ACCRA — The wrong assumption that scientific thinking means thinking in conformity with western culture sits deep in the mentality of the (mis)-educated African. While dealing with colonial remnants, contingencies and instrumentalisation, education, which is the core of what is supposed to free Africans from this straight jacket, is getting more and more entrapped with the web of imperialist ideology. This is dangerous because it concerns the power of knowledge and how we choose to impact knowledge to the next generation.
The National Accreditation Authorities of African countries are licensing numerous foreign tertiary institutions to provide tertiary education to fill the gap of governments’ inability to provide adequate education coverage. Anyone who has thought of what impact education has on society will be alarmed by the German, Indians, Ukrainians, Chinese, British, U.S., and even Hungarian curricula popping up in colleges and private universities in countries like Ghana. This can only continue to deepen the epistemological confusion of the continent.
The sad fact that the science of epistemology (and the metaphysics) has never been considered within an African context in the scope of modern state system is inherent in all failing developmental agendas on the continent. An attempt to re-examine what exactly is knowledge and how this is propagated has not only become important, but also necessary.
This article reviews the modern notion of African understanding and definition of knowledge, within the African context. A person considered knowledgeable in Africa is most likely educated within a foreign curriculum. The African elite in essence can only impact their communities with foreign ideas and thus encourage their people to flee the foundations upon which the African community is built.
In addressing the origins and how this affects Africa in practice, I use two complementary ideas: (1) the confusion and overlap of dualistic governance and (2) how quick African leaders who were hewn from the European political system sought foreign relations after independence.
In order to understand these contemporary ideas we need to apprehend the main epistemological tool used for colonizing knowledge. To know, analyze and interpret another culture – whether it is an American seeking to understand Ghana, or an Angolan seeking to understand India – it is inevitably an act of translation. Outsiders make an effort to make the assumptions, meanings, structures and dynamics of our society and culture comprehensible to them.
The detriment to us is that this effort fails to offer us a similar depth of their assumptions from our perspective. But for other people’s knowledge to become dominant, three things must happen: (1) that dominant norm must dictate our knowledge, (2) disciplinary studies must be conveyed through that norm and (3) area studies must be used to implement it.
Area studies is a tool of colonial epistemology and it is prone to failure in Africa. The Eurocentric instrumentalisation of knowledge is a problem that needs to be addressed. I will address the difficulties that social science disciplines, humanities and epistemology in general faced in post-independence Africa.
While most ordinary Africans were euphoric about independence, Ali Mazrui, Franz Fanon, Aime Cesar, Amílcar Cabral, W. E. B Dubois and other intellectuals worried that many emerging African intellectuals and politicians would desperately copy the same Eurocentric bourgeoisie and metropolitanism with which they were colonized. They were worried that the metaphysical instrumentalisation of the continent would remain and prevent an authentic African development.
Thus, independence actually highlighted heavy intellectual challenges, especially in education it highlighted challenges in the social sciences and humanities. The difficulties to physical and natural sciences were pretty clear from the onset. As “social-value-free sciences” the difficulties were simply underlined by the need for a good foundation in laboratories and equipment.
On the other hand, the social sciences – the sciences of shaping metaphysical boundaries – struggled because the cognitive bases of African thoughts and actions had gone through serious devolution. Contingently, it became impossible to conduct natural and physical science experiments with African ideas.
Although Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, for example, sought the cognitive understanding of development before physical implementation, in reality nothing changed. The metaphysical indoctrination and epistemological control over Ghana, and Africa, through the foreign educated elite continued through area studies.
Few understood that fields like political studies needed a fresh start. From the logic and descending nature of international norms and normative approaches, political science remained entirely European in its nature and methodologies. In addition, the West condemned almost all African governance systems to be informal, exotic and just vernacular.
How Science Became Un-African
Professor Ali Mazrui, one of Africa’s renowned intellectuals had acquired his knowledge and perspective growing up speaking Swahili, practicing Islam and attending an English-speaking school in Mombasa, Kenya. He told the New York Times, “Africa has been defined by the interplay of indigenous, Islamic and Western influences“.
In my view, the western influences seem to have worn out. The problem with the sociology of the process of political transformation in Africa was that any process had to operate within a colonial cosmopolitanism based on the Christian commonwealth of identity, which classified a greater portion of the population as the ‘other’.
However, the frank efforts in Africa for social change found encouragement in the diaspora. From the Paris Exhibition of April, 1900 organized by francophone and Anglophone Caribbean intellectuals and the first Pan African Conference of July, 1900, up to the congresses in Paris (1919), London (1921 and 1923), New York (1927), Manchester (1945), Dar es Salam (1974) to Kampala (1994), African diasporan and continental efforts on the social and political stage for freedom and liberty found a common ground.
The lack of economic development in Africa stifled the growth of key educational departments like an authentic African area studies and economics. By the mid-1950s, African countries began to perceive the need for unity among themselves in order to bring about a new type of relationship with the industrialized countries.
The effort to unite was under the pressure that The Bretton Wood institutions – The International Bank for Reconstruction and development (IBRD or World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) – were only established without African involvement to further focus on the monitory and trade exploitation of Africa.
Even in the field of International Relations there was a shortage of intellectual materials to position Africa to (re)-construct her development. For example, until the emergence of social constructivism whose core arguments are in line with the social stratification of Africa, international studies depended on the myth of the Eurocentric state system.
Anthropology and the study of divinity were seen as the most contaminated disciplines and tools of indoctrination. In other words, they were some of the main tools used in achieving political control over Africa. The prominence of leftism and bohemian thinking and later, postmodernism in the post-independence era criticized and questioned anthropology as a viable science, while the study of divinity in the early aftermath of the colonial period, did a lot to refine itself.
History too is perhaps the most distorted in view of the consistent discrepancies it faced. After a long break from colonization a tug of war between colonial instrumentalisation and the struggle of Africans for their views to matter ensued. This became the ‘underground’ debate, which remained entirely within academic dialectics until postmodernist theories later sought to push the discussion beyond academic boundaries in the 1980s.
NGOs have also come to shape contemporary African history and become factors of a new scramble for influence in Africa with a recent dimension being Bill Gates, other ‘philanthropists’ and other neoliberal ‘global citizenship’ based approaches, which just like the others, hamper Africa’s capacity to be self-reliant.
Furthermore, by classifying the languages, cultures, literature, philosophies and musicology of Africa as mere “vernaculars”, and giving them exotic meaning, they were downgraded to items impossible to make sense epistemologically. Like any other abstract item, if their epistemological traits are not encouraged, their ontological and in fact their whole metaphysical existence become questionable as nobody cares to encourage their investigation.
Moreover, our legal norms have become rooted in foreign social norms while African social structures although arguably firmer, are discarded as unnecessary jurisprudence that should never be taught. Most African intellectuals subscribe to the meaning of jurisprudence from a European view point without asking why the European context of jurisprudence is backed by the support of the state monopoly.
Here is arguably where divinity studies played its key role because Eurocentric democratic ideas were disseminated as inherent to Christian values. By portraying the complexion of a savior as white, with blue eyes and blonde hair, and every good thing as white, the precedence was set for everything scientific, epistemological and enlightened to be Eurocentric.
This resulted in a dualism in governance in Africa.
Problems of Lack of Knowledge in State Formation and Political Development
Pre-independence nationalism was supposed to translate into post-independence patriotism, but the loyalty, devotion and partnership that patriotism required could not be built because the dualistic nature of governance – African monarchs coexisting with western political systems – meant further confusion for the folks.
The leaders of the European political system in Africa also sought relations in haste without any ideological and cognitive considerations. States continued in the footprints of colonial creations, which in themselves were problematic. This artificiality continues to be the greatest obstacle to a dynamic and stable statehood.
The standing junior army officers trained and left behind by colonial powers used military technologies far outweighing local ones to hold onto power. Military rule therefore was to be facilitated by national political institutions hastily cobbled to fill the gap left by colonial rule. It was clear that the military was going to push civilian rule aside to stay for a while.
It is also not to be forgotten that colonial rule destroyed the so-called indigenous democracies that held society together prior to European occupation. The military had none of the ideas on which the Eurocentric state system was founded. Neither did they know how traditional states functioned. As dualism continued, the complications continued.
Studies show that the most amended laws in post-independence Africa has been sedition laws in favor of the military leaders in crushing opposition. However, most of the post-independence sedition laws providing for preventive detention, and abrogating fundamental rights are all direct carry-overs from the colonial era.
Even as Africans work within the Western academic context, critics fear that political systems and strategic security thinking face the most difficulty in producing an ‘intellectually distinct’ framework. This problem is also initiated from the commonwealth of identity shared with colonial powers. Authors from the colonial Empires wrote on Africa regardless of whether views were right and withstood empirical scrutiny or not.
Although indigenous authorship is gaining prominence in contributing to African literature and knowledge forms, they are far from becoming accepted epistemological changes. While these traditions are being created in Africa, the lack of a unified approach means these new multi-dimensions of intellectual endeavors end up with bizarre, confusing and diverging directions for a collective intellectualism on the continent.
With strong armies, however, that admire the colonial power and have no problem using violence against the people they should be protecting, the functional logics of the states and their institutions are a long way from defining the true totality and identity of the African state.
Conclusion: The Future
Any intellectual prospect of disciplinary studies, and for knowledge to have a real meaning in Africa, there’s a need for understanding the structural problems before any cognitive deliberations. For now, the future rests on the prospect of an authentic African political system and the power of the international brokers in it.
Any good translation of any of the idioms, mores and customs of society – whether it’s a poem, a speech, a social event or a culture – into knowledge must be done with a serious attempt to understand the structural meaning and dynamics as well as the societies that they characterize. The culture must be set in its own language and history. The struggles of Africa’s own intellectual interpretation and the acceptance of African intellectual work must be enforced in this regard.
African intellectuals must ensure that disciplines that deal with social change have authentic African frameworks designed to make them work and to epistemologically matter within the local context. New scholarship avenues must be created and any such scholarship must come with new forms of knowledge, either refined from the old or newly invented.