Developing Africa: Olúfémi Táíwò and the Project of Modernity, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
A Yoruba proverb says if same-mother siblings enter a room to have a heart-to-heart talk and come out smiling, they have not told each other the truth. This manifesto is the unvarnished truth about the state of our continent and how to remedy the maladies. Africa’s problems are not unique to it. Other leaders in the world have been able to solve these problems for their people…
Olúfémi Táíwò brings the fine intellect of the Ivy League professor of philosophy that he is and the passion of a prophet to his manifesto on African development, laid out across 224 pages in his magnum opus, Africa Must Be Modern (2014). His argument revolves around the lack of modernity in Africa, its huge cost, and how it could be achieved. He says even though we Africans assume we are modern because we consume products from modern societies, educate our children abroad and even jet off to enjoy our vacation in such places, our mode of thinking and practices are embedded in pre-modernity when it comes to organising our societies, therefore progress is all but impossible. We have failed to adopt the ideas, processes, and principles responsible for the creation of modern societies. We lack a curiosity about how things work and how systems are developed. Our lawmakers junket to “learn about democracy” in London or Washington D.C., wasting vast amounts of precious foreign exchange, when in fact it is all a pretence to go on taxpayers-funded vacation with their large entourage. We import millions of digital television sets, cell phones, refrigerators, cars, blenders, and generators without any plan to manufacture these, now or in the future.
South Korea used to be a very poor nation with the same per capita GDP as many impoverished African countries, but it adopted modernity as its organising principle and today it is a leader in producing the technology that most of humanity use around the world. South Korea’s per capita GDP is $34,549, while Nigeria’s is $1,661. Our cities are congested and filthy, filled with slums inhabited by millions of people. The streets are unpaved, generators belch smoke all day polluting the air and damaging our health, our roads are unsafe and our hospitals so bad our leaders shamelessly leave their countries to seek medical attention abroad, sometimes staying there for months! Our condition is so severe that many have given up hope about it ever improving. Those with hope cling to superstition that “God is in control” and will miraculously do for us what we need to do for ourselves, or that this is how things are meant to be.
Táíwò warns us that unless we adopt the strategies of the countries that have been able to bring prosperity and raise the standard of living of their people, we will continue to work our way back to the Dark Ages as we now do. Africa needs modernity likes it needs oxygen. The core principles of a modern society, according to Táíwò are individualism, the rule of law, and a knowledge society anchored on a liberal education. Africa must deal with what he calls the “sticky problem of individualism.” Many Africans believe they live in communalistic societies where the needs of individuals are secondary to that of the community, and that those individual needs are met materially, socially, and emotionally. They see individualistic societies as cold and heartless, with people pursuing personal ambitions to the detriment of the collective, and people suffering loneliness, isolation, and abandonment in old age.
However, African elites who love their “communalistic societies” and proffer “African solutions to African problems” are eager to send their children to study in higher institutions in modern societies or hide their wealth in those countries. Indeed, modernity gave us the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, the Holocaust, and racism, which continues to devalue black people all over the world. Because of the tragic history of centuries of Western predations on our continent, many African intellectuals resist adopting modernity as the way forward because they conflate modernity with Westernisation. Táíwò says this is a misunderstanding. Modernity, he argues, is a collective human heritage whose birth was midwifed by the interactions between Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans and others. It does not belong to the West, although the West has contributed a lot to it and has used it to advance itself tremendously. Other people in Asia and Latin America, who were colonised like us, have adopted modernity and have been able to move people out of poverty, bringing prosperity and abundance to their land. The problem is, now, we neither live in a communalistic society the way our ancestors did nor in a modern society. Even in the past, while our ancestors practiced communalism, they sold each other into slavery, women were treated abominably, fathers treated their children as property, and there were human sacrifices. In our era, many of us have seen how the communalistic ethos have been exploited by family members who freeload on other family members they feel owe them resources just by virtue of being born in the same family. The level of corruption and callousness of our leaders who divert public funds to private use, while the people wallow in poverty, should forever put to rest to the communalism posture. Our societies have become primitive and Hobbesian.
Individual rights need to be protected by the rule of law in a modern society. People have to be able to live their lives any way they choose, as long as they are not harming others. Táíwò notes that Nigerian and Ugandan lawmakers have tried to introduce legislation that criminalise homosexuality. Uganda wanted to put homosexuals to death, while leaders in Zimbabwe, Namibia and other countries regularly engage in hostile homophobic rhetoric that endangers the lives of gay people. Human Rights organisations across the continent are curiously silent about these abuses. Everybody’s rights need to be guaranteed in a modern society and they should not depend on birth, wealth, gender, or sexual orientation. A father should not be able to marry off his 15-year-old daughter to a 70-year-old man to cement a power deal.
Olúfémi Táíwò sees the education system we inherited from the departed colonial masters as a poisoned chalice, which has never been scrutinised by our leaders, hence our inability to solve the problems that plague us. We have been producing people who have no knowledge of the problems their societies face and the ways to solve them.
Táíwò notes that modern individualism depends on the “idea of contract” between people, with the assumption that while “individuals may and do cooperate with one another, such cooperation is not essential to their personhood.” The rule of law guarantees that each person is treated the same under the law, that everyone has a fair hearing in court. In a modern society, process is far more important than the outcomes. Most people will be content with the outcomes if they see that the process is fair to all. The rule of men, which many African countries are saddled with, cannot guarantee this. Some countries have had the same rulers or their sons as leaders since independence. Godfatherism is rife on the continent, ensuring a retreat into backwardness. Some Africans, confused about the way forward for the continent, have wondered if benevolent dictators would be the answer. Táíwò begs to differ, noting that the rule of men is capricious, and because of the fallibility of human nature, it is susceptible to self-interests, tribalism, greed and megalomania. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. African modernity has to be founded on the rule of law, which gives protection to everyone under the Law.
Olúfémi Táíwò sees the education system we inherited from the departed colonial masters as a poisoned chalice, which has never been scrutinised by our leaders, hence our inability to solve the problems that plague us. We have been producing people who have no knowledge of the problems their societies face and the ways to solve them. Colonial education was meant to serve the colonial administration established to siphon resources out of our country. We inherited this deformed system and it’s no wonder our continent is retreating, while others are advancing. We are hobbled because of a lack of knowledge. Because of a lack of opportunities at home, Africa’s best minds leave for foreign lands to make contributions in different fields, producing knowledge that becomes part of the patrimony of their host countries, while Africa is deprived of this knowledge. Those at home leave the academy to become advisors, assistants, deputies, chiefs of staff to unschooled politicians for whom education means nothing and who cannot see the relationship between knowledge production and national development. They forsake the production of knowledge because it is grossly underfunded, and the society has no need for it.
It is no secret that the most useful stock of information and knowledge about Africa and a lot of Africa’s patrimony lie outside its borders, in the vaults, libraries, and museums of Western countries. Many of us learn more about our countries while studying abroad than at home. Many scholars left at home see the academy as a stepping stone to politics, business, advocacy, and international jobs. There are no reputable journals published within African countries and African scholars from different countries are not exchanging knowledge and information with each other. Instead, those who are producing any kind of knowledge at all are eager to publish in international journals because their home institutions see this as a validation of their contribution. It is a travesty, says Táíwò.
African scholars must be able to peer-review each other’s work. Every international journal is after-all a local journal somewhere, and knowledge is hardly neutral. Our universities produce little usable knowledge, that they have become diploma mills. Táíwò advocates for a liberal education in reforming education in Africa, the type that makes it possible to produce rounded and well-educated people in the liberal arts and sciences, capable of employing imagination and curiosity in ferreting out knowledge from all areas of human endeavour. This is what has led to the greatness of other nations. Universities are not for manpower production or nation building; they are places “to free the mind and intellect, and having freed it, cultivate it.” For example if people want to spend their lives studying butterflies, we should provide the opportunities for such. We should allow knowledge to take us wherever it may because this is the foundation of great modern societies. It has led to great inventions and ideas in the world.
African leaders and people have to stop playing ostrich, take the bull by the horns, and move their people out of debilitating poverty. God or Allah will not do it for us. Táíwò has thrown down the gauntlet. Everyone will benefit from this book, especially young Africans who want a future of growth and prosperity.
The lack of knowledge production has spelt calamity for the continent. We live under religious and cultural fundamentalism. Nigerians and other Africans export churches and pastors, while other nations export to us food, clothes (including used ones), shoes, medical equipment, engineering tools, technical and administrative manpower. It is a primitive kind of living that is not compatible with modernity and progress, which Táíwò instructs we should adopt in all ways. Many educated people do not have a basic knowledge of their environment, the names of animals, plants, and trees, in any language. Leaders don’t know how many people are moving from the rural to urban areas, how many people are being born or dying, and what people are dying of. There is little knowledge of our rivers, forests, mountains, and all the other natural resources, some of which are being rapidly depleted. While we are pretending that we live in a communalistic society, Taiwo observes that we actually “are living in changed and changing times” which “affects all of our lives”, that “our work habits have changed. What we eat has changed radically. The arrangement of our physical space has altered beyond belief. Our architecture, even in the remotest of hamlets, no longer bears any semblance to forms indigenous to us through our history.” Furthermore, “the ways in which we used to conceptualize illness and good health have been altered and our dominant orientation these days is a mish-mash of indigenous and alien traditions.” Yet, we have not been able to produce the relevant knowledge that investigates these profound changes.
We must abandon superstition and fatalism, and employ reason and optimism to build a modern Africa. Lord Lugard, that colonial thinker who amalgamated Southern and Northern Nigeria, said Africans could not benefit from intellect, as he and his Empire plotted to stunt African growth, while ravenously exploiting our resources. This racist and destructive attitude was behind their promotion of religious education over science education. Is it any wonder today that our conditions of living have gotten worse while our land is littered with churches and mosques, and science, technology and reason have all but disappeared? The loudest debates recently in our oldest university, the University of Ibadan, are not about disagreements in scientific findings or artistic interpretations, they are about where to site a mosque in relation to a chapel and if female students should wear head covers or not! “Colonial education,” Taiwo notes, “almost permanently stunted our intellectual evolution and rendered us forever prancing around with our minds riveted on everyday problems of survival. The preoccupation with so-called practical problems, the discouragement of knowledge production that aims to understand planets beyond our own.” We are now reaping what he calls “the unfortunate harvest of a racist sowing”.
This book is for all Africans who truly want progress for their continent, and feel the urgency to do something about the poverty and misery in the midst of abundant natural resources and human talent. Táíwò’s manifesto has copious illustrations and anecdotes from his personal and professional life, and examples of countries which have adopted modernity and prospered. Táíwò was educated at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in the 70s, the golden age of higher education in Nigeria. He graduated with a First Class in History and Philosophy (combined honours) and completed his doctoral work in Canada. Táíwò has been a professor in American universities for decades. He currently teaches at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
A Yoruba proverb says if same-mother siblings enter a room to have a heart-to-heart talk and come out smiling, they have not told each other the truth. This manifesto is the unvarnished truth about the state of our continent and how to remedy the maladies. Africa’s problems are not unique to it. Other leaders in the world have been able to solve these problems for their people by adopting the methods Táíwò enumerates in this manifesto. African leaders and people have to stop playing ostrich, take the bull by the horns, and move their people out of debilitating poverty. God or Allah will not do it for us. Táíwò has thrown down the gauntlet. Everyone will benefit from this book, especially young Africans who want a future of growth and prosperity.
Africa Must Be Modern – A Manifesto
By Olúfémi Táíwò
Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2014
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org