Review: Decolonization and its discontents

Jenna Marshall on a lively if flawed argument to find a way forward in a debate that has descended ‘into acrimony’.

The World Today Published 3 August 2022 Updated 27 October 2022 3 minute READ

Dr Jenna Marshall

Lecturer, International Studies, King's College London

Against Decolonization: Taking African Agency Seriously
Olufemi Taiwo, Hurst, £14.99

Decolonization was once heralded as a moment of potential and possibility for the formerly imperial world to chart a new way forward no longer tied to the apparatus of empire.

It marked a period of transition to nation states – and an expansion of a rights-based international community that would dispense with the morally bankrupt regime of racism, dispossession and subjugation that characterized colonialism.  

The descent of the decolonization debate

Half a century later, the debate surrounding decolonization has descended into acrimony. Some factions cast the issue of decolonization as a sustained attack on British and western culture writ large; other disparate voices coalesce around related social justice issues such as inequality, climate change and education. 

Decolonization has become ubiquitous in the public domain – and its ubiquity is the problem

Decolonization has become ubiquitous in the public domain – and its ubiquity is the problem. In Against Decolonization, Olufemi Taiwo renounces a concept he conceives as having been emptied of serious study and analytical purchase; one incapable of addressing the complexities of modern global politics and more importantly, Africa’s place in it. 

Although the book attacks the inexhaustible ways in which the ‘trope of decolonization’ has been deployed, Taiwo is less bothered by the purported failures of scholars he deems ‘decolonizers’ and focuses his attention instead on the political landscape of African countries, past and present. 

Central to the book’s argument are two distinct scholarly strands on decolonization. The first, legal focus, centres on the political and economic forces of state-building. The second essays an ‘ideology’ of decolonization that rests on ‘forcing an ex-colony to forswear on pain of being forever under the yoke of colonization 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’. 

Whether one should characterize the latter as simply a field of study or a potential set of policy arrangements remains unclear – yet what is certain is that it is too nebulous, too elastic, too open-ended to offer any substantive model or mechanism to understand postcolonial Africa. 

Correcting Eurocentric narcissism

 The decolonization research agenda in Africa came to prominence during the Cold War period of national liberation struggles.

The intellectual project that followed centred on dismantling Eurocentrism as colonial subjugation through its promotion of the West as the crucible of legitimate and scientific knowledge. Since then, scholars have argued that decolonization itself has become compromised by its enduringly Eurocentric gaze at the expense of the agency of African thinkers, creatives and statesmen and women. 

Taiwo seeks to correct this narcissism – and the omissions left in its wake – by introducing lesser-known Africans and pan-African scholars and cultural figures. These voices, he hopes, will illuminate issues often ignored by ‘decolonizers’ and spark a ‘renewed interest in an appreciation of the many different ways in which African thinkers have responded to the colonial experience’.

The decolonization of language

Taiwo challenges the decolonization of language as an oversold promise.

Romanticizing an imagined, pristine African pre-colonial past, he says, ultimately leads to nativism and atavism. As a case in point, Taiwo highlights bureaucratic instances of ‘language policy planning’ to deploy African languages in places such as Niger, Mali, Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria that were hindered by multilingualism, education and high rates of illiteracy.

The abstract language of decolonization allows western scholars to engage with the concept without considering their own complicity in upholding systems of exclusion

The author goes on to confront the abstract language of decolonization, which, he says, allows western scholars to unproblematically engage with the concept without any serious consideration of their own complicity in upholding systems of exclusion. It entrenches their own institutional power within the academy, amplifies their perspectives at the expense of others, and limits the possibilities for understanding the problems of world politics with deleterious effects on policy.

It is a serious claim, but there are issues to be addressed: Taiwo assumes there is coherence among scholars of decolonization, which is not the case. 

When Taiwo approaches how to foster political systems that cater to the needs of their citizens he dismantles the binary of ‘West as modern’ v ‘Africa as traditional’. Chieftaincies as traditional African governance, he points out, were the product of colonial anthropology, not Africans themselves. From the Fanti Confederation of 1871 to the Egba United Government in what is now Nigeria, Taiwo demonstrates that there has been a sustained tradition towards demands for democratic values. 

As he concedes an intellectual neglect of African philosophers that underlies the design and operations of Africa’s political institutions, Taiwo’s initial dismissal of the significance of cultural decolonization deserves another look. How should political and economic drives toward self-determination be advanced in the absence of knowledge shaped and mediated through African lived experiences?

In this respect, the tale of two decolonizations – the legal alongside the ideological – suggest an unhelpful, if not false, binary.

The problem of reconciling modernity and colonialism

What resonates throughout the book is the idea that Europe cannot profess to hold an exclusive intellectual claim to modernity. Its universal aspirations are open to all of humanity, allowing those who have historically been marginalized to be worldmakers. 

The idea that modernity and colonialism are irreconcilable is problematic. For instance, Taiwo argues that the curtailment of capitalism in Africa by restricting the growth of the middle classes while limiting competition between African capitalists and the metropole is the consequence of colonialism.

Capitalism not only requires inequality for it to function but that race – as a mechanism for producing ‘difference’ – enshrines it

Yet the celebrated cultural anthropologist Sidney Mintz established an understanding that the matter for debate is not whether non-westerners were part of the modern system, but how and to what degree they were included and able to actualise its ideals. 

The emerging capitalist world economy needed non-western lands and labour, and so they were conscripted to this end. Recent abolitionist and black radical scholarship has built on this argument to maintain that capitalism not only requires inequality for it to function but that race – as a mechanism for producing ‘difference’ – enshrines it.

Acknowledging the unacknowledged

In the end, Taiwo communicates a palpable frustration at the state of academic discourses on contemporary Africa under the guise of emancipatory and radical scholarship. He offers an alternative approach whereby African students might rid themselves of a faddism that is ‘at best unsatisfactory’ and at worst produces ‘confusion, obscurantism, if not outright distortion and falsification’.

Yet out of this irritation, Taiwo’s greatest contribution in Against Decolonization might be to urge an acknowledgement of how and to what degree decolonization has become subdued and its political possibilities curtailed. He ultimately urges us to reconsider the purpose of the decolonization academic movement as an ethics to abide by rather than a social theory of the postcolonial world. 

This requires those ‘decolonizers’ on whose careers the term is built to adopt greater intellectual humility – to resist the posture of the anarchist radical scholar armed for the ‘good fight’. Instead, they should apply a scholarly curiosity to genuinely engage with those already on the battlefield, so to speak; those ‘doing the work’ in practice, but who have been unacknowledged until now.