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date: 02 December 2020

Postcolonial Approaches to the Study of African Politicsfree

  • Grace Adeniyi OgunyankinGrace Adeniyi OgunyankinDepartment of Women's and Gender Studies, Carleton University


Postcolonial theory has been embraced and critiqued by various scholars since the 1980s. Central to the field of postcolonial studies is the examination of colonial episteme and discourse, European racism, and imperial dominance. Broadly, postcolonialism analyzes the effects, and enduring legacies, of colonialism and disavows Eurocentric master-narratives. Postcolonial ideas have been significant to several academic disciplines, largely those in the humanities and social sciences, such as cultural and literary studies, anthropology, political science, history, development studies, geography, urban studies, and gender and sexuality studies. The key scholars that are connected to postcolonial theory, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak, have been critiqued for grounding their work in the Western theories of postmodernism and poststructuralism. Given the predominant association of these three scholars to postcolonial theory, Africanists have argued that postcolonial theory is dismissive of African theorizing. Moreover, some scholars have noted that Africanists have hesitated to use postcolonial theory because it is too discursive and has limited applicability to material reality. As such, the relevancy of postcolonial theory to Africa has been a repetitive question for decades. Despite this line of questioning, some scholars have posited that there are African thinkers and activists who are intellectual antecedents to the postcolonial thought that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, other Africanist scholars have engaged with the colonial discursive construction of African subjectivities and societies as inferior. These engagements have been particularly salient in women and gender studies, urban studies and studies of identity and global belonging.


On January 25, 2018, during Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feature on the Night of Ideas in Paris, France, she was asked, “What is your vision on postcolonial theory?” To the chagrin of many academics and activists engaged with postcolonial theory, Adichie stated the following: “I think it’s something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.” By January 26, 2018, social media was abuzz with Adichie’s disavowal of postcolonial theory. Shaijla Patel, Kenyan poet and activist, remarked on Twitter that Adichie’s popularity was in part due to the work of postcolonial theorists who have fought for the acknowledgment of non-Western ways of knowing and representation: “Chimamanda the novelist is a genius. Her accomplishments are stellar, her fame merited. But the recognition and rewarding of her gifts wasn’t a happy accident. The labours and struggles of many scholars, past and present, carved out the spaces where her voice could land.” Later, on February 4, 2018, Professor Grace Musila published an article in Al Jazeera, pointing out the irony of Adichie’s statement. Musila noted that Adichie’s stories are in fact postcolonial theorizations, particularly Purple Hibiscus. Given the basic tenets of postcolonial theory, such as its challenge of Eurocentricism, colonial representations of “the colonized” and its focus on the continuities and legacies of colonialism (Go 2016; Hill 2005), it is clear that Adichie herself engages with postcolonial theory. Her 2009 TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, which critiques the prevalence of a single narrative about Africa, in addition to her writing, is another evidence of her engagement with postcolonial theory.

Perhaps Adichie was able to make her comment because ideas underpinning postcolonial theory have become commonsensical and integrated into the mainstream over the years that it is no longer seen as theory. However, Adichie’s tongue-in-cheek quip about postcolonial theory’s inaccessibility, fabrication, and location in the ivory towers of academia also point to the need to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The word “theory” in itself signals high levels of abstraction and something that only scholars produce and discuss. Particularly, this way of viewing theory originates from European positivism that restricted knowledge production to a select few, mainly white men. The beauty, and intervention, of postcolonial theory is that it places value on ways of knowing and thinking that extend beyond Eurocentric traditions and paradigms. Postcolonialism, in a nutshell, disavows colonial master-narratives, insists that colonialism has an enduring legacy, and celebrates multiplicity and difference.

Of what relevance, then, is postcolonial theory to Africa? The Night of Ideas event can be used as an example again to begin answering this question. That same night, Adichie was also asked if there were bookstores in Nigeria. While Adichie derided this question by answering, “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question,” Shaijla Patel in her same set of tweets astutely pointed out: “Here’s why it’s helpful to believe in post colonial theory. Because then your answer to ‘Does Nigeria have libraries?’ might be, ‘Yes, but they lack books and journals because the World Bank and IMF forced Nigeria to de-fund public education.’” Patel’s response illuminates the usefulness of analyzing the global political economy through a postcolonial lens that is attentive to inequalities in power. As Rita Abrahamsen (2003) argues, the postcolonial project is “both material and epistemological, in that it entails a recognition that change of economic and political structure of domination and inequality requires a parallel and profound change of their epistemological and psychological underpinnings and effects” (p. 209). Accordingly, given the chronic underfunding of public services and the increasing displacement of poor and low-income people in the name of “development” in several African countries, postcolonial theory brings in an analysis that would call for a need to transcend Western prescriptions of development and progress and hegemony in deciding best policies and practices.

Beyond issues of political economy, Binyanvanga Wainaina’s (2006) brilliant piece, “How to Write About Africa,” featured in Granta, further indicates the pertinence of postcolonial theory to Africa. Wainaina critiques the portrayals of Africa and black Africans in popular culture, particularly in the Global North. These representations are very much rooted in colonial conceptions, which postcolonial theory seeks to deconstruct.

Despite the usefulness of postcolonial theory in the African context, it has not always been readily embraced. It has been critiqued for its connections to Western epistemology and its exclusion of African thinkers. In relation to the latter, it has also been pointed out that there is a disproportionate focus on India as the “subject/ object of postcolonial theorizing” and overwhelming recognition/ citation of Indian scholars as the authority on postcolonial theory (Adesanmi, 2003). Nevertheless, there is evidence of African scholarship that has engaged with, and contributed to the theorizing of, postcolonialism. Some of these engagements intimate that there is a distinctiveness to African postcolonial theorizing. For example, postcolonial theory in Africa has to grapple with slavery and colonialism and the difficult questions of diaspora, identity, and belonging in different ways than, say, postcolonial theory when it comes to India. Also, the ways in which Africa(ns) has/have been rendered ahistorical and ungeographic by colonial discourse have complex lingering effects in terms of the global political economy and the emergence of non-Western hegemonic powers in 21st-century Africa.

This article thus examines postcolonial theory and the tensions and debates it has produced in relation to the study of Africa. Structurally, the article begins by briefly explaining postcolonial theory and its origins, followed by an examination of some critiques of postcolonialism. Irrespective of these criticisms, the article makes a case for the relevance of postcolonial theory by providing examples of its applicability to scholarships on women, gender, and feminist studies; urban studies; and identity and culture.

What is Postcolonial Theory?

The term “postcolonial” can be confusing, particularly when the “post” is taken literally. This temporality is a very common misunderstanding of postcolonial theory. The confusion of the “post” in postcolonial theory stems from the original use of the word in the 1970s. Scholars such as Hamza Alavi and John Saul used the term postcolonial to explain and identify the period after decolonization; thus, it was “an historical and not an ideological concept” (Lazarus, 2011, p. 6). Since the 1980s, however, the term postcolonial has taken on a new meaning upon the introduction of postcolonial theory to academia. As Julian Go (2016) points out, “the meaning of ‘postcolonial’ in phrases such as postcolonial thought, postcolonial theory, or postcolonial studies is different. It refers to a loose body of writing and thought that seeks to transcend the legacies of modern colonialism and overcome its epistemic confines. It refers to a relational position against and beyond colonialism, including colonialism’s very culture” (9; emphasis in original). Anthony Chennells (1999) further adds that “post-colonialism is concerned with the worlds which colonialism in its multiple manifestations, confused, disfigured and distorted, reconfigured and finally transformed. The effects of colonization are felt from the moment of the first colonial impact and post-colonialism constitutes as its subject the way colonized societies adjusted and continue to adjust to the colonial presence” (p. 110).

Prior to the birth, and consolidation, of postcolonial thought in the academy, particularly in the cultural and literary departments, it had intellectual antecedents (Ahluwalia, 2000; Go, 2016). Nowadays, postcolonial thought is often associated with the trinity of Edward Said, Homi Bhabba, and Gayatri Spivak (Werbner, 1996) while intellectuals such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Albert Memmi, Gamal Abdul Nasser, W. E. B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, C. L. R. James, and Franz Fanon are not directly associated with it. Such thinkers and activists “emphasized colonial exploitation and the racist and racialized foundations of imperialism. They highlighted the costly psychological impact of colonialism upon the colonized and the colonizer.... The postcolonial thought they spawned was a critical engagement with empire’s very culture—its modes of seeing, being and knowing” (Go, 2016, p. 8). As such, Julian Go (2016) has referred to these individuals as the first wave of postcolonial thought. Not surprisingly, on the continent of Africa, intellectuals and activists who have been retroactively considered as the intellectual antecedents of postcolonial thought are male. Amina Mama (2007) has thus argued that we also consider the anticolonial critiques of women such as Funmilayo Ransome Kuti of Nigeria and Bibi Titi of Tanzania (p. 10). Hill (2005) has posited that we need to theoretically diversify postcolonial theory; if this is done and we include the anticolonial work of intellectuals, including grassroots activists, the canon of postcolonial theory would become more global (Tageldin, 2014).

Although there have been calls to diversify postcolonial theory, Edward Said’s (1979) Orientalism is still unequivocally honored as the pioneering work that catalyzed the development of postcolonial theory (Ahluwalia, 2000, p. 2). Drawing from Foucauldian and Gramscian concepts of power-knowledge and hegemony, respectively, Said introduced the concept of Orientalism to describe the discourse that has constructed the Orient and the Occident as binaries of each other. He also uses the concept to highlight the discursive, historical, cultural normalization of the Occident as the central world power. Said argues that the Orient is a discursively constructed system of representation that brought the Orient into Western scholarship, consciousness, and empire. He thus claims that all European scholarship on the Orient is racist, imperial, and ethnocentric. Said intimates that scholarship on the Orient needs to prominently figure the narrative and self-representation of the Orient. He also calls for a humanist epistemology that transcends racialized identities. Thus, Said’s work inaugurated the postcolonial project of “unthinking Eurocentricism” (Lazarus, 2011, p. 7). Many postcolonial critics have built upon Said’s work and “have produced a considerable amount of work over the past thirty or so years on ‘Western’ conceptions of the ‘non-West,’ in which they have been concerned to demonstrate not only the falsity of these conceptions, but also their systematicity and their capacity to engender and anchor oppressive social practices, policies and institutions” (p. 3).

In addition to Said, Homi Bhabha is also considered one of the key contributors to postcolonial theory. In Location of Culture, Bhabha (1994) challenges Said for oversimplifying the binaries of Orient and Occident and colonizer and colonized. Informed by psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, Bhabha complicates colonial discourse by noting its contradictory and ambivalent nature. He also used the terms hybridity and mimicry to further illuminate the complex relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Hybridity, takes place in the “third space of enunciation” where the binaries of colonizer and colonized are de-essentialized and the hierarchy of difference is deposed. Mimicry, as performed by the colonized, can be subversive and signals that the colonizer did not always have all the power. Bhabha also critiques modernity and offers the concept of time-lag as a way of enabling colonial subjects, who were relegated to the status of non-human when founding categories of modernity were constituted, to interrogate Western hegemony. Time-lag, as a temporal disjuncture between the colonizer and colonized, provides a space for empowerment and resistance for the colonial subjects and makes possible the displacement of progressivist historical narratives produced by and about “the center.” Bhabha’s important contribution to postcolonial theory is the supposition that power and discourse are not solely the purview of the colonizers.

Gayatri Spivak (1988), informed by poststructural theory, is skeptical about the ability of the subaltern (oppressed individual with limited hegemonic power) to contribute to revisionist history. Using the example of the British criminalization of sati (widow immolation) in India as an attempt to save women from the “barbaric” practice, Spivak notes that the Indian nationalist’s anticolonial response to this law was the “romanticization of the purity, strength and love of these self-sacrificing women” (Spivak 1988, p. 301). Thus, the British misrepresent the women as agentless victims and the nationalists mis-re-present the women as docile and unquestioning of culture. Thus, whenever sati is written about from an anticolonial discourse, the “othering” of Hindu culture by the British would be highlighted while leaving out the voice and consciousness of the subjects in question. As such, Spivak cautions against counternarratives that in effect reproduce colonial practices of epistemic violence.

The popularity of Said, Bhabha, and Spivak in the postcolonial canon cannot be overstated—such that this article has devoted space to briefly summarize some of their core arguments. It is this continued popularity and devotion of space to the “holy trinity” that has caused some Africanists to reject postcolonial theory. Shaden Tageldin (2014), for example, argues that Africa is denied a position in postcolonial theory (p. 303). Adebayo Williams (1997) also notes that postcolonial formulations lack “an authentic and well sustained African input into the paradigm” (as cited in Ahluwalia, 2000, p. 9). While Pal Ahluwalia (2000) disagrees with the use of “authentic,” due to postcolonial theory’s notion of hybridity and the dynamism of culture and society, he does concur that “a large slice of the postcolonial constituency ‘Africa’ has been rendered curiously silent” (p. 9). But if we recall Hill’s argument to diversify postcolonial theory, then it is possible to make the case that acknowledging the first wave of postcolonial theory, which include African scholars, would amplify African voices in postcolonial theory. More so, the salience of contributions by scholars such as Kwame Appiah, Achille Mbembe, Valentin Mudimbe, Ali Mazrui, and Mahmood Mamdani cannot be overlooked (Werbner, 1996, p. 7).

In addition to these criticisms of exclusion, several Africanists have also hesitated to use postcolonial theory because of its epistemological indebtedness to Western discourses such as postmodernism and poststructuralism (Ahluwalia, 2000, p. 1). The fact that Said, Bhabha, and Spivak, for example, draw upon Western intellectuals in their work calls into question whether postcolonial theory is truly “postcolonial.” But Ahluwalia notes that postcolonial theory critiques postmodernism’s disavowal of subjectivity given that part of the project of postcolonial thought is to create space for the subjectivities of those previously associated with the colonized world (p. 5). Further, Ahluwalia (2000, p. 6) posits that while “postmodernism is primarily a counterdiscourse against modernism that emerges within modernism itself,” postcolonialism “is a counterdiscourse that seeks to disrupt the cultural hegemony of the modern West with all its imperial structures of feeling and knowledge.”

Moreover, postcolonial theory has been faulted for beginning its inquiry with the colonial encounter. Specifically, concerns center around the privileging of the “colonial episode over the multiple movements of indigenous histories” (Chennells, 1999, p. 109). Rita Abrahamsen (2003) has justified the focus on colonialism because of its role in the reordering of the world (p. 196).

Finally, in a similar vein as the preceding critique, it has been noted that “postcolonial theory generally has failed to situate colonialism relative to the wider framing history of capitalist development” (Lazarus, 2011, p. 10). It has also been accused of being inattentive to materiality and overly focused on culture. Ahluwalia (2000) responds to this criticism by blaming critics for their “very narrow reading of the field and with a focus on Said, Bhabha, and Spivak and their form of colonial discourse analysis” while ignoring that “the field is developing and evolving rapidly with an emphasis on the relationship between modernity, globalization and the local” (p. 12). In line with Ahluwalia’s defense, Julian Go (2016) similarly countered that “it does not occur to self-appointed materialist critics of postcolonial theory that the very definition of capitalism, the meaning of seemingly ‘objective’ matters like food and what counts as food, and the policies by which material issues are to be alleviated or not alleviated—all of these are questions of culture and knowledge” (p. 199).

Overall, postcolonial theory criticizes colonial episteme and representations and seeks to disarm the power and legacies of colonialism. The brief overview of Said, Bhabha, and Spivak indicate that there are some variations in postcolonial thought. It is also clear that there has been hesitation to use postcolonial theory; the concerns center around its privileging of colonialism, its foundation in poststructuralism and postmodernism, its lack of attention to materiality, and its elision of African theorizing. Despite these criticisms, particularly the exclusion of African theorizing, there exist postcolonial approaches to the study of Africa by Africanists, including those of African origin. I provide three examples to highlight Africanist contributions to postcolonial studies.

Postcolonial Thought and African Women’s Status

One key area in African studies where postcolonial thought has been taken up has been in the broad field of women, gender, and feminist studies, particularly as it relates to African women’s historiography. The need to redress Eurocentric representations of women and imposition of (neo)colonial gender paradigms have been of paramount concern. This concern is particularly salient given the development discourses on Africa that often target women as the key subject of intervention using a Western feminist approach. As such, scholars, informed by postcolonial theory, have been engaged in polarized debates on the need for women’s empowerment and equality in African countries, within the framework and question of the usefulness of feminism.

The question of (how to attain) women’s empowerment and emancipation has been raised in the discourse on development in Africa since the 1970s. Women’s empowerment in Africa and the heightened debate on feminism is intimately tied to the discourse of development. The discourse on development as it pertains to African women is in turn intricately linked to functionalist anthropological studies conducted by Western scholars, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, which, consciously or unconsciously, constructed African women as the homogenous Other (Ajayi-Soyinka, 2005; Lewis, 2005). Western feminists, in turn, “perceived [African women] as helpless victims of unconscionable and sometimes masochistic patriarchy that treats its womenfolk as little more than chattels and easily dispensable properties” (Ajayi-Soyinka, 2005, p. 73).1 As such, in the height of second wave feminism, when a particular image of the Western woman was the model for all women, the goal was to make African women more like Western women (Steady, 2005, p. 316).

Alongside this rise in pitying African women as victims with no agency, African women’s history became a growing field in the 1970s (Berger, 2003). Prior to this time, African women’s histories were elided and were thus “invisible in the historical literature” (Okorobia, 2003, p. 99). The emerging literature on African women’s history glaringly challenged the modernization paradigm of development that insinuated that underdevelopment and women’s oppression were rooted in traditional precolonial societies. This literature thus gave justification for African women to begin to criticize development discourse as well as Western feminism’s crusades of empowerment. Moreover, it also gave basis to critique second wave feminism’s assumption that all women were the same (Ajayi-Soyinka, 2005). By 1975, the United Nations International women’s year conference in Mexico City also gave space for African women to highlight the inapplicability of Western feminism’s metanarratives to their realities. However, it was not until the 1980s that African women’s position and status (in the context of empowerment) began to be studied systematically (Mama, 1996). These studies largely took on a postcolonial approach in that they articulated “previously unavailable narratives [and emphasized the] dire need to address complexity, nuance, multiplicity and power relations in [African] contexts where histories of imperialism have denuded the cultural and intellectual fabric” (Mama, 2011, p. 13).

Since the 1980s, there has been a proliferation of research and publications on African women—mainly by African scholars. Prominent scholars, through linguistic method, ethnographic investigation, oral histories, historiographies, life stories, and biographies, have interrogated the position of African women as subordinate in history as well as stressed the impact of colonialism and its role in diminishing women’s social, economic and political status. In many precolonial societies in sub-Saharan Africa, women had access to political power and governed their own affairs. Many African women were autonomous and actively participated in the economy (Agbese, 2003; Berger & White, 1999; Steady, 1981). Women were traders, market women, and farmers, whose accumulated profits provided for themselves and their families (Beoku-Betts, 2005; Berger & White, 1999; Mba, 1982; Sudarkasa, 2005). Women were not dependent on men acting as “breadwinners” or sole providers for their household (Denzer, 1992).2

Colonial rule has been argued to have altered the position of women. Economically, the precolonial economy was restructured and the new economic system that was introduced provided men with more opportunities than women. Politically, with the importation of European gender ideologies that restricted women to the domestic realm, African women’s involvement in decision-making bodies and control over their own affairs was significantly reduced under colonial rule (Berger & White, 1999; Mba, 1982; Oyewumi, 1997).

Despite recognition of the active role accorded to women in precolonial societies, and colonialism’s role in eroding women’s political, social, and economic status, it has been debated whether gender equality existed in precolonial Africa. Egodi Uchendu (2005), for example, argues that though Igbo women had a certain level of political rights and privileges, they were still under the control of men. Nina Mba (1982) and Olabisi Aina (1993) have also asserted that women did not receive equal representation in key decision-making bodies in society. Holly Hanson (2002) and Iris Berger and E. Frances White (1999) have also noted that men had more access to political power. However, Mba (1982) maintains that the public domain was the world of both men and women, and each had significant roles to play. In contrast to Uchendu, Mba and Niara Sudarkasa (2005) have argued that precolonial African women occupied a complementary, rather than subordinate, societal position to men (Mba, 1982; Sudarkasa, 2005). Berger and White (1999) through their examples of societies such as the Hadza of Tanzania, the Mbuti of eastern Congo, and the !Kung on the desert fringes of Botswana, Angola, and Namibia, have highlighted that many precolonial societies were highly egalitarian.

Perhaps the question of subordination is not the appropriate query. Rather, as Sudarkasa argues, the conceptualizations of subordinate and superordinate do not provide an accurate reflection of the “social and ideological realities of the people concerned” (Sudarkasa, 2005, p. 26). As such, it can be agreed that women in precolonial Africa do not fit neatly into the framework of subordination that has been previously posited by Western scholarship; rather the history of precolonial African women challenges the simple dichotomy of subordinate or superordinate. It also defies the myth that precolonial societies were similar to the patriarchal structures of Europe that restricted women to the private sphere.

Although the issue of subordination has been clarified, nevertheless, it is still constructive to consider that some aspects of gender hierarchy were present in precolonial society and may be beneficial for understanding contemporary societies as well as cultural practices in Africa. As Patricia McFadden (1997), Desiree Lewis (2005), Amina Mama (2001), and Olabisi Aina (1998) have argued, it is important to critically interrogate precolonial African social structures and consider that gender hierarchies may have been present, and consequently interacted with colonial structures to marginalize women and exacerbate gender inequities.

The quest to explain and understand women’s contemporary societal position and status has clearly given way for the debate on feminism in Africa. Not everyone has agreed that it is useful to question gender hierarchy in precolonial societies. For example, Ifi Amadiume argues that gender relations were reinterpreted under the umbrella of colonial rule, Western education and Christianity. Other African scholars have rejected gender as a relevant concept for the African context. Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) in her highly influential book, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse, argues that gender is a Western construct and that the category “woman” and “man” were invented during colonialism. Using the Yoruba language, Oyewumi notes that Yoruba is gender neutral and therefore claims that gender-based social categories are absent in the indigenous conception. She further argues that seniority instead of gender was the organizing principle in precolonial Nigerian societies. Therefore, there was no gender system in place and thereby no gender hierarchy.

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (2004) disagrees with Oyewumi and argues that the presence of a gender-neutral language does not necessarily have to reflect social practices and realities (Bakare-Yusuf, 2004). While language has been linked with culture and practices, knowing the language and the foundation of the language does not necessarily illuminate all social practices, performances, and actions. Nor does it tell a story of one’s everyday experiences and reality. Non-gender specificity in language may mean that there may be no rigid gender hierarchy, but it does not incontestably rule out that there was no gender hierarchy present in African societies before colonialism (Bakare-Yusuf, 2004). Gender-neutral language does not indubitably translate into an absence of gender differences in society. Moreover, Oyewumi cannot ascertain that the meanings and connotations of Yoruba words have not changed over time. Also, she seems to assume that “man” and “woman” in the English form is timeless and elides the examination of the social history of gender in European societies.

Zulu Sofola (1998) also highlights that gender is a postcolonial issue, and an issue that is only relevant for a specific part of the population, elite women. For Sofola, Western-educated, elite women have been dewomanized, and have fallen into the trap of Westernism where women have become dependent on men. Sofola argues that there was a conceptualized system of co-rulership and no gender conflicts in precolonial Nigeria. It is only in the postcolonial world and viewed through a Western lens that society has become a “battle ground where the woman fights to clinch some of men’s power and foreign cultures have both ignited and fuelled a perpetual gender conflict that has now poisoned the erstwhile social order of traditional Africa” (p. 62). Moreover, Sofola argues that an illiterate woman does not care about the things that matter to the elite and educated women. The former sees her role as empowering, and always takes control over her situation and mobilizes other women to resolve any arising issues. Thus, illiterate and “traditional” African women have power and are effective, in contrast to the Western-educated elite African women (p. 62).

Similarly to Sofola, other African scholars like Mary Kolawole (1997) have cited the “African difference” as justification for rejecting feminism. The argument centers on how Western feminism has othered African women and failed to capture the reality of African women. Kolawole boldly asserts that African women are more interested in a womanist ideology that addresses their specificity. Along this line, she places large emphasis on the difference between values of Western women and African women. She claims that African women have different cultural needs. She also articulates that feminism is about the erosion of feminine attributes and along this line, she claims that “the African woman cherishes her role as a homemaker as well as her status as a mother or a potential mother” (Kolawole, 1997, pp. 31–32). However, in attempts to highlight cultural differences, African women have been essentialized as binarily opposed to Western women in a manner that reproduces the dominant discursive construction of Africa as everything the West is not (Lewis, 2005, p. 384). Western feminism has also been essentialized with little regard for the plural forms of feminism in the West. In contrast to Kolawole, Sylvia Tamale (2006) illustrates that it is possible to embrace cultural difference and critique the ways in which Western scholarship has cited cultural difference as a reason for African women’s oppression without reproducing discursive binaries. Tamale thus posits that feminism and African culture should not be viewed in opposition to each other but that cultural norms and values can be deployed to attain justice for women.

Ama Ata Aidoo (1998) and Aina (1998) both postulate that a political space exists for gender and feminism in contrast to what scholars like Sofola and Oyewumi may claim. Aidoo argues that African women were feminists long before feminism and that the African continent will only be independent when every man and woman becomes feminist. Aina, on the other hand, argues that the African past has been overly romanticized and that women’s subordination can be located in precolonial African structures. She indicates that a stronger feminist consciousness is needed in Africa so that unequal gender relations can be specifically targeted. She proposes that the feminist movement in Africa needs to cut across class divisions and also include grassroots women in the agenda.

In analyzing the status of women in Africa, an anticolonial lens, as well as caution against cultural imperialism is important. Nevertheless, precaution needs to be taken when glorifying the “tradition” and “customs” inherent to African precolonial cultures that enables the argument that notions and concepts of patriarchy are alien to African societies. Thus, while it is relevant and valid to challenge Western narratives of African history and the elision of African women from history, it is dangerous to eschew the interrogation of power structures and socializing mechanisms that are present within tradition, custom, and culture. As Lewis highlights, “there seems to be no reason why one form of oppression should be privileged above another, and why it should not be possible to critique Western feminist discursive dominance while simultaneously disavowing patriarchal oppression in Africa” (Lewis, 2005, p. 385).

Postcolonial Critique and African Urbanism

Postcolonial approaches have also been used in critical studies of African urbanisms. One key point of departure is the dismissal of the argument that the colonial city was a site of civilization and the “door through which Africa [entered] the modern world” (McCall, 1955, p. 160). This urban civilization thesis is premised on a Eurocentric and untruthful construction of Africa as primitive. Not only does the colonial version of history portray Africa as non-urban prior to colonial intervention, colonialism also “worked to deny the inherent dynamism and cosmopolitan character of African urban worlds, repressing or destabilizing the often creative spatial practices everyday residents deployed to negotiate the complexity of city sites and social lives” (Bissell, 2007, p. 181).

In the last decade and half, African postcolonial approaches to the urban have emerged as a strong critique of developmentalist approaches to research on urbanization since the late 1980s the was primarily driven by “two basic characteristics of African cities: their poverty and their rapid rates of growth” (Stren, 1992, p. 533). This research agenda aligned with the World Bank’s 1991 policy paper, Urban Policy and Economic Development: An Agenda for the 1990s, which proposed a policy framework and strategy to address urban challenges in developing countries. The new policy agenda focused on improving urban productivity, alleviating urban poverty, protecting urban environments, and increasing understanding of urban issues. Within this context, studies on Africa were concerned with urban management and the increased informalization of urban life.

While the neoliberal urban policy agenda was busy constructing African cities as unproductive, inefficient, and non-functional, contemporary Western hegemonic approaches to urban studies and theories also began to emerge. In the 1980s, with the increasing dominance of neoliberal globalization, studies of cities shifted and became more concerned with the connection between urbanization processes and global economic forces (Friedmann, 1986, p. 69). The urbanization in the world economy approach was informed by Manuel Castells’ suggestion that the growth of Third World cities should be considered “dependent urbanization” (Smith, 2005, p. 50). This consequently “developed into a theory of ‘dependent urbanization’, which attempted to apply world-system categories to the growth of cities in various ‘zones’ (core, periphery and semiperiphery) of the globe” (Smith, 2005, p. 50). A major limitation of this approach was that it was state-centric and therefore did not offer “a needed spatial perspective on an economy which seems increasingly oblivious to national boundaries” (Friedmann, 1986, p. 69).

In response to the inadequacies of dependent urbanization theory, John Friedmann and later Saskia Sassen (1991) offered a world/ global city conceptual framework for understanding cities that are integral to the world economy. Friedmann’s thesis specified that there is a global urban hierarchy. Based on Friedmann’s classification of world cities, African cities were at the bottom rung of the ladder; they were not of world city quality. Within the world/ global city discourse, African cities are examined through the dualistic lens of formal/ informal, planned/ unplanned, order/ disorder (Rakodi, 2008, p. 25), and functional/ dysfunctional (O’Shaughnessy, 2008). This dualistic lens framed African cities as aberrant, unsophisticated, unmanageable, and lagging behind—in need of catching up “with the primary world-class cities” (O’Shaughnessy, 2008, p. 3). When urban Africa emerges to inform theory in the West, it is within a discourse of overurbanization (Myers, 2001)—and in this discourse, the cities have “earned” the label of megacities. However, the megacity discourse still frames African cities as a problem because it is concerned with overpopulation, slum growth (Davis, 2006), and urbanization without development (Locatelli & Nugent, 2009, p. 2). Accordingly, the megacity discourse subscribes to an “Afro-pessimism that considers underdevelopment an endemic and specific African feature, and the result of African inability to conform to an idea of ‘modernity’ of neoliberal imprint” (Locatelli & Nugent, 2009, p. 3).

The world/ global city paradigm has been critiqued by African urban theorists who have stressed the importance of “seeing African cities as important loci of global processes or generators of urban stories worth telling and learning from” (Myers, 2001, p. 7). Rather than focusing on the hopeless portrayals of Africa, alternative visions of theory and practice that challenge Westernized ideas about the urban have been posited. A dismissal of the relevance of African cities in urban theory, when disproportionately focusing on their lack and crisis, obfuscates “the creative ways in which African urbanites respond to these complex and challenging spaces, and how this has the potential to change the way the space functions and is read” (O’Shaughnessy, 2008, p. 6). In this light, Abdul Maliq Simone (2004) effectively argues that people in Africa should be seen as infrastructure and valued for the ways in which they negotiate and survive in urban spaces. His approach challenges the Eurocentric goals of focusing on the governability of African cities and people and calls for a consideration of people’s practices and experiences in the formulation of urban theories and policies.

South African Jennifer Robinson’s (2006) postcolonial urbanism theory deviates from hierarchical and binary approaches to cities that often characterize cities of the North as modern and global while cities of the South are viewed as non-modern and non-global. She argues that in urban studies, cities in the south are often only considered from a colonial and developmentalist framework and are therefore disqualified as cosmopolitan, modern, and producers of knowledge. Robinson promotes a postcolonial approach that dismantles the hierarchical divisions that “continue to ascribe innovation and dynamism—modernity—to cities in rich countries, while imposing a catch-up fiction of modernization on the poorest” (p. 2). She therefore offers the term “ordinary cities” to conceptualize all cities as autonomous, innovative, and dynamic, thereby allowing the recognition of difference as diversity instead of being viewed in terms of hierarchical binaries. The concept “ordinary cities” erases the false notion of time–space separation and enables all cities to be modern and cosmopolitan.

Increasingly, most postcolonial approaches to urban research reject the developmentalist approach to urban development and planning in African cities, whereby urban planning (as promoted through development intervention) is expected to operate within a neoliberal, capitalist, Western paradigm. These research projects challenge the “global city” paradigm that values the urban experience of Northern cities and diminishes the urbanness of many cities in the South (Mbembe & Nuttall, 2004; Nuttall & Mbembe, 2005; Robinson, 2006) by arguing for an autonomous space for de-centered and alternative narratives about “citiness.”

Postcolonialism, African Identity, and Global Belonging

It is difficult to write an article about postcolonial approaches to Africa without engaging with the very idea of Africa and questions of identity and culture. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gathseni (2010) rightly avers that “Africa is a continent that is ceaselessly seeking to regain and negotiate itself above the Eurocentric egoisms of singularities that continue to inform conventional and often insensitive notions of identity imposed on it and its people by eternal agents” (p. 283). Since the early 20th century, intellectual thinking such as Négritude and Pan-Africanism have served as powerful counterdiscourses to Eurocentric thinking about Africa. More recently, there have been other forms of thinking such as African renaissance and Afropolitanism. As Anthony Chennells (1999) points out, postcolonial theory has been “impatient at essentialized identities celebrated by Négritude or any grand scheme like pan-Africanism because postcolonialism derives from postmodern a sceptism at single origin and the certain teloi which all master narratives presume (p. 114). Meanwhile, Afropolitanism as proposed by Achille Mbembe and the identity of Afropolitan as proposed by Taiye Selasi could arguably be considered more postcolonial in thought because of their promotion of hybridity and focus on the ways in which Africans are part of the world and engage with the world.

Given the reality of the global economy, the neoliberal Africa rising rhetoric, the persistence of anti-blackness, and the exacerbation of neoimperial and neocolonial relations on the African continent, Pan-Africanism should be revisited and considered a viable postcolonial theory. To begin, a postcolonial analysis of the terms Africa(ns) point to their discursive roots in Europe. Africa “was assigned roles and given meanings in Western scholarship” (Chennells, 1999, p. 112) that preceded and justified colonialism (Ahluwalia, 2000, p. 12). As such, during anticolonial movements and the push for administrative decolonization, there were resistances to the “tyranny of the discourse” (Ahluwalia, 2000, p. 13) that constructed Africa as Other. Négritude and Pan-Africanism were both developed in the diaspora but took on their own lives on the continent. Léopold Senghor was a well-known advocate of Négritude in Africa. However, Négritude has been accused of reproducing European binaries through its valorization of blackness (Ahluwalia, 2000, p. 13). Even though Négritude has lost its popularity, there is value in revisiting Senghor (Tageldin, 2014). Tageldin argues that Senghor does not actually homogenize Africa and blackness but rather “translates Africa into a powerfully ‘diasporic’ defiance of imperial taxonomies” (p. 304). As such, Tageldin posits that Senghor emphasizes “the inherent métissage” of Africa through his tracing of the evolution of Africa’s peoples to human migrations across the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia (p. 306).

Pan-Africanism on the other hand has been charged with “homogenizing Africa and the African diaspora’s diversity into a single experience which moves within pan-Africanism’s master narrative towards a single end” (Chennells, 1999, p. 115). On the continent, Kwame Nkrumah was the biggest proponent of Pan-Africanism, particularly after independence. Prior to the independence of many African countries, the focus of Pan-Africanism was on eliminating colonial rule. Nkrumah promoted African unity as a means to dismantle the entrenched (neo)colonial economic exploitation (Edozie, 2018, p. 783). The logic behind this unity is the notion that a united front on the part of Africa would be strong enough to counter economic dependency (Edozie, 2018, p. 783). Despite these 20th-century efforts of Pan-Africanism, Several African nations suffered economic downturns and their dependency was embedded in IMF and World Bank economic restructuring programs. Moreover, the prevalence of civil wars and despotic leadership belied the actualization of pan-Africanist goals.

In the wake of the 2007/2008 global economic crisis and projections of Africa’s economic growth, there has been a growing narrative that Africa is the last frontier for investments (Watson, 2014). As such, many countries have engaged in efforts to secure these investments. At the continental level, the African Union’s (AU) pan-Africanist response is Agenda 2063, which focuses on positioning Africa as a key global player by 2063. The flurry of new policies and agenda, locally, nationally, and regionally, indicate a dogmatic neoliberal commitment to Africa’s success. As Rita Edozie (2018) avers, “the notion that while the West lies battered by financial crisis, Africa offers limitless opportunities for wealth creation in the march of globalization, is . . . a false social construction of Africa’s economy for foreign investors” (p. 790). Accordingly, Edozie (2018) intimates that the AU’s pan-Africanism is increasingly irrelevant and argues that “Africapitalism and Ubuntu economic models are the new pan-Africanism” because they challenge “neoliberal capitalism’s individualistic and competitive values” (p. 785). Further, she notes that the two models are:

manifestations of African economic epistemologies and practices that engage in and benefit from the international political economy in ways that transcend underdevelopmentalism and its attendant colonial structures that inhibit comprehensive and sustained African growth and development. Africapitalism and Ubuntu economic philosophies and practices currently have their most dynamic presences as progenitors that are providing societal organizations based in Lagos, Nigeria and in Johannesburg, South Africa. Their pan-Africanist thrusts are manifest through three prisms: their inclination and capacity to refocus “Africa’s” place on the global political economy; their directing of Africa’s private and non-profit sector to contribute to societal benefits to African communities; and their cultivation of an Afroconsciousnesss among African communities that guides Africa’s renaissance.

(p. 793)

While Africapitalism and Ubuntu economic models may be dismissed for their inability to truly fall under the rubric of postcolonial theory, they can indeed be considered postcolonial critique because they grapple with the role colonial capitalism has played in peripheralizing Africa and they challenge colonial constructions of Africa as Other as well as redress colonial epistemic violence. Through these models, Africa is “knowing,” autonomous, and inward oriented. Although Valentin Mudimbe (1988) and Anthony Appiah (1992) have inquired as to whether we can unequivocally claim that there is an “African” identity and an “African” culture, and have noted that that the specificity of “Africanness” materialize as a result of the European gaze, the new Pan-Africanism can be read as a potential postcolonial solution to Africa’s geopolitical and economic reality in the early 21st century. Sometimes, in order to move forward, strategic essentialism (Spivak) offer possibilities, particularly in making the best of the colonial restructuring of the world and all the other attendant inheritances of colonialism. The political economy necessitates postcolonial pan-African thinking that is critical of the neoliberal logic that values profit over people and that condones the incursion into Africa of other non-European and U.S. neo-imperial powers such as China. Moreover, it is also instructive to reexamine the value of Pan-Africanism to postcolonial theory. The very fact that Pan-Africanism is not static and that there are diverse forms of it calls into question whether it really is a grand narrative as it has been previously charged. It also poses a worthwhile philosophical question about the place of political grand narratives that subvert colonial relations and act as a counterpower to a Euro/ America/ China economic world order.

Diverging from the apparent essentialisms of negritude and Pan-Africanism is Afropolitan(ism). The term Afropolitan was first coined by Taiye Selasi in 2005 to challenge the Afropessimistic and colonial depictions and understanding of Africans. Through the term Afropolitan, emerges an African subject who is not fully “African” but a hybrid figure who is part of the world, cosmopolitan, well-to-do, and transnationally mobile. The term Afropolitan, from Selasi’s perspective, applies to those individuals in the diaspora who bear no semblance to the majority of Africans on the continent particularly those that pervade mainstream media representations of Africanness. Selasi has been heavily critiqued particularly for her classism and inattentiveness to the reality that not all Africans in the diaspora are upwardly mobile like her. She also participates in othering Africa in a similar orientalist way to that which she critiques. Mbembe, on the other hand, introduced Afropolitanism in 2007 to reject the Hegelian paradigm that positions Africa as outside of history. He thus asserts that Africa has always been a part of the world; to him, “there is no world without Africa and there is no Africa that is not part of it” (Mbembe & Balakrishnan, 2016, p. 29). Mbembe further argues that unlike Pan-Africanism, Afropolitanism is not based on a racial ideology. Rather,

Afropolitanism emerged out of that recognition of the multiple origins of those who designate themselves as “Africa” or as “of African descent.” Descent here, or descendants, or genealogy, is a bit more than just biological or racial, for that matter. For instance, we have in Africa a lot of people of Asian or Indian origin. We have people who are Africans of European origin in South Africa and other former colonies like Angola, Mozambique.

(Mbembe & Balakrishnan, 2016, p. 30)

Afropolitanism, as non-ethnocentric, thus arguably qualifies as postcolonial thought. However, palpably missing in Mbembe’s theorizing is the issue that not all people of African descent are equal. South Africa, a place which catalyzed his theorizing, is a perfect case in point of persisting power relations and hierarchy. More tellingly, of what use is this form of theorizing in addressing the material realities of many Africans?

Clearly, postcolonial theorizing is complex. The field of postcolonial studies, broadly, has suffered criticisms which have also been countered by its defenders. Yet, moving beyond the realm of the discursive, even with the acknowledgment that the discursive cannot be disentangled from the tangible political, social and economic realm, postcolonial theory is still found wanting, particularly in the case of Africa. Specifically, applied in relation to land grabs, new city building/ urban renewal projects, prioritization of foreign investments, and their attendant consequences (displacement, forms of economic recolonization of many African countries), postcolonial theory falls short of providing resources to address these concerns. If the postcolonial is not about the temporal, then what purpose can postcolonial thought serve in the moments when neoliberal globalization wreaks havoc in many African societies? Are the very same capitalist and racialized ideas that justified Europe’s dominance of Africa not similar to the current policies and geopolitical strategies that undermine the self-determination of people in African societies? As Tageldin (2014) suggests, we should repluralize the notion of colonialism and engage with “the project of transcontinental anti-imperialism, trans-temporally informed, which today must confront many dominations and hegemonies besides those by the West or the North” (p. 319).


Africa’s colonial history alongside the discursive “othering” of Africa makes postcolonial approaches relevant to African studies. However, the use of these postcolonial approaches can also produce contradictions and the tendency to over-romanticize precolonial structures and identities. What this article has shown is the importance of moving away from European-dominant frameworks and the need to value and affirm African histories, identities, and epistemologies. Despite these moves to deconstruct the orientalist discourses about Africa, Africa remains “entangled and trapped within the snares of the colonial matrix of power,” because colonial hegemony persists (see Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Chambati, 2013, p. 37). This is evidenced especially by the adaptation of the neoliberal Africa rising rhetoric by various levels of African governments. This Africa rising, while it embraces the possibilities of a brighter future for Africa subscribes to the Western epistemological notion of progress. Yet, most attempts to operate outside the “episteme constructed by the West” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Chambati, 2013, p. 63) are accused of essentialism and reproducing colonial binaries. It remains unclear whether these forms of essentialisms and binaries are always negative. However, what is clear is the need for African autonomy and self-determination that is unlimited by structures of global capitalism and “benevolent” interventionist notions of what is best for Africa. Perhaps the postcolonial approach that would work best is one that is informed by a commitment to a politics of decolonization in all domains and a move towards the creation of identities, spaces and products that work for Africa(ns) despite the warnings of certain theoretical frameworks. Is it possible then, to make room for grassroots practices to inform the next iteration of postcolonial theorizing that is more praxis in orientation than just theory?

Further Reading



  • 1. Here, my reference to Western feminism is not intended to homogenize feminism in the West. I am aware of the existence of other forms of feminism in the West such as Black feminists’ concept of intersectionality (the analysis of intersecting identities and oppression [Hill Collins, 2000]), which has made a significant contribution to feminist theory. The Western feminism that I discuss refers to the historical and political movement of feminisms in the West, which was informed by white middle-class women’s ideas, perceptions, interests, and experiences.

  • 2. I put this in quotation marks as the term “breadwinner,” in the African context, is a colonial introduction.