Against Decolonization

In 2022, Olufemi Taiwo published "Against Decolonization: Taking African Agency Seriously" in the African Arguments series by Hurst. The book is provocative and makes some valuable contributions. I also find that the book has some faulty arguments of the straw man and red herring types. For example, in defining decolonization the way he does (see notes below), it provides useful clarity of terms but also seems to disregard a lot of the nuance that the critiqued scholars have expressed. For example, the advocates of decolonization are said to argue that in "short, self-determination should inflect life in ways that are exactly contradictory to those of colonisation" (p. 34), which seems an over-simplification, at best. Another critique of the framing within the decolonization scholarship is the supposed absence of agency (writing about "the post-independence period as if native agency matters little, it at all, is a remarkable failing of the decolonisation discourse" (p. 38)), which seems an inaccurate portrayal of the scholars he quotes, such as Ngugi and Sabelo. Despite some critiques I have of the book, this is worth a read.

The book: "seeks to (1) identify blind spots in current scholarship and direct our attention to how they might be redressed; and (2) show how and why those alternative paths may actually lead to more insights than the existing, dominant orientations. In doing so, I call attention to the themes, thinkers, ideas, movements, programs and writings which are hardly ever referenced in discussions on decolonization. My hope is that expanding our horizons in this way may lead to more robust and, importantly, more accurate explanations of the challenges facing contemporary Africa." (p. xvi)

The terms and definitions: "We should not use the same terms to describe decolonisation1 (the struggle for independence and/or self-determination, the journey from colony to sovereign polity) as we do for decolonisation2 (the continuing dominance in the contemporary world of ideational structures, patterns of thought, etc. ascribed to colonialism)." (p. 40)

Seeming naïveté: "How good can scholarship be if it is blind to the experiences of a significant portion of humanity on account of their 'difference'? Can the 'best' scholarship really be produced if it conveniently ignores the ideas of a particular people and the products of their intellectual engagements with questions that have inspired other peoples to create philosophical models? ... Why not just insist that people write better histories of philosophy without reducing the problem to one of the machinations of colonialism?" (p. 57)

Language: "What is more, in much of West Africa, as part of modernity, English came with Christianity, and the embrace of this language by Africans was not a product of colonial imposition." (p. 125)

Framing: "I suggest that the preoccupation of many Africans with decolonizing is inseparable from our placing colonialism as the defining framework within which to understand and narrate African life and thought. Our past - designated 'precolonial' - is understood in terms determined by colonialism, and our future – postcolonial - is tied to our obsession with leaving it behind. How can we expect to do the latter while privileging colonialism in our own understanding of our history and letting it characterize our discourses beats me." (p. 151-152) 

  243 Hits

The Peasant and the State

Dessalegn Rahmato is one of Ethiopian social scientists, his ideas and publications have shifted public perceptions on issues of land and the rural smallholder farmers. This posts draws upon his work, "The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia, 1950s-2000s" (2008), which is essential reading for anyone interesting in rural Ethiopia.

As a book that covers five decades, Dessalegn begins by setting the stage for how the change of governments was experienced by the rural farming majority: "Over this half century much has changed in the country but much also remains the same. Similarly, while the three political regimes differ radically in a number of significant respects, they also have many things in common, particularly in their relations to the peasantry, their quest for a strong presence in the countryside, and, in some respects, in their approach to development management" (p. 13). What is the same? "An enduring element of state peasant relations is the paternalist attitude towards peasants held by local officials and party activists. Indeed, paternalism permeates all levels of state officialdom, including authorities at the top, and this is reflected in some of the main rural policies of the government. The underlying assumption is that the peasantry needs strong leadership to guide it to the greater good of modernization, as well as to protect it from outsiders with evil intentions, or the foolishness of peasants themselves" (p. 261).

Regarding the shifts: "On the one hand, agrarian change has removed some of the forces of peasant domination, but on the other hand, it has enhanced the power of the state over the peasant and inhibited the agency of the rural producers" (p. 23). On the Derg, the land reform "abolished landlordism, and this, in my view, is its enduring legacy and its greatest achievement" (p. 139). On the current government and land certification: "peasant insecurity is more deep-rooted and cannot be removed merely by issuing user certificates. Peasants are dependant on local officials for interpreting the law and interpretation is frequently made to suit the given circumstances. This is one of the factors for peasant subordination, and insecurity cannot be cured without addressing the causes of subordination" (p. 205). Further, he adds the land certification is viewed by some as a success as is used low cost and local administration, but "this is a misunderstanding of the whole point of the program: title registration is meant to provide security and to minimize disputes, and this can only be possible if the program is credible in the eyes of the beneficiaries concerned" (p. 210, also see p. 240).

His focal argument in the book is that "the role played by the human agent and the institutional environment impacting on human agency is either ignored or given insufficient attention… the question of human agency, that is the agency of the men and women who are responsible for cultivating the land and managing the resources associated with it, and the institutions that have helped or hindered them in their endeavour, must be placed at the centre of the agrarian debate. My concept of the term human agency here is similar to Sen's idea of capability. By agency I mean the ability to make independent decisions and free choices to bring about a desired outcome, and to secure the benefits free of imposition or coercion. It means the ability to have a voice, and to be an active force even if in a small way… a major determining factor is the nature of the rules of governance, particularly rights, freedoms and obligations embodied either in social values and norms or formal political institutions" (p. 21). He concludes the book in arguing that "human agency is an indispensable factor in accelerating change and invigorating the economy. As we have seen already, the agrarian systems we have dealt with stifled, in one way or another, the agency of the rural producer with dire consequences of which some have been discussed at length in the preceding pages. A fundamental rethink of this issue, which I believe is overdue, will have wider implications in terms of political institutions, power relations, attitudinal and management approaches" (p. 350).

Dessalegn argues that "Famine is a measure of the vulnerability of the peasant world as well as of its resilience, a reflection of the nature of class relations as well as of the relations between the state and peasantry. Famines do not occur if [the] peasant economy is robust, if the popular classes in the rural areas have a tradition of social assertiveness and resistance, or if the state is in some manner accountable to the people" (p. 43). And, that "Ethiopian peasants have not enjoyed this kind of freedom [to choose one's leaders, to justice, to freedom of speech], and I believe this has been responsible to a large extent for the failure of agrarian progress in this country" (p. 22). He later concludes: "Rural poverty cannot be solved through the instrumentality of the state alone, but requires the active engagement of the poor themselves. Democratizations, property rights that are inclusive of the poor, enabling citizens' groups, including poor people's organizations: these, individually or in ensemble, help to expand human agency, the agency of the poor in particular" (p. 276-277)

  1504 Hits

New Publication: Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. and Gecho, Y. (2016) The Dynamics of Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity in Southern Ethiopia (p. 139-148). In Responses to Disasters and Climate Change: Understanding Vulnerability and Fostering Resilience, edited by M. Companion and M. Chaiken. CRC Press: Boca Raton.


  • Agriculture accounts for more than 40% of the Ethiopian economy, 85% of all employment, and is driven primarily by rural smallholders. Those living in rural areas face a range of short-term, seasonal, annual, and long-term vulnerabilities. This chapter analyzes the range of dynamic, and sometimes unpredictable, challenges in Wolaita Zone, southern Ethiopia. We explore how individuals proactively manage vulnerabilities and seek means to enhance their adaptive capacity. These findings demonstrate that smallholders are engaging in change, highlighting the important role of their agency in understanding vulnerability and resilience.

  1033 Hits

PhD Opportunity: Formation of Urbanity

The Institute of Social Anthropology and the interdisciplinary program in Urban and Landscape Studies at the University of Basel are offering two PhD positions for the SNF-funded research project Making the City: Agency, Urbanity and Urbanisation in Ordinary Cities (2016–2019)The project will explore the formation of urbanity by comparing respective processes in four cities of the Global South: Goma, DR Congo; Cartagena, Colombia; Johannesburg, South Africa and Yaoundé, Cameroon. Based on qualitative, interpretive and comparative methodology, fieldwork is planned in all four cities by two senior, two post-doc and two PhD researchers. PhD candidates are expected to conduct field research in one of the four cities according to their experience and choice in close collaboration with the other members of the research.

More details.

  1365 Hits
Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email