Most African countries have been unable to reverse the colonial pattern of education whereby colonial powers left their subject populations with limited technical, scientific and economic education.
This was intended to forever keep Africans underdeveloped, unequal in relation to citizens of former colonial powers, and dependent on industrial countries for generations.
In fact, the pillar of African colonialism was to give indigenous people limited technical, scientific and economic education. In this way, making it difficult for indigenous people to compete with the citizens of colonial powers at every sphere, and thereby achieve equality between the coloniser and colonised.
Former colonial subject nations lacking mass education in these subjects find it difficult – if not impossible to ever catch-up with former colonial powers and industrial countries.
These fields are at the core of a modern, developed and industrialised economy. They are also crucial building blocks to the individual advancement from poverty, unequal status and wealth, but also that of countries.
Effective decolonisation would therefore mean for African countries to not only successfully catch up with former colonial powers in education in the areas of science, engineering and economics, but also surpassing them.
To underestimate the urgency of looking at decolonisation on these terms is to perpetuate the continuing underdevelopment of Africa, the unequal status of the individual African and ongoing industrial country racism against Africans and African countries.
In the most successful decolonisation of our times, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and lately China have not only, through education, caught up with former industrial countries which colonised them, they have surpassed them. By doing so these countries have done more to dispel (not eradicate) Western racism against them which sprang from the long years of imperialism and colonialism.
The central issue here is that these former colonies, the so-called Asian “tiger” economies, have caught up with their former coloniser through bettering the education systems of former colonial powers.
As a case in point, Singapore has developed its mathematics school system to such an extent, that “Singapore” mathematics now outshines those taught in industrial countries, with many industrial countries adopting this method of teaching. This is what decolonisation in concrete terms mean.
Colonial powers ensured that primary and high schools for African children were few.
The schools that existed rarely taught technical, science and commerce subjects at a level equal to that in the schools of the colonial mother country or the schools in the colony reserved for settlers.
African children were either not in school, or received appalling inadequate education compared to the children from the colonial power.
It was the specific colonial policy to give indigenous people limited education, firstly, and secondly, even sparser education in sciences, engineering and economics.
At independence from colonialism, most African countries inherited populations with low levels of education, with only a few among the indigenous communities being educated. Often such education was in humanities.
They left very few higher education institutions for indigenous communities in colonies. The universities and higher education institutions that were established and targeted at indigenous people in many African countries mostly focused on the humanities, rather than on sciences, engineering or commerce.
Where sciences, engineering or commerce were offered, these were often targeted at settler communities in African countries with significant colonial settler communities.
Most African colonies were agricultural or commodity-based.
Colonial powers did not provide technical agriculture, neither mining education to the indigenous people – given the fact that African economies were agriculture or mineral-based.
Colonial powers ruled African countries on a divide and rule basis.
They played different communities within a country against each other often favouring one community over others.
In many colonial policies, this favoured community would often then be the deliberate recipient of the limited – non-science, engineering or commerce education. It would get employment in selected parts of the public service. Sadly, in the post-colonial era, post-independence governments often continued this pattern.
In some cases, the communities picked by colonial powers were in control of the governing liberation movements – because of their limited, yet relatively better colonial education than other less favoured communities.
In other instances, the indigenous communities not favoured for limited education by the colonial administration, were in charge of the governing liberation movement.
However, in both post-independence governing trajectories, the post-independent dominant group continued with the limited, humanities-based education, which excluded science, engineering and commerce to any significant extent - favoured by the colonial powers.
The colonial humanities education given to the “privileged” few indigenous communities was often very narrowly focused on the viewpoints of development of only limited strands of Western scholars. Those strands which often ignores the West’s role in Africa’s subjugation, over-exaggerate the West’s contribution to Africa’s limited “development” and undermine Africa’s own sense, agency, capabilities and knowledge.
Overall, the colonial African humanity education – derived from Western scholarship – is therefore often based on narrow content, rather than on universal values based on the whole of global scholarship.
The colonial humanities curricula imposed in the education institutions of the colonies often ignore critical, progressive and more nuanced strands in Western scholarship. It also ignores Africa’s own scholarship – if critical of the West, and that of Asia or Latin America.
In the post-independence era, when the former colonial powers formally withdrew from colonies, they often sent development aid to Africa which often focused on education.
However, there was a catch, African countries were obliged to use the teaching materials, curricula and resources from the former colonial powers and industries providing the aid. Teachers from former colonial powers were dispatched to Africa.
The educational development aid for education was not focused on developing science, engineering or commerce; but to perpetuate the limited humanities colonial content.
Sadly, more than 50 years after independence from colonialism, the patterns of education that African countries inherited from colonial powers have remained unchanged.
Post-independence African governments have done very little to change the colonial legacy of poor quality education for Africans, whether at primary or higher education level.
A survey by the Centre for Universal Education at Brookings Institution show that one in every two African children will reach adolescent years unable to read, write or perform basic numeracy tasks – even if they have spent at least four years in the education system. Just 28% of African youth are enrolled in secondary school. Girls are the worst off. Fewer than half of Africa’s teachers could score in the top band on tests designed for 12 year olds.
The civil debate in most of Africa about decolonisation and education is wildly misplaced.
Decolonisation of education is narrowly seen as rejecting supposedly “Western” science, engineering and commerce. The truth is, all the world’s societies have contributed to the advancement of modern science, engineering and commerce.
Neo-colonial scholarship will want to argue that not only has Africa not contributed to advances in the sciences, engineering and commerce, but that Africa’s pupils and students should not have access to the same quality of science, engineering and commerce education that former colonial powers and industrial countries have.
It is not about not teaching humanities. It is about bringing in science, engineering and commerce in a big way; and about making the humanities more inclusive of all global thought traditions.
Decolonisation means Africans must have access to the same or better quality education, which is drawn from the best global content, whether from Africa itself, industrial countries and emerging powers, in primary and high schools, and in higher education institutions, as those in former colonial powers and industrial countries.
Decolonisation of content will mean teaching this fact to African learners.
Decolonisation should not be about Africans rejecting advances in science – done on the back of Africans, and other developing country peoples. Neither is decolonisation about Africa focusing exclusively on humanities only - this time not on narrow neo-colonial Western humanities, but on narrow Africanised humanities, which only limits itself to study narrow strands of African thought; rather than broader global thought.
The world is now well into the fourth industrial revolution, which is integrating the digital, physical, and biological worlds. If the latter is the case, Africa will never be decolonised, and will forever remain subservient to industrial countries, and to new emerging powers, such as China, Saudi Arabia or Japan.
These countries have taken the best of Western science, engineering and commerce and combined it with the best of their own and those of other regions – and determinedly focused on getting their peoples to be better educated than those of former colonial powers.
Instructively, most of the Chinese political and government leaders and those from the East Asian “Tiger” economies have degrees in science, engineering or commerce. Very few of their African peers are educated in science, engineering or commerce. Those African leaders who are educated – are often schooled based on the limited, skewed and narrow strands of Western humanities, not in a much broader universal education, which includes content from across the globe.
If Africans reject becoming educated in the best of science, engineering and technology, and commerce – meaning at least at similar levels and higher than citizens in former colonial powers and industrial countries, Africa will be left behind, never to catch up in perpetuity with its former colonisers. In fact, African countries will remain colonies of former colonial powers and industrial countries – albeit not in the old ways, but in new manifestations.
African countries must link their education – whether humanities or science, engineering and commerce, to industrial policies. If African countries are commodity-rich, they must start by demanding all investors set up vocational schools and higher education institutions linked to producing the commodity and its diversified manufacturing off-spins.
If they are agriculture-based – which most African economies are, they must, as a start, link vocational technical education to producing diverse agriculture products and manufacturing spin-offs thereof.
They must insist that foreign development aid to education, whether from former colonial powers, industrial countries or emerging powers, must fund schools and teachers in sciences, engineering and commerce.
African countries must also demand new investors fund or establish academies focusing on sciences, engineering and commerce as a prerequisite for getting mining or other licences, or as part of empowering locals.
Civil society, youth groups and opposition movements must push for African governments to introduce science, engineering and industry-relevant technical education, in secondary and higher education.
Africa needs better quality educated teachers, who are better paid, and more valued by society. They need to be publicly rewarded.
Good teachers must be better paid then politicians. All government, private sector and community bodies must be put on all specialist panels.
African leaders and governments need to have the political will to provide Africans with the best global quality education – both political will and quality education has been desperately lacking in the post-colonial African period. Without both, decolonisation will remain a distant dream in perpetuity.