The book’s central theme focuses on the serious impact of modernism, colonialism, and post-colonialism on Africa. It is an interesting work, which contributes to knowledge of democracy, economy, social conditions and globalism in the African context.
1. Structure and main themes
Sanya Osha’s work is an interesting discourse about Africa’s postcolonial condition. The work benefitted much from already published materials by the same author and is structured into seven chapters that address different sub-themes within a central theme. The introductory chapter clearly indicates main issues explored by the author. Revising the idea of democracy in its Greek form enables to author to show how far African democracy has digressed. It also calls attention to aspects of Greek democracy which are still relevant to the present and which need to be incorporated into Africa’s democracy practice. For example, the need to separate private from the public in governance practices. As the title indicates, the book’s central theme focuses on the serious impact of modernism, colonialism, and post-colonialism on African social, economic and governance systems. It is acknowledged that Africa’s trajectories through modernism, colonialism, and post-colonialism have never been smooth but bumpy and unpredictable. Unfortunate events such as civil wars, genocides, famines, and squalor are considered as obstacles to Africa’s march towards development.
The combined effects of categories such as modernism, colonialism and post-colonialism determine Africa’s position in a global system characterized by the reality of political, economic, social, and technological domination of some states over others. Therefore an explicit assumption or view regarding Africa’s weak connection to the global system permeates the book. The continent’s marginal position on the global economic, social and technological system is blamed for most of its precarious conditions. However, the interruption of Africa’s historical march towards development by consequences of modernity, colonialism and post-colonialism are not entirely perceived in bad light. Instead the author posits that such interruptions provide evidence of Africa’s hope, vigour and dynamism.
The author particularly notes the constant struggle between formal and informal institutions in the African context. The complex intermingling of the formal and informal, public and private in governance practices, compels the author to draw a conclusion that the separating line between what is formal and what is informal in the context of Africa is often blurred. The reader is informed that African subjectivities manifest in spaces regarding ‘what human kind had been, what it is presently, and what it could become’. Africans cannot always engage with those modern institutions. The book reflects on Africa’s dilemma regarding escape from narrow confines of modern institutions and engagement with them and succinctly captures this dilemma in the following words: “There is a continual contestation between coherence and chaos, partial governmentality and privatized authority, parochial worldviews and globalized idioms.”
The second category of the African problem identified in the book is decolonization. Whereas decolonization is supposed to be functionally emancipatory, it has instead taken the form of “politics of ethnicity, race, territoriality, citizenship, and belonging…” with serious consequences for nationhood in Africa. The author appears much concerned with the issue of nation-building in his treatment of decolonization. He considers decolonization as Africans’ “first self-directed attempt at nation-building” which does not seem to have been realized. As such there is a discounting of claims that decolonization has the same meaning as political liberation. This is a controversial proposition but when one reads further, justification for the radical proposition is presented. Accordingly, while European colonialism successfully created modern African nation-states, African decolonization has only partially succeeded in building nations out of multinational states in Africa. The post-colonial African state has not been able to successfully “consolidate the features of artificially imposed political geographies”. Reality rather than rhetoric of associating decolonization with political liberation supports this claim. On why decolonization has failed to lift the post-colonial African state, two reasons are provided. First, Africa is said to suffer from exhaustion because slavery and colonization have tasked much of her energy. Second, Africa is said to be pursuing decolonization “without adequate resources in terms of personnel and institutions.” It is concluded that Africa does not properly fit into the processes of modernity and decolonization because Africa has yet to define what it wants from these two processes.
In the same vein globalization is addressed as the third category of Africa’s predicament. The process of globalization is described in two ways. First, globalization is “the metaphor of virtualization; flows and global connectedness and interdependencies”. Second, globalization is also considered as “a radical acceleration of modernity in the better positioned regions of the world”. A contention is therefore made that like the processes of modernity and decolonization, Africa has not decided where it fits in the process of globalization. The changing notions of sovereignty, territoriality, citizenship, and belonging in the African context are directly linked to conditions of contemporary globalization. Fear is expressed that African institutions are “not flexible and sufficiently responsive to adverse impacts of globalization on Africa.” There seems to be a suggestion that for Africa to find a position or fit well into the process of globalization, it has to address the problem of institutional vacuum as well as “the dilemmas and difficulties posed by truncated projects and processes of modernity and nation-building.”
An examination of the three categories or processes of predicament - modernity, decolonization and globalization - obliges the conclusion that “there is a crisis at the heart of the project of modernity itself”. The core of the problem with modernity in relation to Africa is its “tendency toward universalism…a universalization of its promise, aspirations, and limitations” and “an undefined logic of the imperial” or domination. The author does not seem to believe that globalization is bad in its entirety. Thus, there is an inference that if globalization does not involve imperial pursuits of its pushers, it does have the potential of bringing about “cosmopolitan inclusiveness”, to discount “cultural elitism” and promote “a multicultural cosmos”.
Despite promising aspects of universalization, Africans are cautioned against the type of global ethics being pursued by major powers. It is a form of universalization that has little patience with Africa. Specifically, the origin of the impatient form of universalization is traceable to the events of 9/11 in the United States. The tragic events of 9/11, it is argued, provided an opportunity to redefine the universal or a new ethics of the universal. In other words universalization had been an ongoing project with a more subtle and cautious strategy. But that strategy radically changed after the events of 9/11. Thus, the strategy of caution, pretence and subtleness was replaced by a more visible strategy of “criminalization of manifestations of cultural differences and entrenchment of previously latent fundamentalism”. In other words a negation and devaluation of the “exigencies of the politics of the particular”. Fears are therefore expressed that this new ethics of the universal have become “imperial” with serious consequences for “African territoriality…sovereignty…citizenship, and belonging without the participation of Africans as active agents”.
2. Resolving Africa’s predicaments
The author has not only examined African condition but has also proposed ways of resolving its contradictions. Thus, he emphasizes the need for Africa to reconceptualise the three main categories of its predicament because it is only in so doing can it define what to do with these processes. The continent cannot leave “the labour of conceptualizing these existential dilemmas to non-Africans alone”. The necessity to “avoid the dialectics of fear and impatience, which the contemporary moment seems to encourage” is called for. Similarly, Africans are called to “also resist the totalitarianism of the universal” and “resolve problems with decolonization and the general notion of nation-building”. In other words decolonization should not take the coloration of ethnicity and territoriality but used to truly emancipate Africa from the dictates of universalism. It should be used to foster nation-building on the continent. To benefit from these processes, Africa needs to resolve the “tussle between the tradition and modernity, and the tensions between the particular and the universal” which the author considers as largely conceptual. Africans are encouraged to see its problems as “part of the struggle for self-invention”. Africans are also encouraged not to give up on the struggles for self-invention and the development of institutions. This is because “transplanted institutions and traditions have repeatedly failed” on the continent.
It is not easy to specifically classify Postcolonial Modernity, Informal Subjectivity and Democratic Consensus within any specific academic field. Although it appears to have a strong philosophical tradition, one can still see historical, political and sociological and cultural influences within the school of critical discourse in it. Reading this book, one gets the impression that the author is deeply philosophical in style and theoretical discussions. Creative use of words to provide deeper meaning of subjects under discussion as well as metaphors showcases the author as a linguist. The discussion of issues from historical perspectives places the book between the boundaries of history and historical philosophy following in the steps of Michel Foucault, who employs historical evidence to make philosophical arguments. However, knowing what historical, social, economic, political, cultural and religious examples to cite, how, where and when to introduce them in the discourses sets the author apart as a multi- or trans-disciplinary scholar. Thus, the reader is introduced to anthropology through ethnographic examples and employment of terms such as “liminality”; history through narratives of historical events; sociology through social theories and issues, and politics through the treatment of governmentality.
Much reference to western philosophies and epistemologies in discussing postcolonial Africa tends to suggest that the author believes in the universality of epistemology although there are criticisms of certain forms of it such as those that followed after 9/11. Universality of knowledge is portrayed through obvious demonstration of the acquisition of other knowledge systems beyond Africa. For example, the use of German word weltanschauungen which means ‘personal world view’ demonstrates that knowledge from outside Africa can be adopted, reshaped and integrated into African context. This sharply contradicts the author’s criticism of Ache Mbembe. It also contradicts certain afrocentricity and de-coloniality discourses which tend to discount western epistemologies and their applicability or relevance to the postcolonial African condition.
Furthermore, no form of claim of exceptionalism in human experiences is made for Africa. By not making this claim for Africa, the author has strengthened the belief in similarity of human experiences and development globally. If the reading is correct, the author is not wrong seeing that countries in Europe (medieval Europe), Asia, and South America, for example, at different times in history experienced slavery and colonialism as Africans. Therefore, analysing the African condition purely on these categories is grossly reductive. Overall it is an interesting work, which contributes to knowledge regarding issues of democracy, economy, social conditions and globalism in the African context.
* Richard Obinna Iroanya is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, University of South Africa.
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