Individuality in an African Communal Universe

Egbeke Aja

Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Traditional African Communalism
  3. Economic manifestation of Traditional African socialism
  4. Social manifestation of Traditional African socialism
  5. Political manifestation of Traditional African socialism
  6. Individual freedom and African Communalism
  7. Conclusion
  8. Notes
  9. Academic Tools

1. Introduction


For every community of people, there is a time when they must consciously recognize the things that form the cornerstone of their excitement and depression, the things that characterize them so that they see their true representation in some form of behavior and not in others, the modes of intention which when attributed to them they will acknowledge as valid. It is a risky activity trying to affirm the motivation of a person: it is more dangerous to postulate the motivation of a people, especially a group as dynamic, varied, and to a large extent individualistic as the Africans. But it is only when a speculative synthesis, no matter how outrageous, is offered can scholars then get to tearing apart the offering in order to put it together in a more efficient manner.

Traditional Africa is characterized as communalistic. Africans, like every other people, have observed their environment and interacted with it. They have embedded their observations and reactions in patterns of social, economic, and political relationships represented as communalism.

This essay is the picture which the author has derived from experience, research, and interpretation of the African understanding of reality in his world and how this affects the social and economic relations of human beings in society and within the inner recesses of the individual person. It is an attempt to give rationality and consistency to the African’s being-in-the-world. In seeking to do this, we try to find answers to questions like: What concepts govern practice in the areas of social, economic, and political living among traditional Africans? Into what categories do Africans group their perceptions and experience of reality? As practiced, do the tenets of traditional African communalism not negate those of individual freedom and social justice?

 

2. Traditional African Communalism


European societies are primarily differentiated from the African one in that they are at least, collectivist societies. They are societies bringing together into a collectivity a number of individuals who remain individuals in society. A European distinguishes himself from the others and claims his autonomy to affirm himself in his basic originality. But an African society is a community: in it emphasis is put more on the solidarity of the group and on the communion of the members than on the autonomy and the contribution and needs of the individual. That does not mean that African society neglects the person rather, “it does not primarily conceive of the person as an individual but as a member of a kind of mystical body in which alone he can achieve his full development, his originally and his total potential.”1 Whereas the collectivist society bases its solidarity on the activities of the individuals, African communal society bases its solidarity on the group or community. And this is what is referred to, in this essay as traditional African communalism. African communalism is the existential life of the traditional African which is founded on the belief that all human beings are members of one family of human kind, it is the traditional concern for persons and their well-being. It presupposes that while the family is the unit of an African community, everyone in that community is his brother’s or sister’s keeper. The kingship system is “the theoretical basis in terms of institutions such as the clan, underlying the initial equality of all and the responsibility of many for one.”2 A high premium is therefore placed on the practical demonstration of oneness and solidarity among the members of a community.

Every member is expected to consider himself as an integral part of the whole and to play an appropriate role towards the good of all. Hence, cooperation is not only voluntarily given, more importantly, it is institutionalized in several ways.

 

3. Economic manifestation of Traditional African Communalism


In traditional Africa, economic forces generate certain religious and philosophical beliefs which, in turn, generate attitudes towards the economic life of a given African society. The primary and closest contact between an African community and its environment is not contemplation but action. It is a very specifically ordered action: man must obtain from nature what is necessary for the group’s survival. Only this ensures that members of society will survive. The African also appreciates the need for the production of material goods, which accounts as an important activity of all human societies.

The African environment is made up of a variety of habitats some of which include the equatorial forests, the dry deciduous forests, the savanna highlands, and swampy forests. As there are many habitats, so are there many occupations ranging from tilling the soil to herding: from hunting and fishing to smithing and trading. Though the life experiences of the hunter, the farmer, and trader and the fisherman are different, they have these in common, obtaining the necessities of life is not easy and requires constant effort, survival is always unsure, and every year there is always a critical period of scarcity. So “a group in which all the adult members must spend the greater part of their energy wresting enough food for their needs from their environment will have a different view of nature from that of a group in which a few members can produce plenty from all.”3 Cooperative existences therefore becomes an imperative in traditional Africa.

The economic life of traditional Africa depends on the land. The land is the visible symbol of the bond on the principle of common ownership of land – the major means of production in a non-industrial and agrarian substance economy of traditional societies. Though an individual may possess a piece of land, “ownership” of land is vested in the community which gives out portions for use as required from time to time.

The individual holds the land in trust for the community. Should the need arise for communal use of a particular piece of land; the community retrieves it from the trustee with a token compensation. That is to say, in traditional Africa, land is owned communally in principle; but is used individually in practice. No one can, in practice, be said to have no land. It is important to note that in traditional societies, an individual is not able to accumulate and appropriate a large area of land because he does not have the machinery and technique to operate it. So, in traditional Africa, the reasonable thing is to have some portion ear-marked for each adult member. Thus, in part, explains the method of land ownership in traditional Africa. It is an outgrowth of the principles of solidarity and selflessness that undergird traditional African societies.

Communalism also features prominently in the economic activities of individuals. Among the Yorubas of south-western Nigeria, there is the system of owe, a cooperative endeavour in which people help one another on a specific task; for example, building a new house, or clearing a forest for farmland requires help from others. Such help is freely given pm the basis of reciprocity. There is yet another kind of mutual cooperation known as aro in form of a standing cooperative association in Yoruba communities. A member may call upon the group to help him harvest or plant, or clear the weeds in his farm. One only has to feed the participants and later on, one may also be called upon to help.4 In this kind of situation, where commercial labour is not available and not encouraged, it becomes clear that individuality is helped by communality. “I am because we are” becomes an expression of dependence which does not mean suppression. In traditional Africa one can become rich through either the use of the farming resources of one’s community, of one’s friends and relatives, or through the use of interest-free loans from one’s kinsmen.

Since the traditional African economic outlook is essentially communal, certain mutual claims are assumed: anyone who is in need goes to his nearest prosperous kinsman as a matter of course because “the individual or the families within the tribe were ‘rich or poor’ according to whether the whole tribe was rich or poor. If the tribe prospered, all the members of the tribe shared its prosperity.”5 Consequently, cooperation and mutual helpfulness are virtues enjoined as essential; without them the kingroup cannot long endure. Its survival depends on its solidarity. Gyekye recalls an Akan proverb in this regard: The prosperity (or well-being of man depends upon his fellow-man.6 The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria express the same view on cooperation and helpfulness more practically as follows: Iguwe gbakota okpa, ogbawa ite. That is when locusts combine their legs, they break the pot. There are such proverbs among other African groups and they help to point up the wisdom of traditional thinkers concerning matters pertaining to the economic life of any traditional African community.

 

4. Social Manifestations of traditional African Communalism


The larges African social unit is the tribe – a community consisting of a number of villages whose members, identify themselves as descendants of a common ancestor. Each community is linked to another on the basis of kinship ties which culminate in the maintenance of the extended family system, in traditional African societies. The relatedness extends even to the spirit world. As the young ones live and grow with the solidarity of a lineage, they are introduced to the ancestor cult, which is not merely “the projection of the social reality into the sphere of collective representation.”7 Rather, it is to show them that it is as members of a lineage that they have to define themselves. The individual is introduced to the idea that he exists and owes everything to his ancestors. The process of socialization begins right from birth. A mother constantly communicates with her baby by tracing the family tree from the beginning, reminding the baby of the nobility of its birth and the uniqueness of the family. Co-wives (step-mothers) are on hand to tease the growing child chanting the family praise-names. All these raise the consciousness of the child as a member of a family and, by extension, a society. The child begins to internalize the norms of society.8 The group ownership of children is highlighted in traditional African (Igbo) communities by various means, not the least of which are kinds of sons accompanying the birth of children. One such song says:
Anyi nuru ube nwa gbara biawa
Anyi nuru ube nwa gbarara lawa
O wughi out onye new nwa.

Which literally translates into English as
We heard a child’s cry and ran to come
We heard a child’s cry and ran to come
It is not one person who owns a child.

Furthermore, social unity is forged by the way an African society shares the success and failure of one of its members. For instance, in 1962, a hunter at Asaga Ohafia, Abia State, Nigeira, shot and killed an elephant. This feat was not only deemed to have been achieved by Asaga village but also the entire Ohafia clan. The village head sent a person round to invite the other twenty four villages that make up the clan to come and share with him the game. The achievement of the individual thus raised the existential status of the community as Ndi ogbu enyi – elephant killers. This frame of mind explains why widows are willing to bring out their last reserves to contribute to scholarship schemes in the community irrespective of whose child is going to benefit from the scheme. By such actions, the community raises the existential status of the individual. As long as he is a member of the corporate unit, then, it is the good of all. The corporate identity of a community is based on the ability of its members, to trace their origins to the same blood. And that is why, in the thickening and thinning sense of blood relationship which each, say Igbo person feels with regard to units of social action, there is also a deepening and weakening sense of loyalty and commitment. Nwoga ,9 in his Ahiajioku Lecture, illustrates this point with an Igbo community- Mbaise – in Imo State, Nigeria. The rings of concentric circles of blood relationships and therefore of the sense of identity and loyalty are exemplified in the following diagram:


Umueke

Umunnanwiri
Umuezuo
Umuokirika
Ekwereazu
Mbaise


In the hypothetical structure of relationship and identity shown above, even if in Umueke, two families are quarrelling, they are expected to be of the same opinion and intention when the issue has to do with conflict with other sections of Umunnanwiri . In the Umuezuo context, all the people of Umunnanwiri are brothers and sisters. In the Umuokirika context, the people of Umuezuo are then supposed to have an indestructible solidarity. The system extends thus outward, explaining the brotherliness of the Africans (Igbo) outside the Igbo homeland.


The corporateness of the community unit means that somebody belongs to the next higher unit of community on the basis of his membership of the next smaller unit. There is then nobody who does not belong to somebody, with all its implications in group lobbying for situations that should not accommodate such sectional interests. It also has the implication that every child becomes fully human only when it has been formally received into a community, most often by ritual presentation to the elders of the kindred. The process of socialization that begins in the family gets into the larger community where the child is further exposed to the virtues of communal life. The children of the community are then exposed to the display of self-less efforts by others to uplift the community. They have firsthand experience of how adults are contributing to the welfare of children; how women and men work on the farms; and how the warriors risk their lives to save the community. Building on the initial exposure in the family compound, the young now see themselves as among those who should carry the banner and, having been prepared for the task, they, severally and collectively, cannot but shun individualism. This is the meaning of the common reference to the typical African as saying: “I am because we are; I exist because the community exists.” The hallmarks of social relationships thus presented are: fellow feeling, ontological solidarity, and selfishness.


However, the picture painted above should not be interpreted as meaning that there are/were no conflicts at all in traditional Africa. Far from that. Any human society is bound to have cases of conflicts involving individuals who either refuse to conform or who feel offended somehow. In such occasions of conflict, there are avenues for resolution in traditional Africa. Elders intervene to reconcile the disputing parties on the basis of the community’s accepted moral principles.


5. Political manifestations of traditional African communalism


Some African (Igbo) communities have the prefix Umu (children) followed by the name of the founders of such Igbo communities or the circumstances under which the communities were founded. The Efiks and the Ibibios of Cross River and Akwa Ibom States, Nigeria prefix Ikot (Bush) to the name of the founder of some of their communities. This betrays a thorough-going emphasis on kinship and blood relationship as the historical foundation of Africa’s political unity and/or disunity. The unity is sustained by several forces earlier on noted, namely, common land ownership, blood relationship and other kinship ties and the mythical charter which embodies the history and ideology of the political community. An African political community is therefore best described as “a spiritual commonwealth, involving union of the living blood relatives, the dead and the gods of the community”10 Power in the community belongs to all, just as authority by virtue of seniority and ontological status, knowledge, moral and spiritual qualities belong to some individuals, for example, the chief or the elders of a given society. Hence, elders in African societies exercise grater powers and influence than other members of their community.


The chief and the elders are given the pride of place in the political decision-making of their community. In all political matters, when the young speaks, he turns to the elders who invariably goad him on as a mark of approval since it behoves them (the elders) to give their spiritual and moral leadership to the young in all matters and at all times. The elder is seen as a repository of the people’s culture and tradition. It is in this regard that the elders say:


The young cannot know without the elders: “If it were not For the elders” the Bantu say again “If the young were left to themselves, the village would get nowhere. The young would no longer know how to live; they would have neither customs, laws, nor wisdom any longer. They would stray into disaster.”11

The young are ontologically dependent on the old, while the old must maintain their spiritual and moral leadership of the young. Collective action is the ruling principle and in most cases there is collective responsibility and collective punishment. If the political community sins, for example, by waging an unprovoked war against its peace-loving neighbours, its guilt is adjudged more serious than the sum of the offence committed by its individual members.


The crime is a corporate act and the consequences extend to even those who did not participate in such a war. But if an individual is conspicuously guilty of an offence, for example, killing a kinsman, it is his children, relatives, or fellow citizens who suffer with him and sometimes for him. The principle of reciprocity or the duty to make equivalent returns for benefits received is also present in the communal relationship as well as inter-personal relations generally. This is why, in communal Africa, when goods or services are received on the understanding that they would be repaid, the duty of repayment binds a man’s relationship also. The achievement of one person leads to an improved level of existence of the entire community at the same time as the crime of one person can lead to an abomination and culminate in the ontological destruction and suffering of the entire group. It is this sense of corporateness that gives consistency to what would otherwise be adjudged as contradictory in the mutual relationship of the individual and community. There is, for example, the paradox of independence and yet mass support of individuals observed and commented upon by Dr. James Africanus Horton in respect of the Igbo of Nigeria:


There is not that unity among them that is to be found among other tribes; in fact, everyone likes to be his own master. As a rule they like to see every African prosper. Among their own tribe be they rich, they feel no ill-will toward them. A poor man or woman of the tribe if they meet with a rising young person of the same nationality are ready to render him the utmost service in their power. They give him gratuitous advice and “embrace him as their child”: but if he is arrogant and over-bearing, they regard him with scorn and disdain whenever he is met.12

Our proposition is that the explanation for the level of reaction and involvement described above can only be found within the context of the raising of the corporate identity of society beyond its existence as a social unit unto the ontological level of abstract independent reality. This gives personality an agency to the community as a corporate being with ability to grow weak or strengthen like a person. Members of traditional societies see their intrinsic relation to others and see the interdependent existence of their lives with others. Here is the limit of individualism. Not that the community forces itself on any unyielding individual; instead, the individual, through socialization and the love and concern which society has extended to him, cannot now see himself as anything apart from his community. Examples abound in African social history when individuals forego their own interest, when the interest of the community is at stake. And in cases in which the survival of the community is pitched against an individual’s will, it is the community’s welfare that is more emphasized and protected. Hence, in traditional African communal existence, the individual conforms to the dictates of the community. We are forced to ask: Is the individual, thus presented in African communalism, not crushed by the almighty presence of the community? Is a conformist society such as that of traditional Africa not necessarily opposed to individual freedom? What is this thing called individual freedom?

 

6. Individual freedom and African Communalism


People have valued freedom highly for a long time. Amongst the earliest references to it as an ideal are writings of various Athenians of the fifth century B. C. And this is no accident, for Athens gave birth to Western democracy, and traditionally freedom and democracy go hand in hand. Pericles is made to dwell upon freedom of the Athenians in a famous panegyric on the city recorded by Thucydides.13 Heredotus goes so far as to attribute Athens’ sudden increase in power in the fifth century to her new-found freedom. “Proof,” he suggest, “`if proof were needed, of how noble a thing freedom is not in one respect only, but in all respects.”14 This could be paralleled by extracts from a number of political speeches, plays, and novels through history. But what does it all mean?


It was not only the Athenians who were proud of their freedom. The Spartans also prided themselves on being a free people. This is really rather extraordinary because Sparta was a rigid authoritarian state. How could the Spartans reasonably claim to be free? How, if it comes to that can the traditional African (communalist) claim to be free? “Freedom,” I suggest, is too emotive a term for anyone to dare openly to dismiss it as relatively unimportant.


Having stated that traditionally freedom and democracy go hand in hand, it will be reasonable to examine what we mean by individual freedom through Plato’s comment on democratic government. Plato had this to say about democratic government and its emphasis on freedom: “In a democracy people are free …. Anyone is allowed to do what he likes…. That being so, every man arranges his won manner of life to suit his pleasure …..”15 By individual freedom, the West means that the individual in society is allowed to do what he likes. The individual arranges his life as he chooses. However, this does not mean licentiousness.
Traditional African communalists do not simply content themselves with ironic and sarcastic jibes at democratic freedom. Instead, they argue that people are not really free in the Western brand democracy. Being able to do what you like is not being free, they argue. The truly free man is self-controlled – one whose passions, impulses, and desires are controlled by reason. Law in a community ideally uphold reasonable ends, and therefore law is a necessary condition of a free society. Thus we can say that the communalist’s social objective is individual freedom, but by this we mean personal liberty not in the sense of being allowed to do what one likes, but in a sense including freedom from arbitrary arrest and, in general interest. This view of freedom, I think, leads the communalist to advocate an authoritarian society order which tends to make the community appear more dominant than the individual members. The individual never owns but holds in trust whatever he possess.


But in the possessive and individualism of the West16, one’s talent is accepted as one’s own. This assumption is implicit in Hobbes’ claim in the Leviathan that “a man’s labour also is a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing.”17 This same view is stated categorically by Locke in his second Treatise on Government when he maintains that “…every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any Right to but himself. The labour of his Body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”18


With the communalist’s emphasis on sharing and the almighty presence of the community this axiom of classical individualism challenges the claim to individual freedom and justice in the principles and practices of traditional African communalism. The communalist’s emphasis on sharing seems to require a strong theory of community an account of the-way a people’s identity as citizens is shaped by their common aims and endeavours. Contrary to the axiom, the communalists hold that individuals’ natural talents are social assets, and, as such, should be used to arrange the distributive scheme in society to benefit the least advantaged member of the community. This view point raises yet another issue. First, for some, “there is no such thing as the society as a whole … Each of us moves in an indefinite number of communities some more inclusive than others, each making different claims on our allegiance, and there is no saying in advance, which is the society or the community whose purpose should govern the disposition of any particular set of our attributes and endowments.”19 Second, if there is no such thing as “the society as a whole”, taken in the abstract, then it would seem unlikely that any particular society, arbitrarily identified, could have any greater claim to some particular set of endowments than the individual in whom they accidentally reside, for surely their location within the province of such an arbitrarily identified community could be no less arbitrary from a moral point of view. These contentions warrant the examination of whether there is, in reality, individuality in traditional communalism. They call to the question any claims to justice in the principles and practices of traditional African communalism.


On a strong theory of community, an African community sees itself as a corporate unit. The first element that impinges on the case of traditional Africa is the ability of the members of a community to trace their origins to the same blood. This explains why in the thickening and thinning sense of blood relationship which each African feels with regard to units of social action, there is also a deepening and weakening sense of loyalty and commitment. The corporateness of the community means that somebody belongs to the next higher unit of community on the basis of his membership of the next smaller unit. So, in the African context, there is something like “society as a whole” and one can say in advance the community whose purpose should govern the disposition of any particular set of our attributes and endowments.


The communalist’s claim is that natural talents be regarded as social assets and should be arranged to benefit all in the community. African communalism allows the better endowed to hold out for a higher “income” not because of any recognition of moral title in endowments but because of considerations rooted in individual autonomy. Justice as fairness forbids any use of force to elicit the use of individuals’ endowments which are social assets even in the face of the reluctance of individuals because of their limited sympathy to voluntarily use their endowments for the social purpose. Since African communalism recognizes the autonomy of the individual to schedule his capabilities in his plan of life, use of force will violate this autonomy. So the only option left to the social system is to give incentive to persons to elicit willing contribution to the communal good which, in justice as fairness, is the maximization of the welfare of the worst off. Hence, those better endowed are allowed to retain certain privileges, so long as they contribute to the welfare of the worst off. Since the distribution of natural talents is arbitrary, it may be objected that the individual has no right to the said privileges. Arbitrariness of the distribution of natural talents, and hence against the individual’s right to any privileges derivable for the talent. But it does not automatically mean that society owns the “factor”, and hence has a right to “factor rent.”


My reply to the above objections is that the abilities and talents of individuals are fixed natural gifts even if there is an important genetic component.


The abilities and talents cannot come to fruition apart from social conditions and as realized they always take but one of many possible forms. An ability is not, for example, a computer in the head with a definite measurable capacity unaffected by social circumstances. Among the elements affecting the realization of natural capacities in societies are the social attitudes of encouragement and support and the institutions concerned with their training and use. Thus, even a potential ability, at any given time, is not something unaffected by existing social forms and particular contingencies over the course of life up to that moment.20

It is the community’s contribution to the development of the natural talents of its members that makes it the owner of the talents and capacities and hence the services which again arise only through interaction in the community.

Furthermore, suppose someone asks: By treating natural talent as social asset has traditional Africa not violated the Kantian precept? “An act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”21 By the precept, if I understand Kant, he meant that a person is treated as a means when he is made to do an action such that he “cannot himself share the end of the action,22 and persons are treated as ends in an action when they are treated “only as beings who must themselves be able to share in the end of the very same action.”23 But this is merely the negative requirement of the precept. The positive requirement of humanity as an end in itself is that “everyone endeavours also, so far as in him lies to further the ends of others. For the ends of ‘a subject who is an end in himself, must, if this conception is to have its full effect in me, be also, as far as possible, my ends.”24 Given this Kantian understanding, it is clear that the community’s treatment of natural talents and capacities as social asset neither violates the negative requirements since the individual in the community is given the right to retain the minimum amount on which he is willing to work. The positive requirement is not violated since the surplus of the individual’s labour is used by society to further the ends of the least well-off. Rawls, in his A Theory of Justice, argues in the same vein when he writes: “We see then that different principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be. Those who have been favoured by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only in terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.”25

Finally, does relation between the individual and the community amount to “relaxing altogether the bounds between the self and the other”, thus a failure to “take seriously the political manifestations of traditional African communalism? I think the answer is in the negative. Since the communalist recognizes the right of each individual to organize his own life, and hence his capabilities as he chooses, the distinction between persons is respected. The taking of the surplus over the minimum for which a person will be willing to work, to give to others in need, does not “relax the bounds” between the self and the others. The individual never had the right to that surplus in African thought: never had the surplus because in them the individual derives his self-fulfillment. In fact, the idea of natural talents, as social assets in traditional African communalism, does not require any conception of a community which does not partake in the identity and interest of the individual. Hence any objection that the communalist’s emphasis on sharing requires a conception of constitutive community engaging the identity and interests of individuals is consistent with the principles of communalism on the one hand; and on the other hand, it is line with the individualist’s aspirations in traditional African communalism. That is to say, the social body is a “We” which include the individual; the right of the individual is as such not curtailed. This is because when we say “X has the right to Y”, we are saying that X is entitled to Y, and you can point to the source of the entitlement – the community. A right is a thing to which one is entitled.

Any right, then, involves an entitlement of some sort. One can have a right to do something, to be free from something, or to a thing (to one’s possessions). But whatever the precise nature of the right, it is clear that any right logically presupposes some kind of rule-structures (herein referred to as the manifestations of traditional African communalism). For a right as an entitlement presupposes some rule – system that provides entitlement in the African setting, the rule-system is traditional communalism. Analogously, suppose that we are watching a football match and I suddenly say that team A has a right to a free kick. You ask me why, I reply, “Because one player in team B was offside”. My reply; constitutes an acceptable reason: it reveals the source of entitlement; it only does so on the assumption that you and I and the players know the rules of the football game and are trying to abide by them. For, it is the rule-structure lying behind the game that decides what entitlement, what players have to do, what in various situations.
In traditional African communalism, the individual, the community, and the authorities of the community, know the tradition of the people. They all try to abide by it. The tradition works through rules. So if there are no rules there will be no rights. With this understanding each member of the traditional African community freely contributes to the pool of surplus goods and services according to the member’s ability and the least well-off receive these for their greater need. These accords with the Marxian concept of social justice: “from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”


7. Conclusion


The question of whether the individual is autonomous in traditional African communalism arises because the individual appears not necessarily master of his own fate in any real sense of the notion of personal autonomy. To have personal autonomy presupposes three things besides simply being free from the control of other people. The autonomous person must be subject to his reason rather than the dictates of tradition and customs. The reasoning that he acts in accordance with must be authentic. And he must have the strength of will to act as his reason dictates. But if A obeys the customs and traditions of African communalism as manifested in his society’s economic, political and social life, it is very easy to assume that A does not think for himself and is therefore unfree. From our analyses and discussions, we notice that such an assumption ignores the possibility that A thought for himself and decided that the customs and traditions ought to be obeyed. Acting in obedience to customs and tradition does not necessarily mean that the agent is acting against his own judgment: he may think and decide that in a particular instance the custom on tradition is right or, more significantly, he may think that, as a general principle, it is advisable or right that an individual in a community should obey the customs and traditions of the people.

An individual who acts in conformity with standards of behavior that he was brought up to adopt may not seem to be autonomous to someone with the Western frame of mind. But if all one has to do to be autonomous is to think and decide for oneself, there is not obvious reason to suppose that one is not free and autonomous. The individual in the traditional African communal setting is thinking for himself; he thinks that he should conform to these customs and traditions or he simply thinks that e should conform. That is to say, that distinction between a person who acts on his own reasoned judgment and a person who conforms to traditions and customs is not a true antithesis. This is because people who act in obedience to those customs and tradition or authorities do so in general because they think that, in general, those in authority know more than they do, perhaps because the community can survive only with a degree of obedience to those customs and traditions, or perhaps because they believe that those customs and tradition are in a particular instance right.
The traditional African may be wrong in making any of the above claims, but that is irrelevant to the question of whether they have their rights and privileges or are less autonomous. The individual, in his bid to satisfy societal demands on him, satisfies his own needs. The community while seeking its own survival makes for the survival of the individual – a state of affairs that could best be described as a fusion of horizons. African communalism, as a social and economic theory and practice, offers as a world in which the individual and the community are harmoniously dovetailed. It is a paradoxical state of affairs only from the point of view of rationalists and others who value neat schemes above the rich-texture of individuality.

 

Notes 1. E. A. Ruch and K. C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1981), p. 230 2. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: An Ideology for Decolonization (London: PANAF, 1964), P. 69 3. Jacques Magnet, Africanity: The Cultural Unity of Black Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 22 4. Segun Gbadagesin, African philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang. 1991), 66 5. J. K. Nyerere, Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1968), p. 9 6. Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Conceptual Scheme (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 155 7. Jacques Magnet, Africanity: The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, p. 61 8. Segun Gbadagesin, African philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities, pp 61-62 9. Donatus I. Nwoga, Nka na Nzere: The Focus of Igbo World-view. Ahiajioku Lecture, 1984 (Owerri, Ministry of Information & Culture, 1984), pp 26-29. 10. T. U. Nwala, Igbo Philosophy (Lagos Lantern Books, 1985 ), p. 167 11. Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1967), p. 73 12. James Africans Hotton, West African Countries and People (London: 1868) Quoted in D. I. Nwoga, Nka-na Nzere p. 28 13. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 235 ff. 14. Herodotus quoted: Robin Barrow, Moral Philosophy for Education (London: George Allen & Unwin Publishers Ltd., 1975), p. 71 15. Plato, Republic, 557 (Adapted). 16. See: C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbies to Locke (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982). 17. Thomas Hobbies, Leviathan, ed. W. G. Pongnor Smith (Oxford, 1929) Chap. 24, p. 189 18. John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, ed. Peter Laslett, Cambridge, 1980, Sec. 28 19. Michael Sandal, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), p. 236 20. John Rawls, “Basic Structure as the Subject”, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 14, April 1979, p. 160. 22. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, tr. H. J. Paton, in Moral Law (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1969), p. 91 23. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, p. 92 24. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 92 -93 25. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Belnap Press of Harvard University, 1971), pp. 101-102

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