Against African Communalism


  • Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò Cornell University



Communalism and its cognates continue to exercise a vise grip on the African intellectual imaginary. Whether the discussion is in ethics or social philosophy, in metaphysics or even, on occasion, epistemology, the play of communalism, a concept expounded in the next section, is so strong that it is difficult to escape its ubiquity. In spite of this, there is little serious analysis of the concept and its implications in the contemporary context. Yet, at no other time than now can a long-suffering continent use some robust debates on its multiple inheritances regarding how to organize life and thought in order to deliver a better future for its population. Given the continual resort to communalism as, among others, the standard of ethical behavior, the blueprint for restoring Africans to wholeness and organizing our social life, as well as a template for political reorganization across the continent, one cannot overemphasize the importance of contributing some illumination to the discourse surrounding the idea. This essay seeks to offer a little illumination in this respect. Additionally, it offers a criticism of what all—proponents and antagonists alike—take to be a defensible version of communalism: moderate communalism. I shall be arguing that communalism, generally, has a problem with the individual. And the African variant of it, mostly subscribed to by the African scholars discussed below and defended by them as something either peculiar to or special in Africa, has an even harder time accommodating the individual. Yet, as history shows, until the modern age in which individualism is the principle of social ordering and mode of social living, a situation that privileges the individual, above all, various forms of communalism never really accorded the individual the recognition and forbearances that we now commonly associate with the idea. The strongest variants of moderate communalism discussed here have a difficult time taking the individual seriously. I am not aware of anyone else ever having made such a case. These arguments are offered to show that (1) Africa and Africans need to take individualism seriously and (2) such have been the historical transformation that our diverse societies have undergone in the course of the last half a millennium that the types of communalism that are on offer do not appear to take this fact of radical change with the necessary urgency.