- Ethics and the Enterprise of Studying Africa
In the last year, Amina Mama has posed the central question in the study of Africa in a clear and profound way: "Is It Ethical to Study Africa?" (2007). Answering her own question unequivocally, she contrasts an "anti-imperialist" ethic with the culture of mainstream African studies: the study of Africa in capitalist countries is but a continuation of the imperialist ethic relating to the production of knowledge. In fact, she was reiterating a similar cry from forty years earlier, when Walter Rodney, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Cheikh Anta Diop, and numerous other scholars committed to African independence called on Africans to study the institutions and organizations that reproduced and reinforced the exploitation of Africa.
Extraction from Africa is well advanced, as Patrick Bond reminds us in Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation (2006). But a multi–billion dollar enterprise of looting Africa required a continuous need to disguise the reality that Africa is a net creditor to the advanced capitalist countries (termed "donors" in neoliberal parlance). For this reason (and to perpetuate the myths of "stages of growth" and "modernization"), some of those who study Africa have produced a steady stream of monographs, films, documentaries, books, and editorials on "failed and collapsed states"—concepts that reinforce the old association of Africa with poverty, ignorance, and disease. According to the neoliberal paradigm that dominates the literature on "failed states," the ethics of making profits come before human life. Despite the clear evidence of plunder and destruction, the study of Africa by those ensconced in the academy continues to trumpet the neoconservative ideas of market rationality and the superiority of the Western modes of organizing life. At the end of the Cold War and apartheid, when the ideas of white supremacy were being questioned in the streets of South Africa, new attempts to reinstate the ideas of "the rational European" and "the [End Page 149] emotional African" emerged in the polarizing "rational choice" arguments of Robert Bates, one of the authors of the edited book Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities (1993). Thus the authors of the rational actor thesis sought to establish themselves as gatekeepers for the conditionalities defining "governance" and "political efficiency."
In line with the new insights gained from the struggles over planet earth, nearly every leader who has reached the pinnacle of the the African studies establishment has sought to articulate a vision of African studies that contends with such ideas of "rational actors" and enlightened "self-interest." Among the ASA presidents to engage in this debate on the future of African studies are Gwen Mikell, Allen Isaacman, Ned Alpers, Sandra Green, Joseph Miller, and Pearl Robinson. For example, in her presidential address of 1998, Gwen Mikell outlined three challenges: to overcome historical hierarchies; to address the need for mutuality in internal policy relationships regarding Africa; and to ensure that the ASA leadership mirrors the cultural and ethnic diversity that is America (1999:1–21). Pearl Robinson defined the Africanist as "someone who engages in the production and validation of knowledge about Africa on the basis of primary source data and empirically grounded field research" (2008:4)—a definition that may sound innocent at first glance, until one recalls the ethical measurements employed by Amina Mama and others who resist the commodification and objectification of Africans. Long ago Maina wa Kinyatti distinguished between "Africanists" and committed African scholars, noting "We are Africans first, historians second. Unlike our so-called 'African Specialists,' we do not merely wish to research and write just for the sake of writing or to be historians for the sake of being historians. We wish to consciously and actively use our historical knowledge for the liberation of our...