- Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto by Olúfémi Táíwò
African scholarship is often haunted by a troublesome link between modernity and the memory of Western colonialism within Africa. Olúfémi Táíwò's Africa Must Be Modern unswervingly engages this problematic connection by asserting that Africa must become modern despite the reservations that modernity caused many of the evils that left African societies underdeveloped. Opposing many of his academic colleagues within Africa, Táíwò wants African nations to become able to take the political and economic promises of a positivist modernity outlined in the European Enlightenment and divorce those progressive tenants from the specific evils of the West that used modernity as a justification for slavery and conquest. Africa Must Be Modern is a controversial book that tells its story through personal anecdotes. It offers a persuasive pathway for African populations to move from the dead end of hostility towards applying the models of Western innovation.
Much of Africa Must Be Modern is aimed at popularizing arguments from Táiwò's How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa (2010). That work showed how discourses of modernity used by Europeans to classify Africans as culturally and biologically inferior remained politically potent well into the twentieth century. In essence, Africans were considered inferior by the West because African cultures were seemingly trapped in an agricultural economy that Europeans had supposedly transcended. Still, when Africans attempted to reach modernity during decolonization, European powers prevented African populations from accessing the promises of reason, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law. As Táíwò notes, because of these historical justifications and colonial preemptions, most African academics remain hostile to modernity. For Táíwò, these academics mistakenly equate modernity with the West. [End Page 143]
In the preface to this reissue of a work originally published in Nigeria, Táíwò provides American readers a warning to avoid anti-intellectualism that can create political wedges between American citizens, destroy the foundations of the rule of law, and set gerrymandered outlines for unfair elections that support a wayward populism. For Táíwò, Americans should reach for the goals of modernity though similar means as the Africans central to his curative project. Táíwò begins his account with how he came to understand the positive aspects of modernity. While studying at the University of Toronto, Táíwò often encountered an unexpectedly kind and productive society. Taught through theories of decolonization and radical Marxism while a young student in Africa, Táíwò came to North America with the expectation that he would encounter only a dog-eat-dog society of intense classism. In Toronto, however, he found a culture of reciprocity and a state willing to protect its citizens. His experience raised questions regarding why African nations continue to lag behind other decolonized nations in Latin America and Asia. For Táíwò, this lagging is due to a mistaken distaste for modernity.
The problems caused when African academics continue to equate modernity and Western evils are manifold. As Táíwò outlines, hostility to modernity perpetuates a false narrative that the African past was based on egalitarian and utopian communal cultures. Africa Must Be Modern argues that this focus on communalism overshadows significant forms of inequality that must have existed in African societies before the Atlantic slave trade. For Táíwò, the utopian imagining of a premodern African past allows nefarious and entrepreneurial actors to become rich in contemporary Africa because the African populations they swindle still believe in false utopian ideals. In particular, Táíwò explores how African elites deny equality to homosexual populations to garner political favor. One of the promises of modernity is that citizens will be equal before the law. As part of a continued hostility to modernity, African leaders use homosexuality to mark many Africans as inherently unable to be considered subjects. Especially in modern Nigeria, as Táíwò summarizes, anti-homosexuality is often held up as a positive tenant for resistance to modernity.
Because Africans often resist modernity, African societies are consistently trapped within previous modes of...