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Which African intellectuals…

African Political Thought. An Intellectual History of the Quest for Freedom
Forfatter: Stephen Chan
Forlag: Hurst, (Storbritannia)
INTELLECTUAL / Inspired by both Bakhtin and Foucault, Stephen Chan presents Achille Mbembe's analysis of
the African state in an understandable way. But let's mention what the book leaves out.

I was really looking forward to reading this book. African Political Thought. An Intellectual History of the Quest for Freedom. Admit that it sounds alluring and new.

So was Stephen Chan, the book's author. He claims that worldwide there was only one teaching offer on African political thinkers before 2010. It was the Ugandan professor Mahamood Mamdani who taught at Columbia University in New York.

In 2010, Stephen Chan established his own course at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, a course he ran until last year. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the book is written down and edited lectures from this course. It is full of anecdotes and stories about the author's own experiences and meetings with key players in African politics over several decades. From my own experience, I know that such anecdotes are far better suited orally than in writing.

There are already a number of better books about the liberation presidents and their lives and thoughts.

I had been looking forward to reading about African political thinkers, not about the thoughts and policies of individual African presidents in the 1960s. And this is what the book contains most of. There are already a number of better books about the liberation presidents and their lives and thoughts. I would recommend historian and journalist Martin Meredith's already classic The State of Africa: A history of Fifty Years of Independence (2005). It is long, over 750 pages, but wonderfully well written and very thorough. Meredith is able to use the anecdotes from her life as an Africa correspondent for The Observer as analytical crutches to explain something bigger. Chan rarely does that.

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe

After the annoyance of reading things I had read better before had subsided, I looked forward to reading about "the new thinkers" in the last part of the book. The Cameroonian historian, political scientist and philosopher Achille Mbembe's analytical term "necropolis" is used to understand state governance where the physical elimination of political opponents is the policy's main strategy. Inspired as they are by both Bakhtin and Foucault, Mbembe's analyzes of the African state are presented by Chan in an understandable way. But now in May Mbembes came Necropolitics and Other Essays out in the series Cappelen's unpopular writings – both reading Mbembe in Norwegian and reading the foreword to Bangstad & Bertelsen gives a greater understanding than reading the few pages about Mbembe that Chan rebuffs us with.

Valentine Mudimbe

"It is impossible to read Valentin Mudimbe without being shaken by his knowledge", writes Chan, but nevertheless devotes no more than a few lines to this Congolese philosopher. It is very annoying, because Mudimbe is not easy to understand either. I myself have started on his The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (1988) a number of times. Each time I have thought that it is ground-breaking how he analyzes myths, traditions and language use in French-speaking Africa with French references to phenomenology and post-structuralism in order to provide a new understanding of post-colonialism and power. But I never managed to finish reading the book. It is simply too difficult. I had hoped that Chan would help me understand Mudimbe, but he did not.

The book is full of anecdotes and stories about the author's own experiences and meetings with key actors in African politics over several decades.

The placement of the 80-year-old Mudimbe under the heading "The New Thinkers" really says a lot about Chan's book – it is not up to date on recent African political visionary thinkers.

Felwin Sarr?

Where is the Senegalese economist, writer and philosopher Felwin Sarr, named by the French news magazine Le Point as one of Africa's most important thinkers today? A few years ago, he was tasked by French President Macron to assess whether African works of art in France can be returned to the continent, and if so, which of them – and how. Based on the report to Macron, Sarr published a book, Restitute le patrimoine africain (2018), which has already become the reference work in the discussions surrounding the return of important cultural heritage to the countries of origin.

Where will it be by Zimbabwean Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, who delivers very interesting political analyses, including in his book Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization (2018)? Chan instead chooses to spend a few pages on the Egyptian-French Marxist economist Samir Amin (1941–2018).

Female thinkers

Barely 15 pages are devoted to female thinkers and/or feminism. But here too I was disappointed. After a few pages about the two women who have been presidents in Africa, in Sierra Leone (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 2006–18) and Malawi (Joyce Banda, 2012–14), respectively, several ladies are mentioned who have been important political discussion partners for their powerful men (Graze Mugabe, Nkosazana Zuma, Lindiwi Sisulu …).

But important female thinkers such as the philosopher and poet Tenella Boni from the Ivory Coast or the Nigerian Sophie Bosede Oluwole, who is a specialist in Yoruba philosophy (and the first Nigerian with a doctorate in philosophy) are passed over in silence. A few others are mentioned, but always only with a sentence or two. This gives us no insight into their thinking and significance for political processes in Africa.

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen is a professor of social sciences at UiS and a regular reviewer at Ny Tid.

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