Pan-African Intellectual Praxis

(paper presented at the conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies, November 14, 2015)

Copy your forefathers, your ancestors

See, their words endure in books,

Open, read them, copy their knowledge…

-Instructions to Merikare from Khety

The question of the African future serves as the foundational query guiding African human thinking traditions. But the imaginings of that future no doubt vary. The multiplicities of theoretical postures that attend the African intellectual scene reveal the kinds of ideological perspectives that animate the African world. Underneath them all lie particular interests, particular forms of political and economic rationalizations. But what should guide African philosophy—and I include Africana Studies within this broad constellation of ideas—is a clear demonstration of the ideas, the ways of knowing and being in the world that come from African cultural foundations and how they might contribute to a future world that transmutes the decidedly anti-African ideological structures of the modern one. That is to say, African philosophy is and must be a way of seeing beyond the hegemony of Enlightenment rationalism as the foundational premise of what it is to build a society. For we have seen what this rationalism has done in practice, we have seen what reason has made reasonable: permanent war, a neoliberal economic order, poverty as systemic and necessary, mass ignorance. While this is not new to African philosophy, it seems that such thinking appears less prominently in the still-moving political work that is seeking to—albeit in fits and starts—continue the legacy of African liberation struggles. Is there a space for the ongoing theorizations of African philosophical praxis, in many ways, the key to knowledge about African conceptual pasts and its dynamic futures, in the current Pan-African movement?

With the complex politics surrounding the recent convening of the Eighth Pan-African Congress (2015), scholars of African philosophy and related areas would do well to rethink the meanings of Pan-African intellectual work. With the increasing hegemony of neoliberal and trans-state actors and organizations, supranational approaches to knowledge might better prepare African people worldwide to both understand and offer resolutions for the viability of African futures. Grounding the conversation with the works of literary scholars like Wole Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah, this essay will briefly privilege how imagination might allow for more fruitful ideas about future worlds. Likewise, the work of Theophile Obenga, a philosopher, will provide the grounds under which historical and linguistic insights might provide the necessary precedents for Pan-African intellectual praxis. In sum, this paper revisits the assumptions around Pan-Africanism to imagine how they might be utilized to construct methodological foundations for African(a) studies. By attempting to map the ways in which the concept of “Africa” as understood by those who have been labeled “African” might provide such foundations, it articulates a way forward that takes into account the conditions of late modernity.

Unbeknownst to most Africans, including ironically ones that study Pan-Africanism, the 8th Pan African Congress occurred in 2015. Convening in Accra, this meeting, from the beginning, was fraught with a seemingly perennial dilemma of the late 20th century Pan-African movement, that of the role of the state. Writing in a recent issue of Pambazuka, Zaya Yeebo, local organizing chair of the congress, deemed this question to be of central importance, stating that he “could not come to terms with a Pan African Movement or Congress which explicitly excluded the participation of African governments, the AU, the Non Aligned Movement and other state parties (if they wished to participate in the Congress) because they are essential partners in achieving objectives of the Pan African Movement.” This position of including these actors as central to the idea of Pan-Africanism, for Yeebo, seemed self-evident, as long as the participation of non-governmental organizations. After all what are we seeking to unite, but a collection of states?

But it remains to be clear if the state model, we have inherited from our colonial masters is the best vehicle for our own freedoms, let alone for the Pan-African movement. Why? Firstly, we have never seriously thought about the very logic of the nation-state, we have simply assumed that it was rational way of ordering human communities. We have not seriously considered that it is the state model that allows for the invasion of capital and destabilization—what Walter Rodney called the underdevelopment of the African world. We have not seriously thought about the idea of the state as the guarantor of violence of the erection of militarized borders as a necessarily precursor to bloodletting. We have not pondered that there may have been better ways of developing civil societies that saw dispossession as spiritually empty. Indeed, much of what passes as African Studies takes the state as a given, a structure to be reckoned with, not unthought.

Secondly, the state seems to have asserted itself as an immovable force because of the sheer amount of support that African elites receive from its neocolonial masters in the West. There is no other way to think about modern African statehood than to emphatically state that their relationships to the world remain neocolonial, in fact, the neo as prefix may even be less necessary. The use of Africa as a space of wealth extraction, of accumulation by dispossession has persisted and in recent moments the United States has made Africa safe for drone bases, erecting such monstrosities all across the continent in its quest to degrade and destroy enemies that it alone created. There is a curious kowtowing to United States interests among African governments that would sicken the greatest of our Pan-African thinkers. And that continues among the more radical African thinkers today at home and in the diaspora. This friction was at the heart of the protests of Africans who raised their collective disgust at the 2014 US-Africa Summit and it was also at the heart of the challenges made to the Eighth Pan African Congress’ Local Organizing Committee by the North American Delegation to the Congress led by Horace Campbell. Coupled with China’s presence on the continent, so aptly documented by Howard French, it has become increasingly clear that permanence of the African state is assured by its ability to serve as a vehicle for the distribution of capital for corporate interests. And at the expense of its failure to improve the lives of its citizens and of the failure to distance itself from the Washington consensus that compromises its ability to do so.

Thirdly and finally, and in some ways most crucially, the state has come to appeal to us because of nationalism, itself. Africans—albeit recently—have come to love their nations, which in and of itself was necessary to throwing off the yoke of colonialism. But the dangers of such nationalism reveal themselves in the moment of constructing alternative societies. Africans were forced to replicate within the beautiful flowering of nationalism, theoretical sites of governance that oversaw the death of African bodies. That violence ensues from nationalism, then, should not surprise us. But what we should remind ourselves is that nationalism cannot itself solve the violence that dots the African world. That violence has an original rationale and we must recognize the moment in which it was enacted as the site with which to wage our battle for freedom, that is the originary moment of the West.


Where we lack imagination, where we forget or foreclose the lessons of our ancestors, where we limit our cultural identities to places we migrated to and not from, these become the sites of our destruction. And in the works of Ayi Kwei Armah and Wole Soyinka they become the margins from which we raise anew the heralds of a future, what Armah might characterize as the remembrance of “the way.” This is work that must be done collectively, in the spirit of Pan-African unity. There can be no freedom, until all of us are free. Modernity required all of us to be subjugated. Any freedom requires all of us to work, to be, to exist as one people.

And because this never had to happened before, it had to be imagined. The literary work of Ayi Kwei Armah limns the possibility of formulating futures for African peoples, futures that move us away from the damaging impact of the Western order. Futures that rest on our own cultural terms. Many have devoted pools of ink to various qualities of Armah’s work, but for the Pan-African thinker the most salient feature may be a theme that permeates each text: the notion that a cultural base, rooted in a critical appraisal of the best of our own traditions, serves as any true foundation for an African future. This cultural base—dynamic, transnational, perhaps even universal—for Armah can be found in what Jacob Carruthers called “the deep well of African thought.” That is, it’s already all around us, waiting to be studied, waiting for us to be in tune with its time and its space. We are all characters in Armah’s literary vision. We are searching, we must find. Or we die a cultural death, which can only precede physical ones. Characterizing the work we must do and the limits of laboring for ends outside of that work, Armah states:

“Some of us also have great insights about how to end the present impasse and move into an intelligent future. But beyond that, we are unable to organize institutional venues and activities. Why not? Possibly the most obvious reason is that follow-through activities demand serious commitments of time and energy, and we are individually, already fully committed to institutional frameworks that push us far from our ideas and ideals. We are committed to these alienating, sometimes spiritually stressful holding situations because they give us the wherewithal to survive more or less comfortably, short term, in the world as it happens to be now, that is to say, the world the slavers and the colonialists made, a world we would like to change. There is humor in our situation. We know what we would like to do if we had free time and energy, but because our time and energies are taken doing what we would like to not have to do, we have no time to do what we would like to do.”[1]

He continues in this work and in his fictional accounts to premise this intelligent future, with the deep long-term cultural work, the kinds politicians cannot and will not do. It is up to us whose only loyalty is to our people.

Soyinka, too, has given us much to think about. Although his work is not geared toward transcending or superseding national boundaries, his Of Africa is an important rumination on questions of African knowledges and how they might be used to solve tensions in a different sphere: religion. Given the sorts of fundamentalisms— Christian, Islamic, and of course market—that continue to define life for so many, that continue to determine the nature of the nation for so many, it’s important to ask as Soyinka does about the ways in which African spirituality expressed itself before these incursions, given that it is these fundamentalisms that are contributing to the death, destruction, and destabilization of the continent. Soyinka—life Segun Gbadegesin who spoke on this yesterday regarding bioethics—argues that perhaps it is from the “logic” of African traditions like Orisa that we can began to understand and “arbitrate” the disputes over identity and nation that have surfaced. Indeed the Pan-African movement split along these lines when in 2012 an Eighth Pan-African Congress that met in South Africa, altogether distinct from the 2015 version in Ghana, openly excluded the Arab nations of North Africa. What do we make of this? How do we deal with the convergence of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism that is by no means confined to the Maghreb, given the recent atrocities in Kenya, Nigeria, and Mali? Here Soyinka appears to agree with Armah, that the only option is to find and stand firmly on a cultural base, to excavate what he calls those ‘dynamic possessions” which might lead Africa to a deep consideration of its own spiritual message to the world.

There is a reciprocal relationship between such literary insights and the deep scientific and philosophical works of Theophile Obenga. A multi-genius in the mold of Imhotep, Obenga has defined this larger project: the development of a linguistic and philosophical base for African thinking traditions. This work, of course, has led him to the Nile Valley and back to inner Africa where the philosophical messages of Africa have been consistently clear, as arrayed against the debilitating uses of science and philosophy to colonize, to destroy. For Obenga, however, what has been “lost” is our ability to see and recognize ourselves in the human conversation about the world. And in seeing our message—and old, ancient one—we might better see our future. For Obenga, intellectual genealogy matters. Our philosophical and linguistic connection to our ancestors matters very deeply. If the only philosophy that is possible is the philosophy generated by a confrontation with the West, then it stands to reason that the only world possible is one that is genetically related to the worlds created by the West. The work of Obenga rejects this assumption, but importantly it is a call to arms to continue to define what it means and apply it to the political liberation of the continent that undoubtedly remains to be fulfilled.

Such thinking provides the roadmap to what distinguishes Africana Studies as a disciplinary practice. It is the outright rejection of a theoretical and philosophical project that rests on European universals. Africana Studies, methodologically, begins as a conservation with ourselves and our ancestors about reality and then radiates out as commentary about the world from those foundations. What is Pan-Africanism without African philosophy? Without the need to grapple with the full range of what it means to think and be as Africans? Nothing but an attempt to negotiate with our colonizers for the space to exist in a world our ancestors died to enact, against their wills. A world we’d like to change.

[1] From his The Eloquence of the Scribes (Per Ankh, 2006), 296.


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