition to the totality of colonial rule, that is, the colonial
situation, colonialism may be considered to be a social movement of epochal
dimensions whose enduring significance, beyond the life-span of the colonial
situation, lies in the social formations of supra-individual entities and constructs.
These supra-individual formations developed from the volcano-sized social changes
provoked into existence by the confrontations, contradictions, and incompatibilities
in the colonial situation.
My approach is deliberately careless of date demarcations. Periodization is a virtue
in historiography. But it could turn into a vice if the demarcation dates of
historiography are treated with sacred respect as iron gates in the study of social
movements. Such dates as 1884 (marking the Berlin Conference at which Africa was
partitioned among European imperial nations), or 1870-1960 (the dates chosen by
the editors of the five-volume Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960 (Gann and Duignan,
1969) as bracketing the colonial period) must all be treated as only rough guides by
the social scientist concerned with colonialism. The major developments in
colonialism shade across the dates of historiography. Similarly, I question the
conceptual relevance of such terms as decolonization and neo-colonialism. They
may be useful in various other ways, but since they derive from the view that
colonialism can be terminated by legal proclamations, they fall short of the meaning
assigned to colonialism in this lecture. As a social movement, the impact of
colonialism cannot be terminated abruptly in one day or one year. My use of
colonialism therefore implies that the social formations that I am interested in could
be traced to issues and problems that span the colonial situation into post-
Independence social structures in Africa and Asia.
I am inclined to represent these resultant social formations in colonialism as social
structures in the sense in which Jean Piaget (1968) and particularly Claude Levi-
Strauss (1963) understand social structures as supra-individual models or ideal
typifications of social existence. By social formations in colonialism I mean
elaborated social models which are compositions of distinguishable sociological
elements called institutions.
The distinction of this approach is that the study of colonialism transcends the
particular activities of individuals be they Frederick Lugard, Pandit Nehru, or
Kwame Nkrumah. The more inclusive sense in which I represent colonialism here
means precisely that individuals count for little in the larger intellectual arena of
colonialism. In the light of the principles of structuralism, on which I lean for my
conceptualization of colonialism, individual actors can at most be regarded as the
handmaidens of history. In the same breadth, I must emphasize that we should
distinguish between the acts of creation by individuals, on the one hand, and, on the
other hand, social formations which emerge by the force of their own existence from
social situations irrespective, sometimes in spite, of the wishes of individual actors.
Social formations are social structures that emerge by an internal logic and force of
their existence and are not amenable to the volitional acts of creation by individuals.
Colonialism is important because it is more than acts of creation: it embraces social
formations whose dimensions even the most imaginative actors in the colonial
situation could not predict.
To study colonialism in this manner is to seek to upgrade the intellectual potentials
of the phenomenon of colonialism. My view of colonialism is that it constitutes an
epochal era in Africa. It represents a congeries of events and consequences which
can be equated in significance to an epoch, in its Toynbean fullness. Indeed, I believe
it will help our intellectual mastery of colonialism if we denote the attributes of
epochs which colonialism in Africa shares with such dominant world epochs as the
Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution.
Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of epochs is that they introduce
qualitative social changes – which differentiate the future from the past in kind, not
simply in degree. The twin prototypes of epochs of the modern world, namely the
Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, provoked social changes that
transformed Western Europe and eventually the world – so much so that the new
additions to the human experience cannot be correctly represented as mere
quantitative amendments to feudal Europe. They represented changes in kind, not
simply in degree. A corollary of this attribute is that epochs represent crises in human
experience. As the poet would put it, “things fall apart and the centre no longer
holds”. The human condition survives only after tortuous experiences of seeing the
old disappear and the new unsettled. With epochs the central parameters of society,
the central value assumptions on which society rests, are never the same again with
those whose times and regions are captured by epochal movements.
There is a more profound way of representing the significance of epochs for social
change. There are hardly times or periods in the history of nations in which there are
no elements of social change. Change is eternal. But ordinary, non-epochal, change
is episodic and its direction cannot be fully predicted. Epochal eras are distinguished
because they consolidate social change. While social change continues to be
registered, as ever before, an epoch gives change a predictable direction. As it were,
epochs at once discipline and tame social change. Or, to put the matter differently,
epochs make the future developments of events possible to forecast and determine.
A second attribute of epochs is that they introduce massive and enduring social
formations. The developments that constitute an epoch shake up the extant social
structures; then in their place they institute more permanent social forms and
processes. A corollary of this second attribute of epochs is also noteworthy. Just as
they tame and domesticate social change, epochs also consolidate social structures.
The lava and rumblings that are shaken off by epochal movements get consolidated
into enduring social structures, the outlines and contents of which become the
subject-matter for the study of social sciences.
A third attribute of epochs is this: the social structures and the social processes that
are formed from epochal movements retain their significance in the arena of human
action and thought long after the epochs as such have ebbed away. Consequently, it
is false analysis to restrict one’s notion of an epochal movement to events and
processes that occurred in the time-and-space definitions of the period or to judge
its significance by its duration in time. Fourthly, epochal movements touch the lives
and conduct of all persons in the areas covered by them. Epochs have no room for
choice by individuals to participate or not to participate in them. They are entirely
supra-individual. They shape and mould human conduct and behaviour; or rather
human action and thought find their full meaning within the confines of epochs that
Lastly, in the modern world at least, epochs serve to integrate their regions of impact
into a consolidated world system, by re-arranging their location in such a world
system. Epochs serve as the mechanism for the introduction of national and supra-
national regional entities into the world system in which they thereafter function.
It is my contention that colonialism shares in these attributes of epochs. It has not
only led to the domestication and predictability of social change in Africa; it has also
resulted in the formation of delineable forms of social structures. Moreover, these
consequences of colonialism transcend the space-and-time boundaries of
colonization. The epochal significance of colonialism can be seen even more
glaringly in the fact that it has helped to integrate Africa into the modern world
I am aware that my specialized approach to the study of colonialism runs against
influential and established traditions of scholarship in African studies. Above all, it
questions the tenets of the most illustrious and consolidated body of scholarship in
this land, namely, the Ibadan School of History. Perhaps a little excursus into the
sociology of knowledge with respect to the study of colonialism will be rewarding
for the specification of my position.
My attribution of social formations to colonialism challenges the doctrines of the
two most advanced disciplines in African social studies. Social anthropology and
social history developed in many ways, and for different reasons, as specialist fields
for the study of pre-colonial Africa. Anthropology emerged as a helping mate to the
study of public administration, in an effort to understand the political and social
organizations of those African communities which the European colonizers were
administering. The emphasis in social anthropology was therefore directed away
from the study of colonialism, and the colonial impact on African societies was
reduced to the ‘clash of cultures’. Balandier blames this neglect of the central
problems of colonialism on “the greater attention given to cultures rather to societies
and can be attributed to the more or less conscious desire on the part of those
anthropologists to avoid questioning the very foundations (and ideology) of the
society to which they belong, the society of the colonial power” (1951: 56).
Anthropologists dominated the African field for a while. Their achievement, if
limited in the longer run, was powerful while it lasted. But the image of Africa
suffered considerable damage in that achievement. With the barbarism of the slave
trade just before colonial rule and with the poor “image of Africa” (Curtin, 1964) in
Europe in this period, social anthropology’s preoccupation with ahistorical
“primitive” and “tribal” social organizations did further injury to the battered
conception of Africa and rendered all that was African antithetical to world
civilization. In addition, European historians even denied that Africa had any past
worth remembering. As Jacob Ajayi (1977) sees the matter, the colonial rulers
employed “as a weapon of domination the demoralization and frustration that came
from denying basic humanity to peoples of Africa descent by denying that they had
It was in order to counteract this imperialist-motivated unsavoury account of Africa
that the first organized programme of social history arose in Africa. The Ibadan
School of History blossomed in the fifties and sixties to prove that the African past
was not without its glories or that even the slave trade or missionary activities were
not without their own components of civilized African actors. Championed by
Kenneth Dike (e.g., 1956) and Jacob Ajayi (e.g., 1965), its achievements were
decisive in establishing new confidence and new traditions in African academia.
The strategies of the triumphant new social history were two. First, the Ibadan
scholars went behind the anthropologists in time to study past civilizations and
kingdoms which existed long, long before the Europeans established their rule over
Africans. But secondly, the massive impact of the Ibadan School of History was to
lead to the conscious and deliberate running down of the significance of colonialism
in Africa. This effort received careful articulation in Ajayi (1968):
In any long-term view of African history, European rule becomes just another
episode. In relation to wars and conflicts of people, the rise and fall of empires,
linguistic, cultural and religious change and the cultivation of new ideas and
new ways of life, new economic orientations ... in relation to all these,
colonialism must be seen not as a complete departure from the African past,
but as one episode in the continuous flow of African history.
It is this viewpoint that has dominated African social history, by far the most
influential and established intellectual movement in Africa.
Jacob Ajayi summarizes the preoccupation of the Ibadan School of History with
colonialism very well. It sees colonialism as an episode and not, as I argue, an epoch.
But it is noteworthy that colonialism in the Ibadan School is limited to colonization
and reactions to colonization. It does not approach the power of George Balandier’s
“colonial situation”. It certainly falls far short of my characterization of colonialism
in terms of social formations. I fear that the self-doubts and self-criticisms and the
dwindling confidence that recently gripped the Ibadan School may betoken less than
a show of resilience of a famous school. The School shows clear signs of exhaustion
borne out of limited theoretical premises. At least its paradigm of colonialism has
imposed on it severe limitations in its potentials for further expansion and renewal.
I believe there is an undiscovered territory in the realm of social formations which
social historians and social scientists alike can explore in the study of colonialism.
With the benefit of hindsight and of time-distance from the colonial situation, future
social historians will clearly see that the colonial period is unmatched in our history
in the growth and development of institutions, constructs, and social processes. In
their model forms they constitute what I refer to as social structures.
Obviously such a huge assemblage of new phenomena call for some ordered
classification. I offer my own classification as follow: I group the resulting social
formations into three types. First, there are those social structures that are the
transformations of pre-colonial indigenous institutions, which, in their transformed
states, operate within the new meanings and symbols of colonialism and in a
widened new socio-cultural system and framework. The moral and social order
which formerly encased the pre-colonial indigenous institutions is burst by the social
forces of colonialism and they seek new anchors in the changed milieu of
The second type of social formation in colonialism consists of what I have chosen
to call migrated social structures and constructs which were almost literally parceled
from metropolitan centres of the imperial West to Asia and Africa and engrafted
onto the new colonial situation. Such constructs as democracy and the rule of law
with their peculiar Western connotations; such institutions as universities and
national statehood; such establishments as bureaucracy and elected parliaments:
these and many more were imported models to the colonial situation and they form
the core of the resultant migrated social structures. Brought wholesale from Europe
they acquire their own life-world, to borrow a loaded term from Habermas (1973),
and establish their unique parameters of social existence.
Thirdly, and lastly, there are what I call emergent social structures in colonialism.
These were not indigenous to Africa; and they were not brought from the outside.
They were generated, born that is, from the space-and-time span of colonialism.
Although they have analogues in the West and elsewhere, these emergent social
structures have a logic all their own and their peculiar situation in colonialism marks
them out as distinct political and sociological structures, sometimes of baffling
complexity. Urbanism in Africa, the social formation of ethnic groups and ethnicity
in colonialism: these are examples of emergent social structures which can gain
maximum attention only when their emergence in colonialism is examined.
I should elaborate on each of these models of social formation in colonialism. Let
me start with the transformed indigenous social structures. These are indigenous
only because tradition forms the core of their new existence. It seems fair to say that,
from the point of view of those who have undergone the colonial experience, what
separates tradition from modernity is colonialism. Roughly speaking, all pre-
colonial social structures and institutions are regarded as traditional and all colonial
and post-colonial social formations are defined by the ordinary man and scholar alike
as modern. But such neat separation falsifies the changes that traditional institutions
and social structures have experienced and the fragments of modernity they have
picked up along the widening path of social change in colonialism. I prefer to speak
of indigenous social structures and institutions because this epithet ‘indigenous’ does
not carry with it any notion of purity. The social formations I refer to are indigenous
primarily in the sense that tradition forms the core elements of the social structures
and institutions of which they are made.
A major consequence of colonialism was that a new opportunity was offered for
expansion in pre-colonial social structures. But the resultant expansion led to the
growth of certain institutions, the retardation of some, and the shedding of others.
The changes that developed in colonialism led to the unprecedented growth of
institutions that were relatively advantaged by the new presence. The penetration of
the new alien institutions into pre-colonial societies was possible because the
managers of many institutions took advantage of the new opportunities to re-
organize and to re-order the network of rights and obligations by bringing in new
entities and thereby enhancing their own positions vis-a-vis those of other
institutions. These development led to the differentiation into unwonted distinction
of certain elements of the social structures. This was possible because the new order
made the logic of inter-dependence between the elements of pre-colonial social
Secondly, relative to these advantaged institutions, other elements of the pre-colonial
social structures were retarded in stature. In other words they remained dwarfed at
the level of the pre-colonial social structures. In their linkages with the other
elements of the social structures they lost their rights, either outright or in diminished
proportions, while their duties remained stagnant or even enhanced.
Thirdly, some institutions withered away in the re-organization and re-ordering of
indigenous social structures in colonialism. The shedding of these institutions was
necessitated by the attenuation of the functions they performed in the new order.
Such institutions as were in direct opposition to the triumphant indigenous
institutions that rose to high distinction in colonialism were defined out of existence
in the new order. Indeed, such institutions derived their traditional importance
primarily from their capabilities to limit the power of those indigenous institutions
that now attained distinction in colonialism. The disadvantaged institutions suffered
and some were shed from the transformed indigenous social structures.
Tradition benefitted enormously from colonialism. By tradition I mean those
surviving elements of pre-colonial indigenous social structure that members of
various primordial groupings in the post-colonial period claim to be central to their
social organizations. Such traditions as are variously claimed to be characteristic of
these groups were strengthened by generalization in colonialism.
In pre-colonial societies in Africa, certain symbols of culture were reserved for those
managers of institutions whose responsibilities it was to guard the tradition of these
societies. These might have been elders or members of the royalty. It was possible,
of course, especially with reference to the nobility, that such symbols of tradition
were monopolized by certain classes in order to distinguish them from the rest of
society. Any attempts to appropriate these symbols by other groups could be
punished with sanctions.
Examples of such symbols were plentiful in pre-colonial African societies. Thus, the
higher classes wore elaborate and distinctive dresses that commoners were either not
allowed to wear or which they could not afford. The story of the umbrella is
particularly revealing. When first introduced into many parts of Africa, it was
reserved for the nobility, particularly kings. Dudley (1968) reports that the use of the
umbrella by commoners was banned in Kanuri in northern Nigeria well into the
nineteen-fifties. Similarly, certain facial marks were, in many instances, the
exclusive prerogative of certain classes. Also, if not in principle, in practice,
polygamy was the attribute of nobility and its incidence was greatly limited among
But with colonialism there was a dramatic change. These restricted symbols of
culture became substantiated and were generalized to all members of the distinct
groups that were fighting for their separate recognition in the new order. Where in
pre-colonial Africa the use of these symbols could be punished, their use by the
generality of people in the new colonial order was rewarded by group approval. Thus
the modern forms of traditional dresses in Nigeria were royal or chieftain in origin,
but they have spread to all levels of society with the help of the generalizations which
colonialism promoted. To put the matter rather differently, the generalization of
symbols in colonialism consisted of making the elements of traditional high culture
available to popular or general culture.
There is a second type of generalization that came with colonialism and that resulted
also in the expansion of tradition in Africa. There were quite a few societies that
lacked certain institutions in social structures which were present in other pre-
colonial societies. This is to say, some social structures were underdeveloped and
lacked key institutions which were present in more developed social structures in
other pre-colonial societies. But the requirements of social existence in a new social
existence in a new social order called for the establishment of these institutions and
their integration or, if need be, imposition on other institutions to which they bore
no relationships in pre-colonial indigenous social structures. Thus it is the truth that
a large number of ‘traditional’ social structures in post-colonial Africa contain
elements of tradition generalized from other areas of Africa, under the aegis of
Let me quickly cite chieftaincy as an exemplification of the processes involved in
the social formation of transformed indigenous social structures. We may note two
points here. First, there was a process of generalization that entailed the levelling
down of the great kings (with the symbolic reduction of their titles from “Majesty to
Highness”) and the levelling up of minor chiefs to about same status. Audrey
Richards (1960: 13) put the case of British-ruled Africa well:
The different [pre-colonial indigenous] authorities vary in type. They include
kings with long lines of descent, princes, local rulers appointed to special posts
by their king – clan elders and district or village headmen – In British Africa
all authorities, however diverse, are described as chiefs.
This levelling process led to the expansion and promotion of chieftaincy in
colonialism. Secondly, chieftaincy was generalized to areas where chiefs were not
in existence before the colonial era. The rise of a class of the so-called “warrant
chiefs” has added an important element to tradition in these regions (cf. Afigho,
1972). Measured by the number and the political strength of the new class of chiefs
that sprouted up in colonialism, the era of colonial rule represents boom years for
chieftaincy institutions in Africa.
There is a second way in which colonialism marked a qualitative shift in the structure
of indigenous rulership in Africa. Again, the pre-colonial situation is summed up
very well by Richards (1960: 15): “In many of these systems authority is maintained
by means of an elaborate balance of power between the heads of different lineages,
those of the king and of his agnatic kinsmen, and those of the clan heads and
hereditary fief-holders at court”. These checks and balances in the structure of
rulership were especially pronounced in the kingdoms. Kings and emirs rose and fell
in their management of these checks and balances. The councils of state in Benin,
Oyo, Ashanti, and the emirates of the Sudan in West Africa; of Buganda, Bunyoro
and Toro in East Africa; and in other parts of pre-colonial Africa, in one way or the
other restrained the power of kings. The pre-colonial era, in the nineteenth century,
was clearly not one of royal absolutism in Africa.
All these delicate checks and balances in the structure of rulership were to change
with the reconstitution and re-organization of the structure of indigenous rulership
in colonialism. Those institutions that constituted the checks and balances were
brushed aside or else considerably weakened to symbolic representations only. With
the former kings this development led to a curious advantage: “Thus we have the
paradox... of kings losing their sovereignty but as ‘chiefs’ increasing their powers
over subjects because the traditional checks and balances to the exercise of their
authority were neutralized” (Crowder and Ikime, 1970: xiv).
Let me now turn to the second type of social formation in Africa. Migrated social
structures developed around models of social organization imported to colonized
Africa and engrafted onto the colonial situation. While the European components of
these social structures are their core, they have acquired textures and variations in
forms that make them peculiarly African. In a real sense, these migrated social
structures represent the outward expansion of European institutions to Africa.
We may deepen our knowledge of this expansion by contrasting it with an earlier
form of European expansion to the Americas and Australasia in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. This earlier European expansion was essentially cultural. It was
in the culture, not the organization, of Europe that the American colonists took pride.
In colonized Africa, it was the organization of Europe, not its culture that dazzled
the colonized African. In a large sense, there was considerable resistance to the
acceptance of European culture; but the organizational fragments that come with
colonization were absorbed without discrimination. It is important to note that the
European organizational pieces that came to us were virtually disembodied of their
moral contents, of their substratum of implicating ethics. And yet the imported
models were never engrafted onto any existing indigenous morality.
These two forms of European expansions have led to debilitating consequences, but
in different directions. Louis Hartz has pointed out that what he calls the European
fragments in the U.S.A., Canada, Latin America, Australia and even South Africa
have experienced cultural immobilities. Europe is able to advance in matters of
culture and ideology, but these European fragments remain morally fixated with the
elements of European culture they took away with them at their points of departure.
In the words of Louis Hartz (1964:1):
There is a problem of traditionalism and change common to the societies . . .
that . . . are fragments of the larger whole of Europe struck off in the course
of revolution which brought the West into the modern world. For when a part
of a European nation is detached from the whole of it, and hurled outward
onto new soil, it loses its stimulus toward change that the whole provides. It
lapses into a kind of immobility [in the realm of values and ideology].
I term this cultural fixation. European expansion to Africa, in the form of what I call
migrated social structures, had led to a different form of fixation. In post-colonial
Africa the models of the migrated social structures – in the universities, civil service,
and hospitals – suffer from organizational fixation. We treat with respect the
organization that we inherited from colonization and we are stuck to it. There is an
organizational immobility in Africa – largely because the morality and ethics that
provide the stimulus for home grown organizations in Europe for self-sustained
refinement and expansion are absent from our migrated social structures.
In many instances, the organizational pieces that are brought to Africa were ones
that were about to be modified or even discarded in Europe. As Van den Berghe has
so courageously reminded us, the Oxbridge model of university that was parceled to
Ibadan that has resulted in this University
was not the more democratic version which was evolving during Britain’s
post-World-War two Labour Government days, but the Edwardian stereotype
which the founders of U.C.I. remembered from their own student days. As
usual, the colonies inherited the metropolitan pattern with a time-lag, and
U.C.I. was thus a relatively low-cost colonial adaptation of an academic
model which in Britain itself was already obsolete (1973: 18-19).
So, just as “the French language of Quebec resembles Norman of the seventeenth
century, but in Paris modern French is spoken” (Hartz: 1964: 12) so the University
of Ibadan, founded at a time when English universities were searching for a new
future in the post-World War II period, retains a lingering “Edwardian” structure in
organization and administration long after English universities have progressed
beyond the forties.
I now turn to the third type of social formation in colonialism, namely, emergent
social structures. The inner character of colonialism is revealed best by the social
formations that were internally generated by the social forces of colonialism in
Africa. They grew with colonialism and in colonialism. Emergent social structures
are the self-generations of colonialism. They emerged to meet societal needs which
indigenous social structures and the migrated social structure could not fulfil in the
new colonial environment. Unlike the first two types of social formations in
colonialism, emergent social structures are difficult to discern for two major reasons.
First, while indigenous social structures and migrated social structures represent
formal aspects of the colonial and post-colonial situations, the emergent social
structures represent the informal elements of colonialism. Secondly, emergent social
structures are very often consciously smeared with tradition or modernity, to give
them the appearances of ultra-tradition or ultra-modernity.
My experience in teaching colonialism is that emergent social structures yield
greater room for controversies, largely because the examples of this phenomenon
are not generally acceptable, especially among people who grew up in these
structures. Let me give the example of ethnic groups as emergent social structures.
In pre-colonial Africa, the dominant form of social organization consisted of tribal
societies which were geographically defined and in which persons found their total
existence. With colonialism, the integrity of tribal societies was destroyed. Popular
views to the contrary, these tribal societies were not replaced case by case with ethnic
groups. In many instances what resulted were ethnic groups that are compositions of
several tribal entities. By 1820 an Ekiti man would have been astounded if he were
called a ‘Yoruba man’ whom he understood, if he was so knowledgeable, as a man
from Oyo. In any case, an Ekiti would probably need an interpreter in order to
communicate effectively with a Yoruba man in 1820. Eluwa, the secretary of the Ibo
State Union, confessed that by the early 1950’s he participated in persuading many
‘Ibos’ to accept that they were indeed Ibos. Hausa is a composition of several tribal
organizations that found their common relevance in modern Nigeria. Thomas
Hodgkin (1957: 42) was right when he reminded Biobaku: “Everyone recognizes
that the notion of ‘being a Nigerian’ is a new kind of conception. But it would seem
that the notion of ‘being a Yoruba’ is not very much older”. As I contended else
(Ekeh, 1975), I would add – I am sure to the amazement of many in this audience –
that Nigerian ethnic groups have their socio-political meaning only in terms of the
development of Nigeria. As social formations, these ethnic groups are not older than
Perhaps I should remind you that even before our own eyes some of these social
formations of ethnic groups are crumbling. The Ikwerre in Rivers State have, after
the Civil War, rediscovered a new ethnicity separate from the Ibo. Less than thirty
years ago, Urhobos and Isokos were the same ethnic group. In the early sixties,
following the creation of the Midwest State, there was a separation between the two
and so they are now two different ethnic groups.
I will give another example of a construct that falls into our model of emergent social
structure. Tribes, with geographical boundaries clearly defined and with an
autonomy of existence in the realm of values and morality, were dislocated by the
forces of colonialism because these tribes were incompatible with the new widened
integrated existence in colonialism. And yet under the aegis of colonialism there has
developed a new phenomenon of tribalism. In spite of their verbal affinities, there is
only a negative relationship between the terms tribes and tribalism. Tribalism is a
construct that defines a model of behaviour that is unacceptable in our new poly-
ethnic relationships. Tribalism does have a linkage with tribes, not because tribes
exist anymore but because the acts that constitute tribalism have the atavistic aura of
behaviour which is considered appropriate for a past form of existence in the tribal
setting, but which is regarded as destructive in poly-ethnic systems of social life. A
tribalist is a non-tribesman who exhibits anti-social behaviour in a non-tribal setting
in such a way as to threaten the new forms of existence with reversion to a past form
of restricted tribal social organization. A tribalist is never a tribesman and a
tribesman can never be a tribalist. My overall point is, the phenomenon of tribalism
is not only unique to modern post-colonial Africa and perhaps Asia; it was in fact
generated in the re-organizations and re-orderings that were provoked in
Let me now touch on an area in the social formations in colonialism that helps to
differentiate and define the three models of social structures that I have sought to
distinguish. This concerns the development of the moral order in colonialism. The
social structures, which social scientists study, even in the form of abstracted models
that I adopt here, are shot through by underlying notions of morality, usually in
sublimated forms. Whether it is the economic system, or the sociologists’ social
structure, or the political scientist’s public realm, or even the psychologist’s
personality conception of superego injunctions: in any of these forms of the social
scientist’s concern there is an underlying normative order – a modernized
sociological representation of concern with the philosopher’s morality. Such
morality, or its sublime referents, have been tied to the concept of society, and the
partial exception of the absence of morality in international relations can be
understood in terms of its extra-societal dimensions. The state of anomie, or
normlessness, that Emile Durkheim (1893) discussed; and the amoral patterns of
politics in Southern Italy that Edward Banfield (1958) described: these are
significant because they are regarded as abnormal in the Western experience. The
rule in the West is, behaviour can be classified as either moral or immoral.
An important distinction of colonialism is that it has bred a duality of moral
perspectives. In the colonized world of Africa there are two broad spheres of moral
and amoral behaviour. That is, in addition to the broad sphere of moral and immoral
behaviour on the one hand, there is another deep area of behaviour that is governed
by amorality, or lack of morality, in society. It is this institutionalization of amorality
as a central principle of social existence in the colonial and, now, post-colonial
situations that poses a special problem area in the study of colonialism.
Broadly speaking, it seems fair to say that there is moral presence in the workings
of the transformed indigenous social structures and of the emergent social structures.
But the sprawling migrated social structures of colonialism were originally – and
have largely remained – disinvested of any moral definitions. This amoralism is
particularly pronounced in the various apparatuses of the state and in the conduct of
those aspects of public life associated with the migrated social structures. Challenged
about the ‘morality’ in his style of politics which induced the destruction and burning
of houses of political opponents outside his own ethnic group but within his domain
of political control in pre-civil war Nigeria, a prominent Nigerian politician retorted,
“politics is not church”. It was his own way of saying “politics is amoral”.
I shall end the substantive part of this Inaugural Lecture by entering a
methodological note. In 1975 I introduced into the vocabulary of social science the
concept of the ‘two publics’. I took as a point of departure for my analysis of this
concept, the distinction between the public realm and the private realm in Western
political science, with the observation that what is remarkable about these two
realms in the Western experience is that they are both informed by common
underlying morality. What is moral in one is also moral in the other. Our experiences
in the colonial and post-colonial situations are vastly different. In colonialism there
is no monolithic public realm enjoying common morality with the private realm.
Instead the public realm is differentiated into two.
On the one hand, there is a primordial public which operates on societal morality
and is therefore bound to the private realm. On the other, there is a civic public which
is amoral and devoid of any claims to morality. I contended then that it was precisely
because the same individuals could belong to both publics at the same time that
African politics posed such unique problems. The dialectics of the relationship
between the civic public and the primordial public yield for political science in
Africa its characteristic forms (Ekeh, 1975).
The model of the two publics has been fairly well received. It has been applied in
the study of a few societies, including those that were never colonized. But in these
applications, I have been criticized, sometimes severely, for restricting the model to
post-colonial Africa. I suppose I may have sinned by being conservative in my
claims for the concept. But I should point out clearly the methodological status of
model construction such as the one I have attempted in this lecture, since my answer
to such criticisms of my position lies therein. Colonialism provides us with an
exaggerated imagery of certain models and processes which cry for restatement by
the social scientist. But such models and processes as are yielded in the study of
colonialism may be present outside Africa, perhaps in sublimated forms. It is in the
nature of our trade that once discovered in one context, the delineation of similar
models and processes elsewhere becomes simplified. It is also in the nature of our
trade that in order to call first attention to any models and processes that lie
somewhere unstated there is some need for exaggeration. This is after all what Max
Weber preaches in his methodology of ideal types.
I do not therefore claim that the three types of social formations that I have discussed
in this lecture are restricted to Africa or to the colonial experience. What I can claim
with abundant assurance is that colonialism enables me to state them because they
are prominent in colonialism.
In a nation in which academics are impatiently enjoined to establish the relevance of
their research and teaching, even an inaugural lecture may be subjected to the
embarrassing question: What is the relevance of this lecture? This question is all the
more serious because I see that in the post-Civil War period the majority of inaugural
lectures in this University have strained to call the attention of the Federal
Government to the pressing relevance of their commitments. Of course, there is
relevance and there is relevance. There is pre-packaged relevance, ready for
delivery. This is the type of relevance, cut and dried, for which trade centres and our
polytechnics are fitted. But relevance in a university is of a higher order. University-
level relevance is theory-soaked and is grounded on risky propositions. Universities,
first and foremost, are instituted to trade on ideas. Idle curiosity may be rightly
frowned upon in a trade centre. For a university idle curiosity is a virtue. And
relevance in a university attains greater credibility the more it is clear that the
subject-matter of discourse is above the capabilities of lower-scale institutions of
In this light, I believe there is relevance in my concern with colonialism. My purpose
in talking about “Colonialism and Social Structure” is to contribute to an
understanding of an aspect of humanity – in its particular African appearance. It has
been my intention to invite attention to the pre-eminent fact that we live and function
in an environment which has been impregnated and shaped by the social forces
promoted by colonialism. It is relevant to understand this complex environment.
A wise Classics teacher said something that may benefit us all. In his inaugural
lecture delivered on 14 February 1957, Professor John Ferguson of the Department
of Classics of this university said, “Science advances from two motives, the desire
to know and the desire to control. When the desire to control becomes dominant, the
emphasis tends to swing over to applied science and technology, and science...is in
danger of over-spending its capital” (Ferguson, 1961). There can hardly be a more
salutary warning, even from non-scientific quarters, about our attitudes to various
forms of science in present-day Nigeria.
It is my belief that the motive that animated this lecture derives from a desire to
know, not to control. I am comforted that in following this path of scholarship, I
stand on the shoulders of giants. When Professor Ojetunde Aboyade delivered the
premier inaugural lecture from the Faculty of the Social Sciences in 1973, he sought
to know the reasons for the failure of development efforts in Nigeria over which he
had, after a fashion, presided. Even more emphatically, in the premier inaugural
lecture from my department, Professor Billy Dudley, my immediate predecessor in
the chair of Political Science, showed clearly his disdain for hasty attempts to control
the human condition. His inaugural lecture, delivered from this very podium in 1975,
was an exhortation to us all to view scepticism as a virtue. In the Department of
Political Science, we recognize that we owe a duty to humanity, and to Nigeria,
which we hope to discharge by seeking to understand human problems, particularly
in their African forms. That, in sum, is the message from the Department of Political
Science in our University.
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