How many countries in Africa have been colonized

How colonial law shapes Africa to this day

Rwanda wants to delete around 1,000 pieces of legislation. All legal acts that were enacted between the beginning of colonial rule in 1885 and independence in 1962. This includes laws, ordinances, decrees, royal orders, edicts and declarations. Rwanda's constitution minister Evode Uwizeyimana told the New Times newspaper that it was "a shame that the legal instruments enacted by the colonial rulers are still valid." Just as Rwanda is fighting for economic independence, it would now also fight for legal independence. On April 3, the government approved a bill repealing the paragraphs. It was presented to parliament at the end of June.

Colonial law is still in effect today

Rwanda is not an isolated case. "A great many African countries initially adopted the legal system that was introduced during colonialism," says Andreas Eckert, professor of African history at DW's Berlin Humboldt University. There have been adjustments and changes. But many autocratic rulers invoked the old colonial order shortly after independence to consolidate their power.

Because it was designed to control the population with as little effort as possible and to export as many raw materials as possible, says Malte Lierl from the GIGA Institute for African Studies in Hamburg. "In this respect, the political institutions and the legislation of the colonial states were not suitable for promoting independent economic activity or democratic participation," Lierl told DW.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame wants to abolish the colonial laws

The clothes of the Ghanaian judges are still a rather harmless example of how the colonial legal tradition lives on: Following the example of their British colleagues, they still wear classic wigs to this day. But there are far more serious cases: "In many African countries, colonial laws are still in force that make life difficult for the population or discriminate against minorities," says Malte Lierl. For example, many African countries still adhere to colonial laws that criminalize homosexuality. "Of course, that brings a lot of suffering to those affected."

Another example is a law on identification in Tanzania. In rural areas in particular, many people cannot apply for papers because the required authorities are not represented there. The law gives the police the opportunity to harass the population, says Lierl. A ban on witchcraft, which was enacted during the colonial era, had a similar effect: after independence, the activities of traditional medicine men in Tanzania were criminalized.

A looming loophole in the law?

In Rwanda, according to historians, colonial rules and laws had a particularly serious impact. From their point of view, colonialism at least favored the genocide of 1994. In the 1930s, the Belgian colonial rulers introduced identity cards in which the ethnicity of the population was recorded as Hutus or Tutsis. Some experts believe that this categorization exacerbated the divisions between the population groups.

In some African countries, judges still wear colonial-era wigs

Nevertheless, the question arises whether the abolition of all colonial laws makes sense. Some Rwandan parliamentarians fear that this could create loopholes in the law. Eradicating all regulations from 1885 to 1962 in one fell swoop would indeed create a so-called lacuna, a loophole in the law, says Kenyan lawyer Martin Oloo. It is not even necessary to abolish everything: "It would be important to look at what works and what doesn't work," Oloo told DW.

To do this, you have to look at every single law, says Oloo. Regulations that should serve the interests of the people are unproblematic. Laws that should serve the interests of the colonialists must be abolished: "If these were intended to restrict the freedom of the people, then an independent country should not have this law."

'A faulty legal system is better than none at all'

Ulrich Karpen sees it similarly. In the mid-1990s, the lawyer advised the constituent assembly of South Africa, which had drafted a new constitution after the end of apartheid. It would take years to pass new laws. In addition, numerous regulations from the colonial era are of a purely technical nature. "A faulty legal system is always better than no legal system," said Karpen.

In Rwanda, for example, there is already the possibility of removing outdated or dangerous laws. It contains a transitional paragraph, as Germany had also introduced in the Basic Law. Article 171 of the Constitution states that the old laws will continue unless they conflict with the Constitution. Unconstitutional laws can be brought before the constitutional court and must be adapted to the current constitution according to its stipulations. It is true that the unconstitutionality of all laws is not written on the forehead, according to Karpen: "There may be hairs in the soup, but you can fish it out if you get down to it."