Introduction: The African Post-Colonial State in Crisis


Crisis is a medical term, connoting a progressive deterioration of the human body, threatening death unless a competent physician intervenes. Similarly in the life of the AfricanPolis, crisis is a metaphor for the dysfunctionality of institutions, most specifically, the State – that institution which is meant to be the blood of the citizens, their center of being. When the state fails to engage the citizens’ intelligence, when it miserably violates their rights, when it also fails to deliver the common good, a crisis ensues and the specter of revolution and revolt looms on the horizon. Such a condition calls for social movements to be the beacons of change and the harbingers of transformation.

When the state enters a crisis, the lifeline of the citizen is threatened. This is the situation of Africa now. Unless this crisis is medicated, as Frantz Fanon would have said, the African state will degenerate into war, and its citizens will lose all the rights and privileges that came with formal independence; they will devolve to the zone of non-being, and will become socially and politically dead.

Africana philosophy, literature, literary theory, critical sociology, feminist theory and political theory, with the deft hands of scholars and thinkers, have joined hands to respond to this crisis in this special issue of Socialism and Democracy, devoted to Africa, with a clarion call for change, embodied in new subjectivities mediated by a new concrete universal and anchored in social movements crucial to transforming the African condition.*

The African Crisis, argues Abiola Irele, is most evident in the visual and literary presentation of Africa once again as the zone of non-being, presented to the world in various guises as the epitome of helplessness and anguish. The African self is novelized as an anguished non-being. The passions and good-will that were once part of post-independence Africa quickly gave way to the gloom, pestilence, AIDS, war, and poverty characteristic of contemporary Africa.

This reality is well captured in Irele’s essay. For the Western literary imagination, the condition of Africa is so dystopic that the African self is now symbol of the worst that could happen to the human being. On this view Africa is not the heart of light, but rather the “heart of darkness.” The Africa that was the center of human civilization is now the originator of AIDS. The Africa of the Iliad and the Odyssey – an embodiment of hospitality, generosity, and cultural polish – is now a site of perversion and of war. Endless commentaries present Rwanda, Darfur, Ethiopia and Eritrea as places of brutality and savagery. Everything that is not amenable to change and transformation is considered typically African. The Afrooptimism of the immediate post-independence period has now been fully displaced by what Irele calls Afropessimism. Irele does not endorse the Afropessmitic portrait; he merely presents it as it floods the media.

Kwasi Wiredu, on the other hand, puts forward an Afrooptimistic view, suggesting that the African condition can perhaps be resolved by a consensual democracy built on compromise as the essence of decision-making. Wiredu’s philosophically rigorous argument offers an ideal scenario, but its implementation requires objective institutional support, which can be mediated only by social movements. It is within these movements that the practice of consensual democracy must be nurtured through the art of compromise.

Paget Henry joins this discussion by carrying further Fanon’s vision of turning a new leaf and taking seriously CLR James’s respect for the common people as the originators of transformative participatory politics. Henry believes, along with Marx, Fanon and James, that emancipation is the mission of working people. This principle applies most poignantly to the African condition, and Nigel Gibson shows its workings in the revolutionary activities of the “poors” of Durban, South Africa, who, when faced with broken promises, did not wait for the ANC to organize them, but took law and order into their revolutionary hearts and hands, rejecting the efforts of the bourgeois state to silence them and covert them into docile subjects. They said no to docility and yes to transformative politics of the streets.

Daniel Egan uses Fanon’s ideas of the alienated self by showing the role of racialized categories in the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. He argues quite originally that race is constructed as a tool of the material and symbolic niggerizing of the oppressed. That one is white, and therefore essentially born to rule, and the other is black, and therefore destined to be ruled, is a binary language that is used to rationalize the exploitation of the colonized. On his view the subjugation of Iraqis then is a particular case of what Paget Henry calls negrification. The repressive binary universal, however, hides a liberating solidarity of all the oppressed, who could transform the repression into an emancipatory “humanist universalism” in the self-activity of a social movement that aims at ending racial and ethnic categories by fighting imperialism in all the streets, shantytowns, and cities where the “ Wretched of the Earth” reside.

Judith Van Allen examines the changing gender roles in Botswana, as women mobilize to end legal and political inequalities affecting them within each social class. Rejecting a longstanding culture of male supremacy, women are uniting to construct a new concrete universal, inspired by the South African struggle against apartheid. What is remarkable about Van Allen’s thesis is that it points to the new independent role that women can play in effecting lasting change of the African condition via social movements freed from manipulation by dysfunctional states. Botswanan women, like their South African sisters, are living examples of changes to come in the Africa of the future.

Biodun Jeyifo pushes Fanon’s vision to embrace Amilcar Cabral’s revolutionary quest for a cultural modernity that can accommodate the complex history of African nationalities, ethnicities and languages. The continent’s future is poignantly portrayed in the narratives of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Jeyifo collects the scattered insights of Achebe’s political and literary interventions into one systematic whole, in which culture is viewed, in the spirit of Cabral, as a kernel of appropriation and transcendence, blending resistance and creativity.

In my own essay, I join this quest by articulating a vision of a new human being originally organized by Maat, an African symbol of justice, truth, uprightness, tolerance, and compassion. In so doing, I suggest a basis for reorganizing African moral and economic life.


*In the process of assembling such an important issue, the attempt to be judicious and comprehensive is not always realized. I am aware that there is much more to be said about the questions dealt with here, and that many able thinkers about matters of common concern are not included. I hope that some of them will be represented in future issues of this journal. I am solely responsible for any lacunae that critics may discover.