African Political Thought Essay

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Modern African political thought refers to the political theories and ideologies enunciated in the speeches, autobiographies, writings, and policy statements of African statesmen and scholars. It varies according to historical circumstances and constantly changing African and world political environments. Political theory and political practice are inextricably linked, which makes for six distinctive periods of African history, each with its own dominant theories: indigenous Africa; imperial Africa; colonial Africa; and (early, middle, and late) modern or postcolonial Africa.

Early Modern African Nationalism

Early modern African nationalism was developed in the late nineteenth century by British-educated elites in West Africa. In Sierra Leone, James Africans B. Horton, a doctor of medicine, challenged racist theories and argued that Africans were as capable of achieving “civilization” as Europeans, both biologically and psychologically. He advocated the development of “modern” states in Africa. In Liberia, Edward Wilmot Blyden, politician, writer, and diplomat, developed an ideology of racial pride and nonacculturation and advocated African development through an authentic indigenous Africa, based on an African personality, history, and culture. He also called for the establishment of a West African state. In the Gold Coast [Ghana], Joseph E. Casely Hayford, a lawyer, advocated modernization from indigenous African roots. He believed that African nations, civilization, and political institutions could be revived and modernized to cater to modern needs in an “African way.” He also called for the creation of a West African nation.


The next major movement in African political thought, pan-Africanism, was prominently promoted by the African Diaspora—scholars and activists of African descent living in other nations. Pan-Africanism is a political and cultural ideal and movement born in the 1900s aimed at regrouping and mobilizing Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora against foreign domination, oppression, and discrimination. Political pan-Africanism is linked to African nationalism (i.e., the struggle for independence), while economic pan-Africanism is linked to the struggle against imperialism and neocolonialism. The major proponents of pan-Africanism in North America were W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Paul L. Robeson, and George Padmore. The so-called back to Africa movement (i.e., the return of the African slaves to their continent of origin) mainly advocated by Garvey, led to the creation of Sierra Leone in 1801 and Liberia in 1817. Cultural pan-Africanism was expressed through Ne.gritude, a cultural movement reasserting African culture, values, and traditions as part of the common heritage of mankind. Ne. gritude emerged in France in the 1930s among African and Afro-Caribbean elites, notably Aimé Césaire, LéonGontran Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Modern African Nationalism

Modern African nationalism is a political ideal and movement aimed a liberating Africans from European colonial political domination, cultural oppression, social exclusion, and economic exploitation. The goal was to achieve political independence as a prelude to economic independence. In Kwame Nkrumah’s words, “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will be added unto you.” The challenge of African nationalism was to build viable nations out of more than fifty artificially created states, most of which attained independence in the 1960s.

African Socialism

African socialism is a radical form of African nationalism. Influenced by Marxism-Leninism (though officially non-Marxist), African socialism rejects capitalism as being alien to African culture and traditions. Instead, it is based on the African tradition of communalism, according to which the group takes precedence over the individual. The socialist model of development includes a state-led development strategy based on planning, land reform, industrialization, and the nationalization of the economy. The foreign policy of African Socialist states is pan-Africanist. The African countries (and leaders) who adopted this ideology between 1960 and 1970 were Algeria (Ahmed Ben Bella); Ghana (Kwame Nkrumah, 1962); Guinea (Ahmed Sékou Touré); Mali (Modibo Keïta), and Tanzania (Julius K. Nyerere, 1968). Senegal (Léopold Senghor) and Kenya (Jomo Kenyatta) paid lip service to African socialism but did not actually implement it.

African Theories Of Revolution

Frantz Fanon, a French-born psychiatrist from Martinique who joined the Algerian revolution, posits that under the guidance of revolutionary intellectuals, the peasantry is a revolutionary force in Africa. He argues that it is only through violence that the colonized people can achieve their freedom. For Fanon (1968), decolonization is a violent revolution that destroys the social and political structures of the colonial regime, liberates consciousness, and creates a new man. He argues that violence is a cleansing force, but that it must be accompanied by political education if it is to be truly emancipatory.

Amilcar Cabral, an agronomist and leader of the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau, sees culture as a form of resistance to foreign domination. Cabral (1972) argues that culture is a weapon against the imperialist power; it becomes the instrument through which people reclaim their history. For him, the main goal of the liberation movement is not only national independence and the defeat of colonialism, but also the economic, social, and cultural progress of the people. This can occur only when foreign domination has been totally eliminated.

African Marxist Regimes

The per iod 1969 to 1975 saw the emergence of Afr ican Marxist regimes—many of them military—which adopted Marxism-Leninism as the state ideology. However, in general, the self-proclaimed “Marxist” African leaders did not genuinely believe in this ideology but simply used it an instrument of political domination and control of the people. The African countries (and leaders) who adopted this ideology were Angola (Agostinho Neto and José Eduardo dos Santos); Benin (Mathieu Kérékou); Congo-Brazzaville (Mar ien Ngouabi, Joachim Yhombi-Opango, and Denis Sassou-Nguesso); Ethiopia (Meng istu Haile Mar iam); Guinea-Bissau (Luís Cabral and João Bernardo Vieira); Madagascar (Didier Ratsiraka); Mozambique (Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano); Namibia (Sam Nujoma); Somalia (Mohammed Siad Barre); and Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe), 1980–1995. Marxism as a state ideology was officially abandoned everywhere in Africa by 1996.

African Populist Regimes

Emerging in the early 1980s, African populism borrows elements of both African socialism and Marxism-Leninism, and places the people at the center of democracy and development in Africa. Its main policy is to satisfy the basic needs of the peasantry, the largest and poorest social class in Africa. Afr ican populist regimes advocate popular democracy and people-centered development. Afr ican populist reg imes include Burkina Faso (Thomas Sankara); Ghana (Jerry Rawlings); Libya (Muammar Qaddafi) since 1977; and Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe) since 1995).

African Theories Of Democracy And Development

Three African scholars (Claude Ake, Daniel Osabu-Kle, and Mueni wa Muiu) have recently developed Africa-centered theories of democracy and development. Nigerian scholar-activist Claude Ake notes that in the postindependence era, the African elites have privatized the African state for their own benefit, leading to the marginalization of the African people. Ake (1996, 1) argues that “the problem is not so much that development has failed as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place.” Like the populists, he advocates popular development (in which people are the end, agent, and means of development), and popular democracy (which emphasizes political, social, and economic rights).

Ghanaian scholar Daniel Osabu-Kle (2000) starts from the assumptions that indigenous African political culture was essentially democratic and consensual, based on the accountability of the rulers to the people. He argues that only a democracy compatible with the African cultural environment (i.e., a modernized form of Africa’s indigenous democracy) is capable of achieving the political conditions for successful development in Africa.

Mueni wa Muiu introduces a new paradigm to study the African state. According to A New Paradigm of the African State: Fundi wa Afrika (2009), the current African predicament may be explained by the systematic destruction of African states and the dispossession, exploitation, and marginalization of African people through successive historical processes (from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to globalization). Muiu argues that a new, viable, and modern African state based on five political entities—the Federation of African States—should be built on the functional remnants of indigenous African political systems and institutions and be based on African values, traditions, and culture.


  1. Ake, Claude. Democracy and Development in Africa. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1996.
  2. Boele van Hensbroek, Pieter. Political Discourses in African Thought, 1860 to the Present. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.
  3. Cabral, Amilcar. Revolution in Guinea. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972. Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1968.
  4. Idahosa, P. L. E. The Populist Dimension to African Political Thought. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003.
  5. Muiu, Mueni wa, and Guy Martin. A New Paradigm of the African State: Fundi wa Afrika. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  6. Mutiso, Gideon-Cyrus M., and S.W. Rohio, eds. Readings in African Political Thought. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975.
  7. Nkrumah, Kwame. Towards Colonial Freedom: Africa in the Struggle against World Imperialism. London: Heinemann, 1962.
  8. Nyerere, Julius K. Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  9. Osabu-Kle, Daniel. Compatible Cultural Democracy:The Key to Development in Africa. Toronto: UTP Higher Education, 2000.
  10. Rosberg, Carl G., and Thomas M. Callaghy, eds. Socialism in Sub-Saharan Africa: A New Assessment. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies/ University of California, 1979.
  11. Young, Crawford. Ideology and Development in Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

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