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Decoloniality and Decolonization: Limitations and Strength



Photo: Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and African Decolonial Studies by Toyin Falola

Decoloniality and Decolonization: Limitations and Strength

Toyin Falola

(This is the first interview report with a Panel on Decolonization/Decoloniality. For the transcript, see YouTube https://youtube.com/watch?v=WG0wn62xjtc.


The African personhood locates itself in the community of humans responsible for its fate and driving its agenda in the grand scheme of things. But that awareness has often been double-crossed by very challenging external forces that are themselves striving to gain recognition in some ways by fortifying their existence for the sustainability of their identity and/or essence.

As a community that thinks, Africans have continually challenged instigators of predatory pressure by confronting provincial narratives that are themselves inflammatory and indicting of African historical contributions and evolutionary significance. That Africa experienced some kind of slow progress within a period that coincided with the rise of European and North American Early Modern economy does not suddenly underwrite the epochs of brilliant history that Africans have accomplished and archived in the various forms of systems used for the preservation of history. During this time, Europe rose and then produced its doppelganger in North America, thereby constituting itself as a worthwhile civilization that should be acknowledged just as its predecessors, of which Africa is one. Meanwhile, it is to be noted that the rise of such a template of civilization and its attendant aggressive transformation is believed to coincide with the progressive downturn of Africa, and that informs a curiosity that has birthed theoretical assumptions.

Scholars who recognize the fecundity of African agency in the carving of penetrative civilization continue to challenge any narrative that locates the continent within the abyss of retrograde, which undermines the totality of efforts made by the great people of Africa whose outstanding and meticulous initiatives precede European ascendancy into civilization. The opening statement by Professor Soshe Kessi makes this point brilliantly when she alludes to the trope of “development” as a deliberate way to undermine Africa.

Those on the other side of the divide, however, continue to examine Europe predominantly from the angle of their excellent efforts, which were recorded only within the centuries that they became known. Meanwhile, the location of intellectual discourses within the environment of history that occurred in recent human history say, 500 years ago, does more to hide the importance of Africa than to reveal its potent values. This is inevitable in the understanding that such a mindset has produced a culture in academia where positionality and timeframe framework itself becomes a forceful power that elevates the agenda of burying alternative perspectives, which paradoxically is what it seeks to challenge in the first instance.

Let me be more expressive. In the occasion that coloniality, postcolonialism, decoloniality and its variant families enjoy continued attention without the acknowledgment of their limitations, it would, therefore, inevitably lead to centering the contributions of the European world, whether good or bad, by which implication it would overshadow anything substantial and worthwhile which the African personhood has earlier achieved.

This situation, we must understand, is itself a puzzle, for it stands to reason that none of the disciples of the scholarly debates or movement deserves to attack them in the least, for they both are seeking solutions to the challenges confronting Africa but are nonetheless using various methodologies. I would argue that their positions, however, are not mutually exclusive, for when observed critically and professionally, one finds out that they are products of the same ideological family.

Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi, who has contributed very significantly to the discourse of coloniality, colonialism and their decolonial acquaintances, remains an audible advocate of something that is quite a slight departure from decolonization and decoloniality. Oyewumi’s protest is hinged on a discovery that the appropriation of decolonial argument and theory in understanding the peculiarities of Africa and the African human family, unfortunately, delimits them and, by implication, can clip their wings, which they so desperately need to flap in other to soar. The argument that she advances, which I am stretching further than her words, is that decoloniality emphasizes the need for the aggressive dislocation of Eurocentric and American-centered ideologies, which have been ineluctably pushed to the center. She remains resolute that by merely recognizing Europe in relation to their efforts at marginalizing others, we delink Africa and Africans from their roots by creating an emotional and ideological distance between them, thereby necessitating a sore relationship unamenable to change.

  Photo: Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi

In other words, by condemning Europe as a strange force responsible for the de-marketization of the African value chain, the domino effect would be that Africa would not receive its deserved attention, and that would ultimately lead to further problems that are initially unintended. Mentioning Europe in the discourse of liberation particularly does the unintended opposite job for the promotion of the same force. The existence of decoloniality and decolonization naturally presupposes the existence of colonization, a realization that brings to the table the topic of bland leadership enforced on Africans by Europeans during the combination of slavery, colonialism, and modern imperialism. That way, the unsuspecting African scholars have had their minds impressed with the information that undermines and does not empower their being. More perniciously, it also disengages them from the activities of the past, which are ideologically required for the transformation of their essence.

The protest of Oyewumi is noted and acknowledged more intensely in the awareness that decolonization mentions more the atrocities that are committed by the European superpowers than it recognizes the great contributions of the Africans with mighty cultural values, exemplary ideas and fertile initiatives that drove their world forward. An underlying assumption from this position is that intellectual engagements that highlight the outstanding deeds of precolonial history without necessarily dwelling on the negativity of coloniality and colonialism do more for the liberation of Africa than anything else. I think Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni does not appear to have subscribed fully to this idea.

This position is genuinely reasonable in the understanding that Africans, as one of the recipients of harsh treatments and ill-intentioned categorization of the subsisting superstructure, are not themselves powerful enough to determine how ambitious Europe and their American cousins decide to play their international politics. This suggests that the internationalization of European and American-centered ideologies are ways of responding to historical problems and challenges that they arguably experienced at some point in time. Now that they have the political, economic, and institutional powers to do this, they simultaneously have the moral authority to determine what direction they want to move the world. This is illustrated by the various ideas Europeans have produced profusely to encourage policy adjustments and reactions towards others in the world. That they are considered the basic model and standard of living nearly everywhere attests to the effectiveness of their agenda, and the promulgation of decolonization discourse paradoxically supports their movement. However, what they do with their power should not exclusively determine uncritical responses by Africans; at least, that is the way the anti-decolonialist advocates have considered it. In the examination of unfolding events, they understand that paying attention to the history of colonialism in Africa is important as long as it does not undermine the African human family.

Photo: Decolonization African Studies by Toyin Falola

Much as their arguments are tenable and even reasonable, does that, therefore, undermine the overriding power of the West demonstrated by the European human? I don’t think so. This forms the crucible of the argument pushed forward by decolonialist scholars. They have reasons to believe that European humans, in the last 500 years, have been aggressively concerned about the dehumanization and acute despoilation of another human family for obvious reasons. First, at the top of the global food chain, Europeans aspire to be there so that they determine what should be considered globally as progress under which the ideas, values, cultures, and ideologies of others would have been constrained. As a result, the institutional efforts towards dismembering others, of which Africa is involved as a victim, would be pursued intensely and vehemently. The South American human family, by virtue of their proximity to North America, for example, has continued to experience exponential damage that is underscored by epistemic violence done to their existence and without apology. It is the proliferation of such provincial policies and objectives that necessitates the protest of decolonialist scholars against entertaining such arrangements. Professor Julia Suárez-Krabbe is clear as to the abuses of the power of Europe.

As long as the onus of their movement and advocacy is to dismantle the hegemonic structures and systems that have contributed to the monumental decline of the African human family and its accrued historical progress, it is, therefore, not a misguided indulgence to undertake the responsibility of challenging such superstructure that sets out to exfoliates everyone but Europeans, not necessarily in terms of their physical presence on earth, but about the eradication of their ontological essence, ideological banks, and epistemic traditions. It is, therefore, necessary that such a movement is recognized for the merit of its vision. Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres and Professor Walter Mignolo’s ideas on framing decoloniality within the broader ecosystem of “movements” outside of university academic spaces must be taken seriously.

Colonization and its surviving relics have created the mindset that the world is polarized along binary paradigms, and for that reason, it should continue to uphold discriminatory infrastructures that empower one (Europeans) and, in a way, disempower others (Africans, Indians, South Americans, Asians among other members of the human family). The awareness of such impossible aspirations has been the reason and excuse of African frontline advocates of decoloniality as they are aware that once it is established, it would permeate the crucibles of the African world, which situation it would be counter-intuitive and counterproductive to protest the layers of problems that would have been created as a result. It goes without saying that the academic community continues to consider these various arguments to unpack the positions around the movement of decoloniality.

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