African Philosophy of Development



  1. Introduction
  2. Man as a Substructure for an African Philosophy of Development
  3. Development and African Culture
  4. A Complementary Notion of Development
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
  1. Introduction

The question of the meaning of development has become a burgeoning interrogation in Africa, and responses to the question have attracted a retinue of perspectives from different backgrounds. A cursory glance at the different perspectives on this issue reveals that they are rather reductionist perspectives rather than wholistic in nature. These perspectives are regarded as reductionist in the sense that they hold a perspectival perspective of reality as evident in the philosophies of the empiricists and rationalists who hold onto a piece of reality as though it were the essence of reality. One of the models of a reductionist concept of development is the science and technology model. This, according to Bhagavan (1990), is based on the created impression and conviction that sees science and technology as the key that unlocks the door of development; thus, more scientifically and technologically advanced societies are understood as more developed than the others. It is on this basis that some countries in the world are regarded as developed, others as developing and some others as underdeveloped. This notwithstanding, Oraegbunam (2009) avers that the human person is more than science and technology, and, thus, to lock up development within the compartment of science and technology is only to limit development. Heidegger (1977) in this regard avers that science and technology is only a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Economism has also associated development with economic growth. This perspective is evident in Karl Marx who argued that the economy of a nation is the substructure upon which other structures rest. As such, once there is a positive change in the Gross National Product of a nation, it is said to be developed, and when it is contrary, the country is said to be underdeveloped. The association of economic growth with development has led to what Kim (1981) refers to as a cult of money and the dehumanization of the human person. It was this inordinate and reckless drive for development that led to the slave trade and colonialism. In the name of boosting economic growth humanity was degraded and divided. Development cannot be associated with a system that dehumanizes and divides human beings. Development must begin with people and not destroy people; thus, it must go beyond economic growth.

There is also the secularist and historicist model of development which is associated with the dawn of modernism, animated by the Cartesian anthropological philosophy, which overthrew the theocentricism of the medieval world, giving birth to practical philosophies that undermined religious and supernatural authorities. This perspective is the basis for enlightenment, agnosticism and atheism. Its proponents strongly believe that development is predicated on autonomy rather than hegemony. This perspective features prominently in the philosophies of Hume, Nietzsche, Darwin, etc. the end result of this position is the reduction of man to a chain of evolutionary processes that are devoid of meaning. The human person becomes a kind of machine, a clock, commoditized and depersonalized in the image of a big vending machine; this diminishes his value as a human person. It, therefore, becomes very difficult to associate development with such a perspective.

In the face of these perspectives on development, the question that looms at the horizon of this work is, from the African perspective, what is development? What contribution can African anthropology and metaphysics make to the pool of literature on development? Since development is used in relation to the human person, the question that needs to be attended to first, is ‘who is man in African ontology?’ An understanding of the human person would help shape an African integral and humanistic concept of development.

  1. Man as a Substructure for an African Philosophy of Development

Different perspectives about the human person have merged over the years, and these perspectives have equally affected the concept of development. Kierkegaard speaks of the ‘anguished man’, Karl Marx of the ‘economic man’, Sigmund Freud of the ‘erotic man’, Nietzsche of the ‘man as the will to power’, Heidegger of the ‘existent man’, Cassirer of the ‘symbolic man’, Bloch of the ‘utopic man’, Marcel of the ‘problematic man’, Gehlen of the ‘cultural man’, Mounier and Scheler of man as the ‘incarnate spirit’, Ricoeur of the ‘fallible man’. In the midst of these Western perspectives of the human person, how does the African see the human person? And how does this shape the African concept of development?

The African world is heavily anthropocentric. Man is at the centre of the universe, more central than God. Thus, Mbiti (1969) avers that “Man is at the very centre of existence and African people see everything else in its relation to this central position of man… it is as if God exists for the sake of man” (p. 92). Corroborating with Mbiti, Metuh (1991), avers that “Everything else in African worldview seems to get its bearing and significance from the position, meaning and end of man” (p. 109). The idea of God, divinities, ancestors, rituals, sacrifices etc., are only useful to the extent that they serve the needs of man.

The African universe has physical and the spiritual dimensions (Edeh 1983, Abanuka, 1994, Ijiomah 2005, Unah 2009). At the spirit realm, God represents the Chief Being, and sits at the apex of power. In the physical world, human beings dominates, occupying the central position in the scheme of God’s creation. Onunwa (1994) believes that the African cosmos is like an isosceles triangle, God (the Supreme Being) is at the apex. The ancestors are at the base of the triangle, while at the centre are human beings. The primacy of the human being in the African universe is due to the central place the human person occupies within the universe. The triangular imagery suggests that human beings form a “microcosm” on which converge the innumerable forces and influences from the beings that inhabit the other arms of the universe. With this understanding of the human person, man is not defined according to his colour, nation, religion, creed, political leanings, material contribution or any matter. The human person has a dignity that must be preserved from every form of exploitation. He is a being with the other, and, thus, should have a wholistic approach to development. Although a human being, he is made up of various forms and aspects.

  1. Development and the African Culture

The encounter between Western and African cultures was one that looked down on the African culture as underdeveloped, and thus the need to be discarded. In this encounter, many Africans forsook their culture in pursuit of the Western culture often associated with development. The African culture was described in derogatory terms as pagan, fetish, idolatry, etc. This raises a question as regards the relationship between culture and development. In relating development with the African culture, Wirendu (1998) avers that:

Nevertheless, it is a fact that Africa lags behind the west in the cultivation of rational inquiry. One illuminating (because fundamental) was of approaching the concept of ‘development’ is to measure it by the degree to which rational methods have penetrated thought habits. In this sense, of course, one cannot compare the development of peoples in absolute terms. The western world is ‘developed,’ but only an aspect, and that is not the core, of development. The conquest of the religious, moral and political spheres by the spirit of rational inquiry remains, . . . a thing of the future even in the west. From this point of view the west may be said to be still underdeveloped. The quest for development, then, should be viewed as a continuing world-historical process in which all peoples, western and non-western alike, are engaged. (p. 195).

If African development efforts would be considered successful, it is not in the discarding of her culture but in the preservation and safeguarding of her heritage. This does not in any way imply that preservation excludes openness to external influences. If they add value to the African cultural heritage, Africa should be open to them. To be open to other cultures without a prior establishment of self-identity would usher in the loss of identity and authenticity. With the African history, inundated by varying proportions of assimilation, true development must begin with mental decolonization for the restoration of the African humanness.

  1. A Complementary Notion of Development

The human person and the nature of reality in African ontology is generally complementary. Kanu (2015a&b) and (2016a&b) in the complementary philosophy of Igwebuike, understands reality as being composed of beings that are in relation to the other. Asouzu (2007b), the Father of African complementary philosophy, in his philosophy of Ibuanyidanda, presents the African reality as “an all-embracing whole, in which all units form together a dynamic play of forces, which are in harmony with each other, by completing and supporting the other” (p. 14). Asouzu (2004) further speaks of reality as “necessary complements of each other” (46). While describing the human society, Asouzu (2007a) advanced that, “Human beings and societies exist only in relations” (p. 74). Taking from the above ontology, the African concept of development is all-embracing. This is contrary to the impression one gets from the different perspectives on development which makes it seem like a relative concept. The African does not in the name of development exploit the other. He does not in the name of development destroy his environment. He does not in the name of development make a caricature of the supernatural beings that constitute a fundamental part of the universe. He sees himself as part of a whole, a whole which all these constitute complementary elements for the well being of all.

It is from this African perspective that Wirendu (1998) insists that the human perspective on development must be wider than the myopic perspectives on development. He writes:

Man should link the modernization of the conditions of his life with the modernization of all aspects of his thinking. It is just the failure to do this that is responsible for the more unlovable features of life in the West. Moreover, the same failure bedevils attempts at development in Africa. Rulers and leaders of opinion in Africa have tended to think of development in terms of the visible aspects of modernization – in terms of large buildings and complex machines, to the relative neglect of the more intellectual foundations of modernity. It is true that African nations spend every year huge sums of money on institutional education. But it has not been appreciated that education ought to lead to the cultivation of a rational outlook on the world on the part of the educated and, through them, in the traditional fold at large. Thus it is that even while calling for modernization, influential Africans can still be seen to encourage superstitious practices such the pouring of libation to spirits in the belief that in this kind of way they can achieve development without losing their Africanness. The second advantage of seeing development in this way suggested above is that the futility of any such approach becomes evident. To develop in any serious sense, we in Africa must break with our old uncritical habits of thought; that is we must advance past the stage of traditional thinking. (pp. 195-196).

In the past, discussions and commentaries on development easily tended to be developed by economists, scientists, etc., who saw it primarily from the perspective of economic and scientific growth. While economic growth or scientific advancement is a positive sign, for the African, it does not constitute the full picture of development. Thus, as Nwajiuba (1999) observes, it is possible that there could be an economic growth, scientific advancement but not development. Development observes Onwuliri (2008) goes beyond the narrow lines of economic and material advancement. It is all encompassing.

  1. Conclusion

With the African understanding of the human person, the African concept of development is one in which man is at the centre of development itself. His interest and wellbeing, in line with the interests and wellbeing of others must be captured in every true development. As Ndiaye (1987), man is the driving force of development and at the same time, the beneficiary of development. Man is the terminus ad quo from which every development project moves and around which every development project must be polarized. Being a being Scheler (1970) describes as a ‘so vast, so varied, so multiform, that every definition demonstrates itself as too limited’, an understanding of development in relation to man must, therefore, include all the above dimensions: economic, social, religious, etc. as Oraegbunam (2009) writes of man: “He is a homo scientificus, a homo technologicus, a homo economicus, a homo sapiens, a homo religiousus, a homo rationalis, a homo moralist, homo politicus, home faber, homo transcendentalis, homo spiritualis, homo eschatologicus all together” (p. 71). The concept of development must therefore not be related to only one or two of the above. Development should thus be wholistic, complementary. In relations to the African culture, no culture is superior to the other. And if no culture is superior to the other, then none should be considered a symbol of development and the other, underdevelopment. Africans need not look down on their own cultural heritage in the pursuit of western ways of life. The understanding of development in the sense of solely modernization is restrictive and myopic. Development against the backdrop of modernization, according to Wirendu (1998), should be seen as “one in which Africans in common with other peoples seek to attain a specifically human destiny”(p. 190).


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