The Postcolonial African State in Transition

I have had Amy Niang's 2018 "The Postcolonial African State in Transition: Stateness and Modes of Sovereignty" in my to-read pile for too long, and I am glad I finally got to it. This is a heavy book, but one that makes really interesting contributions and raises thought provoking questions. In the opening, the author explains: "A leitmotif of this book is therefore a productive doubt about an established obsession, in political theory, with the Westphalian common sense of stateness and the relative disregard not only of other species of state but also of what statehood means to the entities that must give it its legitimacy." (p. 2) Drawing on detailed studies (beyond possibility of summary here), spectrums of stateness are exemplified, without judgement. Dr Niang concludes the book noting: "Despite scepticism toward the state form, it is clear by now that what is being presented here is less a critique of a regime (colonial) or a model (nation-state) and more of forms of violence than deny people the means of, and the capacity for, self-constitution. In doing this, I'm certainly not suggesting that we reject the state as an organizing framework but that we keep it open as a possibility of governance." (p. 184)


"Un-understanding the state thus means that we suspend prevailing justificatory, normative accounts of the state in the form of rigid categories that inevitably create 'proper' states as opposed to underperforming, incongruent, inchoate and inadequate ones. In this vein, commonly established accounts of the role of the state as the provider of law and order must be revised." (p. 19)

"…constitutions were framed in a foreign language and idioms inspired by the European experience in Europe. In fact, it would not be controversial to say that postcolonial constitutions were 'conditional' concessions that ensures colonial continuity, therefore dependency. They consecrated an original divide between state and society. What this orientation does is to obscure the fact that constitutions are not abstract institutions but rather 'the product of social practice' (Nugent 2010). The omission of the African experiential past and moral orders further marginalized their systems of values and the allocation of entitlements, rights and obligations of social inheritances and solidarities." (p. 193-194)

"The goal of this book has therefore been to offer accounts of different forms of sociality and accounts of community-making in diversity. To avoid confining these accounts to those interested to things 'African', I have tried to engage foundational concepts and arguments of liberal political thought particularly as they relate to discussions of sovereignty, community, sociality and moral constitutions. These accounts of being together or being-in-the-world tout court should therefore be taken seriously as useful openings for a more critical political philosophy and history. I'm not suggesting here that precolonial constitutional and institutional structures were consistently inclusive and progressive, that they were always examples of accountability and virtue for all constituencies… My concern, throughout this book, has been to show that we need to look at the intellectual tradition of 'other' peoples if we are to understand the way they relate to each other and the way they relate to things and their environment." (p. 202-203) 

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An African Renaissance: Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the most important voices on language and decolonization. His works include Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and Theory and Politics of Knowing (2012). This post shares some notes on his 2009 Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (copy appears available here).

"colonialists did not literally cut off the heads of the colonized or physically bury them alive. Rather, they dismembered the colonized from memory, turning their heads upside down and burying all the memories they carried. Wherever they went, in their voyages of land, sea, and mind, Europeans planted their own memories on whatever they contacted." (p. 7)

"In his attempt to remake the land and its peoples in his image, the conqueror acquires and asserts the right to name the land and its subjects, demanding that the subjugated accept the names and culture of the conqueror. When Japan occupied Korea in 1906, it banned Korean names and required the colonized to take on Japanese ones. But one might ask: What is in a name? It is said that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet; however, the truth is that its identity would no longer be expressed in terms of roses but, instead, would assume that of the new name. Names have everything to do with how we identify objects, classify them, and remember them." (p. 9)

"Africans, in the diaspora and on the continent, were soon to be the recipients of this linguistic logic of conquest, with two results: linguicide in the case of the diaspora and linguistic famine, or linguifam, on the continent." (p. 17)

"In the continent as a whole, the postcolonial slumber would not be disturbed by memories of the African holocaust. Slavery and colonialism become events of shame, of guilt. Their memory is shut up in a crypt, a collective psychic tomb, which is what Oduche symbolically does when he shuts the python, a central image of his people's cosmic view, in a box." (p. 61)

"Pan-Africanism has not outlived its mission. Seen as an economic, political, cultural, and psychological re-membering vision, it should continue to guide remembering practices. Economic Pan-Africanism will translate into a network of communications—air, sea, land, telephone, Internet—that ease intracontinental movements of peoples, goods, businesses, and services. Africa becomes a power bloc able to negotiate on an equal basis with all other global economies. But this is impossible without a powerful political union, as championed by Kwame Nkrumah." (p. 88-89)

"In the year 2000, a number of African scholars and writers met in Eritrea and came up with the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures, a ten-point document that begins by calling on African languages to take on the duty, challenge, and responsibility of speaking for the continent. It then lists nine other conditions—including recognition of the vitality, equality, and diversity of African languages as a basis for the future empowerment of African peoples; the necessity of communication among African languages and their development at all levels of the schooling system; promotion of research, science, and technology in African languages; and the necessity of democracy and gender equality in the development of African languages—and it concludes by emphasizing that African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds as well as for the African renaissance." (p. 93)

"Memory resides in language and is clarified by language. By incorporating the colonial world into the international capitalist order and relations, with itself as the center of such order and relations, the imperialist West also subjected the rest of the world to its memory through a vast naming system. It planted its memory on our landscape. Egoli became Johannesburg. The great East African Lake, known by the Luo people as Namlolwe, became Lake Victoria." (p. 113)

"We have languages, but our keepers of memory feel that they cannot store knowledge, emotions, and intellect in African languages. It is like possessing a granary but, at harvest, storing your produce in somebody else's granary." (p. 114)

"We must produce knowledge in African languages and then use translation as a means of conversation in and among African languages. We must also translate from European and Asian languages into our own, for our languages must not remain isolated from the mainstream of progressive human thought in the languages and cultures of the globe." (p. 124)

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