BOOK REVIEW: Africa, a continent of promise and potential unfulfilled?

26th Feb 2016

The African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring. Ed. by Charles Villa-Vicencio, Erik Doxtader and Ebrahim Moosa. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press. Pp225. PB. 2015. £22.76.

Africa is one of the world’s largest and most populous continents, and certainly one of the most diverse with a large number of ethnicities, cultures and languages represented there. Humanity is also said to have originated from Africa and the continent is equally rich in natural resources and manpower, with its population being the youngest of all continents and the average age is just under 20. It is the only continent to stretch from the north to the south of the equator, thus having different climates, typology and temperatures. Most African countries came into being as a result of post-colonial settlements and, as such, they continue to face huge political, economic, social, demographic and climatic challenges and difficulties. Yet, unlike the other continents, Africa’s full promise and potential remains largely unfulfilled. Why?

According to this book under review, ‘The question of Africa is open – again. The promise of an African Renaissance remains unfilled. The hope of the Afro-Arab Spring waxes and wanes. There is too much change and there is too little – the winds of change blow with ferocity and then not at all. While professing a commitment to transformation, governments remain loath to risk change that might undermine their own power. Dissatisfaction grows but remains unheard. Dissent coalesces into movements that seem to lack direction let alone a sense of a clear endgame. Over and over, the first act of the play promises a revolution that comes to naught in the second. The urgent desire to begin again is cut short – again.’ (p xvii)

In this book, the contributors provide an analytical survey of Africa’s challenges, difficulties and opportunities especially in the context of the ‘Afro-Arab Spring’ that recently unfolded. However, with the promise of an ‘African Renaissance’ being dashed and the ‘Afro-Arab Spring’ decisively aborted, it is not surprising that Africans are increasingly asking some pressing and pertinent questions, namely ‘What are the structural, political, and cultural obstacles to modes of radical transformation that account for historical injustice without rebalkanizing society? Do these obstacles suggest ways in which the unfinished project of renaissance can inform the work of an open-ended spring? How do the popular and unstable democratic movements in North Africa bear on the promise of a continental rebirth that appeared to first take hold in the south? How are these two events reshaping the meaning of Africa? Around what problems do they coalesce and intersect? What do the African Renaissance and the Afro-Arab Spring reveal about Africa’s pasts? What do they portend for its future?’ (p xxiv)

In seeking to answer these and other similar questions, the contributors to this volume explore the unspoken connection between the ‘African Renaissance’ and the ‘Afro-Arab Spring’ focusing particularly on the past experiences of some African countries (such as South Africa, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) as well as asking relevant ethical questions relating to politics and political theory in the context of Africa (Ebrahim Moosa’s two thought-provoking chapters on this subject deserve wide readership, see pages 85 to 120). In comparison, in chapters 2, 3 and 4, Don Foster, Charles Villa-Vicencio and Helen Scanlon take a critical look at the question of history, structure and vision of an African renewal and what that may, or may not mean, in the formation of a cohesive society and country in the context of the continent of Africa. Likewise, Abdulkader Tayob, Katherine Marshall and Chris Landsberg focus their attention on the socio-cultural dimension of African progress and development, with all its challenges, possibilities and even fault-lines (see chapters 9, 10 and 11).

In short, this is an invaluable and much-needed book on an equally important subject. In the words of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘Anyone who wants to understand what is going on in Africa today needs to read this book. The birth of the African Renaissance and Afro-Arab Spring has injected hope and produced its disappointments. The continent’s future is uncertain. I suggest, however, that future generations will look back to this time as a crucial turning point in African and global politics…’

Muhammad Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).


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