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Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously

13 February 2023

Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously

At the Theatre, Richard Mudariki, 2012; Image credit: Johans Bohrman Fine Art

Excerpt of Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, London: Hurst & Company, 2022, 270 pages; published in collaboration with the International African Institute.

The focus of this chapter is the case made by philosophers for decolonising their discipline, and the seemingly unintended con- sequences of this demand: replacing critical thought about phi- losophy with equivalence-ism and an uncritical embrace of what- ever is dredged up from the depths of indigenous African life as exemplars of philosophical thinking (as long as it pretends to be untouched by colonialism). Once we accept false binaries like ‘the West’ (an idea) versus ‘Africa’ (a place), ‘Western/modern’ versus ‘African/traditional’—with one shunned and the other embraced— the road leads us directly to nativism and atavism. Much of what is produced under the rubric of decolonising is either dedicated to exposing slights or is busy entering into the record crude formula- tions masquerading as philosophical insights. And these are rarely called out by other scholars because concerns over identity pre- empt serious critical engagement. But a more catholic approach will likely enable us to find sophisticated syntheses stemming from critical agency by African thinkers. 

Given how zealous our decolonisers are when it comes to free- ing the colonised from the continuing stranglehold of colonial 

hangovers, there is some irony in the fact that they may be guilty of condescension towards the colonised, refusing to take seriously the choices that some colonised make when exercising their sub- jectivity and the autonomy that comes with it. Beyond the woolly but ultimately empty rhetoric, I do not see a clear way charted by the decolonising discourse out of this predicament. Yet, I hope that part of what comes out of this book is a renewed interest in and appreciation of the many different ways in which African thinkers have responded to the colonial experience and to the other outside influences which have, over time, shaped the life and times of the continent. The importance of this line of think- ing cannot be overemphasised for younger scholars who, at pres- ent, continually react to slights by denizens of ‘the Global North’ against them in ‘the Global South’ (their preferred designations). A better way to engage with African thinkers is not only possible, but it is made necessary by the availability of a huge intellectual legacy, on the basis of which young scholars can bring substantive ideas to the table and escape being caught between atavistic rehashes of ideas that are best forgotten and dubious syntheses that peddle distortions of their cherished thinkers. Frantz Fanon is probably the most bastardised in this respect. You would think, to read some of them, that Fanon was a ‘Black thinker’! 3 

We would all do well to pay attention to Ato Sekyi-Otu’s reminder that it is a gross distortion of Fanon’s philosophical work to list it in the ranks of race-based identity ideologies or undiscriminating collectivist dogmas that refuse to take the indi- vidual seriously. In a chapter titled, aptly enough, ‘Individualism in Fanon and After’, Sekyi-Otu contends that 

the burden of the entire critique of racism in Fanon’s oeuvre is that it is radically inimical to individuality, and that the raison d’être of antiracism as a generative principle of postcolonial political morality is precisely the vindication of the person. What else can we call this vindication but individualism, individualism born of the inferential logic of antiracism, from refusal of racist culture’s constitutive col- lectivism? ... Against the metaphysics of colonial occupation and the ‘racial polity’ with its contempt for ‘independence of persons,’ against the ordinance of race and its practice, according to The Wretched of the Earth of placing ‘all blacks in the same bag,’ Fanon asserted the principle of individuality. 4 

There are other points of Sekyi-Otu’s work with which it is well worth serious engagement for those who are inclined to use the decolonising trope. This is particularly so given that part of what motivates the well-meaning among our decolonisers is to free the colonised from the continuing (as far as they are con- cerned) effects of colonialism. 

My concern is that by shutting the door to the possibility of learning from our conquerors, the ideas of some of our most profound thinkers, including Senghor, are cut off from the coming generations.

In its preoccupation with exposing slights, cataloguing wrongs and bringing to book colonialists, decolonisation2 has descended into vitriol and name-calling. For contemporary thinkers like Tsenay Serequeberhan and John Ayotunde Isola Bewaji, any colonised people or their intellectuals who find anything of value in the ways of their colonisers remain locked in a colonial men- tality. Coming to this realisation has enabled me to see why proponents of decolonisation2 do not argue with those of us who continue to insist on the continuing relevance of modernity’s tenets to Africa’s situation today. It explains their almost primal hostility to significant philosophers like Léopold Sédar Senghor, and their almost complete avoidance of other African thinkers who embrace modernity and seek to remake their societies in its image. Given that, as I have continuously pointed out in this book, our decolonisers are convinced that there is no distinction between colonialism and modernity, it is no surprise that their project is defined by negativity. For Serequeberhan, Africans like Senghor, who liken the course of colonialism in Africa to the unfolding of History in a Hegelian sense, are a problem. Serequeberhan cites the following passage from Senghor’s writ- ings as proof of this sin: 

When placed ... in context, colonization will appear to us as a neces- sary evil, a historical necessity whence good will emerge, but on the sole condition that we, the colonized of yesterday, become conscious and that we will it. Slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and colonialism are the successive parturitions of History, painful like all parturitions. With the difference that here the child suffers more than the mother. That does not matter. If we are fully conscious of the scope of the Advent, we shall ... be more attentive to contributions than defects, to possibilities of rebirth rather than to death and destruc- tion. Without ... European depredations, no doubt ... Negro Africans would by now have created more ripe and more succulent fruits. I doubt that they would have caught up so soon with the advances caused in Europe by the Renaissance. The evil of coloniza- tion is less these ruptures than that we were deprived of the free- dom to choose those European contributions most appropriate to our spirit. 5 

Here is Serequeberhan’s take on the passage: 

What speaks in and through Senghor is the stern educational-cul- tural formation of the colonial period, whose destructive effects are here presented, by a brilliant pupil, as the conditions of the possibil- ity for future beneficial effects—provided that ‘we, the colonized of yesterday, become conscious’ that to secure ‘the advances caused in Europe by the Renaissance,’ such ‘death and destruction’ was neces- sary. If only that were the case! 6 

I should point out that before quoting the passage from Senghor, Serequeberhan had insisted the former was an exam- ple of 

the formerly colonized, who have internalized the colonial model of human existence and history, into permanent supplementary appendages of the West. Such persons, grounded not in an indige- nous history or tradition but in the vestiges of imperial Europe, have as the yardstick of their existence an exteriority that has to be constantly emulated. ... Existence for such persons is an ongoing process of self-nullification. Like Kafka’s ape, biological life is sustained by the never-ending nullification of its indigenous ethical- historical ground. 7 

Serequeberhan then segued into how Senghor was an exem- plar of this parody. 8 This is not the place to get into a full discussion of Serequeberhan’s criticisms of Senghor and others who take similar positions to his. It suffices to say that as scholars, we know that there are alternative readings of this passage. It says more about Serequeberhan that he makes no attempt to nuance his assessment of one of the most complex thinkers of the 20th century. 

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò; Image credit:
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò; Image credit:

The position articulated by Senghor was not peculiar to him, nor was it ever intended by him to justify colonial pillage. His position as regards what the colonised ought to do in the after- math of colonialism corresponds to my call to take the agency of the colonised seriously and to pay attention to what they do with the legacy of colonisation. The italicised section of Senghor’s passage speaks to the will of the colonised in wringing some good out of the tragedy of colonisation. And, far from expressing the opinion that colonisation was good because it was designed to lead Africans to progress, Senghor’s point was that even if colonisation had done that, it still would have fallen short of the ideal by having ‘deprived the colonized of the freedom to choose those European contributions most appropriate to our spirit’. Additionally, because the protagonists of the decolonisation dis- course do not pay attention to debates among Africa’s thinkers unless they are to their ideological liking, Wole Soyinka’s own analysis of Senghor’s humanism has largely gone ignored. Soyinka provides a scholarly and sophisticated response to Senghor in his analysis of the latter’s poem, ‘A Prayer for Peace’. 9 Finally, as those who seriously consider the work of African thinkers know, Senghor’s orientation is very similar to the model of ‘Providential Determinism’ promoted by many returnees from the Americas, who interpreted theirs and their ancestors’ enslavement as God’s way of bringing them to the light of ‘Civilisation’ (Christianity), which they were then duty-bound to take back to heathen Africa to free their people from backwardness. Again, we do not have to share their perspective but, I argue, good scholarship requires us to debate with its proponents. When prominent intellectuals present one-dimensional interpretations of complex thinkers, they foreclose interest from other scholars who, for whatever reason, follow their lead. 

Having apparently shown Senghor to be an example of ‘Kafka’s ape’, Serequeberhan proceeded to use Julius Nyerere to counter what he takes to be Senghor’s lauding of colonialism, citing Nyerere’s damning balance sheet of how colonialism ill- served colonies like Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and the Congo. He then goes on to tie colonialism to the ‘ultimate source and authorization—its metaphysical anchoring-stones—in the thinking of the icons of the modern tradition of European philosophy. The great minds of this tradition—including Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Marx—all had access to, and utilized, this “storehouse of lurid images”’.10 This is how he links colonialism and modernity. You cannot have one with- out the other, on this reading. 

Coming to this realisation has enabled me to see why proponents of decolonisation2 do not argue with those of us who continue to insist on the continuing relevance of modernity’s tenets to Africa’s situation today. It explains their almost primal hostility to significant philosophers like Léopold Sédar Senghor, and their almost complete avoidance of other African thinkers who embrace modernity and seek to remake their societies in its image.

Another of our preeminent philosophers, John Ayotunde Isola Bewaji, has an even more frightening warning to the colo- nised to steer clear of, in his words, ‘Western modernity’. He argues that his Yorùbá people and culture do not need and cannot draw any lessons from modernity, because ‘modernity had existed in Yorubaland before the contract theorists who were mainly motivated by greed, private property and oppres- sion of the poor devised the theories of governance based on the worst elements in the depraved human’. It gets worse because, according to Bewaji, modernity’s base in the ‘worst elements in the depraved human’ explains its emphasis on abso- lute rights. He writes: 

Let me use a stark example, earlier hinted at, that I find most appo- site here. Part of what constitutes Western modernity and European civilization is the substitution of domesticated animals and pets for the friendship and sharing of space with other human beings for love, affection, intimacy and pleasure because, with modernity and the inordinate claiming of absolute rights against the other equally self-centered and hedonistically inclined persons, it imposes the impossible situation on Western humanity where each human becomes an unnecessary encumbrance on the other. This then sup- poses that animals are better companions than siblings, off-springs, parents, relatives—especially when they reach a certain age, because each person must covet their space, protect it, and ensure that it is not shared by anything that has the capacity to talk back at one, unless invited and with time limit for departure. Two consequences flow from this: while on the one hand there is now a reduction in the potential for incest, there is the pervasive, though unquantified upswing in bestiality; while on the other hand, we find the tolerance level of other humans to have reduced, because we find it very diffi- cult to communicate effectively with each other, as the pets though they may suspect what we are saying to them, could not respond back to further aggravate our pleasure. 11 

Among two of our top contemporary philosophers, for whom modernity and colonialism are two sides of the same bad coin, decolonising cannot be a positive project. The concern of the decolonisation discourse is to ferret out the continuing influences of modernity and colonialism in our practical and intellectual lives. Serequeberhan captures it succinctly: ‘This is our contem- porary inheritance. How then do we purge the colonial residue that still controls—from within—the actuality of the present?’12 I read this as an affirmation of the continuing presence of colo- nialism in our lives. And I do not see any sign here of Wiredu’s conception of decolonisation, which asks us to critically pick apart whatever idea or practice we might like to embrace, whether from our own inheritance or another’s. For Serequeberhan, what he calls the ‘critical-negative project’ 

is a crucial component of intellectual decolonization. For in spite of the fact that colonialism has ended, its cultural and intellectual resi- due still endures and is utilized to perpetuate the political-economic submission of the formerly colonized. Intellectual ‘housecleaning’ is thus an indispensable supplement necessary for the completion of our political self-liberation. Just as the political and armed struggle ended the de facto actuality of colonialism, the critical-negative pro- ject of African philosophy has to challenge and undo the de jure philosophic underpinnings that justified this now defunct actuality and still today sanction Western hegemony. And this, by extension, is applicable grosso modo, to all intellectual work in Africa. 13 

I know better now why many who deploy the trope never bother to respond to the arguments of those of us who find something worthy of appropriation in our colonisers’ repertoire of ideas. If our colleagues do indeed believe the ideas I described, on what basis could one expect them to engage with those who embrace this wrong, or even evil? On my part, I would not know how to persuade them that my position makes sense. As we say in Yorùbá, the sky is big enough for all birds to fly with- out touching wings. My concern is that by shutting the door to the possibility of learning from our conquerors, the ideas of some of our most profound thinkers, including Senghor, are cut off from the coming generations. Many are therefore mis- directed into what I shall identify as atavism by following the injunction that our thinking, to be authentic and liberatory, must forever be wary of continuing colonialism or modernity- inspired ideas and formulations. 

My goal in this work is to offer an alternative path which takes the ideas of African thinkers seriously, regardless of how and where they are sourced. By doing so, I seek to help create the much-needed, but sorely lacking, critical engagements with the originality, complexity and sheer variety of African thinkers and their ideas. When this is done, as we saw with Fanon and Cabral in the previous chapters, we find that their thinking is multi-dimensional; sophisticated; and, quite often, evolves throughout their lives. For example, even as Nyerere condemned colonialism, he did not therefore shun liberal representative democracy and the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill who inspired him. This was a commitment that Nyerere shared even while he presided over a one-party state, and which he never abandoned till he died. Nor did his justified hatred of colonialism make him give up his cherished Catholic faith or his love of William Shakespeare, which led him to translate Julius Caesar and Macbeth into Swahili as part of his contribution to the development of culture in his country and the world at large.

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