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Samir Amin

I was requested by the Pambazuka News editors to give a brief tribute to Samir Amin.  I will do precisely that—a brief tribute to one of Africa’s leading intellectual luminaries, whose intellectual legacy offers great potential for African Renaissance in the 21st century.  


This brief tribute is a sort of intellectual biography of Samir Amin, by alerting the reader to some of the writings that Samir Amin produced in his prolific life as an Africanist scholar, economic and development philosopher, political historian and an organic Marxist intellectual in his own right.  A disclaimer is in order.  This is not a detailed scholarly treatise on Samir Amin’s intellectual life, but a descriptive expose of his intellectual legacy and tribute.  Lessons for African Renaissance will be the task of the reader.  

Situating Samir Amin in Africanist and global knowledge production

Where do we look for tracing the genealogy of Samir Amin’s intellectual DNA? Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, another Africanist world-class scholar, while discussing the issue of modernity and the politicisation of culture, in the broader context of the confrontation between Islam and the West, offers some astute characterisation of Samir Amin along other critics of orientalist histories of Islam and the Middle East, since the 1960s. [[i]

The thinkers that challenged orientalist histories of Islam and the Middle East, that Mamdani mentions are Marshall Hodgson and Edward Said, Cheikh Anta Diop and Martin Bernal, Samir Amin and Abdallah Laroui.  The next point that Mamdani makes, is what I can safely assert, is the genesis of Prof. Samir Amin’s intellectual locus.  Since Mamdani and Samir Amin fall in a similar school of thought, I consider the former to be the most credible interlocutor of the latter.  Pay attention to what he says: “These thinkers (Samir and the other mentioned above) came out of the ranks of the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s, and they were followed by a whole generation of historians.”[[ii]]

Clearly, Samir Amin is part of radically committed Africanist political and social historians who have been offering cutting edge scholarship against Eurocentrism and its intellectual bi-products in politics, policy, economics and development models. At a deeper level, Samir Amin has engaged more complex issues such as the sharp divide the colonial and imperial scholarship has tried to artificially build between Arab North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.  True to his historical consciousness, Samir Amin has contributed to what Mamdani calls “nationalist African scholarship” that is concerned with (again in Mamdani’s words) “historicising—and thus relativising—the divide between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.”[[iii]

Samir Amin did this by demonstrating, with empirical evidence, that before the infamous Atlantic slave trade, the Sahara was in fact a bridge and not a barrier. Some scholars have been exaggerating the geographical barriers as the key factors in Africa’s underdevelopment, thus craftily shifting the blame from the great colonial and imperial disruption that has enormously affected Africa’s progress.  A detailed discussion of these and related issues can be closely looked at in Samir Amin’s classic and ground-breaking work: Unequal Development: An Essay on Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. [[iv]] In this scholarly work, Samir Amin deploys world systems theory to expose the logic of global capitalism and how it creates centre and periphery nexus in the process of capitalist exploitation.  So in addressing issues of underdevelopment and global poverty, one cannot ignore the issue of unequal development that is part and parcel of the logic of global capitalism.

Key themes in Samir Amin’s scholarship that are relevant for African Renaissance

Way back in the 1960s and 1970s, Samir Amin spent some time studying the political economy of the Maghreb of Arab North Africa, as a geopolitical unit of analysis.  Key publications in this area include: L’économie du Maghreb and Le Maghreb moderne. [[v]] Samir Amin was partly a product of the French colonial influence, but this did not deter him from turning his intellectual guns against the European system that exploited and marginalised the African continent. Colonial tools such as English, French and Portuguese languages can be put to use in the liberation struggle of Africa.  Other countries that Samir studied carefully are: Senegal [[vi]]. 

Still on the issue of the West in Africa and its later neo-colonial strategy after Africa gained independence, Samir Amin turned his attention to the new form of exploitation.  This is the theme he addressed in Neo-colonialism in West Africa. [[vii]] The 1960s and 1970s, were for gullible independence enthusiasts, a period of Uhuru [[viii]] euphoria.  Samir Amin did not allow the independence euphoria to blind him to the new form of colonialism that would be perpetuated by post-colonial African leaders in collaboration with the former colonial masters.

Samir Amin’s contribution to African political economy in the context of colonialism is probably his most rigorous scholarly effort.  In 1971, he published his L’Afrique de l’Ouest bloquée: l’économie politique de la colonisation 1880-1970.  This study is an in-depth almost definitive critical analysis of the political economy of colonisation in West Africa.  That the study covers the post-colonial era is further confirmation of Samir Amin’s thesis that neo-colonialism is real and not just a blame-game by Africans who have failed to take their destiny in their hands.      

A theme closely related to neo-colonialism is dependence.  One major cause of underdevelopment in Africa is dependency on former colonial masters for aid and humanitarian assistance instead of trade and investment.  This issue was addressed by Samir Amin in the early 1970s [[ix]] and later.  This challenge is dependency is still a major obstacle to Africa’s development and even political stability.  How many African countries can finance their annual budget? Only recently did even the African Union start to discuss about how to be self-sufficient in running its operations. 

Related to neo-colonialism is the issue of what development model should former colonial states embrace.  This issue also engaged Samir Amin for quite some time. As early as 1972 he raised the issue of development and structural transformation in Africa. [[x]] His main thesis was that in order to have sustainable development after the gaining of independence, former colonies have to transform previous colonial political structures.  Recently, the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia have started the discussion on the need for Africa’s structural transformation, forgetting that Samir Amin had addressed this issue way back in the 1970s!

While some scholars on Africa were making claim that African societies lack class differentiation, Samir Amin paid some attention to the issue of class and nation in Africa from a historical perspective, but always with an eye on contemporary issues.  This is what he worked on in his classic Class and Nation, Historically and in the Current Crisis. [[xi]] His approach and methodology has inspired several other scholars to address issues of state building and class formation in Africa.  It is evident from his writing that he was clearly influenced by Marxist conception of history and class struggle. 

While the Cold War was about to come to an end, Samir Amin was busy critiquing Eurocentrism as an intellectual trend that privileged Western scholarship and ideologies.  His major publication on this issue came out in 1989 under the title Eurocentrism. [[xii]] The rapid development of what we now call African Studies, owe their solid intellectual foundation to Samir Amin.  Even the development of African philosophy that has gained currency in African and Western universities, owes Samir Amin a debt of gratitude.      

Theorising the role of religion in public life has been of interest to Samir Amin.  While the Eurocentric scholars refer to religious movements as Islamic fundamentalism, he prefers to call them “political Islam”: “We do not have religious movements, per se, here—the various groups are all quite close to one another—but something much more banal: political organisation whose aim is the conquest of state power, nothing more, nothing less.”[[xiii]] This analysis of Samir Amin that sharply contrasts with the West’s perception of Islam shed some light on one the most intricate issues that political scientists and philosophers have grappled with, namely the role of religion in public life, both in the West and in Africa. 

Religion plays a political role in spite of what secularists have been contending with.  Situating religion in the private realm of the personal as some Western scholars try to suggest, does not seem to be accurate.  Just consider Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda that later transformed into the Lord’s Resistance Movement of Joseph Kony. Boko Haram in Nigeria can also be examined from this perspective of “political religion.”  Even in the West, political Christianity played a crucial role in what used to be called “Christendom.”

As an economic historian, Samir Amin was concerned about some of the most problematic polities on Africa.  This is the reason why he devoted part of his intellectual career to studying Congo, the present Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  In 1969 he published Histoire économique du Congo. [[xiv]] This is still a major reference book on the complex economics of DRC.  This giant African nation called DRC is still plagued and haunted by its colonial past.  Its enormous resources have become a “curse” instead of benefiting its impoverished citizens.  Samir Amin would say: “I told you, neo-colonialism is still alive and well.”  I can add that if you want to have a genuine African Renaissance you have first to settle the Congolese question.  DRC with its strategic location in the heart of Africa and endowed with plenty of mineral resources not to mention hydro-power potential, it can easily become the epicentre of African development and Renaissance if only the issues that Samir Amin raised are solved.

The other strategic region that Samir Amin singled out for careful study is Southern Africa. This he did in 1975 in a preface to The Future of Southern Africa. [[xv]] Once again, the dream of an African Renaissance has its roots in Southern Africa.  Here is the reason. If we use the world systems theory that Samir Amin deployed to analyse global capitalism, it is evident that the Southern African region, especially and specifically South Africa, plays the role of semi-periphery.  Global capitalism makes its entry to the rest of Africa via Southern Africa with South Africa as the epicentre.  The future of Southern Africa can only be assured if the capitalistic contradictions are carefully resolved, Samir Amin argued. 

The current economic and political challenges that South Africa faces and other neighbours can be traced to the special type of imperial and racist philosophy that reigned in the entire Southern Africa region before and after independence.  It is not surprising that some of the countries that gained independence late such as Mozambique and Angola (1975), Zimbabwe (1980), Namibia (1991), South Africa (1994), are situated in Southern Africa.


Even though we focused more on Samir Amin’s earlier writings, it is evident that he was a prolific writer whose intellectual legacy lives on.  His fundamental thesis about colonialism, imperialism, development and dependency, is still valid.  Even though he was schooled in Marxist theory, the insights he provided are still relevant even when the Cold War between West and East is supposedly ended.  His intellectual rigour can be a foundation for African Renaissance at a time when the continent is in some kind of ideological and intellectual apathy. 

Let me end by paraphrasing Shakespeare’s words about Julius Caesar: “Samir Amin doth bestride the narrow intellectual world, and we petty humans peep under his huge intellectual legacy, looking around to find ourselves dishonourable places in history.”  But we can also stand on his shoulders and see further he was able to see.  By so doing, we shall make the African Renaissance a reality in our time.  A simple lasting gesture by our universities and research centres would be to name some institutions after Samir Amin, so that posterity does not forget him.


*Doctor Odomaro Mubangizi is Dean of Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he also teaches Social and Political philosophy. He is also Editor of the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.


[i] See Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2004), p. 27.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., p. 265.

[iv] See Samir Amin, Unequal Development: An Essay on Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).

[v] See Samir Amin, L’économie du Maghreb, (Paris: Minuit, 1966); Samir Amin, The Maghreb in the Modern World (Algeria, Tunisa, Morocco (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) and Le Maghreb modern (Paris: Minuit, 1977)

[vi] Samir Amir, Le Monde des affaires sénégalais (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969), pp 207.

[vii] See Samir Amin, Neo-Colonialism in West Africa (Penguin: London, 1973).

[viii] Uhuru is a Swahili word for independence or freedom.  Some parents even named their children who were born around independence day, Uhuru, a case in point being Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president who named his son Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president of Kenya.  Among the Banyankore-Bakiga, the name Kwetegyeka is the equivalent of Uhuru.

[ix] Samir Amin, “Underdevelopment and dependence in black Africa” in Social and Economic Studies, 1973, pp. 177-96.

[x] See, Samir Amin, “Dédevelopment et transformations structurelles.  L’expérience de l’Afrique” (1950-1970) in Tiers-Monde, July-Sept. 1972, pp. 467-90.  See also Samir Amin, Development and Structural Change; the African experience, 1950-70, Journal of International Affairs, 1970/2, pp. 203-23.

[xi] See, Samir Amin, Class and Nation, Historically and in the Current Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980). Other scholars who have addressed the issue of politics of class formation in Africa are: Mahmood Mamdani, Dan Wadada Nabudere, Ibbo Mandaza, John Markakis, among others.

[xii] See, Samir Amin, Eurocentrism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989).

[xiii] See, Samir Amin, “Political Islam” in Covert Quarterly, Winter 2001, p. 3.

[xiv] See, Histoire de économique du Congo (Dakar, 1969).

[xv] See Samir Amin, The Future of Southern Africa (Preface), Dar-es-Salaam, 1975.