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Book Review Undermining the African agency

MARJORIE MAYO praises a book that raises significant questions challenging the limitations of extreme forms of decolonisation

Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously
by Olufemi Taiwo
Hurst £14.99

DECOLONISATION has become highly topical as an issue, along with the challenges that Black Lives Matter poses to racism more generally.

In so many different contexts students have been demanding the decolonisation of their programmes of study, challenging the continuing legacy of colonial assumptions, especially colonial assumptions about the superiority of Western cultures, devaluing the histories of non-Western cultures in the process. There are so many issues here for the left to consider.

Against decolonisation: Taking African agency seriously offers a controversial contribution to these debates.  

Writing as a Nigerian scholar, Taiwo starts by distinguishing between two different approaches to decolonisation. Decolonisation 1 focuses on the processes and struggles through which the colonised won their political freedom.

Decolonisation 2 represents a far more problematic notion, meaning something entirely different in his view: “Forcing an ex-colony to forswear, on pain of being forever under the yoke of colonisation, any and every cultural, political, intellectual, social and linguistic artefact, idea, process, institution and practice that retains even the slightest whiff of the colonial past.”

Decolonisation is being used as a catch-all trope, he argues, confusing debates and, most importantly, undermining African agency in the process – implying that Africans have been passive victims, unable to decide for themselves as to which colonial legacies to reject and which to adapt for their own futures.

Against Decolonisation goes on to explore the implications when it comes to the politics of language. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been much quoted as arguing that authors should write in their own African languages, for example, rather than writing in the languages of their former colonisers.

The reality is more complex, however. Languages are typically hybrid, incorporating new words from other languages when required, as with the arrival of new technologies, for example.

Similar complexities arise when it comes to decolonising philosophy. Rather than simply rejecting Western philosophers and Western political thinkers, along with notions of modernity, Taiwo makes the case for recognising the significance of Africans’ agency, making their own decisions about what to reject – or not to reject.

There are elements of the colonial past that have continuing relevance in these respects in Taiwo’s view, just as there are elements of the pre-colonial past, such as child marriage, which should have no place in the post-colonial future.

He is particularly sceptical about attempts to revert to an idealised pre-colonial past. His own preference is for modernity and for liberal forms of democracy.

Taiwo is definitely not a Marxist. But his book does raise significant questions all the same, challenging the limitations of extreme forms of decolonisation, as he describes these as “Decolonisation 2,” throwing the baby of critical Western thinking  out with the bathwater of the colonial past.

There are vital questions about decolonisation that do still need to be addressed from a Marxist perspective though, including the continuing influences of colonial attitudes, traces of lingering racist, xenophobic nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past.  

Morning Star readers may find it useful to explore some of the issues that this book raises, but from a Marxist, neo-colonial, anti-imperialist perspective.



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