Thought piece #1 – Lerato Posholi: Decolonization and African scholarship: Olúfémi Táíwò’s cautionary tale
The term decolonization and calls for decolonizing practices have been popular in African scholarship and elsewhere. Philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s book „
Against Decolonization: Taking African Agency Seriously“ presents a scathing critique of the continued use of decolonization especially in scholarship on Africa. The core argument of the book is that using decolonization as an analytical lens in scholarship on Africa is harmful and undermines African agency.
What is decolonization? Decolonization commonly denotes the process of political independence and self-governance. But in its resurgent form, it broadly refers to ‘getting rid of’, changing, reconstructing, and/or becoming critically aware of colonialism and its lingering effects. Prescriptively, decolonization often encourages a critical and suspicious attitude towards everything and anything associated with colonialism. It is the latter sense of decolonization that is the target of Táíwò’s critique.
So what is wrong with decolonization applied beyond the political sense of the term? A few things, according to Táíwò.
First, applying decolonization indiscriminately to everything creates suspicion of its analytical power. I think when we assume that everything and anything needs to be decolonized, the call for decolonization, rightfully or not, loses ‘buy-in’ and becomes less meaningful. Still, the application of the term to, for example, higher education in many of the previously colonized countries can help us understand the origins of these institutions and part of their current constitution.
Second, Táíwò is convinced that decolonization as an analytical tool for understanding things is redundant and that we can achieve better understanding of especially Africa using other frameworks or tools that decolonization. This point can, and is often, made of many terms that gain popularity as frameworks. For example the term globalization has been said by many to be redundant and not new because it picks out and provides a way of talking about phenomena that has been discussed since before the term. As a label, decolonization might do analytical work that is and can be done with other frameworks. Some of the claims of decolonial epistemology, for example, are captured in feminist and standpoint epistemology.
Third, more than being redundant and unnecessary as a label, Táíwò argues that decolonization as a framework for studying Africa leads to unclarity, problematic falsehoods, and erroneous accounts of the causes of different phenomena in Africa. Two substantive errors occur when we apply decolonization to scholarship, the book contends. One, colonialism becomes the only and most important factor influential in Africa’s events and place in the world. Colonialism is not considered amongst other historical episodes and factors, but as the only historical fact that matters. This over-states the effect of colonialism on Africa and obscures any and all that existed and exists outside of colonialism in Africa. Second, and relatedly, once colonialism is the only and most important episode in Africa, it becomes the main cause of all phenomena and events in Africa happening today. Colonialism is made to be the main cause and explananda for African affairs. The great error here, according to Táíwò, is that correlation is often mistaken with causation: not all that happened during colonialism was caused by colonialism or bears tainted colonial marks. It is true that proponents of decolonization are centrally concerned with the effects of colonialism. But it is an open question whether all of them see colonialism as the only explanation for African affairs. It seems that one could take colonialism and its lingering effects seriously without thinking that it is the only thing that matters for African affairs. Táíwò is right to be concerned that taking colonialism as the sole cause for the state of Africa is to undermine African agency; it takes away any sense of responsibility and self-determination of Africa’s subjects for their own affairs.
There’s another point that Táíwò emphasizes in the book regarding agency and self-determination in decisions about appropriating ideas, concepts and cultures associated with colonialism. The concern in the book is that the skeptical and dismissive attitude that decolonization (allegedly) encourages towards anything that has any association with colonialism hinders and obscures the creative appropriation of some colonially inherited ideas. Previously colonized peoples have always done different things, good and bad, with some of these inheritances. Barring Africans from appropriating foreign ideas and cultures for whatever reasons they see fit constrains their agency and unnecessarily deprives them of all the world has to offer.
The book is addressed to those who embrace decolonization, those who are skeptical of it, and most of all to students and young scholars ‘who may be uncomfortable with the indiscriminate application of decolonization to everything’. The book does not provide a decisive defeat of the various articulations of decolonization. But the argument Táíwò makes is an important cautionary tale especially for those of us who embrace decolonization. The main cautionary tale is that we should be careful what we mean by decolonization, how we use it as an analytical tool and what its prescriptions are. For all of us engaging with decolonization, the currency of the label ‘decolonization’ and its kindling of our progressive attitudes should not make us uncritical of it.