African Anarchism

A History of a Movement

Published in Social Anarchism #27, Fall/Winter 2000

Opponents of anarchism, especially opponents on the orthodox left, often reject anarchist thought, activism and history with the critique that anarchism is a white middle class movement. This is a very problematic assumption. It is a straw-person fallacy, sometimes resorted to in lieu of insightful argument. Moreover the insistence that anarchism is adhered to by privileged Euro-descendant constituents denies unappologetically, the experience of those folks that are anarchist and of neither privileged group. Black, Asian and Amerindian experience and identification with anarchism becomes abrogation.

On the other hand, there can be no denying that the canon of what we might call "orthodox" Anarchist thought is, like many other systems of thought, decidedly Euro-centric. It would be terribly wrong however, to think that Europeans and their descendents have anything remotely resembling a monopoly on anti-statist communalisms, thought and practice. There exists, and has existed since our human dawn, individuals and communities who, though anarchistic as observed from the outside looking in, do not call themselves such. They have their own words for their own consciously anti-authoritarian self-organization. This has led many anarchists to identify themselves with the label anti-authoritarian, as such implies the focus on liberatory and anti-statist communalisms in general, however they manifest locally, and not upon orthodox anarchism. Still others insist that if it ain't Anarchism then it ain't shit. Unfortunately I think that such people are missing the point, which is to create a liberated egalitarian social order. This is one of the fundamental lessons that can be drawn from Samuel Mbah and I.E. Igariwey's slim book, African Anarchism: The History of a Movement.

As acknowledged in the forward by the publisher Chaz Bufe, the book could be more appropriately titled, The Prospects for the Future, as it is a remarkably visionary and forward-looking work. It is made even better in that it is grounded in solid historical analysis. Essentially an introductory primer, it serves the dual purpose of introducing the reader both to theoretical and historic anarchism, as well as African history and struggle for emancipation. The success of the book lies in that it does both with care and attention to detail. A new comer to each is given a firm grounding in the material and a place to begin more serious study. Its further success is the confluence of the two, where anarchism is enriched by an African perspective, and the relevance of anarchism for Africa is explored.

The Authors, Mbah and Igariwey are members of the Nigerian Awareness League. The League had its beginnings in the mid 1980's as an informal leftist study group at the University of Nigeria, Nusukka. Through a process of political evolution, that included an early rejection of Leninism, the League formally came to adopt anarchism in 1991. Now a "social libertarian organization inspired by and committed to the ideals, principles, objectives, goals, ends and purposes of revolutionary socialism and anarcho-syndicalism" they have grown into a movement currently with 600 members in 18 different Nigerian states, and constitute a branch of the International Workers Association (IWA). As for other African countries with outright anarchist movements, the authors site the Johannesburg based Anarchist Revolutionary Movement and the Durham based Angry Brigade in South Africa. Anarchist currents also exist in parts if Zimbabwe, Egypt, Ghana and elsewhere.

In the first chapter the authors outline "What is Anarchism?" It is a useful introduction to anarchism and is also interesting for those who are already familiar with the ideas. Unfortunately they rely heavily upon what other folks have said anarchism is instead of developing their own definition. The result is not too bad however, for the use of extensive quotes from Bertrand Russell, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and G.P. Maximoff are worth a good think, and are presented in such a way. Mbah and Igariwey reveal their bias for anarchist communistic organization with an insightful analysis of these activist thinkers. Chapter two, "Anarchism in History" focuses upon the historical split between Bakunin and Marx, presumably to distinguish between the social anarchism they advocate and Marxism, whilst still drawing parallels between the two.

In a recent issue of Freedom, Collin Ward wrote about "nurturing the positive trends", which means that there are initiatives going on all around us that might not seem Earth shattering or revolutionary, but are, non the less, characteristics of an anarchist society. It is important to be able to identify those anarchic elements of any society, and to nurture them. For anarchism can not be an external framework imposed as ideology, but must be, in part, a methodology, informed by libertarian and communitarian aspects of culture that already exist. This may be the only way anarchist ideas will become relevant to mass society.

Chapter Three, "Anarchistic Precedents in Africa", can be seen as the nurturing of positive trends, in that it is a historical account of African communal organization. It argues that the general principles of anarchism were present in the different traditional African village democracies. By no means was this type of communal organization the only means of social organization in Africa, despite what we might gleam from the racist 19th Century discipline of anthropology. A discipline which, at the time, was desperately seeking to legitimize, to concerned Europeans, the super-exploitation of African people through 300 years of slavery. It was also ideologically paving the way for the new Imperialism that would perpetuate the "scramble for Africa" and it subsequent carving up by the European powers. Along with communal organization were vast and hierarchical Empires. But it is not the African Empires that concern us.

Mbah and Igariwey write that "anarchy as an abstraction may indeed be remote to Africans, but it is not at all unknown as a way of life." Indeed, many stateless and communitarian societies existed on the continent, and continue to this day despite enduring repression. To illustrate, the authors focus on the social organization of the Igbo, Ibibio Ijaws Urhoboof people of the Niger delta region and the Tallensi, all of whom largely functioned free of centralized or concentrated authority, and possessed communal land tenure. The second part of this chapter is focused upon the introduction of European colonial domination, the destruction of the pre-colonial modes of production, class formation and the rise of anti-colonialist African socialism. This study is really important for understanding the social and political order of Africa today. For a more in-depth study of European imperialist aggression in Africa, that focus' upon its effect on social organization, as well as the local resistance to it, I'd recommend the UNESCO General History of Africa VII, Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935 edited by A. Adu Boahen. The next chapter outlines more closely the development of socialism and national liberation in Africa including especially the role of Trade unionism and to a lesser extent that of the socialist parties. Again, for a more in depth look I would recommend Volume VIII, Africa since 1935 of the UNESCO series, however African Anarchism offers an important critical perspective from an anti-authoritarian point of view and is a good introduction to that important part of the continent's history.

There are many obstacles standing in the way of the development of anarchism in Africa, as indeed there are many similar and exact obstacles in the rest of the world. It is considered by most people to be a fringe, leftist ideology, if indeed it is considered at all. Mbah and Igariwey believe that this is paradoxical, for " in no other continent have anarchist tendencies been as strong as in Africa". They blame many factors for this paradox including colonial education, a hang over colonial legal system, the military class, ethnic versus class consciousness, religion and the need for international solidarity. At a lecture given in Detroit in autumn of 1998, Mbah spoke of the need for books, journals, pamphlets for their organizing efforts. If the Awareness League is typical of anarchist projects we might also assume monetary donations.

Another factor that they see as impeding the spread of Anarchism on the continent is inherent to the theoretical weakness of anarchism itself. "However historically correct anarchist positions might be," they argue. "Without a rigorous theoretical foundation, most workers, peasants and other potential anarchists will remain indifferent to the philosophy. Graham Purchase, Australian anarchist and philosopher would agree, he believes that, "the bare assertion that the absence of centralized state control will develop into a workable pattern of social organization, although true, fails to convince the general inquirer of the possibility and desirability if anarchy. It is necessary therefore, to draw upon imaginative theoretical projection." Though many strains of anarchism are attempting to do this, the fact that Purchase even has to point it out, is an indication that there is this weakness. True not only in Africa but elsewhere as well. There is, however, a shining hope that animates African Anarchism. That animation is the hope that foundation can be built.

It is built, in a small part, by thoughtful books like this one, and the people who read them. I encourage people to read and think about African Anarchism. Though it is not always a philosophical brick wall, due less to the talents and abilities of the authors, but to their faith in anarchism, which sometimes permits weak argument (a problem which befalls many of us). I sincerely hope, however, that the many questions it raises become foundational to our movement.


I have a strong affinity for Africa and an equally strong connection to anarchism. Thus, a book on African anarchism held a natural draw for me. When I first saw this book on the list of possibilities for review I was eager to take the assignment. Why then did it take me over a year to write this review? In the process of answering this question I will explore this book and the many connections between Africa and anarchism.

Many years ago (30 to be exact) I first stepped foot in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) and felt that I had stepped into another world entirely. North Africa was like no other place I had ever encountered. It was inexplicable to me and when I left I vowed to never return. It was not comfortable for a Jew and a woman traveling alone.

I did not feel that way about sub-Sahara Africa and when I went there ten years ago I had the odd feeling of coming home. Expecting to have that response in the Middle East, especially in Jerusalem, it was dismaying that it never occurred. In fact, I wondered what all the hoopla was all about. But I did feel it in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. What was it, that something that made me feel like I belonged there? There was the realization that this is where it all began and that I could find people, cultures, communities here with whom I could relate. I felt it in the city streets, in the rural villages, in the homes where ancestor worship was common, in the market places and when talking with the many friends that I made in my travels. It was a feeling that I had experienced when I first read about anarchism; when I first encountered Emma Goldman's work and began to study the ideology seriously. Funny how the level of comfort and understanding were similar. In my heart of hearts I knew that they had something in common, although still unexplained to me. Why should I resonate so deeply with a place and with an ideology?

Now I understand why and Mbah and Igariwey helped me explain it to me. The beginnings of anarchism actually exist in the precolonial and traditional beliefs of many African societies. According to the authors there are "anarchistic elements" that exist to a greater or lesser extent in all of Africa, in the "anarchic" features of traditional societies. What is new to Africa is the idea of anarchism as an ideology or a social movement.

Many scholars are now arguing that the beginnings of humankind have been found, as we know, in the Sahel region of Africa. The first known societies began there and then, according to some, moved northward, up through Egypt and into the rest of the world (see Marin Bernal's The Black Athena). Although more traditional classists debate these views, as we know with western intellectual cultural imperialism, it is altogether possible that the racism of early scholars led to the distored view that there was no "culture" before that of Rome. Now Bernal argues that the Romans borrowed from the Egyptians, who in fact got much from sub-Sahara Africa. It all makes sense to me.

Traditional African societies are based on principles of communalism, both in production and as a way of life. As hunters and gatherers, and later as farmers, Africans worked together. As tribes and communities precolonial Africans did not interfere with each other. They managed their own affairs and expected each individual to take part in the community affairs of the group. African communalism had an absence of classes, lacked exploitative social relations and had strong family and kinship ties. Each household was expected to meet its own basic needs.

Because traditional Africa was subsistence based and utilized an exchange economy, individual groups coexisted to a mutual advantage. The political system, based on this, was horizontal in structure and decisions were made by common consensus or a mutually felt need. Since leadership was based on family and kinship connections, elders played an important part in the running of the community. Elders were particularly important, but not superior. There was a real sense of equality among all members of the community.

However, I should note that females were (and are still) not as valued as are males. Nonetheless the women play crucial roles in the economic and social conditions of all African societies. Age grades are actually often the basis for interaction. Cohorts of age mates would come together to perform mutual functions and activities (again a horizontal structure).

Religion and family are probably the two most important institutions in African society. Both are the bases of cohesion and serve the function of holding the groups together. There is a "dialectic between religious ideas and principles of social organization and social form." In other words, the gods are real and inform the way that social life is conducted. I saw a wonderful film years ago about a Shona man from Zimbabwe who had his ancestor spirit grandmother with him at all times, looking over his shoulder, talking with him, telling him how to act and live in culturally approved ways. The film was about his arguments with this spiritist vision, his desire to escape and yet his love and connection with her. Family, spirits and religion are one, integrally entwined.

This book explains well the anarchist roots in Africa and further illustrates the specifics of stateless societies in Africa like the Igbo in Nigeria. The authors also trace the effects of colonialism and the incorporation of Africa into the world capitalist economy, thus leading to the conquest and enslavement of Africans which destroyed the traditional pre-colonial social and economic forms. It also traces the rise of socialism in Africa and describes some of the socialist ideologies like those of Julius Nyerere as well as movements in Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana. These parts of the book were gripping and to the point. The writers were clear and concise in their presentation.

Why then did it take me a year to write this? It's because as much as I love Africa I did not love this book. The book, although interesting, is too cut and dried. It does not breathe the life that I know to be vibrant there. Rather than convey the essence of African anarchism they utilized a typical European approach to writing, leaving behind who and what the authors are: Africans. One of the last chapters, possibly interesting, about the possibility of anarchism developing as a movement and ideology in Africa, once again points to the factors that have worked against anarchism in Africa: colonial education, the legal system, the military class and the status quo. I appreciate those historical and economic deterrents but it seems to doom an entire continent. I was also dismayed that there was no discussion of the role that Africans played in the enslavement of other Africans during the slave trade. How does that fit? Yes it is capitalism, but there was slavery there before the Europeans arrived.

To their credit Mbah and Igariwey use a world systems approach to explain Africa's marginalized and exploited position in the transnational economy. By explaining the situation, seeing how peripheral Africa is from the centers of power, the authors make a good case for the obvious relevance for anarchism on that continent. They show that because Africa lacks a strong capitalist foundation, a well developed class formation and an entrenched state system, anarchism provides the most relevant and serious alternative to Africa. They end with the optimistic phrase that "Anarchism is Africa's way out." Nice thought, hard to believe.

Nonetheless this is a good book to have on your shelf. It is first of its kind: succinct and comprehensive. I wait for a more detailed and deeper presentation. But I am glad they wrote it and I am glad that those of us who care about African and anarchism now have some information on its connections.



African Anarchism: The History of a Movement, by Sam Mbah anf I.E. Igariwey, 119 pages Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1997. Paper $8.95.
The Awareness League can be reached at PO Box 1920, Enugu, Nigeria.
Please use plain envelopes with nothing political marked on them.

African Anarchism: The History of a Movement, by Sam Mbah anf I.E. Igariwey, 119 pages Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1997. Paper $8.95.
The Awareness League can be reached at PO Box 1920, Enugu, Nigeria.
Please use plain envelopes with nothing political marked on them.

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