African Philosophy and Development

Suleimmon Olayinka Opafola


  1. Introduction
  2. Value of African Philosophy
  3. Relevance of African Philosophy to Development
  4. Awolowo: Theory and Practice of Democratic Socialism
  5. A Critique of Awolowo’s Theory and Practice of Democratic Socialism
  6. Nyerere: Theory and Practice of African Socialism
  7. A Critique of Nyerere’s Theory and Practice of African Socialism
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
  1. Introduction

This work considers the relationship between African philosophy and the issue of development. It proceeds from a consideration of the value of African philosophy. Taking cognizance of the connection between theory and practice, it discusses the relevance of African philosophy to development, mainly within the context of politics. In this regard, the contributions of two African political philosophers are considered.

  1. Value of African Philosophy

Philosophy, including African philosophy, “originates from man’s quest for theoretical and practical solutions to the problems of life” (Nwala, 1981: 11). In the words of Mbiti (1982: 2) “African philosophy refers to the understanding, attitude of mind, logic and the perception behind the manner in which African people think, act or speak in different situations of life”. This conception of African philosophy can be interpreted in two ways or amounts to a synthesis of two notions of philosophy, namely: (1) philosophy as ”an attitude towards certain activities”, and (2) philosophy as “an evaluation or interpretation of what is important or meaningful in life” (Popkin and Stroll, 1982: xiii).

Let us consider some of the views of Kolawole Owolabi concerning the role of African philosophy in the development of Africa. According to him, (1999: 28 and 24):

The claim of the ethno-philosophers (cultural nationalists) (among whom are Aime Cesaire, Sedar Senghor and David Diop) that our traditional worldviews need to be revived in order to attain an authentic and autonomous mode of living in Africa can be interpreted as a discourse on development. This is in the sense that societal development can best be realized if members of the society consciously generate the culture they operate with independently of external influence. On the other hand, the position of the professional philosophers (cultural universalists such as Kwasi Wirendu, Peter Bodunrin, Paulin Hountondji, Eboussi Boulaga, Marcian Towa and Kwame Anthony Appiah) that African philosophy should engage in the critical analysis of our traditional culture, with the objective of modernizing it can also be described as a developmental programme.

However, Owolabi regards the efforts involved in the above-stated positions as marginal. He holds that what is required of every discipline is a clear and explicit definition of its own regards for resolving developmental problems (Owolabi, 1999: 29).

Acknowledging Tsenay Serequeberhan, Owolabi (19999: 29-30) recognizes two orientations of discussants of the philosophical approach to the challenges of development. These are the scientistic and the historical-hermeneutical orientations. Kwasi Wirendu, Paulin Hountondji and Peter Bodunrin belong to the first orientation while Wamba dia Wamba, Okonda Okolo, Marcein Towa and Tsenay Serequeberhan belong to the second orientation. Those who accept the first orientation recognize the necessity of the indirect engagement of African philosophy with concrete problems. However, they think that the involvement should be in form of support for the development of science and technology. They believe that aiding the growth of scientific culture can promote Africa’s overall development. Supporters of the second orientation consider African philosophy as the “historically engaged and political empowerment of the African people” (Owolabi, 1999:30). Having considered the above-mentioned orientations, Owolabi (1991:30), states that African philosophy can make better contributions to the development of Africa if it “help(s) in developing the scientific and technological sector of Africa and … in deconstructing all ideas and concepts that can hinder the positive development of society”.

Furthermore, African philosophy can suggest solutions to the problems of the African continent. It can assist in creating and determining education, moral, cultural, social, economic and political values, among other things, in Africa (Nwala, 1981:15). Reflective and critical thinking about concepts and principles can be a tool for organizing experience in all areas of human endeavour. Critical reflective thinking leads to wisdom when multifarious facts are processed and their significance for human life are extracted (Bewaji, 1983:78). Wisdom is also attained when one participates “in the affairs of the society imbued with a desire to bring one’s intellect to bear upon human problems to enhance, liberalize (an) democratize human life” (Bewaji, 1983:78)

Philosophy (including African philosophy) examines the problems with inhibit national development and progress. Some of these problems are moral decadence, economic slavery and technological backwardness. Mediocrity, laziness, corruption, materialism and injustice, among other vices, exemplify moral decadence. Colonialism, lust for power, political immaturity and intolerance partly give rise to economic slavery. The existence of inferior and useless products is none of the signposts of technological backwardness (Oguejiofor, 1998: 203).

The above-stated problems proceed from certain prejudices and biases. One of the ways through which philosophy contributes to development is by uncovering the prejudices and biases from which the aforementioned problems emanate. The mind is consequently liberated from obstacles to objective and clear thinking. By helping to remove prejudices and biases, philosophy “broadens man’s vision about his world, life and problems” (Oguejiofor, 1998:204). Paraphrasing C. B. Okolo, Oguejiofor (1998: 204) states that philosophy can “make explicit beliefs embedded in our culture, and highlight the various assumptions we make about ourselves, our world, and our values”.

  1. Relevance of African Philosophy to Development

In the realm of politics, African philosophers have tried to suggest solutions to the socio-political and economic problems in Africa. One of these is that of selecting the most suitable socio-political and economic order for Africa. For instance, Obafemi Awolowo (1968, 1972, 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1987) and Julius Nyerere (1968, 1970, and 1972) suggested democratic socialism and African socialism respectively. The efforts of the two philosophers involve a praxis, a unity of theory and practice. Theoretically, both scholars examined capitalism and found it to be defective. Each of them then propounded his alternative socio-political theory and practiced it. Their efforts partly demonstrate the contributions which African philosophy has made and can still make towards social, economic and political development of Africa.

  1. Awolowo: Theory and Practice of Democratic Socialism

Awolowo (1977: 165-202: 1987: 60-61: 1978: 32) considers the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism. He identifies the following advantages, modernization of industry and commerce; building of new cities and giving old ones a facelift; promotion of science and technology; reducing and weakening the strongholds of poverty; ignorance and disease; making the rich richer and the poor better off that they ever had been before. He also recognizes certain disadvantages of capitalism. He claims that it cannot be, and is factually incapable of being, just and fair to all citizens. In his opinion:

Neither (the) concept (of capitalism) nor its techniques are suitable for mankind in general. For Africa in particular, the adoption of capitalism can only perpetuate albeit, in subtle disguises, the dehumanization, heartless exploration and division into antagonistic camps, which Africa had suffered during (the) period of slavery and colonization (Awolowo, 1987: 60-61).

Awolowo maintains that injustice arising from production, exchange and distribution, are so deep-seated and widespread that they cannot be satisfactorily minimized not to talk of being eliminated through capitalism. For instance, scarcity is rewarded whereas abundance is punished. The capitalist system produces lockouts, strikes and other forms of labour dispute as well as lots of friction and rancor between the rulers and the ruled. Social unrest and instability, sometimes violent, in several parts of the world are traceable to the aforementioned frequent frictions. Also characteristic of capitalism are problems and malpractices such as devaluation, dumping of tariff protection, among others, which many countries have employed against one another in the process of promoting narrow national interests. The capitalist system exposes the masses of the people to inescapable economic insecurity. It consequently generates negative emotions such as jealousy, fear, anger, hatred, selfishness and greed among people. It promotes greed or naked self-interest as the motive force for productive activities (Awolowo, 1977: 165 – 172 and 202).

Awolowo (1977: 172 – 189) is of the view that the devices which are used to reduce the problems of capitalism have proved ineffective. Some of them are planning and control, regulation of international trade and payments, rent and price controls, taxation, incentives to workers, public utilities and social services. He submits that mis-utilization and under-utilization of resources, misdirected output, enormous waste, artificial scarcity, incessant economic crises, and the paradox of starvation kin the midst of plenty occasioned by or resulting from the pursuit of the capitalist idea of economic freedom, can be prevented by means of central planning, central control, and central co-ordination of economic activities (Awolowo, 1978: 32). Awolowo consequently rejects capitalism as its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

Awolowo recommends democratic socialism-a reformatory socialism founded by Ferdinand Lassalle (1825 – 1864) and amplified by Awolowo (Ogunmodede, 1986: 207). Awolowo claims that it is better for economic and social objectives of a state to be socialist, rather than capitalist, in orientation in order to benefit all the citizen justly and substantially. Democratic socialism is an ideology which seeks to attain social justice, equality and related ends for all by democratic means, one of which is socialization (Awolowo, 1978: 36 and 37). Like any other brand of socialism, it tries to set the standards for social objectives and economic behaviour. It also establishes the “standards of human ends which economic forces must serve and prescribes the methods by which these forces may be controlled, directed and channeled for the attainment of the end in view” (Awolowo, 1977: 190 – 191)

The aims of democratic socialism include the establishment of an economic commonwealth that will meet the needs of all the people: the achievement of social justice and equality; abolition of unemployment (or attainment of full employment, payment of good wages, achievement of respectable standards of living; free provision of basic social amenities such as education (at all levels), health (preventive and curative), etc., political stability: modernization of agriculture, and progressive socialization (Awolowo: 1981: 187 1977: 192 – 193: 1978: 47 – 59 and 82).

Democratic socialism is opposed to violence, to revolutionary socialism. Some of its means are periodic elections, socialists orientation, discipline, hard work, self-confidence, establishment of the Institute of National Guidance, socialization or nationalization, central control and co-ordination of economic activities. (Awolowo, 1977: 95 – 101: 1978: 32 – 37: 1981: 75: 187 – 192). The principles of democratic socialism include national greatness, equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of national products, liberty and well-being of the individual, brotherhood among all mankind, fair and just regard for labour (Awolowo, 1977: 75 – 94: 113, 168 – 192; 225 – 226: 1978: 10-13, 58-59, 92 – 96: 1981: 24). Democratic socialism champions altruism, in opposition to greed and selfishness, as motive force for productive activities.

Awolowo observes that “the public and the private sectors of the economy exist side by side in a democratic state” (Awolowo, 1981: 191). This arrangement is allowed at the initial stage of the democratic socialist state. But later, the “government must by legislation, coupled with negotiation where necessary, acquire new businesses for which fair compensation (should be paid)” (Awolowo, 1981: 191). This shows that democratic socialism is also concerned with “…the conversion of private ownership …”(Awolowo, 1981: 188). As the foregoing remarks imply, the conversion needs not be “done in one fell swoop” but gradually.

Democratic socialism stresses state control of the means of production, the abolition of freedom of individual enterprise and private property, and the regulation of consumption. Awolowo holds that these measures cannot endanger personal freedom. In justification of curtailment of personal freedom in respect of certain classes of consumption, he observes that:

The state is wise to legislate against the circulation of obscene books and the unrestricted consumption of poisonous drugs. It is also wise to legislate against suicide. But it is certainly abdicating its duty (if it allows) people to take slow and cumulative poisons by the unfettered consumption of alcoholic drinks, tobacco, coffee, tea, etc….Therefore, if a man is not free to commit suicide, if he is not free to possess and consume any drug of his choice, whether poisonous or not; if he is not free to commit the nuisance of making noise to the annoyance of his neighbours, then he has no right to complain if is freedom in regard to certain classes of consumption is denied. If the one does not amount to a denial of personal freedom, the other definitely cannot (Awolowo, 1977: 198).

Awolowo significantly implemented his suggestion when he served as the Premier of the old Western Region of Nigeria. The Region witnessed substantial development, peace and progress. The extent of the progress made can be measured by the fact the area formerly known as the Western Region is the most developed part of Nigeria today, especially educationally. Free education was one of the cardinal programmes of the then Action Group, a political party led by Awolowo. Education is an important bedrock of development and progress. The advancement of the United States of America (U. S. A.) and European countries, among others, is partly traceable to the priority given to education. It is probable that if Awolowo had the opportunity to rule Nigeria, then the foundation for the country’s progress would have been better laid.

  1. A Critique of Awolowo’s Theory and Practice of Democratic Socialism

The concept of democratic socialism involves the notions of democracy and socialism. There are three types of Democracy: namely, liberal democracy, socialist (or social) democracy and participatory democracy. In the liberal – pluralistic sense democracy “is defined in terms of civil rights, equitable allocation of power, and public accountability” (Dayomi and Alokan, 1992: 362). One the other hand, “social (or socialist) democracy involves political, economic and cultural democratization” (Dayomi and Alokan, 1992: 362). Participatory democracy can be divided into two: namely, direct or ideal democracy, and indirect or representative democracy.

Direct democracy is one “whereby the people – all the people – settle their affairs through free discussion” (Nyerere, 1972: 173). In direct democracy, the people periodically elect representative to “conduct discussion on their behalf” in legislature (i.e. in parliament, Congress, National Assembly, etc). Representative democracy includes partisan democracy, consensus democracy and deliberate democracy. Non-partisan (or no party) democracy “is a system of representative government or organization whereby universal and periodic elections (by secret ballot) take place without reference to political parties or even the speeches, campaigns, nominations, or other apparatus associated with democracy” (encyclopedia, the free Consensus democracy is the application of consensus decision making to the process of legislation. It is a narrow, but perhaps the most important, application of consensus decision – making methods” (encyclopedia, the free dictionary. com). Deliberative democracy is a “term used by a political theorists, e.g. Jon Elster or Jurgen Habernnass, to refer to any system of political decisions based on some trade-off consensus decision making and representative democracy (encyclopedia the

Awolowo selects partisan democracy, which is a system of representative government whereby political parties are involved in the organization of universal and periodic elections. Partisan democracy is a variant of representative democracy which is an aspect of participatory democracy. The existence of other types of representative democracy and other categories of democracy reveals the narrowness and inadequacy of partisan democracy. The extent to which efforts are made to incorporate the positive elements of the other types of representative democracy and other categories of democracy will determine the degree to which the deficiencies are removed.

In embracing democratic socialism, Awolowo assumes that the combination of democracy with socialism is possible. The presupposition has both an object of criticism. For instance, Milton Friedman claims sthat democracy and socialism are antithetical. He rejects democratic socialism on the following grounds:

That there is an intimate connection between economics and politics, that only certain combinations of political and economic arrangements are possible, and that in particular, a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom (Friedman, 1962: 8).

The incompatibility of democracy and socialism may arise initially when attempt is made to put them on the same footing. The conflict can be resolved if one comes first and the other follows. The sequence adopted may be a matter of convenience.

  1. Nyerere: Theory and Practice of African Socialism

Like Awolowo, Julius Nyerere assesses capitalism and considers it to be inadequate. He rejects capitalism for some reasons. Capitalism, according to him, attempts to create a happy society on the platform of exploitation of man by man. It thrives on individualism and has thus destroyed the basis of economic equality. It encourages land speculation, economic competition, tendency towards maximization of private profits, and hoarding of wealth, among others. It also undermines political equality because it bases social status on material wealth. Nyerere (1970: 12) also condemns doctrinaire socialism because a philosophy of inevitable conflict between man and man influences its aim of building a happy society. Nyerere espouses African socialism, “Ujamaa” describes his brand of socialism. The word “ujamaa” “denotes the kind of life lived by a man and his family – father, mother, children and near relatives” (Nyerere, 1968” 137). “Ujamaa” is thus synonymous with “family-hood or brotherhood”. According to Nyerere (1970: 16).

To build and maintain socialism, it is essential that all the major means of production and exchange in the nations are controlled and owned by the peasants through machinery of the government and their co-operatives… It is essential that the ruling party should be a party of peasants and workers.

Nyerere (1970: 79) claims that “socialism is in fact the application of the principle of human equality to the social, economic and political organization of society”. He states that socialism demands that society should be deliberately organized in such a way that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to pursue his desires at the expense of other persons or to exploit others (Nyerere, 1970: 79). He is of the view that a socialist society is based on three principles: namely, equality and respect for human dignity; sharing of the resources which are produced by our efforts, work by everyone and exploitation by none. Equality is vital to a socialist society because without it the people may not co-operate. Equality is vital to a socialist society sacrifices made by the people, distribution of resources, decent life, participation in government, responsibility to work and contribution to the society according to the one’s family.

Nyerere (1970: 2) maintains that socialism is an attitude of mind. This view is premised on the assumption that socialism is mainly a question of distribution of wealth. That socialism is an attitude of mind has to do with the recognition of socialist principles, values, and objectives, etc. Some of the principles have earlier been stated. The values or objectives include universal brotherhood, human equality, respect for human dignity, public ownership of the means of production, equitable distribution of national wealth, equal liability of everyone to work (except the disabled, the infirm, and the aged), fair and just reward for labour, absence of exploitation, altruism, mutual co-operation and help, and social justice (Nyerere, 1968: 137 – 142); 1979: 13-17, 74 – 81 and 103).

Nyerere also considers socialism as an institution - that is, a social organization aimed at the promotion of equality and eradication of private property. Promotion of equality and termination of private property are two of the ways of overcoming the use of naked force and private property as major means of exploitation. Nyerere believes that promotion of equality and abolition of private property are good ideals worth pursuing. Abolition of private property can go a long way in improving the well-being of the people. It should also be noted that socialism of the means of production can help to prevent exploitation and promote equality before the law. Nyerere claims that exploitation can further be prevented through the rule of law, equally before the law and inculcation of socialist values in the citizens (that is, re-education or re-orientation of the citizens). In addition, he emphasized the need for self-reliance at the levels of the individual, the community, and the nation (Nyerere, 1970: 74 – 81, 151 – 152)

  1. A Critique of Nyerere’s Theory and Practice of African Socialism

Nkrumah has alleged that African socialism amounts to an undue glorification of a nostalgia for what happened in pre-colonial African society. He distinguishes between African socialism and socialism in Africa as well as between their proponents. The term “African socialism” is used to refer to the view that communalism practiced in traditional African society and socialism share the spirit of humanism and egalitarianism and that it is necessary to recapture that spirit. Those African leaders (e.g. Julius Nyerere) who hold this position are “supposed to be the ‘African socialists’”. On the other hand, the term “socialism” is used – and this is acceptable to Nkrumah – to describe, among other things, organizational patterns, state structure, ideologies, and socialization of productive processes designed to promote economic and social development. Those African leaders who share this conception of socialism are the socialists in Africa (e.g. Nkrumah) (Nkrumah, 1973: 78 – 80, 1973: 43-91)

Nkrumah’s castigation of African socialism is suspect. It appears that his position presupposes that socialism cannot and should not have an African outlook. This is strange. The strangeness has to do with the fact that nature, society and human beings, among other things, are dynamic. That traditional African society was characterized by the spirit of humanism and egalitarianism should be a thing of pride for Africans. It would also be dignifying if these features (i.e. humanism and egalitarianism) are modernized. Successful modernization of the principles of humanism and egalitarianism will represent part of Africa’s contribution to the development of socialism. This is so because the two principles are also characteristic of socialism.

If the foregoing observations are granted, then the distinction between African socialism and socialism in Africa becomes superfluous, to a great extent. Similarly, the distinction between African socialists and socialists in Africa will be unnecessary. It will then be a matter of preference whether to adopt any of the two sets of concepts or use them interchangeably.

  1. Conclusion

Philosophy’s role as a critique of ideology (Oguejiofor, 1988; 209) is partly demonstrated in the critique of capitalism provided by Awolowo and Nyerere. The step is taken in an attempt to find theoretical and practical solutions to human economic and socio-political problems, especially in Africa. Having to formulate democratic socialism and socialism and African socialism respectfully (i.e. construction of ideologies) (Oguejiofor, 1988: 212), is an additional move in the same direction. These theoretical endeavours are complemented by the application of these socio-political philosophies by the proponents.

Since value judgements are involved in these efforts. They are that: capitalism is inadequate and cannot bring about the much needed positive development in African: capitalism should be rejected: democratic socialism and African socialism are better than capitalism and can better facilitate progress; democratic socialism or African socialism should be embraced in preference to capitalism. These judgments partly reveal that philosophy is also concerned with ethics. Among other things, ethics, - one the main branches of philosophy – deals with (1) principles of morality, - of distinguishing between right and wrong or good and bad human conduct and (2) standards of morality. Both Awolowo and Nyerere are committed to saying that what will better promote the development and progress of human beings and society is good and should be embraced. It is in the light of this commitment that each of them recommends the adoption and practice of democratic socialism and African socialism respectively.

The foregoing considerations partly attest to the fact that African socio-political philosophers can serve as harbingers of social change, especially progress-enhancing social transformation. The two socio-political philosophies under consideration and the practices which they engender are calculated to promote development and progress. This calculation involves improvement in the material conditions of life of majority of human beings, promotion of equal access to opportunities and promotion of human dignity, among other things. Promotion of human development and progress is the most important way of promotion societal or national development and progress.


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