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African Marginal Identities and the Tyranny of the Majority

           African Marginal Identities and the Tyranny of the Majority

(Part 1 of the Extract of the 2023 Audrey Richards Distinguished Public Lecture, University of Cambridge, June 7, 2023)


Toyin Falola



Nothing is far worse than the tyranny of the majority, and if one hides under the primacy of the majority, it will not always be a representation of the truth, reality, and the right perception. The majority can always be wrong. Many of the greatest atrocities in human history are committed by the general subscriptions of the majority and justification thereof. The domination of one group over the others creates a margin in society, casting some into the quest of finding their strength and re-understanding their identities. Africa has more than 1.4 billion people, but with a high rate of diversities, understanding, culture, and conviction. Also, the propensity of general similarities of societal attitudes has exerted similar problems across the continent.

The fate of marginal identities has much to question and a lot to discuss, despite the easy exits Africans take from advancing such discussions and ignoring the obvious. Those with marginal identities are evidence of realities and their discriminations, oppression, and subjugation are disguised issues the continent enjoys suffocating luxuries from and care less about giving the marginals breathing space, which will be discussed in this part. Diversity ought to foster unity and strengthen the development of the continent because of the availability of creative variety, making it a model to all. Unfortunately, ethnic hegemony, fundamentalism, gender domination and subjections, extreme cultural conservativeness, and prejudicial convictions have created more gaps among the people. While these are unsurprising, the deafening silence, oblivion, and discussion-apathy that those who matter in the continent have shown towards the subject put one in fear of what is yet to come.

Millions of Africans die year in and year out from the hegemony of the majority, which drives many into psychological and physical damage. One then tends to ask what the fate of minorities would be in years to come. The LGBTQI+ persons are victims of entire citizenries and systems, including rural dwellers who make up about 52.13 percent of Africans and are destructively cut off from the mainstream supply lines; refugees, displaced and stateless individuals subjected to inhuman treatments, constant persecution, and wasting away at borders and camps despite the supposed celebrated African unity mentality; slaves and pawns that society have drawn out their wills to the hands of some wicked individuals; disabled people with lesser societal attentions, with the few given to them objectized; marginalized ethnic groups; politically disadvantaged women and youth; secluded women; and people living with albinism. Many of these are common marginal identities with daily unfavorable encounters with others.

The level of diversity in Africa has necessitated the rise in marginal identities and their marginalization rate. While it is desirable to keep the tenets of culture intact at all times, one fundamental characteristic of culture is its susceptibility to change and its ability to accommodate those changes, expand, and adapt them with contemporariness subjected to the details of the people. Societies change, and Africa has seen several developments in ethical values in recent times as many of our convictions are questioned and their continuous viabilities are in doubt. The influx of globalization and modern cultural advancements that have diffused into Africa has allowed people to gain and regain consciousness about their identity and re-construe the perspective understanding of who they are.

Society is ideologically expanding on all fronts and there is nothing anyone can do about it, no matter how long parts of society hold back. Do not get me wrong; I do not state that African cultural values should change or that the novel perspectives about values should displace the traditional preconceptions that would be a step towards attracting identity loss and defeating all the aims of Pan-Africanism and Africanism endeavors made in the past and striving in the presence. The position is that the culture must adjust to accommodate people who are inhumanly subjected to identical massacre personality conflict and oppression. It is to say that the culture should shell off dangerously prejudicial values. For instance, the killing of twins was part of the etymological conviction of the Efik people in Nigeria, who believed the children were a bad omen. Such trials by ordeal and other similar cultures have given way because of their negative impacts on society, despite the resistance of some people. This is the same spirit of logic I draw this disposition from and it compounds the need for cultural adjustment.

Issues around LGBTQI+ persons in Africa are one of the most controversial subjects of discussion to raise in Africa, even among scholars. This stems from Africans’ understanding of the subject as there is a general disposition about it because of its strong contradiction of several African cultural values and ethics. Gender and sexuality are core to African institutions, defining all activities and behavioral spaces in which people operate. As a result, one will understand the disposition of the continent to non-conformist sexualities and societal reactions to them. In several quarters, they are perceived to be an abomination to society, which may attract spiritual repercussions because of their capacity to degrade social contracts and fibers. Therefore, one cannot claim that the boasts of Africa in the spirit and existence of diversity spread to tolerance towards the LGBTQI+ community. This explains the disposition of the African governments and the jamborees of anti-gay or anti-sodomy legislations and policies that limit the constitutional rights of people with different sexualities.

Harsh societal reactions, vulnerability, and marginalization towards the LGBTQI+ community is a global phenomenon, as has been asserted by the Human Right Watch report in 2015, but Africa takes a strong position in antagonistic dispositions. Aside from cultural disposition, a strong angle to understanding the people’s reactions towards the community is the level of understanding an average African has about members of the community. Africa sees the identity as an emerging and novel culture inherited from Eurocentric domination and American influence rather than biological or instinctive orientations. Furthermore, Africans discuss it in lieu of spiritual conditioning that points against the emotional states of the African minds. Hence, they are subject to public criticism, embarrassed on the streets, sometimes stripped naked to “shame the devil,” and killed in the most inhuman manners on very bad days. But LGBTQI+ persons are human first, and many of them get their sexual orientations beyond their will and control. Would “what is” be considered non-existent? No matter how biased society might be, it is important to protect the people who identify as such, first as a human, before considering sexuality.

Another identity worth contemplating is women who continuously fall victim to societal bias against the role of women and the understanding of women. Africa has a special hierarchical approach to social structure, and after the advent of colonialism, the response to the status of women has worsened from the level and rate of patriarchal prejudice that existed before. However, one must state that the continent has been moving positively towards gender inclusion and reconstructing the role of women. Politics, social roles, sexualities, and identification are problems women face in African society. There is large political marginalization in terms of contesting or participating in roles and elections. Although the political spaces in Africa have been opening up to women, the continent has seen female presidents and leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Slyvie Kiningi, Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi, Rose Francine Rogombe, Joyce Hilda Banda, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Sahle-Work Zewde, Samia Suluhu Hassan, and other influential female African leaders. In the Nigerian 2023 general elections, there was a considerable increase in the number of female voters–52.5% were male voters, and a close 47.5% were female. However, females still face social discrimination in the continent as several believe that the only place they can function is the home.

In addition, millions of African women still live in seclusions in one form or the other, including Purdah systems, widowhood, and different religio-cultural conditionings. Some of them are cut off from the rest of society, incapacitating them and reducing their role in the developmental process of the continent. This results from beliefs, as several of the secluded women are not victims but have done so intentionally. Hence, addressing marginalization in this context must be done within the confines of culture and tradition. Women’s sexuality is taken very seriously in an average African society. It is the reason for many conservative cultures and opinions about women and a driving factor behind the evils of female genital mutilation and rigid sexual rules around women. The sacred African angles to women’s sexuality have brought about spiritual constructions that have attracted nebulous assaults and ritualism towards women because of the conception that they are especially spiritually different.

Also, ethnic differences and conflicts result from marginalization, creating compulsory but strong marginal identities. The diverse characteristics of the continent have brought about the existence of small minority groups shocked by the hegemonies of the majority. Crisis in Ethiopia, rivalries in Zimbabwe, agitations in Nigeria, unrests in Rwanda and Burundi, Kenyan wars, and other unrest in Mali and others are largely traceable to ethnic marginalization and domination. This has claimed millions of lives on the continent and has rendered many helpless. Ethnicity is the test of African unity and the continent is failing woefully in this regard.

In 2021, it was stated that Africa has about 52.13% of its population dwelling in rural areas. This shows that sometimes majority and minority factors are not often based on the number in comparison but influence in comparison. Burundi alone has about 85.94% of its population living in rural areas. According to the World Bank, there are no less than 687,081,738 Africans in rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Individuals are the majority but have minority voices and influence, except in certain situations. Interestingly, the food-producing populations are rural dwellers, yet development often passes over them. This continuous marginalization of these people is as dangerous to the continent as taking slow and gradual poisons. On a larger scale, this goes to the root of refugees, stateless, and displaced persons who are not considered key to societal constructions.

People living with disabilities are another identity that society has not been able to open its arms towards, and when such sympathy is done, it is often done in the most embarrassing forms. Africans have generally stereotyped people with disability with some level of condemnation. It does not matter what one does; as far as one is living with a disability, you are considered poor and discriminated against because society does not expect any level of mental or physical ability from people with disabilities. It is more pitiful that a spiritual status is attached to these persons, making them vulnerable to abuse, violence, ritual killing, and objectification. More particularly, people with albinism, hunchbacks, twins, and others with special forms of birth are subjected to consistent violations, abuse, and ritualism. Countries like Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria, and others have reported cases of grievous assaults and killings of people with albinos. They are often seen as ritual objects and materials for power.

Notably, the first step towards achieving reasonable solutions is to allow society to become more tolerant through awareness and collaborative approaches. There is a need for orientation change across Africa and the development of enforceability measures. Without a doubt, solutions to several of these discriminatory social convictions are not in aggressive movements, as many international and non-profit organizations have taken gradual steps that incorporate cultural and traditional peculiarities.

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