Imperialism and Human Rights: Colonial Discourses of Rights and Liberties in African History

Article excerpt

LAW AND HUMAN RIGHTS Bonny Ibhawoh. Imperialism and Human Rights: Colonial Discourses of Rights and Liberties in African History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. xvi + 226 pp. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00. Cloth.

This is an important contribution to the historical analysis of human rights discourses-and particularly to the discussion of human rights before the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Using colonial Nigeria under British rule as a case study, Ibhawoh sets his study in the context of the earlier traditions of human rights, arguing that the contemporary focus on universal human rights indeed had antecedents in African traditional political and social institutions as much as in earlier European encounters. The conceptual framework of the book centers on this complex link between African notions of rights and the formalized discourses of human rights that emerged with the colonial encounter. The major strength of this work is the way it challenges the view that human rights discourse is almost exclusively a Western affair.

Ibhawoh's analysis of Pax Britannica in relation to the issue of rights and liberties, couched in the discourse of ending internal slavery and extending the frontiers of commerce, is a good way to begin. Antislavery proponents and missionaries employed notions of rights and liberties in the attempt to restructure local societies and guarantee a new notion of rights and liberties for local peoples. Yet the process of pacification forcefully brought to the fore issues of the rights of local peoples and the limits imposed on their liberties by imperial structures. Indeed Western rights discourse was qualified, nonuniversal, and tinted by racial categorizations that differentiated between Africans and Europeans.

This general overview gives way to a more specific discussion of human rights concerns of both Europeans and Africans. While the legal system served as an instrument for fostering colonial hegemony, it was also quite influential in the colonial discourse on the rights of Africans. From the repugnancy doctrine, which sought to extend imperial law and notions of rights and justice to the colony, to the elimination of perceived obnoxious laws, colonial regulation was seen as an instrument for the protection of the rights and liberties of Africans. Ironically, Africans used the colonial legal system-an instrument upon which officials based their conception of a new social order-to engage the state. …