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Political Discourses in African Thought: 1860 to the Present. Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999. Pp238.
Political Discourses in African Thought is one of the great works in contemporary African studies. Inspired by Ayo Langsleys Pan-Africanism and Nationalism in West Africa, the study makes a critical inventory of African political thought at the close of the twentieth century in order to show the tools available for attacking urgent present-day issues (pp.1-3) . As African states struggle to reconfigure their polities along democratic paths, Hensbroek asserts, the great challenge of democratic theorizing is to contextualize democratic arrangements by shaping them to suit historical situations and cultural resources at the individual and collective level (p.189). This challenge necessitates the ensuing dissection of key models of political thought found in African discourse (p.1).
Four things in particular makes Hensbroeks book brilliant. First, its novel view of the ideas of African thought aims to reclaim their proper place in history. Over the years, African thought is generally perceived as either influenced by Marx, Locke, or other Western thinkers. Consequently, the legacies of individual Africans theoretical thought are often dismissed as incoherent "traditional" African ideologies. Hensbroek contends that the study of African political thought should rather deal with these discourses in their specific historical situations (p.19). The study asserts the original heritage of these discourses is intimately connected to the political history of Africa itself, rather than a reproduction of Western thought as is often alleged (p.144).
Second, its call for a methodology that involves a more empirical attitude towards African political thought than is common is significant (p.17). This highlights an interesting historiography lesson in its critical hermeneutic analysis of the various exemplars in African thought in their specific historical time contexts. Hensbroeks meticulous and sophisticated style of analysis opens the eyes of the reader to the problem of anachronism in African studies. Anachronism, the judgment of historical authors with new problems and concepts that were not obtained during their eras, precludes the understanding of historical authors within their own frame of mind and within their own historical context. The historian, in such cases enters the field with a prior substantial theory of history (p.13). Through a combination of textual and social analysis, Hensbroek convinces the reader of the need for a hermeneutic approach, a positive historiographic program that finds out from the historical authors themselves what are relevant problems, agendas, and concepts to understand their work. In fact, ignoring the African roots of Hortons discourse is a consequence of the preoccupation with European intellectual history rather than with the particular West African condition in his time. Texts are only comprehended when we understand the meaning of the words, ideas, and acts involved. Hermeneutics precede explanation (p.39; 54).
The book also challenges the common perception of the colonial African political elite as a westernized group of individuals alienated from their cultures. The alienation school of thought is mostly evident in the works of Basil Davidsons The Black Mans Burden, David Chanaiwas "Colonial Education in Southern Africa," E. A. Ayandeles The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, and James Colemans Nigerian Background to Nationalism, to mention but a few.  Hensbroek refutes the notion of alienation as a myth founded assumptions. The view of non-Europeans sharing similar values as Europeans and as imitators of European standards is seriously challenged (p.39). Therefore the perception of Africanus Horton, for instance, as being alienated from African realities, a Black Englishman, and as ideologist of the educated elite, share the serious flaw that they do not derive their interpretation from the texts and the specific historical circumstances. Rather they develop conjectures about lines of influence, or advance interest theories, and then ascribe ideas to sources or to interests. However sophisticated the historians ideas and theories may be (which they are often not), the objects that they have to explain, that is, the texts themselves, have to be grasped first (p.39).
Finally, the study attempts to establish common links between the various exemplars from 1860 to the present. As in Newtons scientific terminology, for Hensbroek too, an exemplar represents the paradigmatic examples of good scientific work (p.19). This approach closely links intellectuals that were century apart in time. For instance, while Kanduza Chisiza in the 1960s, echoes Horton in the 1860s, while George Ayittey in the 1990s sounds like a student of John Sarbah of 1900. Similarly, Leopold Senghor and Edward Blyden share an ideological proximity (pp.145-146). This view further buttresses the flaw in the alienation thesis. If Horton of 1860s was considered an alienated Black Englishman, what makes Ayittey or Mahmood Mamdani in the 1990s less alienated or westernized?
Political Discourses further reveals the intricate weaknesses in the thoughts of the various exemplars. For example, Fanons mythical concept of a pregiven nation (the people or the oppressed) that was subsequently alienated under colonial domination is questioned as both historically and theoretically erroneous. The error stems from the perception of the rich and diverse heritages of peoples, life forms, religions, and cultures as a single entity (p.122).
What are the results of Hensbroeks inventory? It identifies three basic models of African political thought, each underlining a basic aspect of society: the modernization model focuses on the economical-technological, the identity model on the cultural, and the liberation model on the social (p.199). Viewed from a broad historical perspective, these strains, replicated in the contemporary democracy discourses, have largely dominated African political thought over the last 150 years (177). As socialism and development discourses formed the main concern for intellectuals in Africa until the 1980s, so do todays mainstream liberal democracy discourse on democracy (civil society, a reorientation towards indigenous political forms, and the question of the nation state), resound the same concerns (p.177).
Hensbroek reveals a few problems in the construction of political discourses in Africa, which need improvement to further the cause of Africas democratic renaissance (p.198). One is the notion of modernity as claimed by the West, which tends to block a host of interesting and pertinent questions of democratic thought for Africa (p.198). If modernity is used in the plural, as modernities, then the issue arises of different variants of democratic polity that are congruent upon the historical and cultural context (p.197). The second deficiency is inherent in such bipolar codifications as We and They or Africa and the West (p.199). Such bipolarity leads to simplification of our thinking, thereby closing up other options to managing a multitude of differences and resemblances, problems and options (p.199). The implication for democratization in Africa is that it leads to the peculiar view that basically one major issue should be resolved for democracy to work (pp.199-200). Therefore a shift from the bipolar models of thought will make room for a more relevant and original contribution to the discussion on democracy in Africa (p.201).
Although Hensbroek challenges the notion of alienation and calls for a grounded understanding of the Texts, he fails to move away from the one-sided accounts of intellectual traditions of African intelligentsia in terms of the influence of Western culture through colonial institutions particularly the church, school and ideology. The fact remains that the ideas of these thinkers and their impact on the society cannot be fully understood without looking closely at their lived experiences in families, kinship, gender roles, relationship to traditional authorities and social lives as experienced in their various communities. This approach remains a challenge that must be tackled for a more balanced understanding of these individuals. Notwithstanding, any serious reader cannot ignore this book.Raphael Chijioke NJOKU Alvan
Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, Nigeria.
1. Langsley, Ayo J. Pan-Africanism and Nationalism in West Africa: A Case Study in Ideology and Social Classes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
2. See Basil Davidson, The Black Mans Burden: Africa and the Curse of Nation-State (New York: Times Book, 1992); David Chanaiwas "Colonial Education in Southern Africa," in A Mugomba and M. Nyagah (eds.), Independence without Freedom: The Political Economy of Colonial Education in Southern Africa (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1980); E. A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria 1842-1914: A Political and Social Analysis (London: Longman, 1966); and James Coleman, Nigerian Background to Nationalism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1958).
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