Locating Ourselves after Colonialism A Postcolonial and Decolonial Discourse for Twenty-First Century Africa

Colonialism shaped, is shaping and, as it appears, will continue to shape the realities of Africa. As a postcolony, Africa is still searching for identity, rediscovering itself and finding creative ways to speak and be heard void of Western-produced knowledge—but, can Africa escape the neocolonial machine

Contemporary geopolitical scholarship identifies Africa as a postcolony, which is to say that much of Africa’s current reality has been shaped by its colonial heritage. Some historians have asserted that in comparison with the rest of the Global South, Africa’s encounters with Western invaders and colonizers came ‘late’ and were relatively ‘short lived’. A typical comparator is Latin America, which fell under Spanish and Portuguese rule in the early 16th century and remained that way for 300 years. Africa, on the other hand ‘…was conquered by European imperial powers only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.’ This fact, however, does not negate the realities of Europe’s exploitative invasion of Africa. Ghanaian historian, A. K. Adu Boahen, in his chapter contribution in UNESCO’s General History of Africa (Vol. VII) emphasizes the scale of damage that imperial powers wreaked on Africa within this comparatively short period. According to Boahen:

the most fundamental and dramatic—though tragic–-of these changes took place in the much shorter period from 1890 to 1910, the period that saw the conquest and occupation of virtually the whole continent of Africa by the imperial powers and the establishment of the colonial system. 

Though Europe is (and should be) held responsible for the part it played in Africa’s current state of underdevelopment, it is important to acknowledge the nuances that should dissuade us from the fallacy of ascribing perpetual victimhood to all of Africa. The caste systems established by imperialism made it possible for the colonization of Africans to occur on different levels for different people (even though social hierarchy was not new to Africans by the time the Europeans invaded Africa). The extent of this can be argued on epistemological grounds—that is, were ‘privileged Africans’ any less colonized in comparison to the ‘common African’? The privileged Africans were those who were granted education by the colonizers—those who were further incorporated and made appendages to colonial administrations. The common African, on the other hand, had no place at the colonizer’s table and were considered only as valuable as the hard labour they could contribute to the empire.

Often, some say Africa should return to its precolonial state, and mine its indigenous knowledge systems in order to annihilate imperialism. But I think this is not possible, considering the current global landscape. This landscape is one of identity fluidity and combinations. It is the transracial, transhuman, transcultural, transgenerational and transnational world. Both individual and collective identities are no longer fixed and so are the methods of constructing these identities—and because of this, Africa needs to prepare to engage in the most transdisciplinary ways in order to cope and deal with its colonial past in this postcolonial era. While discussing the kind of ideological commitments Africa should be engaged with in a previous essay in The Republic, I noted that:

Africa, in my opinion, is not (and should never be for that matter) at the place to simply embrace any ideology, in the sense of a coherent system of thought and apply it. Our task is to explore the worlds of ideas; internally (our indigenous knowledge systems) and externally (ideas from all over the world) and rework, deconstruct and reconstruct until they fit our unique situations and yield results.

By saying that returning to our precolonial state is not possible (above) I do not mean that Africa should not search for wisdom from its past, what is not possible is to return to that past and apply these wisdoms as they were. That is impossible. What is possible, however, is, as I have noted above, Africa’s exploration of ideas from everywhere possible and harnessing these for development and progress. This exploration should be both internal and external.


Every experience we have as humans is coloured by our knowledge claims. In the context of Africa in the postcolony, it is necessary to ask questions regarding the sources of knowledge consumed by the average African. How do I, as an African, know my reality? What do I know about myself, and where (or from whom) does such knowledge come from? This line of questioning forces us to reflect on how Africa’s colonial experience has influenced the process of knowing for Africans today. This process, which, prior to colonialism, was the responsibility of various knowledge systems constructed by Africans, has been substituted with colonized ways of knowing and thinking. During the colonial era, indigenous knowledge systems were abruptly substituted with Western(ized) education systems. To make matters worse, such education was not aimed at furnishing Africans for a prosperous life, but to serve the colonial master—birthing a kind of enslaved mimicry of the master. Regarding this mimicry, Nigerian historian, Toyin Falola writes, ‘Educated Africans served in the civil service, mainly in the lower levels. As many of them enjoyed privileges, they began to imitate European ways of life.’ This process not only ‘educated’ Africans to solely serve the colonizer, but also became a tool to lead Africans down the path of westernization and imperial assimilation, where eventually, the ‘educated’ Africans began to mimic the colonizer and eschew indigenous culture. This model of education that ensured that ‘educated’ Africans secured esteemed positions in African societies, also established a hierarchical social structure. Consequently, it laid the groundwork for the cultural, social, and intellectual hegemony, perpetuated not only by the colonizers but also by the indoctrinated colonized populace.

The era of colonialism may be over, but it has only paved the way for the era of coloniality—where Africans live with the vestiges of the endemic aftermaths of psychic colonization: identity crisis, Western complex and internalized oppressive epistemic systems. Falola, within the academic and scholarly scene, notes: 

Western capitalism controls the direction and ethics of research, along with the knowledge, benefits, and profits gained from that research or the use to which such research and its findings are put. It provides the methodologies, principles, and philosophies that shape research on Africa. (…) The condition of coloniality expresses itself in several ways and sustains several unequal equations or relational inequalities: it could be the objective researcher versus the voiceless African subject unable to shape the direction of discourse…

 Africa’s epistemic location is one with (de)colonial demands. Africa has experienced what scholar of epistemologies of the Global South, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, calls: ‘epistemicides (killing of indigenous people’s knowledges)…’; and, a century later, the continent has still not recovered from this. Ndlovu-Gatsheni further acknowledges:

African people’s epistemic struggles are both old and new. They are old in the sense that they emerged at the very time of colonial encounters. They are new in the sense that they are re-emerging within a context of a deep present global systemic and epistemic crisis.  

The ‘epistemic crisis’ that Ndlovu-Gatsheni refers to here is the struggle for meaning through the quest for independent knowledge production in Africa. That is Africa’s quest to form an identity for itself by trying to develop ideas and policies considered indigenously African, yet globally relevant. This struggle manifests itself in many different areas of African life—cultural, economic, religious and so forth. In each sphere, there is one form of knowledge claim or the other that shapes the practice of the aforementioned. These knowledge claims are often foundational and many carry in them (neo)colonial grips on African life.

As Falola rightly observes, ‘The existing political system practiced on the continent is a direct reflection of decades of colonialism.’ The political structures newly independent nations across Africa inherited was originally rigged to benefit Western colonizers and was left mostly unchanged to benefit the elites who replaced these colonizers upon independence. According to Ghanaian philosopher and politician, Kwame Nkrumah, ‘THE neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage.’ The point here is to acknowledge the inevitable evolutionary nature of oppressive systems. Though these systems may take on new names, they essentially exist for oppression. Presently, there is some division among scholars and public intellectuals regarding who bears responsibility for Africa’s current state: colonialism or the post-independence African nations themselves. Epistemic bondage—that is, Africa’s unhealthy reliance on knowledge production according to the West—has been a major barrier to Africa’s general progress. How a people think is how they act. The current epistemic systems in Africa are consequences of the so-called modern world—the colonized world, with the projections of the colonizer as the standard of progress. These scholars have raised suspicion regarding how this system viz., modernity, has influenced the various epistemic convictions that European colonies (African included) hold and operate with. In practical terms, Africa’s inability to operate without the Western’s constant interference is part of the reasons why the continent has been unable to make tangible progress.

As much as one might charge Africa to simply move and leave its colonial past behind, the reality is that colonialism is still very much present. So, the idea of locating ourselves after colonialism is simply a rhetoric suggesting that Africa should wake to its current reality—while living amid coloniality of knowledge and power. Colonialism as an epochal incident might be over, but coloniality vis-a-vis the language of modernity is still very much fresh and active on the continent.


It is Africa’s sole responsibility to think and act in ways that liberate the continent. Yet, British sociologist, Gurminder K. Bhambra, among others, has insisted that though postcolonies are to take the responsibility of decolonization, the West also needs to commit to the same process. By having Western academics engage with colonial discourse and experiences, the task can be made slightly easier for African scholars. This is because the West holds much power and has established itself as the universal symbol of objectivity—aside from this, the power to execute policies that matter is wielded by the same. Yes, there is room for collaboration, but there should also be suspicion when it comes to who has been collaborated with. Epistemic hegemony, that is, Western-produced knowledge that aims at dominating the postcolonies, is a reality, and it functions in very ‘automated and natural’ ways that it could make Africans think they are liberating themselves right in the middle of (re)enacting oppressive ideas and methodologies. This is evident in Africa’s education systems. Some of the textbooks being used for majority of the subjects taught in our schools (nursery to tertiary) are written by Western academics, and when one finds texts written by African academics, it mostly is a copy of Western scholarship with no drive towards originality or contextualizing the discourse within the African space. Nonetheless, there is hope. The African intellectuals discussed above—Falola, Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Boahen and many others—have committed to the process of liberating the continent—by researching and writing on Africa’s postcolonial state. They provide a canon from which current social movements and protests in Africa can draw inspiration. Feminist theorist and African Queer Studies scholar, Stella Nyanzi, is an example of an African academic who does not only write about change but also practically embodies it.

We, however, continue to face some serious issues: whenever I try to give reading recommendations to people outside my academic circle, they often complain that the authors named above are too academic and unrelatable within contemporary movements—that their discussions are often abstract and technical. In addition, African governments do little to ensure that the bright ideas developed by these intellectuals make it to policy actualization. And this is typical because of the neocolonial reality Africa lives in.

In this context, Falola’s invocation of the idea of bridging; ‘the Gown and the Town Divide’ is useful. The idea is that the gown (the academy, academics and their works) is not often in harmony with the town (public life/politics/market/family etc) and that this gap thwarts the possibilities of progress. While knowledge is important, we must begin to consider knowing and doing as inseparable. The goal of knowledge is so that it can be put into practice. In conclusion, Falola insists that decolonial scholars should not seek solutions in isolation. Decolonial scholars themselves (chiefly Falola and Ndlovu-Gatsheni) have proven that their works are extremely dependent on appropriate political leadership and economic policies to liberate Africa from Sino-European dependence.


For Africa to move forward, it needs to realize its place within a postcolonial and decolonial era—and wake up to the expectations of such an era. We need to engage in critical discourse concerning the state of affairs on the continent and develop helpful theories that will influence actions that will liberate the continent. It is necessary for Africans to look backward as they move forward.

Africans must prioritize understanding history, as progress hinges on historical knowledge. That being said, the real challenge lies in interpreting and applying that history. Decolonization requires the active involvement of not just academics and intellectuals, but every African. It is imperative that we embrace a diversified apparatus for measuring cognitive abilities—because decolonization is for Africans in all ‘social strata’; suburban and urban.

Movements like South Africa’s #rhodesmustfall have played a very decisive role in popular culture regarding undoing imperial legacies in African education and the education of Black people globally. Another thing to contend with is the significant percentage of non-literate Africans. Non-literate should not be mistaken for unintelligent. Simply because an African does not write or speak a certain Euro-American language does not suggest unintelligence; although, in this very ‘glocalized’ world, it is important to have knowledge of such language(s). Nonetheless, a lack of such knowledge is not illiteracy, just as an American’s inability to speak Yoruba does not mean that American is illiterate. It is fundamentally a matter of cultural dominance—again, imperialism. These (Westernly) non-literate Africans would have to be intellectually cultured using the indigenous languages that they are most fluent in. As stated above, decolonization is for Africans in both the urban and the non-urban areas—all social strata. African intellectuals like Kwasi Wiredu, Falola and Paulin Hountondji have all argued that Africa has a long way to go when it comes to educating Africans using indigenous languages; however, it is the way to go. This intellectual preparation gives the base upon which Africans that are non-literate according to Western standards can engage in decolonization using their unique tools

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