Skip to content

Student Paper: Colonialism and Labor Migration In West Africa by Heather Cook

June 4, 2014

Nigeria - Oil RegionsNote: This is a part of a series of articles that I am posting; 10-12 page papers for a course I just finished teaching: Labor and the Global Economy. I asked permission to post several of them. Here is one.

Colonialism and Labor Migration in West Africa

by Heather Cook

In West Africa, labor migration patterns have largely been determined by colonial and neocolonial policies that focus primarily on exploiting the natural resource endowment of a given country. West Africa, which includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, the Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo, have seen colonial occupation from various European powers since the 19th century. This includes British West Africa (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Nigeria), as well as French West Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger).

Economic development policies of the colonial era did little, if anything, to promote holistic growth and development for the colonies in question. With the onset of colonization in the nineteenth century came a set of imposed policies that prioritized the extraction of raw materials and foodstuffs for Europe while wholly neglecting to take into account the needs, priorities, and well-being of the local people and communities, especially in rural areas. Moreover, the livelihoods of these communities can be seriously impacted (positively or negatively) by anything from political, social, or economic disturbance to natural disasters. These circumstances, as well as laws that forced the native peoples from their traditional agrarian society into a capitalist, moneyed economy, created a highly mobile labor force that spurred migration within and between borders.

In his article on the subject, John Arthur summarizes the role of colonialism in shaping West African labor migration in three main points.

  • First, a pattern of movement from rural to urban areas was spurred by a colonial focus on developing the cities and major trade centers, creating uneven economic growth and development.
  • Second, the imposition of a Western capitalist system made it impossible, in many instances, for people to continue living as they had previously. Namely, people were gradually forced to abandon traditional livelihoods and conform to the demands of a moneyed economy.
  • Third, the introduction of the Christian/Western education system “created new sets of aspirations” that encouraged people to move to urban centers in search of prosperity (1991).

Arthur writes: ,

“The international movement of labor in West Africa is caused primarily by the inequalities in economic development and natural resources among the countries in the region and the need for migrants to enhance their human capital potential, maximize income, and achieve social mobility and social status aspiration (1991).”

Between development policies that “virtually ignored” rural areas and a system that used precious agricultural land to produce cash crops, thousands of displaced farmers became members of the newly created, highly mobile labor force that saw significant rural to urban migration. Additionally, with the onset of capitalism came the creation of poll and hut taxes, forcing families from the “non-wage, informal rural economy” to the “urban wage sector.”

In French West Africa, a head tax on every man, woman, and child over the age of eight, in place until 1946, created a burden for villages, as they were often short of the francs required. The tax forced them into labor or into providing additional goods and services for the colonizers, such as foodstuffs. The purpose of the head taxes was two-fold. First, they encouraged mobility of labor, as workers were sent around the country building roads, rails, general infrastructure and other public works needed by the colonizers. Second, the taxes encouraged households to grow cash crops, another way of forcing them into participating in the moneyed economy (Cordell, Gregory, Piche, 1996). Overall, “labor movement patterns in West Africa have followed colonial mobility patterns” (Arthur, 1991).

Under colonialism in West Africa, regional labor movement tended to move from Sahel West Africa to the coast, where the majority of employment opportunities and investment in infrastructure, social services, and development were located. Countries sending labor included Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso. In general, these were nations in which populations often felt compelled to migrate to more prosperous places to look for work, as they found themselves living in areas with low levels of economic development, infrastructure, and education.

Additionally, communities were often hit hard by natural disasters, such as drought, that were exacerbated by land and natural resource mismanagement. Countries receiving labor included The Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Ghana (1996). Nigeria and Ghana have both been two of the biggest destinations for migrant workers, Nigeria because of its oil and Ghana because of its cocoa plantations and mining sector. These two countries experienced periods of relative economic prosperity as foreign investment poured in, both before and after independence, in an effort to extract their valuable natural resources. The colonizing power, in its effort to extract as much wealth as quickly as possible from the occupied nation, found itself with an increasing demand for African labor and through the aforementioned policies, found ways to “compel people to finance their own oppression (Cordell et. al, 1996). Investment and economic growth in these countries played a role of primary importance in shaping their labor migration patterns.
In Nigeria, rural to urban and even urban to rural migration has been influenced by colonial rule and the exploitation of oil. Up until the 1980s, labor migration was dominated by a trend of rural areas to urban areas, primarily due to perceived opportunities presented by the city and economic development driven by oil extraction. Additionally, an oil boom in the 1970s was accompanied by a development strategy that focused on urban areas. These policies had the adverse effect of creating a rural labor shortage and drawing so many people to the cities that they began to exceed carrying capacity (Onyeonoru, 1994).

Unfortunately, the 1980s saw a huge and rapid decline in oil production and, subsequently, an economic crisis for the nation. Considering that the oil sector made up about 96% of total exports and 86% of government revenue, Nigeria’s reliance on oil and lack of economic diversity exacerbated the crisis. Between 1980 and 1985, production dropped from more than 2 million barrels per day to 0.8 million barrels, while the price of oil plummeted from $44 to $10 per barrel (1994). The result of this massive decline in productivity was the loss of approximately one million jobs and a reversal of the rural to urban labor migration trend.

With their options for employment suddenly gone, many migrants felt no choice but to return to the countryside and farming. This choice was promoted by the government and their rural development plan. The plan, which emphasized food production and grassroots development, was one attempt to mitigate the economic crisis. This approach was, ultimately, unsuccessful, in large part because they were, “ inhibited by the unplanned nature of the implicit policy measures, official corruption…and, above all, the lack of an integrated rural development approach” (1994).
The developments seen in Nigeria’s oil sector during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, reflects the region’s struggle to create sustainable growth and development in the wake of post-WWII independence. Furthermore, the Western capitalist impositions of the twentieth century, so often unwelcome, were still looming large in the neocolonialist bodies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As countries entered economic crises following independence, they were offered loans and bailouts from the IMF, which came with strict sets of conditions known as structural adjustment policies, or SAPs. Structural adjustment policies pushed a neoliberal agenda that brought with it privatization and cuts in government spending, most notably in social programs that provided services such as education and health care. With the onset of SAPs after the economic crash of the 1980s, the urban sector shrank and the informal and unemployed sectors grew, leaving more than half of the working force unprotected by any sort of labor laws (Dimova, Nordman, Roubaud, 2010).

It should be noted, however, that much of the research seeking to understand the dynamics of the informal economy consistently regard this sector as, “a disadvantaged sector and sector of exploitation of underprivileged workers, as opposed to a sector of personal choice or dynamic entrepreneurship that shows few of the characteristics of a stylized dual economy” (2010). Regardless of the dynamism of the informal economy in Nigeria and the rest of West Africa, its presence and relevance has been shaped by both the colonial policies of the early twentieth century, as well as the neo-colonial structural adjustment policies of the post-1980s.
Similar labor patterns to the ones discussed above can be detected in Ghana, where mining and labor migration have shaped each other, as well as the economic development of the country, since colonialism. The growth of the mining industry, both large-scale mining (LSM) and artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) have resulted in socio-economic, political, and cultural changes for many local communities (Nyame, Grant, Yakovleva, 2009).

Mining in Ghana has played an important economic role since the late 1800s, with mining centers along the Gold Coast shaping hubs of economic activity by drawing external investment and also by creating demand for the goods and services provided by the surrounding informal economic sector (Dumett, 2008). That being said, governmental policy at the time showed little regard for the African labor used to make the mining possible. There is little to no evidence that under colonialism, the Ghanaian/Gold Coast government had any sense of responsibility for the administration or development of districts outside of the mining centers.

Furthermore, there was a documented “ambivalence” in the government’s position regarding African labor treatment in the mines.

  • First, officials proved reluctant to address any mine labor issue, in an effort to remain business-friendly.
  • Second, there was no regulation regarding the health, housing, and well being of the mine employees (2008). This neglect clearly demonstrates the unequal development and labor policies perpetuated by colonialism.

The considerable quantity of the reserves discovered, the infrastructure built because of the mining centers and the various industries supported by the mining sector and the general economic growth present in the area drew labor migration flows from throughout the region (Nyame et. al, 2009). Three developments in the growth of the mining sector and related colonial policies spurred labor migration.

These developments include the investments in infrastructure and social services that were limited to the mining centers and neglected other, less prosperous, communities, a demand for mining labor that outstripped local supply, and relatively loose inter-regional border controls. All brought workers from the British, French, and German colonies elsewhere in the region. The number of immigrants often far outweighed the number of local workers (2009). It should be noted, however, that mining economies are all too often subjected to the instability of the global marketplace and to boom-bust cycles of prosperity and economic crisis, both of which can have serious consequences for labor migration. Economic crisis and mine closures can stimulate migrant outflow as quickly as a mining boom can bring workers to the area, stimulating the mobility of the labor force.

Since the mid-1990s, large-scale mining has seen a gradual decline in the mining workforce overall, from approximately 22,500 workers to about 15,000 workers. Similarly, as large-scale mining has decreased, artisanal and small-scale mining has increased and is now growing faster than any other sector of the informal economy. Data on artisanal and small-scale mining, however, is difficult to collect reliably, although it is generally known that small and illegal mining activities often surround large-scale mining operations, done by migrants moving through and completing seasonal work (2009).

Finally, artisanal and small-scale mining, unregulated and informal as it is, creates a system of exploitation of some of the most vulnerable of the population, as small-time investors and other illegal miners recruit poverty-stricken women and children. Because of the lack of regulation and the boom-bust cycles so common to mining, these workers are often left stranded without pay or any kind of compensation when mining investments end in a loss (2009).

Beyond their presence in artisanal and small-scale mining work, women have played an important role in Ghanaian labor patterns, although there is a noted lack of data and understanding on the subject (Brydon, 1992). Women’s presence in the labor force in Ghana is most often tied to the informal sector, whether it be trading, artisanal mining, or otherwise. Research suggests that for women migrating internationally, the reasons are often tied to their husband’s work.

This differs slightly from what is known of women in the Ghanaian labor force, as Brydon states that reasons for labor migration are primarily economic (1992). In addition, religion can play a role; a greater presence of Islam in northern Ghana may mean conservative communities limit their daughters’ movements and opportunities to work, although there is, again, little data to support this claim.

Finally, while there is still much to be understood in regards to women and labor in Ghana, and perhaps in West Africa in general, a link can still be found between their activities in the economy and the consequences of Western influence and imposition. Namely, the failed emphasis on rural development following the economic crisis and subsequent Structural Adjustment Policies of the 1980s, both of which contributed to serious unemployment, means that many women try to find work in urban centers in order to earn money, foodstuffs, and other needed goods to send home to children and family members residing in rural areas. This labor pattern has created stronger links between urban and rural parts of the country (1992).

As we move further into the twenty-first century, beyond the direct oppression of colonialism and the subsequent struggles for independence seen in the first half of the twentieth century, the vast gap of inequality created by the relationship of colonizer and colonized remains. Britain and France, for example, remain two of the richest nations in the world, while Nigeria and Ghana, two of the West African colonies that drew some of the highest levels of economic activity and investment in the region during the twentieth century, remain poor and developing.

According to the World Bank, 46% of Nigeria’s population lives at or below the poverty line, while approximately 28.5% of Ghana’s population lives at or below the poverty line (2006). Despite the significance of their natural resources, and the rapid extraction of those resources throughout colonialism and today, these countries have been unable to turn the wealth generated into sustainable development. This is due, namely, to the economic system created by colonialism, a system of inequality that is evidenced by the labor migration patterns of the region, as families and communities were forced to participate in a system vastly different from traditional ways of life.

Looking again at John Arthur’s summary of the role of colonialism in shaping labor migration patterns in West Africa, the development of an inherently unequal relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, as well as the development of the core and peripheral economic system, can be seen. In the context of Nigerian oil extraction and Ghanaian mining, these relationships could not be clearer.

  • First, rural to urban migration flows were created as money generated by oil revenues were put disproportionately into colonial infrastructure in Nigeria, while in Ghana, money remained in the mining sector, creating hubs of economic activity specifically around mining centers.
  • Second, West African individuals were forced to participate in a Western capitalist system to which they were totally unaccustomed. This was imposed through the creation of poll and head taxes throughout West Africa, the displacement of agricultural workers in Ghana due to the growing of cash crops, and the uneven development policies that led to the creation of a highly mobile labor force.
  • Finally, Arthur cites the “aspirations” created by the new Western system that encouraged people to move to urbanized centers “in search of prosperity” (1991).

These systems of thinking still play out today. On the micro level, parents move to cities to support their children and families in more rural areas while youth migrate to cities in search of work and opportunities. On the macro level, West African nations struggle to overcome the challenges of the peripheral economy, including heavy debts, structural adjustment policies, and reliance on commodities subject to considerable price fluctuations. Moving forward, as Nigeria, Ghana, and other West African nations work to further their own ambitions of economic growth and prosperity, an understanding of how colonial and neo-colonial processes have shaped labor patterns and development in the region is crucial to creating a more just, equitable future for all.


Works Cited
Arthur, J. A. International Labor Migration Patterns in West Africa. African Studies Association, 34, 65-87.

Chant, S., & Brydon, L. (1992). Ghanaian women in the migration process. Gender and Migration in Developing Countries (). London: Belhaven Press.

Cordell, D., Gregory, J., & Piche, V. (1996). Migration in West Africa: Past and Present. Hoe and Wage: A Social History of a Circular Migration System in West Africa (). Boulder: Westview Press.

Data. The World Bank. (2006, January 1). Data | The World Bank. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from

Dimova, R., Nordman, C., & Roubaud, F. Allocation of Labor in Urban West Africa: Insights from the Pattern of Labor Supply and Skill Premiums. Review of Development Economics, 14, 74-92.

Dumett, R. (1998). Retrospect and Aftermath: Mining Frontiers, Capitalism, Labor, and the Colonial State. El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-Mining Frontier, African Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875-1900 (261-290). Athens: Ohio University Press.

Nyame, F., Grant, J. A., & Yakovleva, N. Perspectives on migration patterns in Ghana’s mining industry. Resources Policy, 34, 6-11.

Onyeonoru, I. Labour migration and rural transformation in Nigeria. International Sociology, 9, 217-221.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: