One is never intelligent alone.
– Senufo proverb
The 4th African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) biennial conference was all about being human and (re)imagining the human from Africa. About 600 people participated, in person in Cape Town and/or virtually. The theme of decolonization was discussed in many of the 160 sessions over five days in April 2022. This article explores some of the themes that emerged in the presentations and discussions regarding decolonization, which some called merely a buzzword.
Is decolonization more than a buzzword? And if so, is it even possible to achieve decolonization? To begin the reflection, how is the concept defined? Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed, drawing on other scholars, writes that “Decolonization is rooted in dismantling colonial and imperialist systems that are built into the social, economic, political, cultural, and religious realities of colonized peoples” and “requires tremendous work and effort in addressing these injustices.” People and organizations in communities around the world are trying to understand colonial hierarchies and legacies and how to dismantle them and refashion ways of relating and organizing in society that account for mutual respect and reciprocity for one and all. However, if decolonisation is more than just talk, is it sufficient as a concept and a strategy to attain that end? Another question to keep in mind.
This article is organized in nine sections: Doing Africa; Speaking out through kangas, writing and publishing; Values, history, language, education, and culture matter; Epistemic journeys; Umoja; Exercising real power in parliament; Leveraging digital spaces; Hope for Africa as a forever incomplete project; Positionality. The non-comprehensive nature of this “coverage” of the decolonization debate at the ASAA conference makes this reflection incomplete and open to dialogue. The intergenerational conversations and queries and affirmations of Global Africa’s next generation at ASAA2022 suggest that the project of Africa, building on ancestral foundations in a spirit of conviviality and incompleteness, is very much on the move.
In a conference session exploring inclusion and exclusion, Martha Mbuvi of Tangaza University College described marrying into the Akamba community in Kenya – which made her, according to her husband’s community, a “Muki”. The term means “one who has come” and brings fresh blood and new ideas, and it can also connote stranger or outsider. The way it is used in practice can leave women with a diasporic feeling – part of the community yet not entirely.
Mbuvi mentioned how she is inspired by the work of Ghanaian scholar Mercy Amba Ewudziwa Oduyoye (born in 1934, now in her 80s) who worked “for women’s voices and concerns” to be heard. Martha goes on to declare how her own research on the term Muki among the Akamba will help bridge gaps and bring attention to ignored or uninterrogated issues, including relationships between language and power.
Such participatory research, conducted in a spirit of sisterhood and solidarity and focused on African culture is part of the decolonization process, even though Mbuvi did not describe her work as “decolonial”. As African American artist Bisa Butler, who makes life-size quilt portraits celebrating Black life, says in an interview, Black history and culture – which are a part of world history and culture – have been “concealed, deliberately erased or ignored”. The work of Martha Mbuvi and other young researchers trying to understand the nuances and complexities of everyday lived experiences and interactions in Africa will certainly shed light on African his/herstory and culture in context.
Africa has for centuries been described and characterized from outside the continent, let us say, through “fuzzy lenses”, and from within the continent by Africans who often feel compelled to use those external lenses or simply take them for granted. If we look through fuzzy lenses, won’t vision be blurred? Even with fuzzy lenses, the more the angles and perspectives, the greater the possibility of representation of silent and silenced voices. It is paramount to multiply initiatives to tell the story of Africa by listening to everyday Africans. “Ces vieux sages m’apprennent ce que n’ont pu m’apporter les docteurs en Sorbonne […] faire la science relève de la vie ordinaire.” (Those elders taught me what I could not learn from doctors of the Sorbonne […] doing science is part of everyday life). What is being done to support the Martha Mbuvis across the continent?
“Who are you that mumbles in the dark?” asked Langston Hughes in a poem. In the poem, he turns from mainstream musings about life in America to centre previously parenthesized voices, voices from the margins of society, subdued voices of oppressed and colonized peoples. Mbuvi as a researcher and knowledge producer is listening to the stories, perspectives, and experiences of those who may be mumbling in the dark. Mbuvi is “doing Africa” from an Afrocentric point of view. This is part of decoloniality. She is sensitive to power dynamics, to who is included and who is not, and is seeking more wholistic and nuanced representations of relations and people in society.
Africa has for centuries been described and characterized from outside the continent, let us say, through “fuzzy lenses”.
At the ASAA conference, South African researcher Sabelo Mcinziba stressed that “We need to do us, see us, hear us.” In an April 23 2022 Facebook post describing some of his historical research with elders in townships, Mcinziba insists that we must tell stories “that must be told because their memories will be erased while we prioritize elite history as official history.” My guess is that Martha Mbuvi does not spend most of her time thinking about whether decolonization is a buzzword or not but is getting on with her work of “doing Africa”, of telling stories that do not get told and making voices heard that otherwise get ignored. And she will be obliged to develop new tools and concepts along the way, which will contribute meaningfully to African and global knowledge production – and make us more humxn. Is that part of decolonization? I would venture to say yes.
Speaking out through kangas, writing and publishing
Pfungwa Nyamukachi spoke at the conference about how The Conversation Africa helps academics translate research findings for the public. Others discussed how women speak and are heard through songs they compose and share at the local level and through messages emblazoned on the kangas that they wear – including in efforts to resist colonization and patriarchal systems.
Esther Karin Mngodo shared about how she is disrupting patterns of knowledge production by creating a platform for women to publish in Swahili: Umbu Online Women’s Literary Magazine. Esther explained how she did not get to read in Swahili about topics of interest growing up, nor later in life, and is working to change that. She asked, “Why can’t I read about breasts or postpartum depression in Swahili?” Swahili is one of the ten most spoken languages – with 16 million speakers worldwide – and was adopted this year as an official working language of the African Union. Mngodo’s work will have decolonizing and healing effects, although she did not use those terms, because she is making space for the sharing of reflections related to concerns close to her heart and to those of others, and in a language that can express the nuances of the lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Her work of enlarging the frame of “who knows” and of “what is considered as knowledge” comes with challenges. People ask: “Why dwell so much on women’s perspectives? Why are you so angry? Why are you so angsty? You are too educated for a woman.”
But Mngodo persists. She sees her disruptor role as important and does not mind when heads turn. She said, “Writing on kangas is not enough for me. Our literature and our libraries also need to reflect what is going on in our society at large.” She asks why anyone familiar with the Tanzanian literary scene knows about Shaaban Robert (1909-1972) but may not have heard of Penina Muhanda (born in 1948, now in her 70s) who wrote her plays in Swahili. Indeed, it can be a struggle for women to write and be published and recognized, perhaps especially if they write in an African language – which Muhanda wanted to do to reach her people. So much can be lost in cultural translation to colonial languages. Future generations will hopefully be grateful to the efforts of Esther Karin Mngodo who, in the tradition of Penina Muhanda, is helping to ensure that people will be able to read about everyday life experiences in Swahili. Esther and Penina contribute to shifts in the ebbs and flows of knowledge.
Esther is full of action and agency. This contrasts with a literary character, Jonas, whose obscurity was essential to his survival. Jonas, a character in the second novel of Dinaw Mengestu, is the son of parents who emigrated to the USA from Ethiopia. Caught between cultures and unsure of himself, he is ostracized by classmates and neighbours. Ultimately, Jonas opts out of a marginal existence – of being forced into colonial frames and ignorance of his humanity. This, according to Grace Musila, Associate Professor of African Literature at the University of Witwatersrand.
When I saw in a meme on social media with the text, “Although I was born visible, I now identify as invisible. I am trans-parent. My pronouns are who/where,” and the progression of images of someone disappearing, I somehow thought of the pain and trauma of Jonas, who is not alone in the experience of feeling erased or of being in a zone of non-being. I also think of the partners of miners in Marikana, described by Asanda Benya, and their struggles for dignity.
Like Esther, Sandra Tamele, Executive Director of independent press Editora Trinta Zero Nove in Mozambique, is another inspiring example of making the world accessible to her compatriots, through the written word and audio books. A trained architect-turned-professional translator and interpreter, she began translating novels and stories into Portuguese and supporting others to do the same. She subsequently founded Editora Trinta Zero Nove to provide a publication outlet for those works. Then, because only 11 per cent of the 31 million people in Mozambique speak Portuguese, she realized the works needed to be translated into four of the major languages of the country and, because only 50 per cent of the population read and write, to be turned into audiobooks as well. Her dream is to enrich education through access to literature in a country where bookstores can be rare, and many people do not know how to use the digital plazas available in the country. Tamele explains how both her grandmothers were child brides and did not have the opportunity to go to school and recognizes her privilege, being among the 1 per cent of Mozambicans with access to tertiary education. She believes she is planting seeds for the future, one book, one story, and one reader at a time. The press Tamele founded translates and publishes mostly female writers and writers living with disabilities.
“Although I was born visible, I now identify as invisible. I am trans-parent. My pronouns are who/where.”
Pfungwa Nyamukachi, Esther Karin Mngodo, Grace Musila, and Sandra Tamele are each filling a gap in valuing African history, culture, people, and knowledge production. This is long overdue, considering the vast inequalities in the global knowledge economy, where African voices are sorely underrepresented and often mispresented. These women are part of the process of decolonizing minds and cultures. With colleagues at The Conversation Africa, Nyamukachi is making the work of African researchers available to people with access to the Internet. Mngodo is disrupting the status quo and making heads turns with new and exciting writings in Swahili by women writers. Musila is deepening understandings of literary productions related to eastern and southern Africa. Tamele is strategically and creatively challenging the lack of access to literary productions by fellow Mozambicans. They are not just writing in Big English to advance their careers. Each of these formidable women is speaking out, proactively taking decolonizing action, uplifting African voices and perspectives, and planting seeds for the future. I find their work buzzworthy. A buzzword in this sense should be lauded, not discouraged.
Values, history, language, education, and culture matter
In the ASAA session on “Remembering Humans”, Christopher Ouma, Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town, evoked the critical and creative work of Dr Harry Garuba of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, who died in February 2020. Throughout his career, he “tirelessly laboured against the erasure of worlds, people, ways of thinking and being – and offered critical tools with which to knowledge differently.”
“I miss the language that once lived in my body,” wrote Harry Garuba in his poem “Leaving Home at 10,” which Christopher read at the conference. How many other people remember or know about someone leaving behind family and a whole linguistic and cultural world to go to school – to learn to perceive the world through the prism of colonial language, culture and thinking?
Lawino, in a poem by Okot P’Bitek, observing the newly acquired values and attitudes of her schooled husband Ocol, speaks to him in the following way:
Husband, now you despise me
Now you treat me with spite
And say I have inherited the stupidity of my aunt;
Son of the Chief,
Now you compare me
With the rubbish in the rubbish pit,
You say you no longer want me
Because I am like the things left behind
In the deserted homestead.
You laugh at me
You say I do not know the letter A
Because I have not been to school
And I have not been baptized
Take care of your tongue,
Be careful what your lips say.
Francis Nyamnjoh shows “how the values acquired during the colonial era that teach the superiority of the colonizer set the tone for the imbibing of knowledge and continue to dominate education and life in postcolonial Africa.” Thus, the decolonial project includes the need to unpack education, learn and relearn history, bring a critical perspective to what is valued and not valued, and revalue what has been devalued. Acclaimed Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo (born in 1942, recently turned 80), as Secretary for Education, called for children to learn to read and write their mother tongue and one other Ghanaian language, but this proposal did not see the light of day at the time; today she encourages writers to not hesitate to write in African languages.
Each of these formidable women is speaking out, proactively taking decolonizing action, uplifting African voices and perspectives, and planting seeds for the future.
At the ASAA conference, Wesley Maraire described Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms, which, contrary to courts of law, are not adversarial in nature and draw on African traditions and values. Anthony Diala called for the (re)education of a whole new generation of teachers, aware of their past. Lauren Paremoer explained the value of solidarity as described in the Banjul Charter. The producers of the film “When Women Speak”, which was screened at the conference, demonstrate a true spirit of sisterhood. Thaddeus Metz elaborated how the African philosophy of ubuntu acknowledges interdependencies among people and self-fulfilment through social ideals.
ASAA President, Akosua Adomako Ampofo, in her presidential lecture, called for empathy, kindness, humaneness, and love. She challenged conference participants to “Dare to be kind.” Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and Rama Salla Dieng, Lecturer at the University of Edinburg, called for a culture of care and for justice. Many youthful voices called for being seen, heard, counted and considered, and for African values, history, language, ways of knowing, and culture to be part and parcel of the project of Africa. They are not talking about something that is just fashionable or trendy. They are calling for what can make for a better humanity.
In stripping away vestiges of colonialism, understanding of and attention to values, history, language, education, and culture is important but insufficient. The epistemological underpinnings of knowledge production need to be interrogated. Whose knowledge counts? Who is considered to know? What knowledge is valued and promoted? How is knowledge produced? With what assumptions and from what vantage points? From what philosophical perspectives? And for what purposes? According to Harry Garuba, decolonization and decoloniality, which may seem trendy and confusing, simply mean “putting the needs and interests of the epistemologically disenfranchised at the forefront of knowledge production.”
African children, for example, have been epistemologically disenfranchised. Oduor Obura argues that for many years the realities of childhood in Africa have been constructed through a western colonial lens, with a focus on want, need, and lack. His book, Decolonising Childhoods in Eastern Africa, challenges such domineering mono-directional narratives and “universalising experiences and notions of childhood” which silence “the pluralities of experiences and knowledges” present in eastern Africa. Through multidisciplinary work, the Congolese concept of Bula Matadi (the use of force in breaking of obstacle rocks), engagement with children and those around them, and studies of the presentation of children in literary works, he presents pluralistic counter-narratives about child agency, negotiation, resilience and creativity in eastern Africa.
The devalorization of Africanness and African ways of being, the “attempted epistemicide” of African ways of knowing, and centuries of “concessions to the outside” require critical perspectives and methodical and intentional epistemic work for true transformation. Francis Nyamnjoh argues that:
In Africa, the colonial conquest of Africans – body, mind and soul – has led to real or attempted epistemicide – the decimation or near complete killing and replacement of endogenous epistemologies with the epistemological paradigm of the conqueror. The result has been education through schools and other formal institutions of learning in Africa largely as a process of making infinite concessions to the outside – mainly the western world. Such education has tended to emphasize mimicry over creativity, and the idea that little worth learning about, even by Africans, can come from Africa.
Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was aware of these epistemological challenges. At the ASAA conference session on “Remembering Humans”, Besi Brillian Muhonja argues that Wangari Maathai is celebrated mainly as an environmental activist, which ignores or erases her contributions as a scholar and African knower, thinker, and theorizer. Muhonja, in her book, Radical Utu: Critical Ideas and Ideals of Wangari Muta Maathai, presents a more multidimensional portrait of Maathai and her words and works, to situate her ideas and concepts in global discourse. She focuses on her practical philosophical and epistemological approaches. Maathai promoted the decolonization of knowledge and theories of self-knowing and facilitated emotional and spiritual processes of learning about self, language, ecology, and community. In a paper titled “The Cracked Mirror,” she wrote the following:
By the end of the civic and environmental seminars organised by the Green Belt Movement, participants feel the time has come for them to hold up their own mirror and find out who they are. This is why we call the seminars kwimenya (self-knowledge). Until then, participants have looked through someone else’s mirror – the mirror of the missionaries or their teachers or the colonial authorities who have told them who they are and who write and speak about them – at their own cracked reflections. They have seen only a distorted image, if they have seen themselves at all!
Maathai resisted the idea of the missionaries that “God does not dwell on Mount Kenya” but rather in heaven. She stressed that “Cultural liberation will only come when the minds of the people are set free and they can protect themselves from colonialism of the mind.” She promoted women’s rights and the use of African languages to reflect nuances of African ways of being and thinking. She believed that people need to reclaim their culture to attain cultural liberation and that that freedom will help people care for nature and future generations.
The decolonial project includes the need to unpack education, learn and relearn history, bring a critical perspective to what is valued and not valued, and revalue what has been devalued.
According to Muhonja’s interpretation of the philosophy of Wangari Maathai, when we have nothing to call our own, to reflect to us who we are, we no longer see ourselves and will forget who we are. We will try to fill voids with material things. Planting trees and telling our stories is important to conservation. “Let us mind our language, practice our spirituality, and live our communal culture,” she urged, drawing on the philosophy and critical ideas and ideals of Wangari Muta Maathai.
Wangari Maathai is an example of someone who took decolonization and Afrocentric thinking beyond the academy into her practice and interactions with rural Kenyan women and others involved in the Green Belt Movement.
Another issue I would like to cover in this discussion of epistemic journeys is the ASAA roundtable discussion on: Are African Studies Centres Gatekeepers of African Knowledge Production and Enablers of (De)Colonisation? Prof. Thoko Kaime of the University of Bayreuth in Germany launched the discussion by speaking about knowing and playing by the rules or disavowing the rules in the interest of reshaping African studies to focus on African perspectives and predicaments rather than imperial interests. After all, these centres were created to “study the native”. To promote the status quo, however, an environment of fear which discourages critical thought can be created. Kaime insists that decolonization happens “only when those we study can speak and be heard”.
One participant in the discussion called for auditing African studies centres around the world for Afrocentric perspectives and pedagogical approaches and closing those that perpetuate a colonial gaze. “What has changed since anthropologist Audrey Richards created the Cambridge Centre of African Studies in 1965?” they insisted. Isabelle Zundel, a University of Bayreuth student of legal and political trends in eastern and southern Africa, noted how African studies centres can, regrettably, promote the use of Africa as a career path, with the assumption of a “submissive Africa”.
Research cooperation in African Studies was discussed at two conference sessions. New ways of cooperation are emerging “due to individual interests” and “institutional awareness of the necessity of collaboration”. The session participants discussed demands for decentralising African Studies and for “fair participation of researchers from the Global South”.
In the discussion about gatekeepers and enablers of (de)colonization, legal anthropologist Anthony Diala insisted that the decolonization debate and its lack of structuration is keeping people from focusing on restorative justice and the dismantling of racist and hegemonic structures. Educationalist Prof. Brenda Leibowitz spoke to this tension to some degree in her 2016 inaugural address on the decolonisation of knowledge at the University of Johannesburg. She called for cognitive justice (through a university curriculum in which students see themselves and the pedagogical processes in which they are active) but also social justice (equitable access to resources, services, and opportunities in society). She went on to insist that decolonization is not just exchanging one knowledge for another and called for the dehegemonization and diversification of knowledge, understanding that different knowledge systems are in dialogue and need to dialogue with each other.
Leibowitz went further to reference Raewyn Connell who insists that southern knowledge systems need to be especially supported to respond to southern preoccupations and planetary questions and disruptions. Connell et al. went on to show that patterns of extraversion in Southern scholarship can suppress theoretical advances and thus limit the quality and robustness of Southern and global knowledge production.
Wangari Maathai is celebrated mainly as an environmental activist, which ignores or erases her contributions as a scholar and African knower, thinker, and theorizer.
Other sentiments discerned at the ASAA conference about epistemological aspects of the decolonization journey include: “Colonialism took so much from our people, and it serves the status quo for us to be patient. We need pluralities rather than dichotomies. We need more Afrocentric ways of teaching and learning and the right as Africans to participate fully in knowledge production and be seen and heard. How we theorize matters. Our conceptual frameworks matter – we need to expand the frames of understanding. We need to use appropriate methodologies and humanize fieldwork.”
In her paper on the Dagbaŋ philosophy of respecting the human dignity of interlocutors, Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed cites two postcolonial thinkers, who write on decolonizing, respectively, the mind and methodologies. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o draws our attention to the importance of “pulling our languages, literature, and knowledge systems out of the periphery to which they have been banished.” Linda Tuhiwai Smith presents us with “the importance of disrupting the Western canon in knowledge production” and “the potential that Indigenous knowledges hold not only to affirm the lived experience of colonized peoples, but also to dismantle the colonial values embedded in and woven into academia.”
Rather than force themselves to write in a hand that is not theirs or force their research into frames that do not quite fit, Harry Garuba urges students to “center the questions that are important to you and let that drive your research and your methods and concepts formation”. Let knowledge production be directed by the “needs, interests, and desires of people epistemologically disenfranchised”. This will lead to conceptual voids, opportunities to rethink things, and new concepts and possibilities across disciplines. “When you reach the cul-de-sac, that is when we get invention” that transcends fragmentation and “moves beyond methodological fundamentalism”.
African integration, umoja, and pan-Africanism were part of the ASAA conference. Participants in different sessions appreciated the comingling and the dialogues across boundaries – national, linguistic, disciplinary, generational. Scholars and writers described the beauty of meeting new colleagues, encountering new concepts, learning about similarities and differences from context to context, and discussing potential transboundary collaborations. The international and pan-African spirit was palpable, inspiring, and uplifting. If this is part of decolonization, I want to be a part of it.
The screening of the film Umoja – Swahili word for “unity” – and the subsequent discussion, with producer/director Dr Mjiba Frehiwot of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, addressed pan-Africanism directly. Through a series of interviews, pan-Africanism is presented in the film as the celebration of African people and values, the teaching and practice of solidity over division, and investment in systems of thought and action that unite the continent. Pan-Africanists dreamed of a common foreign policy, currency, and defence for pan-Africanism to work and recognize the need to continually “give people the tools with which to liberate themselves”. Today there are new social movements – Y’en a marre and Nouveau Type de Citoyens for example, and #EndSARS, Black Lives Matter, #FixTheCountry, #ShutItAllDown, #NoMore and initiatives like re_sisters, Year of Return to Ghana, and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. How do Africans come together, address issues collectively, invest in education and create an ubuntu economy and shared prosperity? Then and now, pan-Africanism is rooted in values of dignity, love, sharing, learning, compassion, caring, dialogue, reciprocity, and interdependence.
When we have nothing to call our own, to reflect to us who we are, we no longer see ourselves and will forget who we are. We will try to fill voids with material things.
One interviewee in the film expressed the following: “We need to stop performing peace. Peace is the ability to claim rights, for the media to speak, and for people to not fight unimaginable rising prices and traffic. We need to protect ourselves and uplift each other. Let us keep telling the truth. The year 2063 is too far, we need to unite now.” Another interviewee insisted that “Girls should not be forced to marry, and education needs to be relevant.” And a third added, “Education needs to address our challenges, including psychological ones. The inherited institutions were not meant for transformation.” Rabbi Kohain, Executive Secretary of the PANAFEST Foundation is featured in the film saying, “We have had to put a mask on every day. Be prepared to be born again as Africans.”
Sabelo Mcinziba said on day one of the conference, “We trade too little with each other and cite each other too little.” Nonetheless, lived experiences of pan-Africanism are real – especially in frontier spaces. The film producer/director described observing women engaged in cross-border trade in West Africa. They speak several languages, take cedis, dollars, and CFA, know the exchange rates, and ask you how you want your change. “In whichever direction you are moving, they work with you.” Very convivial. They straddle borders that others so jealously protect. “But do police officers know about Umoja?” asked a participant. Indeed, cross-border traders and travellers can be challenged by authorities.
South-South collaboration and conversations among Southern scholars is another form of unity and was addressed implicitly in some conference sessions and explicitly in a panel on “Decolonizing Southern thinking” with Fabricio Pereira da Silva of Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Mjiba Frehiwot of University of Ghana. They examined the decolonial philosophies of Amílcar Cabral and of Paulo Freire as an intellectual bridge between Africa and Latin America and examined Yves Valentin Mudimbe’s Invention of Africa for insights on ways forward for pan-Africanism and Latin-Americanism. Although African and Latin American experiences are vastly different, there are shared experiences of being on the receiving end of colonialism and thus the value of unpacking the implications of colonial legacies together. The two presenting scholars travelled between their continents, reminiscing how Paulo Freire travelled to Guinea Bissau to work in a literacy programme there after Amílcar Cabral was murdered.
The panel sought to “rescue epistemologies in the process of being silenced. In a world in deep crisis and accelerated transformation, we believe that the Global South (Africa in particular) is well-positioned to contribute to the imagination of more humane alternative futures – and to the very survival of humanity. In this sense, we think about Global South contributions in terms of concepts and practices of interconnectivity, conviviality, communality, equality, and emancipations.”
Exercising real power in parliament
Gender, women’s rights and concerns for intersectionality were integral to decolonial thinking and movements in Africa, and women were visibly involved – like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Bibi Titi Mohammed, and Djamila Boupacha – as well as working behind the scenes. The attention to gender issues during decolonisation struggles “led to practical gains for women in many newly independent states,” but with time, some of the “spaces created by decolonisation movements were closed,” and imperialist and patriarchal structures continue to shape everyday life in many ways.
The ASAA conference session on “Women as Lesser Humans?” explored women’s influence in African parliaments, particularly the cases of South Africa and Uganda. The number of women in parliament, or their “descriptive representation,” has increased in part due to affirmative action measures including quotas. But how does this translate into “substantive representation,” for example pro-gender agendas and policies that address the specific challenges and aspirations of girls and women, with concern for intersecting factors, like class, educational level, disability, and geographic location? Women are increasingly present in parliaments, but are they influential? In the end, it seems that substantial representation is difficult. The “stickiness of old rules” and the power of informal institutions (like male social networks, decision-making conversations with selective participation behind closed doors or in other shadow spaces) inhibit new ways of working.
African studies centres can, regrettably, promote the use of Africa as a career path, with the assumption of a “submissive Africa”.
At this conference session, Amanda Gouws, of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, explained how the women’s movement in South Africa was successful in ensuring a whole package of institutions to help advance women’s equality post-apartheid. Those active in the movement did not want just a gender or women and youth ministry that might be side-lined but the integration of concerns for gender equality and inclusion in all ministries, an office of the status of women, a commission for gender equality, and other institutions. This holistic approach facilitated substantive representation (for example the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998 and the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996). This package of institutions, however, lost its vibrancy under President Mbeki (1999-2008) and President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018), who came to power after President Nelson Mandela, and has not been reinvigorated. Prof. Gouws, in responding to a question, said that “we cannot just want the institutions back – we also need the feminist consciousness and commitment.”
Dr Hannah Muzee, who studied at the Pan African University Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted by Cameroon, and lectured at Kyambogo University in Uganda, explored how women in Uganda have “a seat at the table but no voice”. Women can make it into parliament, but then what? Since the 1995 Constitution, women have been fast-tracked into politics through affirmative action but have also been tokenized. Factors that hold women back in politics include the lack of access to resources for campaigns, party loyalty pressures, and the perpetuation of gender division of labour in political parties and in parliament (i.e. men are usually in charge of finance, law, policy). In addition, women’s leagues of political parties do not work on pro-women’s issues. They speak or operate if sanctioned by the party executive, and their biggest role is to mobilize funds and votes.
However, the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association, an all-party parliamentary caucus, has supported networking, training in public speaking, and mentorship on pro-women issues for women parliamentarians. This has helped to enhance women’s voices and pass pro-women legislation, i.e. the Domestic Violence Bill and the Children’s (Amendment) Bill. The Association strategically admits male legislators as allies, with the understanding that men need to understand injustices women suffer so they too can speak to the issues. Promoter of women’s rights, Miria Rukoza Koburunga Matembe, who served in Uganda’s parliament and became Minister of Ethics and Integrity, writes from her experience about how the gender question and the journey of women to top positions need to be tackled by both men and women. She also wrote about the challenges of translating a gender sensitive constitution into reality, especially regarding land rights for women, and co-founded in 2006 the Centre for Women in Governance to “make women’s participation in politics and governance go beyond numbers.”
The phenomenon of women’s substantial representation is further explored in Gendered Institutions and Women’s Political Representation in Africa. In addition to the South Africa case study, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana are covered. Chapter 3 by Sethunya Tshepho Mosime and Maude Dikobe explores whether political candidate training programmes in Botswana are “A waste of resources or pedagogies of the oppressed?”
Then and now, pan-Africanism is rooted in values of dignity, love, sharing, learning, compassion, caring, dialogue, reciprocity, and interdependence.
In the current context of androcentric legislatures, can policies be advanced to fight persistent and prevalent forms of gender-based violence and promote equality and inclusion? The question stands for many legislatures around the world. Can we talk about decolonization at all in the contexts of male-centric political systems described by Gouws and Muzee? Where are the openings for transformative change? The session asked: For how long will women be kept as secondary citizens? Just as it is important to bring an intersectional gender lens to understanding fights against colonial rule, an intersectional gender lens – considering not only gender but also sex, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and other identity factors, depending on the context – is necessary to understand and inform ongoing decolonization efforts.
Are hierarchies of power and belonging that were at the centre of colonial rule being reproduced? Or questioned and dismantled? Who is included and who is not? Who is respected? Whose humanity is valued? Whose agency is recognized? Who speaks? Who is listened to? Whose rights are considered as important? Whose knowledge is considered knowledge? Who may be taking up too much space or speaking or writing over others? Who has influence and power? And how is it exerted? Are processes inclusive or exclusive? Who is considered Greater? Who is considered Lesser? Does equality matter? Whose voices and needs and aspirations are considered? Is anyone dismissed or erased?
Leveraging digital spaces
Digital technologies can reflect, reproduce, and even reinforce the inequalities, hierarchies, and power dynamics that exist in society. Their creative and strategic use can also facilitate new ways of organizing across multiple boundaries for social change, challenge authoritarianism and heterogendered relationship norms, and promote more horizontal ways of relating. During the COVID-19 pandemic, relations, even among diplomats on the continent, moved from strictly formal spaces to include more informal spaces on social media, and this induced changes in ways of relating.
The ASAA conference organizer, the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), brilliantly leveraged air travel and digital technologies to connect people in person and virtually after two years of hunkering down during the pandemic. What a beautiful opportunity to connect across the continent and beyond. Like at the 3rd ASAA conference in Nairobi, the energy was infectious. For the 4th conference, participants in Congo, North Africa, and Japan debated alongside people physically present in Cape Town. People participated online and offline.
Highlights were shared via Twitter at #ASAA2022, which serves as a record of important encounters and a space for continuing the discussions – among conference participants and with people who did not attend. In a tweet, Chichi Ayalogu affirmed that “#ASAA2022 is top of the list for organized conference executions and really should be noted as ‘the’ example of a Hybrid event done right.”
A dozen different meeting rooms for parallel sessions, each equipped with a roving camera connected to internet and someone present to ensure convivial use of the technology. What a feat. Considerate moderators of different ages fielding questions from the floor and the chat box and calling on people raising a virtual or in-person hand. People checking for sessions and room numbers in the online programme or via the ASAA2022 space on theEventApp. A virtual Information Desk where people could put themselves into the designated room for a parallel session or ask the attendant, Roxanne Adams of HUMA, to do so. Mx. Roxanne calmly reassured people toward the end when there was a temporary Zoom hiccup or two. Important human touches.
Jean-Marc Éla reminds us: “Le cerveau a besoin de rêver comme le corps de respirer.” The brain needs to dream, just as the body needs to breathe. ASAA2022 was a place to share knowledge and dreams and collectively (re)envision what it means to be humxn and what that means for organizational and institutional change initiatives.
“We trade too little with each other and cite each other too little.”
The conference was itself an exciting digital space, and some conference sessions dealt with the theme of leveraging digital spaces. Amani Abdel Rahman spoke about how a 2019 social media uprising in Sudan led to the disintegration of a regime that had governed the country for 30 years. “Youth were ahead of classical political parties – unfamiliar with internet and social media.” Aghi Bahi shared about the apparition of cyber activists on Facebook to address political concerns in Cote d’Ivoire. “Are the activists free, though? Or working for a political entrepreneur?”
Digitisation might be another buzzword, but, if well harnessed, its decolonial capabilities could be significant. Political analyst and activist Nanjala Nyabola has written about online organizing, efforts to contain online organizing, the circulation of fake news and hate speech on social media, and the threat of digital colonization. Nyabola participated in ASAA2022, along with Timnit Gebru of the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research (DAIR) Institute, in a keynote debate on “Meta Forms, Artificial Lies & Digital Futures”. Artificial intelligence (AI) is part of digitality. To what extent is it creating a new colonial world order? To take but one example, languages, it can “further codify the supremacy of dominant languages” or be used “outside the wealthy profits centers of Silicon Valley to serve people and language revitalization work.”
Digitisation might be another buzzword, but, if well harnessed, its decolonial capabilities could be significant.
Digital spaces should also be leveraged to make African knowledge production more visible. This was discussed at the ASAA session on “Making African Research Visible and Accessible.” The work of the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa) to train scientists in effective communication skills was discussed, and AficArXiv was presented as an option for open scholarly publishing – to promote accessibility to research outputs by African scholars and scholarship on Africa more broadly. Part of decolonization would include the promotion of African journals, data repositories, research portals and means of circulating African scholarship.
Hope for Africa as a forever incomplete project
It was great to see ASAA2022 – as Africa in miniature and a project for Africa – at the University of Cape Town. I would argue that it contributes to the decolonization debate in universities across South Africa and the continent and beyond, and makes the prospects for decolonization and transformation more real and tangible. One could also argue that the decolonization debate has been co-opted and that the conference was one big talk shop. On Twitter, Sandeep Bakshi suggests that assimilating decolonization into academic discourse as a buzzword “is one way to monitor and begin to incapacitate it” – because of its perceived or real threats to power. And a conference participant asked, “How can we decolonize the academy if society is not decolonized?” “True,” was the response. “It is hard to decolonize the academy when it is surrounded by a colonial world. But academics should not spend too much time being engulfed by the academy and forgetting about the interdependencies between community and university.”
The intergenerational conversations and debates are a sign of hope – for Africa as a forever incomplete project. At the conference, the voices of the living intermingled with those of the dead in a constructive spirit of learning and taking appropriate action for the current times and specific contexts. One generation feeds the other. From Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Ugandan politician Rukoza Koburunga Matembe, and writers Penina Muhanda from Tanzania and Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana, to women of another generation – Martha Mbuvi (studying the Akamba in Kenya), Esther Karin Mngodo (publishing women writers in Swahili), Grace Musila (helping us understand history and culture through literature), and Sandra Tamele (expanding access to literary works in Mozambique) –, we have examples to guide us. People who had not heard about Langston Hughes and his poetry or Harry Garuba and his poetry and writings over several decades about decolonization could learn more, delve deeper, make connections. At ASAA2022, papers and thoughts were shared and films screened. People bravely challenged each other. Curiosities were aroused and collaborations discussed. Participants were enriched and hopefully inspired by the encounters. Were there absences or silences? Perhaps. How much did we hear from people from South Sudan or the Central African Republic, for example? How much did we hear from people living as refugees, about their experiences of displacement and more?
Gender, women’s rights and concerns for intersectionality were integral to decolonial thinking and movements in Africa.
Is it enough to talk about and work for de-colonization? In opposition to centuries of erasure through colonization? Probably not. One conference participant said something like, “We cannot just describe ourselves and what we want as de– or non-” – in the negative. In envisioning and working toward desired futures, perhaps we need to resuscitate and reinvent some forms of knowledge? Maybe decolonization is a fuzzy concept and needs more context or focus?
Dr Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian describes the value of a decolonization lens as well as it limits – as an adversative strategy which itself may imbibe colonial logics. She suggests it be married with a philosophy such as ubuntu so that decolonization involves “fighting against” and dismantling unjust colonial systems and constructively creating futures for the common good. Conference participants and this article refer to concepts and philosophies that are affirming and aspirational in nature and that inform and shape decolonisation processes, for example: kwimenya, ubuntu, umoja, “doing Africa,” conviviality, incompleteness, and Bilchiinsi, the Dagbaŋ philosophy of respecting the human dignity of interlocutors.
And there are other existing and emerging African-inspired concepts and philosophies to help forge and weave the way forward. However, George Sefa Dei and Chizoba Imoka argue that “It is impossible to have a sincere reflection about the question of development without an anti-colonial lens.” They suggest asking questions such as these:
What sort of development should be taking place in our communities today? Whose knowledge informs this development? To what extent is the vision of development that is advanced aligned to and grounded in the indigenous epistemologies, histories and the aspirations of local people? How are community members coming to learn and use multiple lenses of critical inquiry to understand the processes of colonization and the impact on social development?
W.E.B. Du Bois came to realize how “the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear or even be unconsciously distorted.” Thus, the necessity of reconstituting history, seeking truth and teaching our children to do so as well. Bernard Fonlon argued that the worst effect of colonialism was the wresting of African cultural genius and initiative from African hands. Wangari Maathai stressed “how crucial it is to return constantly to our cultural heritage.” And elaborated:
If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain, I say that’s okay. If people still believed this, they would not have allowed illegal logging or clear-cutting of the forests.
It is not, however, just a matter of going back in time. But going back to fetch what is needed in a forward-looking manner (Sankofa). The new cord is attached to the old (West African proverb). Philosopher Paulin Hountondji argued that, to end extraversion and dependence, there must be a “methodical reappropriation of one’s own knowledge and know-how as much as the appropriation of all the available knowledge in the world.” He also urged scholars of his time to go beyond theory and abstraction to “take concrete measures to justify their sociopolitical existence and relevance.” If young people are “unable to breathe” because they cannot see themselves in society’s institutions, we must do something.
Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, University of Ghana, did something, as President of the African Studies Association of Africa, to shift consciousness and inspire critical thinking and action. Professor Toussaint Murhula of Université Loyola du Congo, in his response to Prof. Ampofo, called for support as the new ASAA President by affirming that good leadership requires the contribution of the wider society.
In the current context of androcentric legislatures, can policies be advanced to fight persistent and prevalent forms of gender-based violence and promote equality and inclusion?
To begin to wrap up, in a forward-looking fashion, let me share from The Africa I Want, a collection of poems by Fatma Adam, which book I received from the author at the 3rd ASAA conference in Nairobi, in October 2019. Her poem, “The Story of Her Hands,” is about lines on the hands of a woman, which tell the story of her struggles. They show where she spends most of her days, holding the responsibility of the entire family on her shoulders. The lines on her hands tell the story of a woman who longed to hold a pen. They show the opportunities that slipped through her fingers and the unveiled secrets she holds deep within her heart. They show the reasons why she keeps on moving with love to change her destiny.
Concerns about positionality
Who can study and write about Africa? And how? These are questions that many researchers and writers ask. “If you use a western lens, stay away,” I heard someone say at the ASAA conference session on African studies centres as enablers of (de)colonization. “Check your lenses. Understand race. No one would mention it when I studied at Cambridge,” said one participant.
Positionality and approach matter not only between Africa and the West but also within Africa. In the very last session of the conference, it was advanced that unpacking the inherent power dynamics within Southern-based knowledge systems is equally important, to avoid mimicking systems of exclusion and inequalities of the current knowledge agenda. For example, speakers observed that because research is more resourced in South Africa than in some other African countries, South African-based researchers should question their positionality and check their privilege. Participants in the session suggested: “Let local spaces speak. Understand and share the perspectives of people in those spaces. See the world thru their eyes. Let the local values guide. Rather than coming with ‘South Africanism’.” A US scholar, Regina Fuller, reflected on Twitter on her positionality: “As a Junior scholar in African Studies, questions I have are How can I conduct ethical, feminist ethnographic gender sexualities research in Africa? How do I grapple with my positionality as black US Scholar? #ASAA2022.”
“It is impossible to have a sincere reflection about the question of development without an anti-colonial lens.”
As author of this piece, what is my positionality, related to the ASAA discussions? I became interested in Africa at the University of Kansas, through a visiting professor of political science from Sierra Leone, who made West African realities come alive and sparked my interest to know more. I later studied literature, art, and history at the University of Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire. When working in international and comparative studies at the University of Iowa, I took a course on African history where we read novels to learn history.
This humanistic and holistic approach to understanding history through stories of people and their communities resonated with me. Since then I promote, on both sides of the Atlantic, the writing and publication of personal stories and reflections that might otherwise go unheard and that, in their sharing, make us more humxn. I recognize my privilege as a white cis able-bodied woman who can “waltz” into certain situations and spaces. I also recognize the continual work it takes to decolonize myself – my attitudes, outlooks, and behaviours. I believe that decolonization requires efforts from people of all colours and abilities and parts of the world. Some sisters and brothers might suggest that I should “stay in my lane”, knowing that my knowledge of different African languages is minimal and that the way I describe ubuntu and other concepts may be lacking as well. Like any piece of knowledge production, this writing is open to critique and conversation. I do envision a world in which colonial mind-sets, hierarchies, and structures are recognized, questioned, and dismantled – for more equitable and convivial ways of relating, for the benefit of current and future generations. We are bound up together in the colonial project. How do we free each other from its grip? As Harry Garuba says, there is “no easy walk to education and freedom.” But we must each do our part.
Through a quick and non-comprehensive “tour” of sessions of the April 2022 African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) conference, we have tried to show that decolonization, more than jargon or a mere buzzword, is a process in progress. However, like Prof. Anthony Diala of the University of the Western Cape said in the session about gatekeeping and enabling (de)colonization, “the reality of coloniality makes a mockery of decolonization.”
In the face of very real colonial legacies, various organizations work with greater and lesser degrees of intentionality. For some people and organizations, decolonization may just be talk or political correctness. Others are going beyond important, necessary and challenging conversations to collectively develop strategies and frameworks and put in place initiatives to shift thinking and power in academia and institutions and structures of everyday life – for greater inclusion and participation and with regard for African sociocultural, political and historical processes.
Is decolonization more than a buzzword? We have suggested that it is and needs to be. However, some may continue to insist that decolonisation is poison to be avoided to the degree that it promotes a spirit of opposition in humxn endeavours. Others may suggest the concept is fuzzy – a catch-all net that buzzes and fuzzes busily around the real issues of bringing about a shared humanity and consciousness of the hierarchies that pose a formidable challenge to attaining sustainable equality and dignity for all and sundry.
Colonization and its extractive and dehumanizing processes were entrenched over centuries. Resistance to colonization existed during the slave trade, movements for flag independence in the 20th century, and calls for transformation in post-apartheid South Africa and the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements and continues to exist in renewed calls for integration and pan-Africanism in a spirit of ubuntu. As much as colonial structures, processes and mind-sets persist, they are being questioned, undone, and reshaped.
At one of the ASAA conference sessions, Aïdas Sanogo, lecturer and researcher at Centre Universitaire de Manga in Burkina Faso, explains that “The students I teach are more impatient than I was at their age.” This provides reason for hope. The intergenerational conversations and queries and affirmations of Global Africa’s next generation suggest that the project of Africa, building on ancestral foundations in a spirit of conviviality and incompleteness, is very much on the move. But is the urgency felt and the movement swift enough? Some argue that decolonisation is impossible, “but we must make her possible.”
Thanks to all those who took the time to read and comment this article. I take the time to do the same for others, in a spirit of give and take, of learning, and of continual co-construction. I take responsibility for any errors in relating what I heard at the ASAA conference and interpreting subsequent readings.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.
Knowledge production directed by politics and economics
As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.
Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.
To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:
Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?
Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge
In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:
[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.
Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.
Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.
Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.
Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.
No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.
Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony
In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:
The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.
This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:
In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.
Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.
According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”
The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.
Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location” function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:
First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.
Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.
Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.
Genocide: The Weapon Used to Keep Ethiopia Intact
First-hand testimonies coming out of Tigray since November 2020 point to a genocide but for Ethiopia to recognise it as such would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide.
Genocide is a heavy word. It not only tells us that crimes have been committed but it is a word specifically designated to describe crimes that are committed because one party has declared that another group of people are less human, and as a result, not only should they not be allowed to continue living, but their capacity for inter-generational existence should be entirely exterminated. Where there is genocide, there is the worst expression of humanity, a hatred that makes perpetrators of genocidal violence believe that they are doing themselves, their communities, and the world at large a service by actively working to kill off the people they have designated as less than human because of their skin colour, their way of life, their ethnicity or other identity.
It was in the wake of a genocide that the United Nations and the other international instruments of political and social accountability that we know today were born. It was not the first genocide that had ever occurred on earth, but a chapter of violence in human history, the Holocaust, that involved a systemic, calculated, and long-term effort to exterminate people from the earth because they were labelled as un-human.
Designers of genocidal campaigns often see themselves, as being, by some intrinsic quality, more worthy and more capable of operating within human faculties such as thinking, feeling, deciding, processing, planning, and dreaming. Although some have argued that the legal definition of genocide refers solely to the physical destruction of all, or part of a group, in the Ethiopian context the term has been used to include the act of destroying a community’s cultural, economic, social, and political power in order to subjugate it to another. This is the sense in which I will use the term in this article.
The word genocide has proliferated in popular Ethiopian political discourse since November 2020, namely because of the war in Tigray, where events in the region have been termed a genocide mostly by the Tegaru diaspora. This essay will attempt to unpack the complicated ways that acts or perceptions of genocide have been utilized by the Ethiopian state and its ideological allies to support its goal: the creation of a unitary state. I will explore Ethiopia’s history of genocide and the present institutionalization of this history; the events that occurred in Oromia in the wake of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa’s assassination; and the collective and institutional denial of the genocide in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s history of genocide
Contrary to the narrative that Ethiopia is the only country on the African continent that was never colonized, Ethiopia itself is a colonial state built on a colonial legacy that involved, like other imperial states, genocide. The process of forming the Ethiopian state involved a power-hungry monarch backed by several European powers expanding into the southern, eastern, and western independent territories and imposing a cultural, social, political, economic, and even spiritual hegemonic order over a vastly diverse people. This required an attempted eradication of already established ways of life—in other words a genocidal pursuit. Where there was resistance, people were simply wiped out. One example of this is the Calanqo massacre of 1887. On 6 January of that year, Menelik II’s army invaded eastern Oromia and indiscriminately killed thousands of Oromo and non-Oromo people. Another example is to be found in the events that took place in Aanolee in 1887.
In the case of the Ethiopian empire, there operates an ideology that purports that Ethiopianism, an Amhara-centred cultural, spiritual, and political worldview, is the superior existence and you can, as a non-Amhara, experience semblances of belonging and power in this paradigm if you do not oppose it with a counter-existence. The goal of the Empire was and still is the control of land and exploitation of resources, and despite the presence of a belief that those that are of a given identity are inherently entitled to manage the economy and rule, the Empire can integrate those willing to assimilate.
The idea of Ethiopia was resisted since its inception. For example, in his book Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880 -1974: The Case of the Arsi Oromo Mohammed Abbas Ganamo describes various military resistances that emerged in response to Menelik II’s efforts to consolidate the lands of southern Oromia into the Ethiopian state. This kind of resistance will continue until there are fundamental changes in the way the state relates to the people, or until the state no longer exists. This is not lost on the architects and beneficiaries of Ethiopianism, and although seemingly unable to forfeit their unitary and ultra-capitalist ambitions, the institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.
The most obvious example was the hyper-focus on Abiy Ahmed’s Oromo ethnic identity when he was appointed leader of the transitional government. His appointment was touted as a win for the Qeerroo movement and an antidote to the oppression of the Oromo mass at large. His existence as an Oromo became (and still is) a pacifier used when anyone dares to point out that extrajudicial killings, detention, and other war crimes are taking place with the intention of eradicating Oromos who resist assimilation, refuse silence, and embody a counter-existence.
Another example is the institutionalization of the Oromo thanksgiving festival, Irreechaa. A celebration rooted in the Waaqeefata religion, Irreechaa is celebrated by Oromos of all walks of life, representing the heart of Tokkummaa (unity) amongst the Oromo nation. Being such a strong display of culture, identity, and national unity, Irreechaa has been targeted with violence by previous Ethiopian governments, including, for example, the Irreechaa massacre of 2016. However, in 2021, Irreechaa was turned into an exclusive event that took place in Oromia’s capital Finfinnee. People bought expensive tickets and a special ceremony was held by some small body of water (the Irreechaa ritual requires the wetting of leaves in water). As this took place, the Oromo mass who were trying to participate in the day’s events outside of the bubble created by the state were arrested, beaten, and altogether obstructed from commemorating the event. For Ethiopia to continue as one polity without reckoning with its need to fundamentally change its posture towards the people who live within its borders, genocide will remain an existential need of the state.
The institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.
In the early hours after the assassination of singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa on 29 June 2020, a myriad of events began to unfold in a number of Oromo towns, including Shashamane and Dheera. What happened in the final hours of 29 June and into the morning of 30 June would form the bedrock of a narrative that associates all expressions of Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) with hatred and violence towards the minority Amhara ethnic group. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero, but a coordinated and curated campaign involving largely, people who were not from the town itself.
According to an investigation conducted in the days following the incident, eyewitnesses recount that young people involved in the violence were not locals and had access to information that could only have come from local government officials. Who exactly was behind the attacks and what the intended consequences of the attacks were can only be speculated at, but there have been obvious and enduring impacts on the towns in question and on the position of the Oromo and Oromummaa within the state’s larger narrative.
Shashamane was a booming economic centre with investments flowing directly from the international market into the heart of the city, rivalling the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, which is an urban site that has been manufactured to serve a small economic elite. The destruction of Shashamane, a space that exists outside of Ethiopianist cultural and religious hegemony, severely impacted the town’s representation in the international community and successfully diverted investment. As for the social and political impacts, Oromummaa was henceforth marked as a precursor for genocidal violence, as the violence in Dheera and other places was labelled a massacre of a Christian-Amhara minority by a fanatically nationalist, even religious-nationalist, Oromo majority (Oromo being a majority Muslim nation).
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero.
Although these assertions completely ignore the fact that the violence also targeted Oromos themselves and the fact that Oromo and Amhara communities have been living together peacefully in these towns for decades, this assertion has manipulated the truth that there is dormant social and political unease between these communities that is rooted in unresolved historical trauma and if triggered, violence could erupt.
The creation of perceived genocide sounds like a conspiracy theory, and many were painted as conspiracy theorists whenever analysis suggesting that something strange was going on was offered. But the truth is that there is a pattern. Where Oromo nationalistic ambitions are represented, whether by armed struggle, peaceful resistance, or the act of counter-existence, evidence to suggest that the ambition of the Oromo is to exterminate Amhara people from Oromia emerges in the form of actual dead Amhara civilians. Although impossible to refute an eyewitness statement recounting Oromo people killing non-Oromo people because of their identity without sounding like a callous brute, the truth is that there have never been independent investigations into these killings, and where the accusations have fallen on the Oromo Liberation Army, the group has itself called for such investigations time and time again.
It is also true that this kind of genocidal violence taking place is not a far-fetched idea. The state is aware that what has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma. This, though, does not mean that the trauma has been addressed or that it has no present-day impacts on the dynamics of equality and marginalization in the context of the wider Ethiopian state. Instead of taking steps to heal this trauma, the state is using the perception of genocide to create a vacuum that only its unitary, supposedly ethnically transcendent political ideology, can fill.
Conversely, it is difficult to hear the first-hand testimonies that have come out of Tigray and not refer to what has gone on in the region since November 2020 as a genocide. And yet the Ethiopian state and its supporters have pushed to frame the conflict as void of any actors that are targeting Tegaru people because of their identity. If it were to admit that such a thing has occurred, then the very logic that the Prosperity Party’s unitary politics rests on, the logic suggesting that Ethiopia does not care for ethnic identity, would come undone.
What has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma.
In the conclusion of the first essay in this series, I noted that the obsession Ethiopia has with a falsified self-image, where it simply cannot do or be wrong, has made denial feel like the only way that it can survive. The other option would be to give up on the dream of a hegemonic nation, but that would require reckoning with deep-seated shame and guilt over what has been done thus far in pursuit of this dream. The collective denies that there is a genocide going on in Tigray because doing the opposite would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide, an act that Ethiopian exceptionalism suggests that the Ethiopian human being is just not capable of.
Not only does the desire to avoid confronting generations of shame and guilt make the Ethiopianist collective unable to call out crimes for what they are, but it also plays a huge role in the cyclical nature of genocidal violence all across the country. I believe that state violence in Ethiopia is viciously perpetual because it is fighting to keep shame at bay. When we cannot release ourselves from the shame of any given past, we do more of the thing that we are ashamed of, with grandeur and excess, in order to normalize these acts to the parts within us that are reeling in shame and to tell the world that “there is no shame here”. What the empire has done to the Oromo over decades, what it is doing to the Tegaru today and the manner in which it is using the lives of innocent Amhara people as the political game is simply genocide weaponized to build economic and political power.
No More Camp: Confident Despite Contradictions
The “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.
A bizarre political rhetoric that has emerged in the civil and political spaces in Ethiopia and its diaspora since 2020 asserts that the break-up of the Ethiopian state is in the interests of the West, and more specifically the United States.
While the US and other Western powers and institutions have the means of orchestrating such an outcome while exerting their influence over the fate of less powerful nations, I argue here that, in this political moment, such an outcome cannot be in the interests of the US-centred global order as it relates to Ethiopia as such a move would negate all the efforts to build, via successive Ethiopian regimes, a reliable military and political proxy in the Horn of Africa region.
The narrative suggesting that the US is invested in dismembering Ethiopia into several smaller states has been backed by the Ethiopian government and heavily propagated both in Ethiopia and among sections of its diaspora. Based on conversations I have had with people engaged in other liberation struggles inspired by radical and far-left politics, I have come to realise that this narrative has been gaining traction.
During a conversation with a pro-Palestinian liberation group in Nairobi, they stated that they were not sure where to stand on Ethiopia because, according to them, the US was actively trying to affect the nation’s unity. The question that immediately came to mind was: “How can this narrative be true?” I argue here that a sequence of facts and realities, when arranged in a specific order and looked at from a particular angle, supports the emergence of a narrative that is convincing enough to create such a scenario. This narrative does not reflect the complexity of the socio-political crisis Ethiopia is facing, and nor does it provide any radical solution.
One of the most visible manifestations of this rhetoric is the #NoMore campaign. According to an article published on borkena on 21 November 2021, “The #NoMore campaign was created by a coalition of Ethiopian and Eritrean activists led by former Al Jazeera & CBS journalist Hermela Aregawi. Its central objective is to oppose an alleged Western media disinformation campaign, Western economic warfare, diplomatic propaganda, and active military interventions in Africa in general, and possible ones in the Horn of Africa.”
I do not intend to analyse that campaign here but will touch on it by simply referring to the narrative in this introduction as the “no more” camp narrative. The last bit of context that I wish to add is that I often reference the Ethiopian government of 1991-2018 as being TPLF-led (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). With regard to Ethiopia’s diplomatic, geopolitical and broad security operations at the time, I believe that this was mainly a TPLF project, but when it came to the human rights abuses that took place across Oromia, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) were co-conspirators and were actively involved in the state violence that characterized Oromia from 1991-2018.
After the fall of the DERG regime—an initially popular communist revolution that turned into a deadly dictatorship—the US made its way into the centre of the negotiations between the TPLF, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that took place in London in 1991. In these negotiations, I believe that several options existed regarding political arrangements: the formation of two or more confederate states, the formation of a unitary state, or—what became the adopted path—the formation of a multinational federation. The creation of independent states had been the explicit agenda of the OLF when it was formed some 30 years prior. However, it was the EPLF that achieved this goal during the negotiations.
Historical, cultural, linguistic, and political factors, as well as different nations having different experiences with the Ethiopian state and the process of its formation, were priorities that stakeholders at that table needed to address. A multinational federation, organized along ethnic lines, where governing powers were given to the regimes of these ethnic nation-states while the centre remained lean, peripheral, but present, sounded ideal on paper. But one essential component that would determine this structure’s success was missing in the case of Ethiopia as it embarked on its new chapter, and that was a political elite that was earnestly willing to see such devolution of power.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that was formed in the wake of the 1991 negotiations was dominated by the TPLF, and the following 27 years of governance would, in theory, be a multi-national federation, but in practice, an authoritarian, centralized state with regional proxies that enforced a draconian order punishing anyone that embodied nationalisms deviant from Ethiopianism. While the Tegaru people had been victims of the political and cultural centralism of Ethiopianism of previous regimes, the TPLF nonetheless, enforced it as a tool of control, rather than as a tool to facilitate the healthy integration and growth of this new state arrangement formed along the lines of these autonomies. In 1991, the TPLF was the second most powerful military power after the EPLF, and although it claims that altruistic motives drive its engagement in the Global South, in 1991 the US was interested in either further consolidating or expanding its position at the top of the geopolitical ladder—as it still is today.
The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority. It is not that US expressions of concern and actions to protect human rights are in and of themselves negative. The “no more” narrative argues that these humanitarian efforts and cries for human rights are often hypocritical because the US is itself an active participant in human rights abuses at home and abroad, and that either its expressions of care or its wilful ignorance of such abuses are always motivated by underlying geopolitical interests. While its backing of the TPLF-led regime in 1991 can be understood from the perspective of realism, sustaining this support for two decades despite consistent evidence of human rights abuses taking place across the country is exactly the kind of hypocrisy that gives the “no more” campaign legs to stand on.
There is a world in which Abiy Ahmed, the current prime minister of Ethiopia, juxtaposed against leaders of the EPRDF, looks very much like the anti-imperialist leader that the non-Western world needs. Abiy Ahmed makes an ideological stance when he remains opposed to human rights-related calls to action from the US, allowing them to fall on deaf ears because it can be reasoned that the US is just exhibiting its habit of lording over the internal affairs of other nations while having blood on its hands.
The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority.
Moreover, the US backed multinational federalism in 1991, a political arrangement that Abiy’s regime moved to do away with early on in the transitional period, claiming that it is an invention of ethnic nationalists committed to fostering disunity. This can lead one to another assertion that the “no more” camp makes: that the US’s previous ties with the TPLF are a factor in its current proactiveness within the crisis.
The US-Ethiopia relationship of 1991-2017 is a microcosm of the wider culture of political presence that the US has across the African continent and the rest of the Global South/Eastern world, and if we are talking about significantly less powerful nations (militarily/economically), it also reflects the way the US engages other Western nations. The US has pursued its post-Cold War agenda of consolidating global military and economic dominance by making sure that any regional power that grows, does so under its wing and/or whilst indebted to it.
Along with amassing military and economic power, expecting ideological assimilation is also part of the way the US retains its position as leader over the geopolitical order. To challenge this without sufficient military or economic strength can result in isolating, crippling, or even deadly effects such as in Cuba, Iran and Libya. While taking hit after hit from the US, Abiy has repeatedly asserted that he is resisting the tradition of political manipulation that the US is known for and to protect the right of a developing country to forge its political pathways without interference. He has refused to be swayed by sanctions, a punitive measure that, even if flustering the political and economic elite, usually has far greater impact on the working class of any targeted country. Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy. Even if the current Ethiopian context is different (as I will argue below), what lends him credence is that the US approach to Ethiopia has mirrored what it has done in many other parts of the world where, in pursuit of its interests, the US has facilitated the collapse of entire societies in the name of human rights and democracy.
Another narrative that the “no more” camp leans on to create its anti-imperialist façade is the current Ethiopian government’s relationship with Eritrea, while ignoring that Eritrea’s invasion of Tigray and Oromia is an imperial adventure of the Eritrean regime. The Ethio-Eritrean so-called peace deal is hailed as Abiy’s most successful political manoeuvre. The deal falsely propagates the narrative that Abiy’s leadership is the re-emergence of a revolutionary and anti-imperialist vision in Ethiopia because it is at odds with the EPRDF’s hostile military and political relationship with Eritrea. Being on better terms with the west, the EPRDF was widely recognized as the contriver of this hostility, whilst Eritrea was viewed as the victim of it. Although arguing that both regimes have been sanctioned by a geopolitical order that is structurally racist and fascist (which is true), this narrative ignores the fact that Eritrea is a de facto military concentration camp and that its regime is involved in conflicts across the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, among some leftist communities, Eritrea is still perceived as a beacon of revolution because it achieved independence while others opted for a political arrangement endorsed by the US. Abiy uses this narrative to assert his position as a liberationist politician and argues that in targeting his administration, the West is out to the destroy forces of revolution and self-determination in East Africa. It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature, although this is not reflected in the country’s leadership today.
Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy.
To summarise the picture painted thus far, since the war in Tigray broke out, US calls for action have more or less been aligned with the TPLF’s rhetoric (even though TPLF leaders have also been subjected to US sanctions). A deafening silence on the part of the US regarding the TPLF’s 27-year regime that was toppled in 2018 by popular protests was the norm. The TPLF-dominated governing coalition had completely supported the US’s regional interventions and the relationship that the EPRDF/TPLF had with Eritrea also creates specific storylines.
These historical facts were and are still used by Abiy’s regime as part of the narrative to justify the current war. According to Abiy’s regime and its supporters, Tegaru aggression is part of an effort to dismantle Ethiopia by advocating for federalism, a system that the US backed in 1991, and that is in opposition to the unitary political vision that Abiy is championing that his supporters believe is the answer to complex questions of identity and nationalism in Ethiopia, and which the TPLF and the OLA/OLF are an enemy of. All of the above, arranged in this or similar sequence, strongly makes the case that the US is indeed interested in Ethiopia’s break up, or, at the very least, is backing the parties that have the intention to tear Ethiopia apart.
So, where and how does this narrative fall short?
US efforts since the beginning of the war in Tigray (because they weren’t interested when the war was waged solely and specifically in Oromia) have been geared towards keeping Ethiopia together as one polity. The reason is that this makes it easier to facilitate its interests in the region, and that, on the contrary, it is the consequences of the federal government and its adversaries warring in the north and south that could lead to Ethiopia’s break up. To be clear, I am not arguing for or against Ethiopia’s break-up here. I believe that, for the multitude of communities in Ethiopia to move forward, it is a decision that must be made by the people and that there is no reason to stubbornly insist on Ethiopia continuing as one polity if the people decide otherwise.
When the federal government launched its assault on Tigray in collaboration with Amhara Special Forces and the Eritrean Defence Forces in November 2020, their narrative was that the TPLF had attacked a government military base and a law and order operation would be launched targeting only the leaders of what they called the “criminal clique”. The TPLF, on the other hand, asserts that they were attacked first. Whatever the truth is, what ensued was an ethnically targeted killing spree by government forces, Eritrean troops, and Amhara militia and regional forces that has seen thousands of Tegaru women raped, thousands of people made refugees and thousands dead. Ninety per cent of Tigray’s population requires food aid while ongoing conflict in areas where land is contested between the Amhara and Tigray regions is exacerbating the crisis and the abuses listed above.
It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature.
Moreover, just months into the transitional government process, which was supposed to guide the country towards elections after the fall of the EPRDF government in 2018, Abiy’s regime began its campaign against the OLA, a force that has radically increased in number and activity since the assassination of prominent Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeesaa in June 2020. During this campaign, government forces have similarly targeted civilians across Oromia. This war intensified after the announcement of the federal and regional governments’ operation against the OLA in April 2022, with the war witnessing scores of civilian massacres across Oromia and an increase in extrajudicial killings by regional and federal forces.
Prior to the military activity that led to the declaration of war in Tigray by the federal government, the decision by the TPLF to proceed with regional elections—despite national elections having been postponed against the backdrop of a discourse suggesting that they would lack fairness and integrity—agitated an increasingly centralizing state. Even if the TPLF were not invested in nurturing genuine multinational federalism when in power, once they lost power following a four-year-long grassroots protest movement dubbed the “Oromo Protests”, that political arrangement became necessary if they were to retain autonomous power. Thus, Tigray’s regional elections could have had the potential to mature the political centre’s (that is, the power centred in Addis Ababa) relationship to relatively autonomous regions. However, instead, the central government opted to take measures to stamp out this “deviance”. In similar fashion, the mere existence of the OLA, and the simple fact of being an Oromo who represents a strong cultural or political will, reflects the same nationalism that the Abiy regime is unwilling to tolerate, and that we see embodied in the act of holding regional elections in Tigray.
The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity, and thus a belief that the existence of divergent national, cultural, and linguistic identities will cause disunity. But it is the very war to stamp out this difference that is edging the Ethiopian state closer to collapse.
Interestingly, the US’s diplomatic silence and inaction when the federal government’s offensive was confined to Oromia, an expedition that was first declared during Abiy’s tenure in early 2020, with Ethiopian National Defence Force leaders stating that they would “send the army to crush remaining rebels within 15 days”, supports assertions made by the “no more camp”, while also nullifying the narrative entirely. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, massacres, disappearances, arbitrary detention, rape, and sexual violence as a weapon of war have been the norm in Oromia since Abiy took power but this has not been of interest to the US government because, until mid-late 2021, the OLA was not perceived as a military power strong enough to cause any long-term or meaningful destabilization to the state.
Still, even if this pattern of behaviour in the US’s approach supports the assertion that the US only cares about human rights when its interests intersect with blasting the human rights abusers, the OLA’s operations gaining visibility has not warranted a strong or streamlined response to the crisis in Oromia. In my opinion, this is because there is an assumption in Washington that the OLA (representing the largest region and population in Ethiopia) are less inclined to accept political arrangements outside of secession, compared to the TPLF elite—another assumption that rests on the experiences of 1991 and thereafter (although the Tegaru and TPLF contexts differ greatly today given the magnitude of the Tigray genocide). If the US wants to back cessation, it will. Focussing on the government or the military’s human rights abuses is a perfect way for the US administration to back secessionist movements, and when said secession is in the interests of the US for one reason or another, it will deploy all the mechanisms available to it to make it clear that human rights violations are occurring and it must step in like it did in Sudan and South Sudan. The US is not known for its humility when it can use the human rights narrative to pursue its interests; if it wanted Ethiopia to fragment, clear and open support of the OLA would be a textbook move. However, the carefulness and moderation that characterise its approach, when the human rights conditions are some of the worst in the world, strongly suggest that its objective is not Ethiopia’s break-up.
The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity.
Imperialism is an issue, and in fact, Ethiopia has a localized manifestation of imperialism that it has yet to address. The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up. The war crimes committed daily by an array of actors against anybody that represents an identity that the Ethiopian state considers a threat to its self-image as a cultural, linguistic and religious monolith are paving the way towards the country’s disintegration. I believe that the US backed the formation of a multinational federation in 1991 because it understood that differences needed space to thrive if one polity was to be feasible, and it wanted and needed one large and strong polity in the region with which to collaborate militarily, politically and economically.
Understanding this desire for expansion and consolidation is central to understanding US engagement in 1991 and its subsequent silence as the EPRDF abused power over 27 years. The same reasoning is now informing the US’s current stand regarding the Ethiopian crisis. It does not want to deal with having to reinstate itself as the key neo-power in the region if the country were to break up into many new states—the variables outside of its control would be too many to reckon with—so it is doing what it can to mitigate the crisis. It refuses to admit that there is popular demand for independence within Oromia and Tigray.
One thing the US is doing that could propel the country towards violent disintegration, is watching out for its interests while ignoring the fact that Ethiopia needs to engage in a national dialogue that could result in holding multiple referendums that lead the country either into a chapter of healing as one polity or to peaceful disintegration. Either way, the people must choose, and this kind of consensual nation-building is not something the US backs unless it makes sense for its own interests.
The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up.
The Abiy regime and the “no more” camp have taken part of the truth and successfully centred it as the whole truth. If they (the Abiy regime and its supporters) believed that Africans have the agency and means to solve their problems internally, an idea I believe in, then why not do that by reckoning with the fact that the Ethiopian state itself requires a decolonial process that addresses century-long questions of power and identity? Instead, the “no more” camp generally applies the political violence of neo-colonialism to itself by diverting attention from the fact that the conflicts inside Ethiopia that we see today are a result of a colonial legacy.
This article should not be mistaken for an argument in support of US government intervention in Ethiopia, despite such an intervention endorsing approaches like multinational federalism, an arrangement I believe had the potential to offer Ethiopia some healing. Nor is it an argument in support of the US because I have suggested that the US could back secession, a position I have vehemently argued in favour of in the past. Neo-colonialism is real and the US is a leader in using it to expand its political and economic interests as well as its military might. The very fact that the US is a player in the fate of Ethiopia, in whatever direction, should be resisted.
And nor is this article an endorsement for the “no more” camp as radical resistance to war or unfair geopolitics. I believe that the “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.
This article is part of a series called Deception, Denial, Dialogue: Fall of an Empire
Long Reads1 week ago
Genocide: The Weapon Used to Keep Ethiopia Intact
Long Reads2 weeks ago
No More Camp: Confident Despite Contradictions
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
IEBC Up to Its Usual Mischief
Culture7 days ago
The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p’Bitek
Long Reads2 weeks ago
Democratization, Welfarism and African Underdevelopment
Op-Eds1 week ago
Elections 2022: Mt Kenya Foundation Remains Mum
Long Reads7 days ago
The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
Politics1 week ago
Moving or Changing? Reframing the Migration Debate