What is African Decolonisation in the 21st Century?

Decolonial discourse has been around for a while, at least since the beginning of coloniality itself, circa 1500. However, the narratives seem to be increasingly confined to narrow intellectual spaces.  

But what is decolonisation? Did colonisation not all happen in the 1800s? Is it not all over now? Well, yes and no. In the 1960s, political control was handed back to the colonies. But believing that this process ended colonisation is problematic. Firstly saying control was handed BACK is a falsehood, as power was never received from the colonies. African states are a creation of colonisation. As long as these states exist, unchanged, colonisation is with us. Secondly, political control is subjective and fluid. Most post-colonial states are not in actual control of their territories. Thirdly, restricting decolonisation to a moment, ignores the whole context in which colonisation occurred – the whole nature of international relations before and after colonialism. If these remain unchanged then there is no true decolonisation.

“By decoloniality it is meant … the dismantling of relations of power and conceptions of knowledge that foment the reproduction of racial, gender, and geo-political hierarchies that came into being or found new and more powerful forms of expression in the modern/colonial world.” Nelson Maldonado-Torres

By restricting decolonisation to a moment we deny the state of the world which is built on hierarchies and exclusivities. We ignore the fact that colonialism was founded on a ‘civilising mission’ which fashioned the ignorant ‘other’ who needed reformation. We ignore the mechanisms of colonisation which include the infantilisation of knowledges and cultures and languages. We refuse to acknowledge that decolonisation cannot be complete without engaging with these issues. G S Spivak identifies colonisation as the highest form of epistemic violence. She asks that the:

narrative of imperialism be recognized as ‘subjugated knowledge,’ ‘a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity’’G.S Spivak ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’

Postcolonial theorists therefore recognise that the colonial project was concerned and consumed with classifying the ‘other’, in every respect as vastly inferior, as vastly inhuman. However, this process did not start with colonialism, nor did it end with the handing over of the keys of the colonies. Till Africa acknowledges its status as still colonised, with colonial ideologies and mechanisms still in place, we will not be able to begin to road to freedom. Till we see the chains that bind us and throw them off, we are complicit in our own oppression.


Understanding Hierarchies of Knowledge

One of the major mechanisms for colonisation is the idea of knowledge. ‘Knowledge is power’, is a cliché, because it is true. The consequence of the colonial encounter between Europe and Africa was to establish thereafter the parameters for global power and the gateway of acceptable language, knowledge, jurisprudence and thought. I discuss these issues in an article titled ‘Decolonising Education in Africa‘. I also examine the role of language in a previous blog post.

The colonial relationship functioned through acculturation mechanisms such as ‘assimilation’ and ‘association’, predicated on presumed African inferiority. Mbembé states that colonisation was an enterprise of appropriation, familiarisation and utilisation. The overall result was to effectively silence African history, knowledge and autonomy.

‘Colonization as an enterprise of domestication includes at least three factors: the appropriation of the animal (the native) by the human (the colonist); the familiarization of man (the colonist) and the animal (the native); and the utilization of the animal (the native) by the human (the colonist).’Achille Mbembe ‘On the Postcolony.’

V. Y Mudimbe talks about the ‘colonial library’ – a virtual collection of knowledge of and in Africa. Because knowledge empowers and disempowers, if knowledge of the African is so deep-seated and cannot be contested, knowledge itself renders the African powerless. Syrotinski describes Mudimbe’s analogy of the African intellectual postcolonial theorist as:

‘an African researcher who rides up and down in a lift, believing he or she is in control of its movement, all the while unaware that Western technicians in fact [possess the knowledge of its operation and ultimately determine the limits of its freedom.’ M Syrotinski ‘Deconstruction and the Postcolonial’

True freedom can only be achieved through the de-hierarchization of knowledge. Till African knowledge production stops being othered or trivialised, we will not truly be free.


Colonial Boundaries That Separate and Entrap

But how do we self-liberate when our polities silence us? The divergence of pre-colonial states and independent states based on colonial boundaries influences state fragility in Africa. “Pays frontier  is a very African phenomenon. These are:

“geographical areas that lie across the boundary separating two or several neighbouring states, and are inhabited by people bonded by socio-cultural and economic links”  ECOWAS

The political landscape of Africa has become mired in the lines on the ground that separate brothers and bind together enemies. This was prefaced by the divide-and-conquer approach of colonialism which has been imported into contemporary African politics. Africa’s borders are the most artificial borders in the world. They are illogical, arbitrary and haphazard. They are a result of people drawing lines of paper with absolute disregard for the people on the representative ground. They are colonial. As long as we fail to address our borders, we will not be free. Freedom lies ahead.



Of Undemocratic Democracy

It has been suggested that weak African states can be strengthened by adherence to democracy. Different forms of international pressures are now placed on states to make them hold elections. The problem with democracy in a colonial system of international relations, is that it evidently does not work. Firstly, the presupposition is that democracy is the only form of “good governance.” Furthermore, Fabry has been suggested that democracy “must ultimately be the choice and responsibility of those who are to live under it rather than outsiders.” . Therefore, internationally imposing internal democracy on people who have not chosen themselves to have democratic government denies them the freedom of choice and fundamental freedom of existence. It also speaks to the ‘other’ because it is paternalistic and presumes persistent pre-logical thought in need of direction. In practice, democracy in Africa has purposively been appropriated by the political elite and used to empower politicians and not populations. This is because democracy, as it is currently designed, does not reflect the needs, aspirations and characteristics of the people of Africa. It does not speak to African worldviews such as Ubuntu or Ujamaa. Democracy in Africa is colonial. By using it as a tool of liberation, without acknowledging our particularity, we are attempting to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.


Where Then is the World That is Ours?

We then realise that the we are excluded from the table of world affairs. I have argued earlier that the contemporary idea of Africa is made from silence, characterised by absence, viewed at a distance and is replete with lost memories. I have also argued that we cannot hope to chart a way forward for when we know nothing of where our people have been, the dreams they have dreamed, the hopes, the victories, the tragedies and triumphs of the past. As was noted in movie Sarafina (1992), we know the name of the first white man in South Africa, but not the name of the first man in South Africa. We know the name of the first white man in America but not the name of the first person of colour in America. We say Mungo Park discovered the Niger River, but we never reported it missing. We have accepted an immutable hierarchy of existence, in which we occupy the lowest rung. I have previously obliquely alluded to Conrad’s premise of Africa in his book ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Edward Said’s critique of Conrad notes that, despite Conrad’s disgust for colonial horrors, a world where Europe did not exercise mastery over Africa was beyond Conrad’s imagination. Where then is the world that is ours? It is a world that we must imagine devoid of colonial inferences. These colonial inferences are political and intellectual, but also play out in language, representation, in control of hair and skin.

Decolonisation and Language use: Linguistics and semantics

Having written extensively about this earlier, I will just highlight a few points here. An integral part of the colonial project was the introduction of non-lyrical European languages and the written text. Consequently many Africans only write fluently in a European language, but speak one or more African languages fluently. This is evident in the fact that there are many more African creative writers writing in European languages than in African languages. So in African schools, learners simultaneously struggle with language and text; this doubles the mental effort required to learn, disrupting the learning process. Furthermore this use of language has contributed to the disappearance of African languages and customs – languages that sustain a peoples’ worldview. Our values are dying with our languages – and so are we. Because our languages are dying. Who we are is dying. We are dying.


The Politics of Hair and Skin 

Hair is colonised because black hair falls at the bottom of the hierarchy of acceptable hair. From South Africa, to Savanna, the question of what is acceptable black hair, is political. Mostly due to ignorance. But is also a question of hierarchy and acceptability. Black skin is often lightened for the same reasons.

‘For many black women, simply wearing our hair in its own natural state can become a complex and politicised act.’ Emma Dabiri The New Statesman

‘Every woman of colour has battled with Eurocentric, white supremacist beauty ideals at some point in her life. These ideals act as the yardstick on which every woman’s beauty is measured by. With so many of our daily interactions dogged by patriarchy, this isn’t just beauty for beauty’s sake. Beauty is currency – and for too many of us, it’s interchangeable with self-worth.’ Reni Eddo-Lodge Feminist Times


Of Arts, Fiction and Other Media


Postcolonial theorists consider the ideas of hierarchical difference in how the image of Africa is reproduced or represented in literature as well as new and old media. The idea or invention of Africa cannot be divorced from the ideology that drove colonisation – the distinction between the supposedly civilised and the supposedly uncivilised. That ideology pervades Africa’s current relation with the rest of the world – power structures, politics, language and knowledge. And this false dichotomy is produced and reproduced in all forms of media. Like the persistent photocopying of a fading copy, our truth fades… as does our liberty. So we need to tell our own stories, without fear, without remorse, unflinchingly, defiantly.

“Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.”
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

‘Africa is not rich or poor, educated or illiterate, progressive or archaic. What Africa is depends on which part of it you are referring to. No single story can adequately reflect that, but a multiplicity of stories can and should broaden our received wisdom about the continent. ‘ Nancy Kacungira BBC


‘It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality. The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.’ S Biko We Blacks, I Write What I Like, 1978.

In the final analysis, we still speak of African decolonisation in the 21st century, because we are yet to begin the long road to becoming… becoming ourselves.


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