Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously
Author: Olùfèmi Táíwò
Publisher: Hurst, UK
Olufemi Taiwo has written a book of over 250 pages with the main point already presented in the title; Taiwo takes a clear stance against the entire ideological decolonisation project that has dominated academic discussions about Africa for the past decade. He argues that the decolonisation project is a passive act that robs Africans of both authority and responsibility. The book is praised by the Indian literary theorist, author, and Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak, who claims that the book is indispensable for anyone interested in power relations between former colonisers and colonised.
Olufemi Taiwo is no ordinary person. The Nigerian is a philosophy professor at Cornell (USA) and has an impressive academic background, mostly in African philosophy but also in politics and history. His TED Talk on why Africa must become a more central knowledge producer in the world has been viewed over a million times.
Political decolonisation took place in most African states in the 1960s. Taiwo acknowledges that colonialism has impacted the lives and thoughts of the colonised but argues stubbornly that colonialism does not define who Africans are today. «I am Yoruba, I am Nigerian, I am African, I am a human being, and I have had a number of different roles in my life», he writes.
He argues that Africans, like everyone else, can choose their identities and roles. He argues that unless Africans choose to be defined by colonialism, we cannot demand that everything – such as education, university subjects, and state institutions – be decolonized.
If multi-party elections and liberal democracy are a Western invention that colonisers have imposed on Africa, as many decolonisation ideologues claim, we must not decolonize liberal democracy. Instead, we must get rid of it outright, he argues. But since, for example, this has not been done, and people protest every time a multi-party election is not conducted relatively freely or every time an African president tries to change the constitution to extend their own presidency – it must mean that Africans want a liberal democracy with multi-party elections. Taiwo believes that if they choose to organise modern African states with the institutions established by the colonial powers, they must adapt the institutions to their reality and anchor them in their own philosophy.
African states do not differ significantly from other states in this regard. All states struggle to adapt modern institutions to their own history, cultural context, and ideological climate. Africans have accepted state institutions since liberation in the 1960s. By demanding that they be decolonized now, «we implicitly say that we have accepted to be governed by Europe for almost 60 years.» According to Taiwo, this deprives Africans of responsibility, authority, and agency. The decolonisation demand passivises and marginalises Africans.
Language and identity consistency?
Olufemi Taiwo dedicates a long chapter (60 pages) to various language issues. Which language one uses in schools, administration, and literature has been central to many decolonisation debates. Taiwo is critical of the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who claims that there is a strong correlation between language and identity.
Ngũgĩ believed in the strength of the correlation between language and culture to such an extent that in 1970, he changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and began writing in Kikuyu instead of English. Táíwò argues that the demand to decolonize language becomes absurd if one only wants to prove that an African language can express the same things as English, French, or Portuguese. This leads to a form of «equivalentialism» that adds nothing new to either language. Without stating it explicitly, we sense a slight jab at Ngũgĩ: Ngũgĩ wrote his last two novels in Kikuyu and then translated them into English himself. Táíwò argues that the choice of language to use is personal and has nothing to do with colonial oppression.
In Nigeria, one can read books and pursue higher education in English or Yoruba as desired. Like all other languages, African languages are also constantly evolving. New words and expressions are being created and incorporated, borrowing from other languages, making the languages richer, more nuanced, and more precise. We must simply make the languages our own, as Indians have done with their English – London English is not the same as New Delhi English. As a lament for the absurdity of the ideologically driven decolonisation debate, Táíwò tells us that many Africans who speak and write in a global language are often not invited to decolonisation events because they are not considered proper Africans – according to the politically correct decolonisation ideology.
Táíwò cannot understand why some Africans, more than 60 years after the end of colonialism, still blame the colonisers and the West for everything that does not work, thus underestimating their ability and strength to overcome colonial oppressions.