Freeing the African mind more complex than simply decolonisation – Fellows’ seminar by Denis Ekpo

“In many parts of Africa, the debate on decolonisation and the Africanisation of knowledge appears somehow dated,” said Prof. Denis Ekpo, of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria and current STIAS fellow. “In South Africa, the debate which has been simmering since the end of apartheid, has flared up and is still occupying centre stage not only in academic politics but in the students’ rebellion. The Rhodes Must Fall movement exemplifies the intensity and urgency of the call for decolonised academic and cultural politics in South Africa.”

Ekpo - 1STIAS Fellow Denis Ekpo during his seminar presentation on 5 October 2017

“Rhodes must fall is not an isolated incident but could be considered part of a worldwide revolt against what is perceived as the imperialism of the western colonial code of knowledge,” he continued.

“I don’t speak to the specifics of the South African situation,” he said, “but, in some aspects, South Africa should be careful what it wishes for.”

Although he emphasised that the relative closeness of apartheid history makes South Africa different to many other African countries, he pointed to the need for the country to learn from other experiences on the continent.

“While the champions of decolonisation and Africanisation are sincerely fighting to free Africa and the mind of the African from unwanted legacies of the colonial past and for the right to articulate an indigenous African code of knowledge, they could be unconsciously working towards results that could be harmful to Africa. Fanon remains the master-thinker perpetuating the anti-colonial outlook whose ideas continue to inspire and direct the decolonisation paradigm not only in Africa but also worldwide.”

“But,” said Ekpo, “a dogmatic vision of Fanon no longer helps Africa. We should rather forget Fanon and look elsewhere.”

“The modern African mind is held hostage to two forces from the past; one is the inherited traditions and worldviews of our ancestors, the other is subsisting anti-colonial paranoia. These legacies continue to determine how Africa sees itself, how it thinks and acts, and how it interprets the modern world.”

“Enveloped in these opposing impulses, Africa appears not to be able to make choices that enable it to maximise its human potential in many key areas of life in the 21st century.”

“African solutions – the African Renaissance, etc. have failed to produce the outcomes we want – Africa has remained poor and uncompetitive,” he added. “My research sets out to make a case for why Africa, in its own developmental interests, should endeavour to overcome both Africanism and Fanonism.”

Instead of pushing for simple ‘decolonisation’ Ekpo argued for the adoption of post-Africanism which aims to re-universalise Africa by embracing the best of its indigenous legacy and knowledge alongside “a reconstruction of the colonial legacy in a more self-empowering way”.

“Post-Africanism is a new philosophy that believes for the African mind to reach its best creative potential it needs to free Africa from Fanonian anti-colonial paranoia and Afrocentric nativist narcissism with a view to opening the continent fully to its universal human vocation. It’s about finding new strategies of thinking.”

“It’s anchored in a conscious openness not just to new experiences but to new interpretations of old experiences in the light of changing knowledge.”

“The best of human potential in Africa is still imprisoned. Post-Africanism believes it is time to storm the fortress so that the imprisoned human splendour of Africa can be released.”

Ekpo argued that African youth should have a choice about how they see themselves in the global world. “They should have a choice about seeing the pre-colonial and colonial past differently.”

“Post-Africanism aims to re-open the minds of the new generation by freeing them from the tyranny of a single African story and showing them that Africanity is not our destiny but was meant to be a temporary resting place of the mind in our journey.”

“Contrary to South Africa, the rest of Africa – Nigeria in particular – is heavily Africanised. The Afrocentricity of knowledge has so overtaken universities in Africa that many are de facto centres of African studies. We have to ask what Africa has gained or lost as a result of having Africanised the mind.”

“I believe Africanness is not just outmoded and maladaptive but has got in the way of Africa’s ideas being competitive and transformational.”

Turning to the specifics of curriculum development he said: “A curriculum is not good or bad in itself, it should just be the best way to enhance the type of knowledge we want.”

“Pride and dignity are not restored by curricula but by the concrete achievements of the knowledge produced by it. An Africanised curriculum that has kept Africa poor, small and hopeless has not rectified colonial marginalisation – it has only worsened our feelings of frustration and victimhood.”

“A curriculum that helps us develop our inter-cultural competence in a globalised world is better than one that keeps us hung up on our roots,” he continued.

He pointed out strongly though that Post-Africanism is not a defence of colonisation “rather it is a pragmatic reconstruction of its meaning in the service of Africa’s post-colonial recovery of cultural health and creative initiative”.

Rhodes in the mind

“Decolonisation of knowledge and institutions is essentially driven by a desire to get even with the oppressor and to avenge past wrongs,” he continued.

“Rather than continue to blame imperialism for the ills of Africa, we should blame the anti-colonialist glass ceiling we have installed in our decolonialist minds. The colonisation we are trying to free our minds, knowledge and institutions from is no longer in the world but purely in our minds.”

“Poverty, not coloniality, is the root of nearly all the evils plaguing post-colonial Africa – Africa’s share of world trade remains less than 3%. If the energies devoted to decolonising were channelled into using the bad old colonial knowledge properly we could deliver more prosperous societies. The only way to overcome coloniality is to fully integrate it into an expanded, more empowered modern self – in which we expel its darker side and retain only its world-transforming skills.”

In discussion with STIAS fellows, Ekpo admitted to the danger of generalising to all of Africa. He also pointed to the success of many Asian countries in harnessing the best of the global world alongside indigenous knowledge and conceded that Western models have their own problems.

“Africa must first activate and develop the highest human potential and skills already embedded in us,” he added. “When we have used those skills and knowledge to build thriving economies and stable polities, we may then turn around to claim an African path to development and the Africanisation of knowledge.”

“We should embrace the knowledge system that can best help to solve Africa’s problems,” he concluded.

Words: Michelle Galloway, Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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