This post is based on my article ‘The Impact of African Philosophy on the Realisation of International Community and the Observance of International Law’. There, I argue that ignoring African particularity reduces the effectiveness of the international community and almost certainly ensures that international law is never obeyed… except in cases of self-interest.
What is the International Community?
At the sight of any potential cross-border malaise – disease, migration, conflict, terrorism – calls are made to the international community asking it to act. Derision is also cast upon the international community blaming it for its inaction. Why do the calls to the international community not go through? Is there a faulty connection? Or have we run out of airtime? The answer is quite simple. We are mostly dialling a wrong number. Depending on who is making the call, calls to ‘the international community’ could be obliquely referring to all states, the UN, every human being, the US and Europe or states with liberal economies. You do not need a soothsayer to tell you that this identity crisis is likely to result in a lot of buck-passing. To paraphrase Shaggy ‘It wasn’t me they called!’ or as the poem goes ‘Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.’
Nevertheless, due to the increasing interaction, interconnectedness, common interests and shared values in the international sphere, widespread multilateral action is desirable. In the face of increasing threats to international security and the global economy unilateral action may be futile. What stands out in the construction of the international community as suggested above, is that the construction is either powerless or excludes Africa. Africa is never called upon as part of the international community. One argument for why this is so, is because African states do not usually have liberal democracies and/or market economies. This argument is in itself highly self-reflexive and circular and is tied to our (mis)understanding of Africa.
What is Africa?
Africa and its states are an integral part of the international landscape. Africa has 55 countries and at least 1 billion people. The export of African forest and agricultural products, exports from the fishing industry, the export of gold and diamonds, oil and natural gas production, energy and human resources plays a significant role in the global economy. The movement of African labour and resources, voluntary and coerced, have always been part of the international scene. Through historical and contemporary population movements, African culture continues to disperse around the world. Global cuisine, clothing, folklore, religion, arts, music and language have been influenced by Africa.
Africa is a varied collection of disparate states and ethnolinguistic groups with varied customs, cultures and philosophies. Contrary to popular usage, ‘Africa is not a country.’ Nevertheless, states in Africa are defined by three things – precolonial ideology, colonial past and present failure. Linking current failure to colonial past and precolonial failure to avert colonization suggests that African states (as opposed to Africa) are defined solely by colonialism. This is because they exist as postscripts at the end of colonialism, where transitions were marked by incomplete adoption of the Westphalian nature which decolonisation merely alluded to. Their Westphalianism was never completely developed. Now, we have a weird hybrid of colony, sovereign state and precolonial ideology. Is it any wonder that African states suffer from an identity crisis? According to Kreijen, state attainment in Africa was achieved by a ‘legal trick’ which involved the abandonment of ‘effectiveness.’ Therefore according to this theory, African states were recognized outside the classic method of state creation. This has led to inefficient statehood. The lack of effectiveness that Kreijen adduced to African states is exhibited by the fact that the central government’s authority is weak and doubtful; government is ineffectual and riddled with corruption; and there is segmentation of the community and society into various publics into which political allegiance is divided. Democracy has been called upon as the panacea to Africa’s ills.
Democracy as characterised by elections and practised by post-colonial Africa states involves a system of reward before election rather entry into government via election to carry out favoured policies. The desire and impetus to operate liberal democracies are not evident in the populace, as Africa has more patrimonial systems that seek pseudo-messianic figures rather than accountable human representatives. For example, Houphouet-Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire, Nkrumah in Ghana, Diori in Niger, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Nyerere in Tanzania and Toure in Guinea. The tendency towards saviour-like characters was exacerbated by the repression and domination inherent in colonisation. The new post-colonial African leader failed to ‘deliver’ their people, instead they effectively stepped into the role vacated by the colonisers with more visible effects. Creating the myth of the African dictator. The results of implementing democracy through elections in Africa have in many cases been counterproductive, causing conflict, human rights violations and further departure from democratic principles. So is there any hope to be found in precolonial ideology?
Precolonial Ideology/African Philosophy
African philosophy is typified by ‘ancient wisdom’ and legal philosophy usually in the form of oral tradition passed from generation to generation, [though there were ancient writing forms across the continent.] Generational culture norms being passed down ensures that certain values become and remain part of the people. Theories such as ubuntu, ujamaa, umunna bu ike, illustrate African ideological belief in the predominance of the community and the family, the fact that all people within the community should work for the advancement of the community, promote collectivism, and harmony and frown on individualism, focus on interdependence, caring, humanity and show disregard for state boundaries. Menkiti illustrates how this differs from Western society, by pointing out that African community is a fused singular entity. A society is not constituted by individuals, but the society or community constitutes persons. It is an almost collective African belief, that a person attains personhood not by being born, but as a gradual process; personhood involved a continuous state of becoming. Human rights theory is differently understood within African philosophy, calling into question the implementation of international law and the role of the international community.
The Problem with the International Community’s Relationship with Africa
The state recognized by the international community has failed in its Weberian duty but has more external legitimacy than internal. The legal philosophy it is asked to protect differs from the ideology of the individuals it has been called upon to protect. The community to whom the individual has innate allegiance – the community that personifies the individual – has no legal legitimacy to be protected or to protect. International law and the personage of the international community operate on the presumption that all states have the same organic character – there is a presumption that within all states, the relationship between the state and the individual is similar, this disregards the primacy accorded to African community. Further, this presumption attributes characteristics to the post-colonial state which is does not have and was not historically designed to attain. By elevating the sanctity of African states above the human security of African people, international law ignores the African subject in favour of the ‘African project’.
The result of African understanding of community is that the operation of democracy will always fall short; yet any modification of democracy and market economy will be resisted by the international community. Counterintuitively, this permits abuse of liberal democracy by African leaders as the pure application of an African ideology of community in governance will strip them of their power, but an outward show of liberal democracy with establish their political influence. The international community is thus complicit in human rights abuses in Africa resulting from institutional failure. Political participation in Africa is linked to communality, this ensures the entrenchment of ethnic politics, even though liberal democracy wishes to deemphasize the relevance of ethnicity in politics. The adoption of liberal democracy by Africa to appease the ‘international community’, grants the government of Africa access to the exclusive club, but denies the people of Africa admission or protection – ignoring the African subject in favour of the ‘African project’.
The problem with the articulation of international human rights law is that the voices of ordinary people have been ignored. The international community claims to be speaking on their behalf, but they cannot speak what they have not heard. African governments claim to be speaking on behalf of their people, but it is in governments’ self-interest to misconstrue what their people are saying. The debate therefore, ignores the people that need it and becomes largely academic. The possibility of Africa Post-Colonial states living up to the idyll of ‘Westernisation’ or ‘civilisation’ by becoming textbook market economies or liberal democracies is unlikely, despite conservatism in international law prescribing this as the only option. Alternatively, Africa could forge its own identity or ‘sub-international community’ whose ideology has no traction within the mainstream understanding of international law. This is seen in increasing distance of African states from the ICC and black renaissance.
While the international community is definitely more than the sum of its constituent parts, unanimity in the system which would solidify its status as a cohesive unit and grant it distinct legal personality and capacity to act, would only be achieved when and if values are actually shared and not imposed. You cannot impose democracy, like you cannot boast about humility. Furthermore, issues that are of particular interest to Africa are kept off the international agenda until they become important to the rest of the world. The 2014 Ebola crisis is a case in point. Conceptualising the international community should take into consideration a realistic picture of the global value system which is a combination of shared and disparate values as well as a good measure of antagonism.
The effectiveness of the international system and the possibility of the international community cannot be achieved without taking into account Africa and its unique situation and perspectives. Narratives from Africa, such as the ideology of community, should be taken into account. Research should be collaborative across continents. African researchers should be proactive, and non-African researchers should not exclude African narratives. Researchers of Africa need to acknowledge that their objectivity can only be assured by the recognition of their inherent subjectivity. The international community should strengthen its communal aspects, which consists of people and not states. States are not as valuable as people. Without communal (global populace) cohesion, the global community will not become international. International law, therefore, to avoid obsolescence, should have as its goal, absolute truth, absolute equality and absolute justice, notwithstanding of ideological origins.
Ekeh, Peter P. “Colonialism and the two publics in Africa: A theoretical statement.” Comparative studies in society and history 17, no. 1 (1975): 91-112.
Ipinyomi, Foluke Ifejola. “The Impact of African Philosophy on the Realisation of International Community and the Observance of International Law.” International Community Law Review 18, no. 1 (2016): 3-33.
Kreijen, Gerard, and Robert Y. Jennings. State failure, sovereignty and effectiveness: legal lessons from the decolonization of sub-Saharan Africa. Brill Nijhoff, 2004.
Menkiti, Ifeanyi A. “Person and community in African traditional thought.” African philosophy: An introduction 3 (1984): 171-182.