The idea of decolonisation has been a fad in western discourse for the past few years. Of course, when one thinks of decolonisation, the national liberation movements that engulfed Africa and Asia in the middle of the twentieth century, demanding political self-determination and independence from European colonial domination, instantly come to mind. But in the twenty-first century, decolonisation has increasingly come to denote a primarily academic and cultural movement, in part influenced by postcolonial theory, and in part by the decolonial turn promoted by Latin American thinkers like Walter Mignolo and Ramón Grosfoguel, which takes aim at the supposed universality of “western knowledge” and its role as an instrument in the “colonial matrix of power,” which requires “epistemic de-linking,” in Mignolo’s phrase. In essence, the completion of the decolonisation struggle against western hegemony necessitates a rejection of the occidental Weltanschauung and its lingering influence among the colonised in favour of “indigenous knowledge systems.”Rhodes Must Fall, decolonise the curriculum, decolonise the museum, decolonise geography, decolonise anthropology, decolonise mathematics, decolonise the university, decolonise the garden—these are just some of the slogans that define the so-called decolonial turn.
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is an academic originally from Ibadan in Nigeria, now teaching at Cornell University. According to his new book, Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously, these ubiquitous demands that we decolonise “indicate that either ‘decolonisation’ is truly an intellectual breakthrough that ‘packs an explanatory/analytical punch like no other,’ or it has become a catch-all trope, often used to perform contemporary ‘morality’ or ‘authenticity,’” a trope that has nothing serious to contribute to intellectual thought. One can critique Eurocentric narratives, broaden one’s intellectual and cultural palate beyond the Euro-American canon and believe that African societies and cultures deserve respect and should not be slandered—without the specialised and mostly incomprehensible terminology, shrill posturing and reactionary pseudo-radicalism that define decolonial politics. Indeed, as Táíwò stresses, many Africans have already been doing this, without feeling the need to declare that they are “decolonising.”
Táíwò takes an Afrocentric perspective, focusing more on the effects and implications the decolonising discourse has in Africa than in the west. He makes his stance clear: “we should rid ourselves of decolonisation” because “it is seriously harming scholarship in and on Africa.” Not only that, he also convincingly argues that the voguish decolonial discourse—promulgated mainly by intellectuals and academics—is positively harmful to Africa. For one, the so called decolonisers “fully embrace the racialisation of consciousness,” in, for example, coding modernity as white and therefore in some intrinsic way anti-black—a position that condemns Africans to being merely “resisters or victims of modernity,” rather than critical appropriators of it. The “absolutisation of European colonialism” turns Africans into “permanent subalterns in their own history.” No wonder the subtitle of the book is “Taking African Agency Seriously”: to portray Africans as merely objects of history inevitably—whatever the scholar’s intentions—denies them their capacity to be agents of history, capable of changing their condition.
One common battleground of decolonial arguments in Africa is language. Some people are worried that the indigenous tongues of Africa will risk going almost extinct under the hegemony of colonial European languages, such as French and English. One of Táíwò’s targets is Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose book, Decolonising the Mind, popularised the argument that African authors should stop writing in “colonial” European languages and instead write in their native tongues. As evidence that Africans need to “decolonise the mind,” Thiong’o asserts that, even after independence, the colonisers’ languages, concepts and culture were still hegemonic in the postcolonial societies and that therefore colonialism never really ended—the change was, at best, superficial. Decolonisation, for Thiong’o, needs to be both purer and more concrete and extend to the cultural and intellectual spheres.
For Thiong’o, the “cultural bomb” of colonialism unsettles a people’s identity, their metaphysics and their sense of place in the world. It alienates them from their culture and puts them at odds with their customs and traditions, in favour of the coloniser’s culture. Táíwò critiques Thiong’o for tying language to identity, which he views as a flawed and romanticised way of understanding human beings. Instead, Táíwò recommends Amílcar Cabral’s instrumentalist view of language. Cabral was a revolutionary who fought against Portuguese colonialism to liberate Guinea-Bissau, but nevertheless said, “Portuguese is one of the best things that the tugas left us.” Moreover, Táíwò demonstrates that African forms of English predated direct colonialism: Christian missionaries were a key vector.
The fact that Africans write and speak English or French or take those as their national languages is often seen as proof of the unconscious mental and cultural servitude of Africans. But this, again, denigrates African agency. One of the ironies of European imperialism in Africa is that it leads to a deracination of language. English and French aren’t the exclusive property of England and France: they are world languages. Like India, Nigeria (where my own origins lie) has created its own branch of English literature, both in the homeland and the diaspora, which is read around the world, and has also created its own variant of English blended with native languages, which reflects the diversity of the nation. This is far from using the English language as a tool of white supremacist colonial hegemony. We Nigerians have claimed the English language for ourselves and refashioned it in our own way. Is this not true decolonisation?
The decolonial discourse has a reactionary ring to it because of its embrace of nativism and “atavistic retrievals and essentialist characterisations of cultures and their manifestations.” Among Táíwò’s other targets is Ghanian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu, who promotes what he calls “conceptual decolonisation,” intended to dislodge western epistemologies that still linger within African philosophical practices. As Táíwò puts it, Wiredu sees the necessity of removing a way of thinking that “was brought upon us by the historical superimposition of foreign categories of thought on African thought systems through colonialism.” What this inevitably leads to, however, is the “uncritical embrace of whatever 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).” Táíwò is clearly annoyed by the decolonial insistence that “it is illegitimate for the ex-colonised to find something worthwhile in the ideological structures of colonial life, which they not only took hold of in the fight against colonialism, but which may promise better modes of organising life and thought in its aftermath.”
For the African anti-colonial movements of the past—whether progressive, nationalist or socialist—opposition to western imperialism did not mean opposition to western ideas as such—in particular, the ideas of reason, progress, humanism and universalism that emerged from the Enlightenment. Of course, there is nothing essentially western, European or white about freedom (individual or collective), reason, democracy, the scientific method or self-determination. They are indeed universal values. “The science resulting from all human knowledge has no nationality,” observed Sékou Touré, who lead Guinea to independence: “The ridiculous disputes about the origin of such and such a discovery do not interest us since they add nothing to the value of the discovery.” This radical appropriation of so-called western ideas is not done in the service of white supremacy. On the contrary, for the western imperialists, Enlightenment principles were the exclusive property of white Europeans: their inherent universality and dialectical appropriation by the colonised against them was unsettling. As Táíwò writes, “the so-called chattel always shocked their owners by talking back and doing so in the same syntax as their supposed owners.”
Not all ideas are equal. Some are better than others. Decolonial proponents often draw upon a supposedly organic communalism that was once predominant in many traditional African societies, as a counterpoint to modern individualism. The irony of this is that, despite their desire to rid Africa of western influence, the ideas on which they base such arguments originate in western thought, and often come from western thinkers, including romantics, traditionalists and anti-modernists like Heidegger, who critiqued modernity, capitalism and the Enlightenment for uprooting traditional communities and eviscerating traditional morality and culture. In this case, modern individualism and a secular scientific worldview are clearly superior to “indigenous knowledge systems,” rooted in stultifying communalism and superstitious ancestor worship.
Against Decolonisation is a refreshing book. Táíwò is thoughtful, nuanced and yet firm in his rebuke of the common claim that past colonialism is the main reason why the African continent and its peoples continue to be held back. Much of the decolonial discourse rests on the assumption that there is “no qualitative difference between colonial and post-independence Africa” and that the problems plaguing African societies are therefore legacies of colonialism. This is a delusion. It turns colonisation into an eternal category—a form of ontology—instead of a historical one. It denies the reality, or indeed the possibility, of progress. This denigrates African political and moral agency and infantilises Africans. In this, it ironically echoes old racialist ideology. Colonialism is not the only source of underdevelopment in Africa, as the native postcolonial authoritarianisms that have plagued many African states demonstrate. “In reality,” Táíwò notes, “colonialism is neither as powerful nor as profound in its impact as our decolonisers proclaim.”
Indeed, many of the ideas and practices that fetter social progress in modern Africa are not rooted in colonialism, or at best are only tangentially related to it. The west may be a convenient scapegoat, but it is not responsible for such customs as child marriage, traditional hierarchies, caste systems and religious obscurantism. The obsession with decolonising western influence can insulate backward cultural practices from critique. It is itself evidence of mental submission to colonialism and impedes necessary indigenous criticisms of such practices: the precondition of social progress and liberation, in particular of women and sexual minorities, in Africa.
The key problem with decolonial theory is that it is a “cure-all that cures nothing.” For all its rhetorical radicalism, it doesn’t offer a positive political programme or a good critique of society. Táíwò notes that “the call to decolonise” egregiously lumps together modernity and colonialism as if they were the same thing, so that to reject colonialism you have to reject modernity. Moreover, the essentialisation of identity and the romantic notions of culture that are endemic in decolonial theory, suggest that there can be no positive cultural mixing, since “borrowings in one direction are delegitimised and in the other are labelled thefts.”
Decolonisers frequently cite Frantz Fanon and, in particular, his book The Wretched of the Earth, in support of their cause. Yet they distort his thinking by caricaturing him as a decolonial nativist, erasing the humanism and radical universalism that were crucial to his thought. “Disalienation will be for those whites and blacks who’ve refused to let themselves be locked in the substantialized tower of the past,” he writes in Black Skin, White Masks. “In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future.” The decolonisation movement, as it is presently constituted, will keep Africans trapped in the “tower of the past,” pessimistic about the present and cynical about the prospect of a better future for Africa, within the potential for modern civilisation. Táíwò has given us a sober, subtle, yet powerful reflection on true self-determination and freedom for Africans, as participants in the grand drama of world history—which will only come about through a recognition of the immense potential of modern civilisation, not a rejection of it.