Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously

This month’s Library Highlight turns the spotlight on the most recent book by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously. It may inform your thinking about the subject in time for the ASCL seminar by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò on 7 September this year!

Nigerian-born Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is currently professor of African Political Thought at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. His research focuses on Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and African Philosophy.

In his latest book, Táíwò cautions readers against the overarching application of the concept of “decolonisation” to an ever-growing range of scientific disciplines and aspects of life: “from literature, language and philosophy to sociology, psychology and medicine.”

Táíwò argues that, in many cases, using this concept is unhelpful, on several levels. According to Táíwò, it obscures African agency by focusing on the impact of the period of colonisation, just a few decades in the whole of African history. Moreover, this practice conflates “colonial” with “modern” or “foreign/ Western,” thereby preventing Africans from adapting practices or ideas supposedly and unilaterally connected to these terms. He argues that applying the concept “decolonisation” is actually a disservice to African empowerment, suffocating African intellectuals’ innovative thought.

To clarify, some excerpts from the introduction in the author’s own words:

[…] why do I then think that it may be time to discard the 'decolonisation' trope in philosophy and elsewhere ? […]  I'm now convinced of the fruitlessness of extending the scope of decolonisation beyond its original meaning - that is, of making a colony into a self-governing entity - [...] which I refer to in the book as decolonisation1. 'Decolonisation' today, however, has come to mean something entirely different: forcing an ex-colony to forswear, on pain of being forever under the yoke of colonisation, any and every cultural, political, intellectual, social and linguistic artefact, idea, process, institution and practice that retains even the slightest whiff of the colonial past. I call this decolonisation2. […] As I argue, it is decolonisation2 that has lost its way and is seriously harming scholarship in and on Africa. […] My aim in this book is more to shine a light on the omissions and blind spots of decolonisation2. I believe that addressing these areas will ultimately create a richer discourse with tighter arguments in favour of decolonisation, or with good reasons for limiting its scope, modifying its formulation or even abandoning it outright […] To be clear, I would like to see the trope abandoned in most areas, especially when it comes to making sense of phenomena in contemporary Africa. This is not because colonialism plays no role in explaining events, but because we must take care to specify in each case exactly how colonialism features in the explanation, and why a colonialism-driven explanation is better than the alternatives. […]  I make the case for discarding 'decolonisation' in discussions on African philosophy, historiography, political science, the language we should do our scholarship in, and related areas, where it has been inserted without careful thought and in a way that actually hinders understanding. […]” (pages 3–6).

In the next chapter, Táíwò analyses this divide between decolonisation1 and decolonisation2 in relation to various African thinkers’ use of the concept of decolonisation. He identifies four issues or areas where the concept is problematic: language; philosophy; taking into account historical complexity and different paths of modernity and colonialism in Africa; and the interpretation of the intellectual contributions of thinkers in ex-colonies, in particular in relation to the legacy of colonialism and modernity. He frames his discussion by using the case for “decolonising the mind,” originally made by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the writings of Kwasi Wiredu, who appealed for “conceptual decolonisation in African philosophy.”

This highlight can only offer a brief summary of the arguments in this thought-provoking book. See it as an invitation to come and read it for yourself!

Germa Seuren

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