The idea of Africa and the legacy of Afrocentrism

The idea of Africa and the legacy of Afrocentrism

At the core of the study of African Cultural Studies is the search for a definition of “Africa” that is not limited to a description of its geographical boundaries. Scholars of Africa have wrestled with this idea of Africa for centuries, but the debate in contemporary times is steeped in other historically complex ideas such as Black, blackness, race, and racism. These ideas together with the concept of language form the core themes of the works I analyze in this essay (and perhaps African Cultural Studies in general.) The late Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, is one of the foremost scholars who interrogated the idea of Africa and sought to define the continent through its encounter with disparate foreigners. Mazrui’s essay, the Reinvention of Africa, which is a celebration of Edward Said and Valentine Mudimbe, scholars who have attempted to articulate or redefine Africa, captures Africa’s encounter with the world. Mazrui remarks that one of the continent’s greatest tragedy, colonialism, is ironically the event that gave Africa its identity. The implication here is that colonialism birthed Africa. In other words, before the Berlin Conference of 1884 which apportioned Africa to European powers, nation-states, as we know them, did not exist in Africa. Various communities lived side by side with their different traditions but did not constitute nation-states.

Mazrui’s article reviews work of Edward Said and Mudimbe who he considers as whistleblowers against ideologies of Otherness. Mazrui’s discussion situates these scholars in a click of other Africans who have attempted to engage Eurocentric definitions of Africa. His work, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, sits well with these whistleblowers as it advances an argument that seeks to articulate the various forces that have defined Africa. The crux of his argument is that Africa is a relation — a product of interactions with other civilizations. Some of these interactions have led to Afrocentric systems of production of knowledge, which Mazrui refers as “anti-racist racism” while others have led to “anti-alterity Otherness or anti-Other Otherness” (Mazrui, 69). My essay locates most of these ideas in the broader debate about Afrocentrism.

Olaniyan (1993) traces the genealogy of Afrocentrism to pan-Africanism, negritude, decolonization movements in Africa, and the Black Power movement. He defines Afrocentrism as a scholarly movement “for the reformation of the consciousness of blacks perceived to be hamstrung by centuries of racists European thinking, teaching, and general ideas” (94). He further elaborates that “Afrocentrism is, strictly speaking, a struggle against subjection. And since subjection and subjectivity are negotiated primarily within the terrain of culture, Afrocentrism is thus largely a cultural struggle, an ideological struggle whose end is mental decolonization, or an escape to sanity” (94). Therefore, the task of Afrocentrism is to deconstruct and reconstitute Eurocentric archive of ideological racism.

Negritude as articulated by Senghor and Aime Césaire was an attempt to examine European thought about Africa to reveal lies and biases and then to present Africa in what he perceived as its truest sense. They wanted to affirm the value of their blackness, their African culture, heritage, and identity. Senghor defined negritude as the sum of all cultural values of the black world. Like Cabral and Fanon who located culture as a weapon of liberation, Senghor presents negritude “as a weapon and instrument of liberation” and sets it up as the philosophy of humanism for the twentieth century (196). His claim rests on the fundamental principle that every culture has its distinctive way of life and Africa is no exception. Here, Senghor seems to affirm a quintessential principle in negritude that the people who identify or are identified as Africans conceive their life differently and antithetically to the European way of life. This is somehow accurate to the extent that “difference” refers to the lived experience. However, Senghor’s argument hinges on the ontological difference as opposed to the difference in lived experience. What unsettles me about Senghor claim is the idea of Africa as a monolithic culture that is diametrically opposed to European culture. This proclivity to universalize the particular is perhaps the weak link in negritude and Afrocentrism in general.

Senghor’s project is not without its merits, the idea of promoting African culture (even in the absence of such a monolithic culture) is noble and justifiable, but his failure lies on his epistemology than on his intentions. The brand of negritude advanced by Senghor and Césaire reads more like an Afrocentric metanarrative that is, in the long-term, fundamentally antithetical to its professed goals. In other words, Senghor presents negritude as the ultimate twentieth-century philosophy of humanism but struggles to account how its exclusionary metanarrative falls within a ‘modernity’ that is different from the European modernity that he is contesting. It is no surprise then that Connell (2007) lumps negritude with other African ethnophilosophies, which have been aptly dismissed by various scholars for their tendency to portray African traditions as static in a way that one can dive in and retrieve “unchanging worldview” (102).

Senghor is not alone in advancing an epistemology that is steeped in Afrocentrism. Chinweizu, in his 1973 essay, Prodigals, Come Home, advances his ideology of African literature, but like Senghor, Chinweizu does not bother to define either Africa or literature. Instead, he descends into a diatribe that pits most of Anglophone writers such as Soyinka who he presents as a sell-out to the European tradition of producing literature, against writers such as Okot p ‘Bitek, D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, and Okigbo, who are supposedly practicing what he, Chinweizu affirms as African literature. Chinweizu’s argument is not new, it has its origin in the 1962 Makerere Conference of African Writers of English expression, and it is closely tied to the issue of language and literature (which I will discuss later in this essay).

The gist of Chinweizu’s argument goes something like this: There is African literature, and we can easily identify it because it is (must be) different from European literature. Of course, this may appear as a simplistic interpretation of Chinweizu’s project, but it seems to me that his whole thesis hinges on the fact that African literature cannot have a relationship with European literature. Here, Chinweizu seems to brush aside the centrality of what Mary Pratt calls “contact zones” in African literature. To assume that the “social spaces where disparate cultures met, clashed, and grappled with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination — like colonialism, slavery or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today” (Pratt, 1992:4) do not have influence on the form and content of literature produced in Africa or about Africa is to err in judgement. It seems to me that the challenge for Chinweizu and Senghor is their failure to reconcile the fact that Africa’s colonial legacy was tied with European modernity, and that African cultural production cannot ignore this legacy. Therefore, African literature, whatever definition this might take, must be located in that space where people who were historically separated and inhabited different geographical locations in what we now call Africa and Europe, interacted and formed relations that continue to shape their lived experiences.

The concept of “old African culture” is problematic for any writer who may want to follow Chinweizu’s counsel. Since Chinweizu does not provide a path for discovering or retrieving this culture, many who may attempt to follow him risk invoking European neo-tradition invented and passed to Africans as authentic African tradition (Hobsbawm and Rangers, 1983: 236). Connell (2007), like Pratt (1992) points out that local knowledge or at least the knowledge we have come to regard as local is created “through the clash of local and universal knowledge” (Diawara, 2000 cited in Connell 2007: 105). This underscores the need for African scholars to consider both the center and the periphery in their processes of generating knowledge. Therefore, to recline to cultural nationalism as Chinweizu and Senghor have done is to shun other traditions that have defined and continue to shape the lives of people who identify as Africans.

Language and the Development of National Culture

Chinweizu’s comment that “the mark of un-Africanness is not simply language…” (Olaniyan and Quayson 2007: 220) leads us to the consideration of language in African cultural production. Since literature in many ways epitomize a people’s culture and must be captured and shared in a language, it elevates language into a sui generis weapon for literary and cultural discourse. I want to consider the centrality of language through the discussion of Fanon, Cabral, and Adejunmobi’ s works. Although the works I focus on here do not cover Fanon and Cabral’s view on language, they construe culture as the core of a people’s existence. It follows then that to obliterate a culture is to remove from existence a people’s way of life. Similarly, to dominate culture is to dominate a people and their way of life.

  Fanon and Cabral’s works seem to concur on the nature of African revolution and the fundamental significance of national culture in liberating the masses of African people, but they differ on emphasis perhaps because they wrote at different times and were preoccupied with slightly different concerns (Blackey, 1974).  Fanon wrote at the height of national liberation struggles in Africa – when most countries had just gained independence and were trying to chart a course independent of their colonizers. His was, therefore, a prophetic warning on some of the pitfalls of anchoring a national culture on unexamined and romanticized past.  Cabral, although there is no evidence that he was familiar with Fanon’s ideas, seems to advance them through refashioning culture as a weapon and strategy for liberation for people who were still under the Portuguese dominion.

Cabral was an organizer and he, therefore, paid close attention to the practicalities of conducting a revolution. His iteration of culture fits into this mode. While this is important, I am more interested in Fanon especially to the extent that he attempts to articulate the nature and formation of national culture and literature. Fanon was cognizant of the challenges awaiting the newly independent countries. He warned that the evils of colonialism — which involved mangling people’s cultures, radical inequality, ethnic stereotyping and conflicts — will always lurk in the consciousness of Africans, tempting them to start searching for a sublime past and inhabit it instead of utilizing the past to open possibilities for a better future. Mazrui, consistent with Fanon, pointed out in his essay, Reinvention of Africa, that it’s colonialism that created or led to the creation of new identities among the people who now identify as Africans. The Berlin Conference of 1884 mapped the geographical continent of African and created nations with national borders.  Finding themselves into a physical milieu dominated by Europe, disparate cultures joined hands and fought for their independence, and it is this struggle that truly led to the creation of new cultures (national cultures) in the nation-states. Therefore, the nation-states are marriages of convenience for many Africans who live under them. It follows then that this kind of nations cannot ride on the wheels of Africa’s past. Their survival, development, and rejuvenation depend on how they interpret their mission and plan to fulfill it (Fanon, 1963:206).

National literature is the perfect terrain for navigating the intricacies of a developing nation, and in Africa, the process of developing national literature has often been confined to the discourse about language. Thus, it is common for scholars to define national literature based on the language used. But what is national literature? Fanon delineates three phases in the making of national literature beginning with the phase when the “native” writes in the tradition of the colonial who has provided him with education.  In the second phase, Fanon describes the “native” as unsettled because his colonial education puts him outside the lived experience of his people. Thus, his writings become an exercise in narrating memory since he can only tell the story as one who is remembering. He reinterprets events through his colonially acquired vocabulary. This stage culminates in the third phase where the “native” becomes one with his people. Here, the “native” becomes a revolutionary with a mission to awaken his people by writing revolutionary literature, and according to Fanon, “a national literature.” Of interest here is the fact that national literature is no longer targeted at the oppressor, it is rather intended for the native’s people. This last sentence underscores the centrality of language to a national literature.

It seems that Fanon’s idea of national literature is intrinsically linked with the notion of a nation-state with a language that speaks to all people. However, this is not how some writers and scholars articulate this issue. For instance, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose writing trajectory, in my view, fits Fanon’s three phases of producing national literature, writes in Gikuyu, which is not a national language in Kenya. Ngugi believes that African national literature must be written in African indigenous languages. However, I should note that Ngugi has translated all his works to English and others to Swahili, languages that are considered lingua franca in Kenya. So, then does Ngugi produce national literature because he first writes in an indigenous language or because his works are translated into languages that are accessible by the majority if not all Kenyans? Does this question really matter?

Adejunmobi book, Vernacular Palaver responds to the challenge of creating national culture and literature in a language that is not a lingua franca.  Adejunmobi (2004:21) points out that it’s the needs of a nation-state that determines the language or literary writing and that those who like Ngugi who write in a language other than a lingua franca or the colonial language are not addressing a nation. Therefore, their literature is not national. However, it appears that literature that originally speaks to an ethnic group can become accessible to a whole nation through translation into a national lingua franca that speaks to all people (and that is how Ngugi’s works have become national literature in Kenya).


This essay has discussed related themes under the banner of Afrocentrism, a concept that traces its genealogy to pan-Africanism, negritude, decolonization movements in Africa, and the Black Power movement. I sought to highlight gaps in the framing of the concepts of negritude, national culture and literature, and the role of language in the nation-state. My main point is that African culture (the sum all cultures in the geographical entity called Africa) is always under constant change, and it must still speak to people’s lived experiences.

My argument is by no means a novel idea, as it has been a central debate among scholars who have revealed inconsistencies within Afrocentrism, and have sought to advance new epistemologies or ideologies that can represent the lived experience of people who identify as Africans.  Nevertheless, my essay has brought these disparate arguments together and articulated them from a perspective of one who was born in an era when different nations seem to be intrinsically linked by forces of capitalism and neoliberalism.

My point is that Africa is in the world and the world shapes its experience, and it is in turn shaped by it. Therefore, a theory of framework that can best articulate this reality is one that pays attention to Africa’s past as a launch pad for future opportunities as opposed to hanging onto it for its sake. More importantly, that theory must always locate Africa in the world. In a way, Achille Mbembe’s book, Critique of Black Reason, though a treatise on Black reason over the centuries, culminates into an exposition of a universal community. Mbembe envisions this world as one in which all people live in harmony.


Adejunmobi, M (2004). Vernacular Palaver: Imaginations of the Local and Non-native Languages in West Africa. Toronto: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Mbembe, A (2017). Critique of Black Reason. Durham: Duke University Press.

Connell, R (2007). Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mazrui, A (2005). The Re-Invention of Africa, Research in African Literature, 36(3), pp. 68-82.

Olaniyan, T (1995). Afrocentrism. Social Dynamics, 2(21), pp. 91-105.

Pratt, M (1992). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.

Thoughts on Recent Trends in Book Publishing in Africa

Thoughts on Recent Trends in Book Publishing in Africa

The just-concluded 21st Nairobi International Book Fair allows us to reflect on the trends in book publishing in Africa. In a way, international book fairs are a microcosm of the state of publishing in the continent. At the Nairobi International Book Fair, many publishers showcased school textbooks and a few creative or trade books. Save for a few university presses that had tertiary books, it appears that local publishers are not keen on producing knowledge for higher education or for general reading.

In the early 1990s, Philip Altbach argued in his essay, Perspectives on Publishing in Africa, that books were fundamentally significant to the development of African countries.  Altbach pointed out that developing local publishing houses will allow African countries to not only create an infrastructure for intellectual culture but also resolve the challenge of sustaining an intellectual life with returns from sharing ideas. His argument underscores the fact that publishing is perhaps the best platform for creating a livelihood for the many Africans who work with ideas.

Altbach wrote his essay in the wake of multiparty democracy campaigns in most of Sub-saharan Africa. He envisioned that in the absence of credible media houses and constant government censorship, publishing houses were well suited to upholding free expression.

Though Altbach was cognizant of the neoliberal forces that privileged international publishing houses to the local ones, he was optimistic that African countries could still build and develop their own knowledge production infrastructure.  In addition to South Africa, which had a thriving publishing industry, he singled out Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as countries that had made significant progress in developing local publishing industries. He further observed that Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire could build a thriving publishing culture.

Although there are some research and a lot of policy reports that explore ways of developing new reading publics in Africa, most of these studies are either written from a neoliberal perspective that privileges books as commercial entities and authors as self-entrepreneurs or from a western perspective of knowledge production. While there is nothing wrong with publishers getting returns on their investments or authors earning a livelihood from their works, it is troubling when publishers limit themselves to producing school textbooks for basic education because they are more likely to be bought by parents or governments.

In my view, publishers who rely on government tenders undermine their ability to shape a reading public. Instead of producing books that engage society and issues that affect it, these publishers wonder in corridors of hotel conferences conducting workshops on how to write for governments. They are forever chasing government tenders and have no time to innovate or shape the educational agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the act of gaining government tenders, after all, are governments not the major funders of basic education in most African countries?  What is wrong are the models of publishing that are specifically geared in meeting government book demand.

If publishing houses are to develop into meaningful knowledge producing platforms, they must redefine their business models. They need to think beyond producing for basic education because most research is conducted at the university level. Since it is already established that few governments are keen on promoting local publishing industries beyond buying textbooks, publishers must devise ways of getting ahead of governments in shaping the reading public. Investments made in tertiary, trade books, and creative books publishing while may seem unprofitable in the short-term, have the potential of shaping the public psyche and developing new reading publics in the long-term, a situation that would be both beneficial to the business interests of publishers and authors, and the development of a nation.

Most publishers are quick to complain that the public does not read books, and therefore, they cannot waste their resources publishing books that will never sell. However, the reality is that many readers face challenges accessing books from the continent because of poor distribution. Many publishers are stuck with orthodox means of publishing that do not match the reading habits of the modern world. Whereas most of the world is doubling their efforts to have books on multiple platforms, most publishers in Africa restrict themselves to print publishing. It appears then that what is mostly construed as a lack of market for books can be addressed by developing better distribution channels.

In most African countries, publishing industries enjoy low entry requirement and have the privilege of autonomy and lack of constant government interference or regulation. This is the kind of freedom that enables innovation and allows creativity to flourish. It then seems to me that there are many opportunities for publishers to build the much-needed infrastructure for knowledge production in Africa. But if publishers participate in promoting neoliberalism, they risk being its first casualty.

Africa and Neoliberalism (Part IV): Globalizing Africa?

Africa and Neoliberalism (Part IV): Globalizing Africa?

Part IV continues with the critical reflection on Ferguson’s Global Shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order

Is Africa part of the convergence that is so-called globalism?

Although globalization is often presented as one-size fit all jacket that accommodates all countries in the world, Africa seems to resist this description of globalization. The continent does not fit into any of the compartments that define globalization. As Ferguson points out “it seems, when it comes to globalization, Africa just doesn’t fit the storyline. It is an inconvenient case” (26). He further notes that laws that anchor capitalism in the rest of the world are antithetical to African communal way of life as most of Africa define property and means of capital differently.  Following this conceptualization, some scholars have referred to Africa as a “global ghetto, wasted lives, the black hole of the information society” among other derogatory terms, without considering the particularity of countries in Africa. But as Ferguson argues, labels scholars imprint on Africa depend on individual scholars’ point of view and do not necessarily represent the totality of the experience of Africans.

Ferguson singles out three elements of globalization and discusses them in the context of Africa. They include: (1) Culture, (2) flows of capital, and (3) governance and the nation-state.  Like Walter Mignolo in Local History/Global Designs, he points out that what we consider as global is basically Euro-American local history imposed on the rest of the world. He explores a few definitions of modernity (a word he seems to use interchangeably with globalization) such as Arjun Appadurai’s notion of alternative modernity for Africa, which one might regard as obnoxious considering that modernity cannot be articulated without factoring colonial legacy. So, why will Arjun propose alternative modernity for a continent that has always been part of Euro-American modernity, albeit on the receiving end? Arjun’s concept of modernity is limited. If one examines modernity and the whole colonial project as two sides of the same coin, evidence will emerge that indeed Africa has always been an integral part of modernity.

Ferguson leans to this generally acceptable conceptualization of modernity that looks at Africa as a constitutive element of modernity. Of course, such an inclusive definition does not denote singularity of experience. On the contrary, it shows how Euro-America point of view of modernity is defined in positive terms while the African one points to everything that is wrong with the continent. Thus, the folly of one, enabled the other to succeed.

Many confuse the issue of “political-economic inequality” in Africa with the concept of development. They divorce inequality from its global consideration and discusses it at the nation-state level as “development” issue. This articulation is wrong as it ignores the historical contribution of Africa into what we now call modernity or globalization. Furthermore, scholars who look at global capital flows often ignore Africa. Obviously, to them, Africa is not part of the global capital equation. The few who look at global flows in Africa, constrain themselves to capital related to mineral-resource extraction. Ferguson points out that this capital does not indeed cover the globe, it moves from one point to another, that is, it bypasses national economies. Thus, does not benefit citizens. He says, “capital is globe-hopping, not globe-covering.”

In looking at governance and the nation-state, Ferguson points out that governments have become nongovernmental while civil society has now taken some functions of governments. He calls this concept “transnational governmentality” because some of these civil societies have international connections that breach boundaries of nation-states.

I like Ferguson’s critique that seeks to draw attention to flaws in Anthropological methodologies that lump Africa at per with western worlds, and then proceed to castigate it from a Eurocentric perspective.

Paradoxes of sovereignty and independence: “real” and “pseudo-” nation-states and the depoliticization of poverty

Our understanding of global inequality and cultural differences should be examined from a global social, economic, and political perspective as opposed to the localization of such.  In this chapter Ferguson describes development in Lesotho, a nation-state recognized all over the world as a sovereign country, and Transkei, a Bantustan region, one of the many the Apartheid government of South Africa created to lump Blacks into. The logic of creating and making “autonomous” regions such as Transkei was to have a pool of labor for White South Africa while at the same time purporting to have granted freedom and independence to Blacks. As bad as this looks, Transkei was economically better than Lesotho, which is a sovereign country. Its sovereignty is a sham as its economy was still dominated and controlled by South Africa. But being a nation-state, Lesotho was blamed for its poor economy. The issue was no longer economic inequality but rather “development.” Similarly, granting regions autonomy/independence, meant that the Apartheid government could spin the narrative of economic inequality as a development issue as opposed to a political issue.

As Ferguson argues, one cannot depoliticize poverty as it is constitutive of the political challenges facing African countries. Sovereignty in Africa is a mockery. “None of the impoverished nations of the world are truly “sovereign” or “independent,” and nowhere do we find a true “national economy.” All these underscore the fact that there can be no local culture that is divorced from the wider and encompassing sphere within which they are conceptualized and articulated. Therefore, Ferguson concludes that anthropologists should reconsider ideas of “the field” as a unique site of culture.

De-moralizing economies: African socialism, scientific capitalism, and the moral politics of structural adjustment

Production of wealth and social relations are intrinsically linked and have their foundation in what the society considers “moral.” Most post-independence African governments embraced socialism of some sort. Nyerere, Nkrumah, Kaunda, Toure, and Kenyatta among others, advanced this idea as organically evolving from practices of African societies. At its foundation, socialism has the society as its nucleus. Capitalism, on the other hand, supports individual ownership of property and means of production.

Fergusson talks about the World Bank and IMF policies imposed on African countries without any empirical support apart from the fact that they were different from socialism and termed right. Their success was pegged on their difference with African policies. As history shows, these economic policies multiplied poverty in Africa and widened economic inequality. The blame went to African governments and their leaders. Since they are considered nation-states, the issue was depoliticized, chopped off from Washington and discuss from an African point of view. But as Fergusson notes, institutions such as the World Bank or IMF cannot offer viable solutions to African economies.

Therefore, any institution serving Africa must focus on what Africans consider as morally appropriate. Some policies, regardless of their viability or potential for success, will be opposed on the grounds that they do not augur well with what Africans consider morally acceptable. For instance, policies that allow a few people to amass wealth more than others might be tolerated if they can guarantee the minimum acceptable quality of life to the rest of the population. Ferguson’s discussion of Zambian economy illustrates this point clearly. People in Zambia do not care so much about what policy the government is implementing – be it humanism or neoliberalism – if the government feeds them.

Going Back to the Basics?

Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.

Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.

Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.

I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies.  It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.

Neoliberalism (Part III): Tracing Neoliberalism in Africa

Neoliberalism (Part III): Tracing Neoliberalism in Africa

Camaroff, L and Camaroff, J (2000). Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Durham, Duke University Press.

Cooper, F (2014). Africa in the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Mbembe, A (2001). On Postcolony. Los Angeles California: University of California Press.


Cooper (2014) and Mbembe (2001) traces Africa’s economic history before and after colonialism while Camaroff and Camaroff explore the development of capitalism and neoliberalism in the 20th century. They describe how neoliberalism has catapulted some practices such as gambling that was previously not considered economic practices per se into full-fledged economic entities. The change in what they call “moral valence of gambling” reflects many such changes in the United States of America and across the world, whereby a thing or practice that was scorned upon or prohibited because of its destructive potential, is legalized and permitted into the public sphere. Examples include the legalization of certain drugs such as marijuana, coal mining, and offshore drilling among others. The core argument for legalizing these practices is their economic potential — to create more jobs and to generate the much-needed tax revenue.

Taking gambling as a departure point, Camaroff and Camaroff explore the emerging influence of stock markets in the world economy. They point out that free flow of capital contests and challenges sovereignty of nations as capital can no longer be confined within boundaries of nation states. They give examples of transnational business owners such as Robert Murdoch who was born in Australia and founded his media empire there but has expanded into England, US and other world markets. Camaroff and Camaroff further show that production no longer determines capital. Consumption does. This redefines the concept of labor in the sense that companies can now base different sections of production and assembly in countries where labor is cheap and taxation friendly. For instance, Apple can design their products from California but assemble them in China where there are cheap labor and abundance of raw materials. Furthermore, they can keep their finance department in Ireland, which offers them huge tax credits. The point here is that they do not have to support U.S. local industries where organized and perhaps unionized labor is likely to exist.  Camaroff and Camaroff thus underscore the idea that under neoliberalism capital has wrenched itself free from labor.

Running the world economy like a casino has exposed countries to adverse economic disasters such as the 2007 and 2008 economic recession.  Although Speck (2013) argued that neoliberalism is not solely responsible for world economic disasters, one can make a claim that its contribution trumps other causes. As Camaroff and Camaroff note, a marker of neoliberal capital is its inherent contradiction, particularly the dichotomy between neoliberal economic theory and its practicalities. This contradiction is more likely to lead to disastrous economic outcomes. For instance, neoliberalism promises individual freedom but locks many people out of means of production or sustainability. Moreover, it creates opportunities without giving resources for people to access these opportunities. Only those who are well positioned, those in the upper class can utilize the opportunities. Thus, widening inequalities in societies as well as extending ideas of exclusion that often exacerbate violence, crime, and disorder between those at the peripheries and those within the system (Camaroff and Camaroff, 2000).

Concepts of capital, capitalism, and neoliberalism are neither alien in Africa nor late entrants. In fact, capitalism is entrenched in the African past, and as Cooper points out, it has been slowly “coming.” Furthermore, slavery and colonialism are not departing point for the African economy, or its entry into the world economy as African suppliers of slaves were not necessarily part of the global economy that this kind of trade created. In fact, they did not even know what happened to the slaves once they crossed the Atlantic. Cooper contends that Africa had its own economy that catered for their needs and adapted to its ecosystems, but slavery and colonialism disrupted this economy. For instance, colonialism abolished the concept of communal land ownership that defined land in a way that benefited all communities – with no one having exclusive rights to land ownership. They introduced individual land ownership, a practice that continued through colonialism and persists in the current economies of most African countries.

The British used the so-called concept of primitive accumulation and misappropriated African lands on the pretext that it was underutilized affected many communities as it deprived them their main means of capital production. Cooper presents the successful independent farming of Cocoa farming in Gold Coast to show the inherent ability of Africans to engage in farming and trade without shepherding from colonialists. This implies the civilizing mission that was the excuse of colonialism was a farce. The British were just interested in acquiring raw materials for their industries and free and/or cheap labor to exploit the materials.

Mbembe builds on the idea of governance as it was introduced by colonialism. He explores ideas of governmentality in Africa and how they have impacted governance over time. He also looks at the concept of African state-building and the idea of citizenship. He points out how the British left pre-colonial societies with forms of working governments or structures of governments intact to use the structures to rule Africans. They identified or created elites to act as their intermediaries as they sought to exploit and control capital.

Africa and Neoliberalism (Part II): Is neoliberalism the cause of contemporary social, political, and economic problems in Africa?

Although neoliberalism as a theory is Euro-American centered, its influence or practical aspects has greatly affected economies of African countries. Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) have been major conduits for promoting market fundamentalism in African countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, they formulated policies, commonly referred as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), that led to economic adjustments such as austerity and scrapping of subsidies for important sectors such as agriculture, education, and healthcare, factors that finally wrecked economies of many African countries.

As I pointed out in my introductory article, reading David Harvey’s, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Jamie Peck’s Explaining (with) Neoliberalism, and Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Bio-Politics, one learns that neoliberalism does not have a single definition because the concept cuts across multiple disciplines. But at its basic, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of social-economic, political, and cultural relations that favor market-based initiatives.  According to Harvey, originators of neoliberalism leveraged the desire for individual freedom and dignity, which is ubiquitous in western societies (but not limited to it) to drum up support for the concept. They figured out that people are more willing and likely to support policies or frameworks that warrant personal liberty and freedom to determine their own lives however they wish.

Harvey further notes that from the beginning, proponents of neoliberalism, especially those based at Chicago School (the Economics Department of the University of Chicago), were against state interventionist theories such as Keynesian. Whereas Keynesian economic theory (which was advanced by British economist John Keynes) advocated for increased government spending and lower taxes as a means for addressing economic depression, Chicago School argued that the state was not competent enough to judge market initiatives because it had limited data, and that politicians could not be trusted to be impartial in planning the economy. Moreover, economic stagflation in Europe and America was blamed on Keynesian initiatives such as fixed exchange rates, heavy government spending on social welfare, and government intervention that hindered market competition. Neoliberalists argued that there is no such thing as society. They privileged individuals and families, and thus, justified the scrapping of state enterprises or social welfare programs geared to the benefit of society (as a collective). They proposed the idea of a neo-liberal state, one that operates as super-enterprise facilitating other sectors of the economy while ensuring market competition. As Harvey notes, “the freedoms it embodies reflect the interests of private property owners, businesses, multinational corporations, and financial capital” (7).

Scholars seem to agree that the common denominator for various interpretations of liberalism is the market. However, some scholars such as Jamie Peck have gone beyond the basic definition to explore how neoliberalism tends to operate differently from one geographical region to another with varying degrees of success. Furthermore, even the historiography of the concept of neoliberalism also tends to differ from one region to another. For instance, Ordo-liberals in Germany anchored their neo-liberal ideas on “social market economy’ and advocated for the creation of a social policy that can create and determine conditions for the market, which included “universalization of the entrepreneurship form and the redefinition of law” (Lemke, 2001: 195). In other words, they conceptualized an economic-institutional structure that encompasses the law of the land and even determines the nature of the state that can be established. Chicago School went further and blurred the line between the social and economic spheres.  As Lemke (2001) notes, they “attempted to re-define the social sphere as a form of the economic domain” (197). In other words, social phenomena that were not considered in monetary or economic terms were incorporated into the economy.

In other areas neoliberalism redefined the relationship between capital and labor, that is, it introduced the concept of human capital whereby people were no longer receiving wages for performing a task but “an income from a special type of (human) capital” (Lemke, 2001: 199). In this regard, people became entrepreneurs of themselves. Thus, a person pursuing education to acquire more skills was regarded as investing in self; increasing one’s human capital.

The concept of neoliberalism has had its fair share of criticism from both the left and right critics in cultural studies, political science, economics, and other disciplines. The 2008 crash of the economy led to mass protests such as Occupy Wall Street that condemned neoliberalism as a cause of economic inequality in the US. But as Peck (2013) points out, neoliberalism is not the sole cause of contemporary social, political, and economic problems. He argues that it is one of the Others. My view is that neoliberalism as conceptualized favors certain classes of people who have taken advantage of the system and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. Some countries such as the US have taken the neoliberal idea of freedom beyond their borders through instituting and adopting foreign policies that purport to promote freedom around the world. For instance, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq was pegged on the idea that they were liberating Iraq citizens from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. They sought to achieve this through liberalization of the entire Iraq economy, that is, privatizing key public institutions and adopting market-based initiatives for all sectors of the economy. They even sought to regulate labor by prohibiting unions and unionization. All these policies have not translated into “good freedom” for the oppressed. Instead, they have widened inequality and exacerbated suffering.

Works cited:

Harvey, D (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lemke, T (2001). ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190-207.

Mamdani, M. (2007). Define and Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mantena, K (2010). Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the ends of liberal imperialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Peck, J (2013). Explaining with Neoliberalism, Territory, Politics, Governance, 1:2, 132-157.

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