Is Africa Merely An Effect?

IJRC | Archive | Vol. 01 No. 01 (2012) | Articles | OLATUNJI

Cyril-Mary Pius Olatunji 
Adekunle Ajasin University
Department of Philosophy 
Akungba Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria

There have been hot debates over the issue of colonialism in Africa and several theories have emerged from the debates. The Afro-pessimism of Achile Mbembe, the conceptual decolonisation theories and the African exceptionality argument of Kwasi Wiredu, the introspectism of Anyiam-Osigwe, the self-reliancism project, even the recently re-ignited slavery blame debate, the search for indigenous knowledge system, the renaissance project, are all efforts to explain or to confront the effects of colonialism on Africa. Much of these previous debates however, centred on the assumption that it is either true or false that colonialism or the postcolonial African political leaders have caused the present political and economic crises of Africa. Rather than merely taking side on the debates, this paper has approached the problem from a different perspective in order to address a much-neglected epistemological issue, by raising a fundamental epistemological question that opened up some other dimensions of the problem. 
The author is indebted to the Philosophy Society of Southern Africa (PSSA) audience of the 2011 conference, and to Professor E. C. Wait (University of Zululand), Professor L.J. Michell (University of Zululand), Dr M.L.J. Koenane (UNISA), and Ethne Groot for their invaluable discussions, suggestions and criticisms. 


Describing the political, social and economic situation of Africa as chaotic is not more than stating the obvious. Referring to Africa as a third world is merely a euphemism to conjure the belief that Africa is only next in ranking to the first two developed classes of nations or to hide the fact that it is lagging far behind other nations. The worst descriptions that could be given to any nation or people in the world are common descriptions given to Africa, both in scholarship, on the pages of newspapers and even on the electronic mass media. To say that the African continent is engulfed in social, political and economic crises is to have economised the truth. The other part of the truth is that there seems to be only a faint hope in the horizon that the situation would change anytime soon.

The fact that colonialism is an unjust treatment of Africans is hardly in question. Many scholars condemn colonialism out rightly. Perhaps, the case of Pfaff (1995) has been one of the few significant intellectual advocacies of colonialism in recent time. Even then, supposing that everything that history says about the monster called colonialism is true. Supposing that, the brainchild of colonialism called balkanization (the butchering of the African geographical space into the modern nation states) was meant to serve some crooked economic purposes for the colonialists. Supposing it is true at the same time that African leaders are truly as exceptionally corrupt as the local and the international media have portrayed them. Imaginably, supposing that all the heroes and warlords of the African history were tyrants and mercenaries in disguise merely employed to steer up communities to make victims available for the slave raiders and merchants during the ferocious ferreting for slaves in precolonial Africa. Supposing too that Mazrui (1990) is accurate in his assessment that the international political sphere is negro-phobic, do these provide exclusive justification for the common belief among scholars of African politics that the predicaments of Africa have been caused either by colonial forces or by the postcolonial African leaders?

Beginning from the 1960s African countries have begun to gain their political independence. Since the 1990s too, there have begun the wave of democratisation across Africa. While it is obvious that most African countries are now in the practice of democracy in one form or the other, it is also glaring that Africa is yet to boast of any consolidated democracy. Perhaps, Botswana and South Africa are the most outstanding democracies in Africa, however, it is difficult to ascertain that the democracy in either Botswana or South Africa has been tested sufficiently or can resist reversion to autocracy or non-democracy. Although some recent political challenges in some African states may appear as indications that the continent is overcoming a legacy of authoritarianism and indifference to democratic culture, the reality however is that the trend of democratisation in Africa does not reduce the attractions towards civil war, genocide, poverty, corruption, insecurity and general political instability. Even in recent time, van der Walt & Solomon (2011: 83-97) exclaims that some of the world’s most challenging conflicts have occurred in Africa.

Economically, many of the African countries were viable when they first received the political independence. Instead of getting better, many of the African states are now worse than they were with reference to their Gross Domestic Product, per capita income, level of poverty, and the general state of infrastructure.

Arguments have ensued on why the problems have existed and on how best to solve them. Mbembe (2001) has dismissed all previous theories of explanation without establishing any alternative. Mbembe insists that scholars have explained the African woes without exhaustively identifying all the contributing factors, such as the lapses in the pre-colonial social systems in Africa. With the exception of Mbembe, scholars are generally polarised between two extreme but trendy views of either endorsing the colonial origin or the post-colonial origin of postcolonial African miseries.

Using the method of philosophical analysis, this paper questions into the previous explanations of African woes with the intension of exposing some logical complications involved in holding them as theoretical positions. The position, though unpopular, pursued by the paper is that the only reliable explanation of African woes is one which portrays Africans as free and responsible agents of change in their own history.

African Situation and the Explanations of Scholars 

Since the 16th and 17th century success stories of the natural sciences, the paradigm of scientific objectivity has been the Newtonian physics. Scholars in various disciplines have been trying to understand and emulate the Newtonian physics. Therefore, they assume that to be scientific is to have applied or attained their assumptions about the Newtonian physics. Some of the assumptions about the scientific model in the image of the Newtonian physics are: that an objective study and explanation can be done about a thing that lies outside of the explainer; that causal models offer the most reliable (if not the only) explanations; and whatever is unscientific is not objective and is mere non-sense.

As a result, the scholars have become motivated to try to achieve in their various disciplines, what the natural scientists have achieved in theirs (Outhwaite, 1987:19-27). At both practical and theoretical levels, scholars and experts in various fields including political science, social anthropology, economics, democracy and even sociology have tried to proffer solutions to the myriad problems that besiege Africa. Scholars, however, think that the best approach to find solutions to problems is to investigate the nature and dynamisms of the problems.

Consequently, scholars have tried to give rational explanations to the problems of development in Africa. That is, scholars have made efforts to give reasons why the problems exist, and perhaps too, why the problems have remained intractable. Since the wave of political independence in Africa in the 60s, scholars have been trying to offer explanations of why Africa has lagged behind other places in the world in the various aspects of life. Given the dominant ‘scientific’ paradigm of explanation, African scholars have also adopted the theoretical model reflecting their Newtonian foundations.

Using the theoretical diagram of George Ayittey (1999:37-48), scholars who have tried to explain the economic backwardness and political instability of Africa could be grouped into two as externalists and internalists. In this paper, however, more attention will be paid to the externalist group, made up mostly of African scholars and political leaders who subscribe to the opinion that the political crises of Africa are caused by forces and factors from outside of the continent (Ayittey, 1999:37-44). The internalists will be presented mainly as the traditional critics of externalism. Many of the externalists are the earliest Pan-Africanists and Nationalist scholars.

The general intellectual enterprise of the earliest African nationalists and Pan-Africanists are from the background assumption that colonialism is the cause of all the problems of Africa, including its political woes. Mazrui (1986:164-202) is a clear example. The externalist scholars, though widely apart in their approaches, are focused on cultural emancipation for the Black people, who they consider as the indigenous Africans. Consequently, the nationalists try to forge a common identity, common front and common goal for Africa as a nation, and most of all for the Black Africans.

Apart from Mazrui, there are many other externalist scholars of varying fashions. Nkrumah (2007b:202-209), Senghor (2007:590-602), Fanon (2007a:258-263), Nyerere (2007a:327- 333), Menkiti (1984:171-182, Gyekye, (2000:317-336), Diop (2007:255-257), Ki-Zerbo (2007: 61-66), Cabra (1969 and 1973), Rodney (2004) and Busia (1971) are some of them. Oladipo (1995:2), Potholm, (1979:87), Wiredu (1995) and Teffo (2004:443-449) are also among the most recent members of that group. The externalist scholars are united by their claims that that colonialism with its imperialist antics is the causes of the political and economic ills of Africa.

While some of them hold the opinion that, that external forces had promoted the western styled democracy in Africa (2002:18) or that the only road to economic buoyancy, political stability, and socio-cultural independence is through mental and conceptual decolonisation and the adoption of a non-party consensus version of democracy. Others believe that the balkanisation of African into modern nation states (Busia, 1971:35), with utmost disregard for natural indicators of boundaries, culture and consanguinity have caused the problems in Africa.

Traditionally, the criticisms levied against the externalists include the time-lag argument, the consequentialist benefits and the professional craft criticism. The time-lag criticism is the argument that colonialism is a past event in Africa and that it has been over fifty years since the beginning of the wave of independence in Africa. Therefore, the externalists cannot hold Europe responsible for Africa’s economic and political predicaments (Oke: 2006:332-343).

The time-lag criticism does not necessarily hold against externalism because if there is actually a causal connection between two events, then time may not be able to severe the link between them. In other words, if colonialism actually cause the predicaments in Africa, it would be difficult for the problem to find a solution outside of colonialism. The intractability of the problem after fifty years might itself be an argument to show that colonialism is the cause of the problem.

There is the consequentialist benefit criticism against the externalists, that, colonialism has brought more benefits to Africa than disadvantages, therefore, the benefits override the disadvantages it has brought. Some of the benefits often referred to include good roads, pipe borne water, electricity and technological development in general. William Pfaff (1995:2-6) is one of the outstanding critics of the externalists in that direction.

Does the end necessarily justify the means (Olatunji & Laleye, 2005:258-266)? If colonialism brought technological development to Africa, does that make it necessarily impossible for colonialism to also bring other problems? Is there anything in colonialism such that if it does not take place, then, it would necessarily be impossible for Africa to have attained even better technological development independently?

The third criticism is that most of the externalists are also political leaders of Africa. Critics of externalism (i.e. internalists) therefore argue that as political leaders, the externalists are only looking for excuses for their incompetence. That is, they (the internalists) were only accusing the colonialists as a way to cover-up for their own inability to deliver the promises they made to the people during their various struggle for independence or during their electoral campaigns (Ayittey, 1999:44-48).

Does it mean that the arguments of the externalists are necessarily false? Does the fact that the externalists were looking for excuses for their failures necessarily make their arguments false?  Even if the externalists were only looking for an argument to cover-up for their professional incompetence for instance, does that in any way justify or remove the effect of colonialism? Both colonialism and postcolonial leadership are social phenomena. If the internalists claim that colonialism has no effect, the post-colonial incompetence of the African leaders should also not have any effects.

The traditional arguments against externalism neither refute externalism nor challenge its core defects. For instance, if the present economic and political crises of Africa were actually caused by colonialism, then the time-lag between the colonial event and now, the argument that colonialism has brought about technological development, and the fact that the externalists could merely be looking for arguments to shift blames do not affect the facts of the case.

The two schools of explanation as presented by Ayittey, appear opposed to each other, but in actual fact, they are both sides of the same coin. The sort of opposition created sets up conditions for what de Bono (1973:11) describes as ‘Po’ and ‘Nopo’. That is, to conceptualise reality as being essentially and irreconcilably divided between the yes and no extreme positions, between mutually negating opposites, which in Hurst’s (2010:233-252) view is exemplified by the law of excluded middle, which beyond the puffed-up appearance of opposites are mere equivalents.

1) They all believe that every event must have a cause. Hence, they are comfortable with giving causal explanations to human and social problems. 
2) The externalists proceed from premises to preconceived conclusions. They ignore other logically compatible conclusions. For instance, it is predictable that one of the reasons they have identified colonialism is because the colonial era shares some proximity with the postcolonial era and perhaps, they are of the view that a cause must precede its effect. The internalists proceed through the inductive reasoning with selective observations rather than through any logical order. 
3) The scholars, who themselves are Africans assume that they have escaped the influences of the colonial causal factors that have unavoidably determined the rest of Africa.

It is a natural tendency in people to blame the occurrence of an unwanted phenomenon on another person or agent (Sauer, 2010:65–68). This natural tendency is further supported by the Newtonian physics (Mundi, 1985:28-30) and the realist tradition that has dominated the 20th and the 21st century thoughts (Putnam, 1986:205). The Newtonian physics and the general explanatory ambition of the natural sciences (Faure, 2009:77-91, Williamson, 2002:1-21, Yilkoski, 2001:7-8, 68-76) support the natural tendency with a theory that everything that happens has a cause (Ducheyne, 2009:333-358; Outwaite, 1987:5-7). This ‘scientific’ position is often demonstrated by trying to show how the force from one object is able to produce a motion in another object. In the interaction of objects, the effect becomes a product of the cause. The causal agent is said to have produced the effect, whether or not the term ‘cause’ is used or implied (Sauer, 2010:65–68, Ducheyne, 2009:333-358).

Apart from natural events in the natural sciences, social and historical events are also explained with reference to causes. Events such as famine, civil war, inter and intra community hostility, inflation, coup d’etat, political upheaver, de-forestation, proliferation of religious cults, failure of a marriage, change in fashion, technological development, increase in number of same sex marriage, and even the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre in the United States are all explained in terms of causal forces.
There are various types of causal explanation (Akinnawonu, 2006:188-194). The works of Hodgson (2004:175-194), Woodward (2003), Lewis (2000:182-197), Makin (2000:59-72), Ekstrom (1992:107-122), Salmon (1997:461-477), Hume (1888:77-87), Achinstein (1985), Anscombe (1981:133-147), Goldman (1978, 67-87), Locke (1975), Agassi (1968:87-91), Mill (1970:213-215, 1965), Hempel (1965, 1960), Gellner (1959), Ewing (1960:201-215) and Russell (1912:13-26) are notable among others. However, the work of Sauer (2010:65–68) removes the possibility of a mid-point between being caused and not being caused. He argues that either a thing is caused entirely or it is not caused at all. That is, whatever is caused is not merely influenced, but entirely determined by another factor (Faure, 2009:77-108).

Faure’s understanding of causation is apparently a consistent conception of causation. A cause is usually to be held responsible for the effect. It is necessary and just to hold an alleged cause responsible for an effect when the said effect cannot but be what the alleged cause makes it. A cause cannot be caused and whatever is caused cannot be held responsible for an alleged effect. That is, q cannot be said to have cause s if q has merely influenced s in such a limit that p could have been resisted or avoided or if p itself has been caused by p. Intentionality therefore, is a necessary quality of a cause.
Many scholars of African politics subscribe to the view for instance that the colonial or the postcolonial forces were so overwhelming that Africans could never have resisted them. Wiredu (2008:332-339, 1995:53-63, 1992:57-70), Kofi (2005), and Achebe (2008), Ogungbemi (2007), Diamond (1988), Mazrui (1990, 2000a, 2000b), Nkrumah (2007b, 2002) Rodney (2004) and Teffo (2004) comfortably subscribe to the thesis of overwhelming causal determinism. For instance, while Kofi believes that colonialism has caused all the political challenges of Africa, Achebe believes that the postcolonial leaders caused all the political challenges of Africa. As tempting as the positions appear, for a number of reasons, they are over-simplistic explanations of the political crises of Africa.

To begin with, accepting that the colonial or the postcolonial forces are irresistibly overwhelming, and that it was impossible for Africans to prevent the said forces, it would imply that Africans themselves have contributed nothing towards the situation in which they find themselves. It would mean either that Africans knew and wanted to prevent the forces but could not or that they could prevent the forces but did not understand its cunning or deliberately did not prevent it. Presumably, pre-contact Africans were in good state of mind. They could not have deliberately subjected themselves to such an enormous but preventable humiliation. It is not a defendable position that Africans in their wisdom have subjected themselves to a humiliation, which they knew would bring disrepute to them for generations to come. Therefore, it would mean either that they did not understand the cunning of the colonial forces or they could not resist them.

Some scholars like Hegel (Hegel, 1975 as used in Bello-Kano, 2004:36-46) had earlier argued that Africans are a people without a history and without a future of their own. Arguing that the postcolonial crises of Africa are caused by some colonial forces is a tacit endorsement of the theory of ahistorical Africa. Ultimately, theory of ahistorical Africa espouses the thesis of hopelessness. Therefore to argue that Africa has been caused by the colonial forces is also to argue that there is no future hope for Africa.
Whether the present economic and political situation of Africa has been fatally determined as implied by the causal explanation on the one hand or that there is no hope for Africa as it is also implied on the other hand it would also mean that every effort to explain or to find solutions are wasted efforts. Applying the causal model of explanation for the postcolonial challenges of Africa is therefore a Trojan horse which appears to be full of life but which carries death and destruction in its belly. It demolishes and destroys the logical foundations of even the political activism, the self-reliance project, the anti-corruption efforts in Africa. The African unity drive and the decolonisation process initiated by stakeholders and scholars like Wiredu, (2000a:186-204), Anyiam-Osigwe (2005), Ogundowole (2007) and Teffo (2002) are equally logically challenged.

Another major problem with the causal explanation of the political challenges of Africa is that the scholars assume that they can transcend their own analysis. Even though some of the scholars are Africans, they assume that they have escaped the causal influence of the insurmountable factor that has determined the rest of African society. For example, the externalist’s positions run approximately as follows; colonialism has caused Africans to be unable to manage certain aspects of their own lives. The colonial forces were so strong that indigenous African people and societies could not subdue them. The said forces have maintained their hold on the mental scheme of Africans even after all the colonisers have left (Ayittey, 1999:29-39). In particular, the scientific externalist scholars believe that colonialism has so much disrupted the psyche of Africans (see chapter 4). Therefore, they believe that colonialism still determines the political situation of democracy in Africa because it first controls the mind and heart of Africans in various ways. The same argument goes for the internalists who identify the postcolonial factors as the cause of the political challenges militating against democratic project in Africa.

From the foregoing analysis of, it is worth noting that:
1) The scholars fail to specify how some people are able to escape the insurmountable force that has the capability to determine the rest of Africa. 
2) Whether they specify or not, the scholars have demarcated between themselves and the rest of African societies. In order word, they are no more than either of the two sets of ‘outsiders’ identified by Snow (Chambers, 1999:28). Snow names the two groups of outsiders as the negative social scientists and the positive professionals. In Snow’s view, these ‘outsiders’ have alienated themselves, because, even their analyses have distanced them from those communities they set out to analyse as distant objects. 
3) Perhaps, the scholars have been influenced by Kant or by Cartwright or both of them.
a. Kant has makes it clear that one of the pre-conditions for scientific objectivity, is that the mind of the scientist is not itself subject to the laws of causality (as used in Putnam, 1986:105-115). Therefore, the scholars have to claim that they are not subject to the causal influence. However, they are yet to tell us how they have escape the said causal influence.
b. Cartwright, like many post-Copernican epistemologists, has also argues that a good explanation must satisfy two conditions. First, it must increase the possibility of the fact to be explained. Secondly, it must be an objective, person independent matter (Giddy, 2009:359-376; Achintein, 1985:219). 
4) In the manner of Snow’s ‘outsiders’ the African scholars who employ the causal explanations are outsiders because they try to analyse and make prescriptions regarding the political crises of Africa of which they are not affected. 
5) If the scholars, who themselves are Africans are wilfully able to diagnose Africa, and make prescriptions on how to remake Africa, it would mean that they are not caused. If then they are not cause, and yet they are Africans, it would contradict their claim that Africa has been caused, because if Africa is caused then Africans are caused. Africa cannot be caused without Africans being caused. 
6) Cartwright argues (as stated in number 3b above), that ‘the two conditions for a good argument are satisfied if and only if the explanation itself is caused’ (Achintein, 1985:219). 

If then it is true on the other hand, that Africans have been caused, and the scholars are also Africans and equally affected by the causal influence, it would mean that their reasoning too has been caused. It means they could not vouch for anything about the truth that they claim. If the reasoning of the scholars has been caused, it would mean that they have no access to the truth that they claim about Africa. That is, it would mean that they are mere effects and their reasoning has been determined. It means also that we cannot take their arguments seriously.


It must be noted that this paper has not argued that the problems of Africa were not caused by colonialism or by the corrupt postcolonial African leaders. It did not attempt to argue that the problems were not caused by a combination of the colonial and the postcolonial forces or a combination of many more factors as Mbembe seem to have insinuated. Instead, it has examined and shown the consequences of arguing that Africa has been caused by some force. The argument has been that if it is true that Africans are caused, then it would imply that (depending on the origin of the explainer), the explanation itself is caused or depends on a caused explanation that does not reflect the true picture of Africa. It also argued that the truthfulness of the causal explanation also implies something further than merely sharing blames.

The question however becomes accurate and necessary to ask ‘is Africa merely an effect of indomitable forces and without a way out?’ or Are Africans mere puppets in the strings?’ If the scholars who are Africans claim that Africans are caused ‘Can a caused explanation precede a meaningful solution?’ Are they not laconically saying that Africa and the Africans are irredeemably doomed? This paper therefore recommends a change towards more intellectually viable explanations that accord Africans the human and social dignity that they deserve by both the Pan-African and the Afro-critic scholars for the postcolonial challenges of Africa.


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