Henning Melber

* Henning Melber has a PhD in Political Science and a venia legendi in
Development Studies. He was Director of The Namibian Economic Policy
Research Unit (NEPRU) in Windhoek between 1992 and 2000 and is Research
Director of The Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala/Sweden since then.
This article is a revised and shortened version of an editorial to a
special issue on African Studies he guest edited for "Afrika Spectrum"
(vol. 40, no. 3, 2005).


Henning Melber, Research Director of The Nordic Africa Institute in
Uppsala/Sweden, raises questions about the area of "African Studies",
reviewing some of the key debates currently taking place over its
motivation, form and content. What motivates scholars to embark on
African Studies? Is there a more or less direct political agenda
attached to African Studies? To what extent do African scholars have
options to define, pursue, and realise their own socio-political ideals
and convictions?

A debate on what is supposedly understood as African Studies tends to be
dependant on the individual positioning of the respective author(s).
There is an obvious historical (in the sense of imperialist) dimension
to the matter: African Studies emerged mainly due to a colonial legacy
or direct involvement of states and their agents (missionaries,
'explorers', traders, officials) in either the colonisation or
decolonisation of African regions or people - with the latter as the
passive objects rather than the architects of the study areas and
subject matters defined as being of interest (of interest to others, of

There were strong geopolitical and strategic dimensions, which have
motivated to some extent the focus on area studies (including African
Studies). Hence one of the questions we are confronted with is that of
the social and political interest: what motivates scholars not only to
embark on African Studies, but beyond this what allows for employment
and support by state institutions in this academic field? Is there a
more or less direct political agenda attached to African Studies by
those who support its institutionalised pursuance? And if so, which
agenda and to what extent do we as individual scholars agree or differ
on the underlying motives? Last but not least: how do we contribute by
what we are doing and how we are doing it (as institutions and as
individual researchers) to such an agenda and its execution? To what
extent do we have options to define, pursue, and realise our own
socio-political ideals and convictions through and by means of the
academic role we play within such institutionalised framework of

The challenge to position oneself starts with the efforts to define the
subject and reach a common understanding. According to a survey among
scholars in the United States of America, "mainstream Africanists across
the spectrum of US higher education appear to be divided with respect to
what constitutes 'African Studies'" (Alpers/Roberts 2002: 13; see also
Kassimir 1997: 161). The differing choices include:

- Study of sub-Saharan Africa (22%);
- Study of the entire continent of Africa (33%); and
- study of the people of Africa, both in Africa and the diaspora (41%).

Alpers and Roberts suggest that African Studies "should also include .
the place of Africa in its global context, both historically and
contemporaneously". But they themselves seem not to honour this explicit
understanding in its full consequence when summarising that African
Studies "is about peoples, both on the continent of Africa and abroad,
rather than about a continent called Africa." Instead, African Studies
should be even more than this: it should include foreign interests,
policies and influences, as well as perceptions outside of Africa on
Africa (whatever the definition of "Africa" then is). To that extent,
"Africa" is also seen as a mirror image of international relations,
images, projections and their results.

A decade ago Martin and West (1995: 24) warned in the US-context of the
profession that the "spectre of irrelevance" is hanging over "African
Studies". What they possibly wanted to alert to is that the future of
African Studies rests on shaky grounds in countries like the USA (but
also the UK or Germany, for that matter), as long as those in social
(political and economic) power have no direct interest in the matters
analysed (like in, let's say, Near or Middle East, East European or
Chinese and East Asian Studies, which for obvious reasons serve a direct
purpose within dominant interests).

That does of course not mean that African Studies are irrelevant,
neither within nor outside academic discourses - even though if that
might well have been the perception of those having to some extent the
power of definition (if only through executing control over allocating
the financial means to make things happen). There were, however,
interests emerging once again within the new scramble for control over
African resources, in particular oil, which after 11th September 2001 in
the US-declared global war against terror contributed to a
revitalisation of African Studies as strategic area studies (cf. Barnes

This is beyond doubt a double-edged sword, as it reduces the continent
again to an object of super power rivalry. It is therefore essential to
argue with Kassimir (1997:156) for the relevance of African Studies
beyond the "utilitarianism" of economic, geopolitical and strategic
interests: "Local knowledge and global knowledge are inseparable and
mutually constitutive". One might even go a step further and - for the
sake of the argument - maintain that local knowledge is at the same time
global knowledge. As Kassimir (ibid.) concludes: "Both global knowledge
and local knowledge are necessary for contemporary scholarship; only
together are they sufficient."

For Achille Mbembe, as one of the more prominent (and controversial)
African scholars - who by the way has so far not abandoned his roots in
the sense of remaining attached to a working environment within the
continent instead of moving to an African Studies centre in one of the
metropolitan universities - in support of such an approach African
societies (like all other societies) can be located "between generality
and singularity", with a "peculiar 'historicity' . rooted in a
multiplicity of times, trajectories and rationalities that, although
particular and sometimes local, cannot be conceptualised outside a world
that is, so to speak, globalized." (Mbembe 2001: 9)

The unanswered question remains, however: who creates which type of
knowledge and for what purpose?

Strong arguments for a legitimate and necessary place of African Studies
in the accumulation of knowledge offered Iris Berger (1997: 5): "to
transcend parochial Western theories and data, participants with
in-depth area-based knowledge will be as essential as ever to true
global and comparative dialogue". She also deconstructs and demystifies
the highly sensitive inner-African discussions over what deserves to
receive the blessing as "African Studies" in a politically correct
Afro-centric view by pointing out: "'Orientalist' criticisms inevitably
lump together a rich and diverse tradition encompassing writings from
many perspectives . written by scholars from all over Africa, Europe and
North America as well as other parts of the world. By treating some of
these areas of interest as critiques of a pristine, homogenous 'African
studies' rather than integral parts of a diverse and continually
changing field, some critics have manufactured a mythical construct that
they have then proceeded to dismantle. Furthermore, alleging that there
is an "African" interest that scholars have neglected also assumes an
essentialist uniformity of perspective among Africans, rather than
acknowledging that complex individual and collective identities based on
gender, nationality, language, ideology and scholarly orientation
mitigate against any single specifically 'African' perspective on
African studies." (Berger 1997: 9) As relevant as the identified
substantive elements are, she unfortunately ignores the fundamental
dimension of social class and corresponding interests.

Berger (1997: 11) also maintains that "more important than the topics of
African studies research during the coming years . will be the
revitalization of academic life and academic freedom in Africa". It is
particularly interesting to take note of the related concerns and views
articulated by Thandika Mkandawire (2002) and Ebrima Sall (2002). At the
same time, a raging controversy among African scholars highlighted in
recent years the marked differences over what should be considered as
"legitimate African Studies". As one of the protagonists points out:
"legitimate criticism of the damaging effects of occidental Africanism
has been transformed into an extreme fetishizing of geographical
identities" (Mbembe 1999). He identifies the following main obstacles to
rigorous academic debate within the inter-disciplinary field of African
Studies: nativism ("as if black Africa were all of Africa and all
Africans were negroes"), a territorialization of the production of
knowledge ("the false belief that only autochthonous people who are
physically living in Africa can produce, within a closed circle limited
to themselves alone, a legitimate scientific discourse on the realities
of the Continent") and a "lazy interpretation of globalisation" (Mbembe
1999; see also Mbembe 2000).

To discuss beyond the convenient pseudo-radical polemic the (real)
danger of (continued) domination of African Studies by "non-African"
scholars meeting other than "African" interests (whatever this means)
requires firstly a strict definition with the aim to operationalise and
translate the terms in practical and political ways. Any premature
generalisation confirms the structural side of the (indeed existing)
substance of the matter. At the same time, however, it runs the risk of
brushing aside the existing individual choices and options of
collaboration and interaction. As the "Mbembe-Zeleza" controversy (if
not feud) documents (cf. Zeleza 2003, Robins 2004), there is also the
danger of a similarly ignorant counter-position, which ultimately
results in claiming genuine control over knowledge on the basis of
particular dimensions rooted in claims of origin and subsequent
entitlement. While aspects of socialisation and individual experiences
(with the emphasis on individual) complement collective identities at
all times and result in the uniqueness of the human experience in each
and every person, we should be careful to use the argument of being "the
same" or "the other" for academic controversies as a mono-causal

African Studies and the relevant disciplines contributing to the
scholarly debate should be considered from a point of view of assumed
strength concerning the value of truly inter-disciplinary oriented
methods and schools of thought. It demands a dialectical understanding
of scholarly work: African Studies benefit from the strength of the
various disciplines applied and in return strengthen the various
disciplines beyond the immediate space of what is considered to be
"African Studies".

Interesting in this constellation is the positioning of oneself and of
others as scholars, activists, and intellectuals. To what extent does it
allow "global Africa" to establish common denominators irrespective of
origins and identities of the actors involved in the processes
(politically, analytically)? Is there a common ground to act, which is
able to eliminate (or at least put aside) potentially divisive aspects
of one's personal making (in terms of socialisation impacts through
shaping the individual perspectives by means of gender, social class and
cultural roots - to mention just a few most significant factors)? Who
plays which role in "Africanizing Knowledge" (Falola/Jennings 2002), and
to what extent is this at the same time again an expression of "global
Africa" - simply because Africa can only be global under the factual
circumstances created and confronting us all as human beings at the
beginning of this 21st century? Could it be that the challenges "global
Africa" is confronted with are the challenges all human beings the world
over are tasked to meet?


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