In this edition of The Interview, Nigerian academic Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò explains why Africa’s decolonization movement has got it wrong – and why Africans urgently need to reclaim their agency. Táíwò works at Cornell University in the US, where he is Professor of African Political Thought and Chair at the Africana Studies and Research Center.
Táíwò is a noted scholar and a provocative thinker. His views can be controversial. He says: “A lot of the decolonization movement is complete nonsense, it’s totally irrelevant. And I use very strong language because these people are causing a lot of damage in the continent.”
It is for this reason Táíwò fights back against the movement that spurred “Rhodes Must Fall’ and called for colonial reparations. Before this interview, he had just returned from Nigeria where his mother passed away but Táíwò says he’s keen to take his mind off his loss. And while he starts off gently, his appeals become more impassioned as he warms to his theme.
Táíwò’s book, Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously, prompted a FO° Live discussion on June 28 earlier this year: In 2022, Can and Does Africa Determine Its Own Destiny?
Táíwò’s book has now been recommended by The Financial Times. As per this venerable British newspaper, the book “makes a powerful case for how Africans can get out of their malaise: not by being trapped in a psychological state of victimhood, but by reclaiming their agency.”
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Claire Price: Agency is a big theme of your book – how do you define it?
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: One of the central tenants of modernity is the idea of the self. That’s the agency that I’m talking about – that the individual is the author of her or his life script. Many of us are messed up and write very terrible scripts for ourselves but however we write it, what is important is that we own it. The colonialists substituted themselves for the agency of the colonized. While that lasted, the colonized didn’t give up their agency – they kept on contesting the power and authority of the colonizers. But much of the decolonising literature does not take seriously this agency of the African. And by making it seem as if colonialism is the axis on which to plot Africa’s entire phenomenon is just wrong.
Price: Do you feel that many African writers deny their own agency by blaming colonialism for their problems?
Táíwò: Much of the decolonising literature, not African writers but decolonising literature, is vested in that. But the fact that we can’t blame colonialism for everything does not mean we can’t blame colonialism for anything.
Price: Have you faced criticism that you underplay the impact of colonialism?
Táíwò: Unfortunately no, I haven’t faced criticism.
Price: Is that fortunately or unfortunately?
Táíwò: Unfortunately! Who knows, in this book, I might get some people’s goat and they might challenge it. But previously, it was thought that colonialism brought modernity to Africa. I argued in my first book that modernity was introduced to Africa by the missionaries and that those ideas were stifled by colonialism. And 12 years since its publication, no-one has challenged this thesis. That’s not a boast, it’s just the honest truth.
Price: I’m going to go through a few things that people blame colonialism for. First, borders. Isn’t the decolonisation movement right to blame Europeans for drawing up arbitrary borders and causing all sorts of trouble?
Táíwò: I have argued in the book that it’s been 60 years now that most of Africa has been independent. If Africans don’t like their borders, they could do something about them. Those borders are not sacrosanct – look at Eritrea, Sudan and the secessionist movements in Cameroon. There is no country in the world that is natural, all borders are artificial. In fact, most of the world’s countries are multinational states. Just look at the United Kingdom and Russia.
Price: The second charge is tribal conflict, which people claim was exacerbated by the colonizers’ divide and rule policy. We can see how that played out in the recent Kenyan elections.
Táíwò: First, you need to get rid of that terminology. There are no tribes. That’s straight out of racist colonial anthropology. You don’t look to the national group that I belong to and call it a tribe. It’s global, it’s multi-ethnic, there are a lot of different dialects with regional variations. It has a civilization that dates back at least one thousand years.
When Europe was making the transition to modernity and the feudal structure was being broken up, they migrated to cities under their tribal affiliations. As capitalism grew, they started organizing themselves according to guilds and that was the start of the trade union movement. Africans wanted to do the same under the colonial movement – but the colonial authorities pre-empted them and insisted that Africans organized themselves by tribal unions.
Price: So they can be blamed?
Táíwò: Yes, they could be blamed for exacerbating tensions but some Africans have tried to craft different identities since independence – and some of their experiments have succeeded. For example, you don’t have those tensions in Tanzania, which is made up of various ethnic and national groups. That’s not the way they organize their elections. Even when you talk about Zanzibar, those tensions are religious rather than ethnic. And in Senegal, everybody now speaks Wolof – we’re seeing the Wolofisation of Senegal.
Claire: You’ve talked about languages there. Can African thinkers be truly “decolonized” if they write in English or French?
Táíwò: Why do people assume that you cannot domesticate a language? We live in a world of several Englishes. I work in the US and I went to school in Canada and they don’t speak the same English. And they are not the same as UK English. Why are Indians celebrated for calibrating English in their own way and Africans are treated as if they are still minions. It doesn’t make sense.
That’s the reason why a lot of the decolonisation movement is complete nonsense, it’s totally irrelevant. And I use very strong language because these people are causing a lot of damage in the continent.
English did not just come with colonialism. Africans have been writing in English since 1769. Formal colonialism did not come to West Africa until 1865. Do you want to throw away 100 years of history?
And who insisted that Africans should speak their own indigenous languages and only speak enough English to service the colonial machine? The colonizers!
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Price: Ethiopian American academic Adom Getachew has said that: “Acknowledging that colonial history shapes the current inequalities and hierarchies that structure the world sets the stage for the next one: reparations and restitution.” What are your thoughts on that?
Táíwò: Honestly, I don’t touch that. And the reason why is a very simple one. There’s a reparations movement for those who were forcibly brought to the Americas, which was later expanded to include reparations for colonial rule. People need to separate the two.
As an African immigrant to the United States, I cannot be part of the reparation movement for black people in this country because there’s no basis for it. If I come from West Africa; a country like Nigeria, Ghana or Sierra Leone, from which many people were shipped off as slaves, I need to do some very serious genealogy. Because if I’m from one of those families that profited from it, I should be paying reparations! We need to take history very seriously.
The idea that people went in and kidnapped people – yes that’s how it started but eventually a market was created. Willing buyer, willing seller. Unfortunately, we’re still making the same deals. If we say we were coerced then and we’re still being coerced now, then we’re permanent children.
In 50 years, maybe our grandchildren will be asking the Chinese for reparations for what they’re doing in Africa right now. And that’s the fault of the Chinese? No, I’m sorry. We need to have internal debates about this. We should not pretend that Africans are victims all along.
Price: Why do these ideas matter?
Táíwò: As I did my research for this book, I said wait a minute, is this what people are peddling about pre-colonial history? Are you suggesting that how life was led in Africa in 15th century was the same as in the 19th century?
The kind of granular engagement with the complexity of life and thought in different parts of Africa is being effaced on a daily basis. That cannot be good for the future of scholarship about the African continent. That for me is not just a disservice, it’s really bordering on the criminal.
I’m sorry that I have to speak in very strong terms. This is not a divergence, it’s not academic. It’s about how Africa is going to deliver for its citizens. These are ideas that go to the heart of human dignity.
I don’t see the decolonisation movement getting into all that. It’s all about chasing slights. Not slights for ordinary people but for academics.
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