Academic journal article African Studies Review

Human Rights in Africa: The Limited Promise of Liberalism

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Human Rights in Africa: The Limited Promise of Liberalism

Article excerpt

Editors' note: This article originally was presented as the M. K O. Abiola Lecture at the African Studies Association 50th Anniversary Meeting, October 2007, New York City


I would like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude and humility to the board of directors of the African Studies Association for inviting me to deliver the 2007 Bashorun M. K O. Abiola Lecture on the momentous occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the ASA. This singular honor makes me conscious that I follow in the hallowed footsteps of several giants of African politics and studies including Ali A. Mazrui, Gertrude Mongella, and Thandika Mkandawire, among other distinguished thinkers who preceded me on this podium. As most of you know, I am trained as a legal scholar, but my work has benefited tremendously from the support of several senior students of Africa in the audience, includingjoel D. Barkan, John W. Harbeson, Frank Holmquist, and Ali A. Mazrui. Nor would I forget to thank Athena Mutua, my spouse, who is here with me. But I know that this meeting would not have been possible without the indefatigable work of Pearl Robinson, the president of the ASA; Carol L. Martin, the executive director of the ASA; Kimme Carlos, the program manager of the annual meeting; and Stanlie James, the program chair.

This is a special occasion for all those who study and love Africa. The ASA is fifty, which is a historic milestone by any count. Ghana, one of the first African countries to free itself from the yoke of colonialism, is also fifty. We thus take stock of the continent after the first half century of decoloni- zation with an appropriate theme - "Twenty-First Century Africa: Evolving Conceptions of Human Rights." Because of this theme, I have chosen as my topic "Human Rights in Africa: The Limited Promise of Liberalism." I have done so for two reasons: first, to provoke, because that is partly our job description as thinkers, and second, to reflect the ferment of human rights in the context of postcolonialism. You will agree with me that fifty years is a sufficient time to gauge the utility of any ideology, creed, or doctrine. Human rights contain within them all three of these phenomena.

The last fifty years represent the entire period of the African postcolonial state, and give us a fantastic window through which to interrogate the performance of the human rights project in Africa. But first, I want to lay aside some misconceptions about the human rights corpus and the movement. At the outset, though, I want to level with you about the subject of intellectual bias or normative location. Even though objectivity is the name of our game, we are nevertheless products of the legacies and heritages that have forged our identity and philosophical outlooks. In that sense, true objectivity is an academic fiction, for no one could be truly objective. In any case, if we were truly objective, we would be truly boring. And so, I want to plead my biases at the outset. But I also want to warn you that with respect to the subject at hand - that of the utility of human rights and liberalism in Africa - I adopt the view of an insider-outsider, an engaged skeptic who completely believes in human dignity but is not sure about the typology of political society that ought to be constructed to get us there (see Mutua 2000).

Third World scholars like myself come to the study of human rights with a considerable degree of discomfort and an in-built sense of alienation. Neither human rights, nor liberalism, has been germinated in the African garden. To be sure, my native ears are not deaf to many of the substantive issues addressed by both disciplines. I have a keen interest in the relationships between states and citizens. My alienation comes not from these facts, but from the particularized historical, cultural, and intellectual traditions and tongues in which both human rights and liberalism law are steeped. It is in that sense that I am an outsider. …

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