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Is the first generation of African scholars to be blamed?
Photo source: New World Immigration

From Cape to Cairo, there is a wide-ranging call for decolonising the university curriculum and to some extent primary and secondary school programmes. This call is motivated by the inability of the current knowledge produced at African universities to transform the society, and to respond to the socio-economic needs of our continent, mother Africa.

Many commentators and scholars have attempted to diagnose the above problem; but the result is always inconsistent. Some Western and certain black scholars, who are based at Western universities, have unapologetically argued that universities in Africa are failing to produce knowledge that can change the living conditions of African people because the first generation of African scholars did not decolonise the post-colonial university’ curriculum. They assert that after colonialism, the African intellectuals who took over from white academics did not change the curriculum so as it can respond to the needs of post-colonial Africa.

As a result, universities in Africa are still dominated by Western epistemology with Eurocentric academic culture. This piece rejects the assumption that first generation of African intellectuals should be blamed on the current knowledge production. Its suggests that, as far as post-colonial Africa is concerned, the post-colonial intellectuals should only be partially blamed for focusing more on studying the impact of colonialism using radical political economics theories that focus more on the idea of class antagonism.

It is very important to begin by defining radical political economic theory and explaining what the idea of first generation of African scholars is. Radical political economy is as a school of economic thought that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s in the United States of America and Western Europe. In their article titled “The Contribution of Radical Political Economy to Understanding the Great Recession”, Zoran Stefanovic and Branislav Mitrovic provide a clear description of radical political economy.

They argue for radical political economics, where the term “radical” is interpreted as a theoretical and practical rejection of capitalism, while “political economy” refers to the return to the tradition of classical Marxism. They consider radical political economy, as an economic doctrine that focuses on Marxist-based analysis and critique of contemporary capitalism. It is also influenced by other doctrines, such as Keynesianism, Neo-Ricardian economics and institutional economics. Radical political economy encompasses a wide range of ideological orientations: anarchism, reformism, environmental, feminist, ethnic, social democratic and communist movements.

On the other point, in his seminal work titled Three Generations of African Scholars: A Note, the Malawian Professor Thandika Mkandawire provides a clear description of the first generation of African Scholars. He argues that the first generation of African scholars is constituted by scholars who went to school during colonialism and did their university studies in the West after colonialism. They have experienced colonial education and Western higher education after colonialism. They were funded by Western schemes that aimed at training them to become street level bureaucrats and foot soldiers that were going to interrupt the emergence of communism in Africa; they are the products of Cold War’s geopolitics and ideological confrontation. Some of the members of the first generation of African scholars include Professor Samir Amin, Professor Claude Ake, Professor Ali Mazrui, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Professor Kwessi Kwaa Prah, Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Vumbi Yoka Mudimbe, and Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o among others. 

The main arguments of those who are blaming the first generation of African intellectuals sound convincing, but practically impossible. They maintain that the first generation of African scholars was supposed to contextualise and redefine universities after colonialism. They are convinced that this process was going to make it possible for post-colonial universities to produce knowledge that is relevant to post-colonial Africa. As a result, the African institutions of higher learning were going to gain a new identity that is not foreign to African societies.  

They emphasise that considering the fact that the first generation of scholars did continue with the same colonial curriculum and Eurocentric orientation, the contemporary challenges of post-colonial universities in knowledge production should be attributed to them. 

For me, the above accusation is not necessarily correct. Professor Mkandawire provides evidence that show how the first generation of African scholars was committed to Africa’s transformation agenda. Even though, the first generation of African intellectuals was a product of Cold War strategies that were designed with the aim of defending the colonial legacy and capitalism during the first years of independence. The members of this generation took their [West] scholarship as a social responsibility to train the second generation of indigenous African scholars. They were committed to the agenda of transforming Africa and rewriting her history. They took upon themselves the idea that there was no need to outsource Western scholars to teach in post-colonial universities, and they were based in universities around the continent.

They conducted research and produced a plethora of literature that has inspired current debates on knowledge production; Professor Claude Ake is a good example. Ake is among the first African scholars who started the question of Africa’s epistemological and philosophical lag in knowledge production. Together with his colleagues of the same generation, they developed a hermeneutic approach to the construction of history that aimed at replacing African history written by Western intellectuals with a version that proves the scientific contribution in pre-colonial times.

They can, however, be partially blamed for the choice of their theoretical framework in their analysis of the impact of colonialism in our continent. Professor Lwazi Lushaba of the University of Cape Town asserts that in their interpretation of colonialism, the first generation of African scholars viewed colonialism, as an economic project that was motivated by economic interest of the West. To deal with the impact of colonialism, they decided to use radical political economy theories that were inspired by Karl Marx’s philosophy, which focuses more on class struggles.

The categorisation of classes by radical political economy failed when it confronted African reality, argues Lushaba. This failure was acknowledged by Professor Mahmood Mamdani during the 2000 memorial lecture in commemoration of Professor Claude Ake’s death. Mamdani admitted that the first generation of post-colonial intellectuals had a conviction that the impact of colonialism in African societies was mainly economic, thus radical political economy was the most appropriate tool of analysis. Mamdani regretted that their generation came to realise that radical political economy analysis was not enough to understand the impact of colonialism when civil wars and tribal conflicts erupted almost everywhere on the continent. In an attempt to understand colonialism without using radical political economy as a tool of analysis, Mamdani wrote Citizens and Subjects: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, which is one of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century.

In reviewing this magnificent book, Professor Michael Chege, Director of Centre for African Studies at University of Florida, says that, “Mamdani’s book presents his new theoretical perspective, having all but bade farewell to materialistic interpretations of post-colonial Africa, grounded in class struggles in the neo-colonial context, and embraced the Weberian perspective of authority—what Weber called ‘possession of the means of administration’ as the ordering factor of social conflict.”

Using Professor Mamdani’s confession on the inability of radical political economy to provide an accurate interpretation of the effect of colonialism because of its materialistic interpretations of post-colonial Africa, I am of the view that we can only blame the first generation of African intellectuals on their focus on radical political economy as the only tool of analysis of the post-colonial Africa.

Despite the failure of radical political economy theories to fit in the African realities, I am of the view that rather than blaming the first generation of African scholars, current African scholars should be able to come up with a clear view on what should be done in order to make mother Africa a better place for our people from Cape to Cairo. The current black African intellectuals and those in the diaspora should all be part the decolonising project so as universities in Africa can produce knowledge that can transform the living conditions of our people.


* Feruzi Ngwamba Foze can be contacted at <[email protected]>.