Review: African Anarchism – The History of a Movement

As an anarchist, I am naturally inclined to research not only anarchist movements from America, but from all around the world. I am very fond of Lao Tzu, for instance, and the Tao Te Ching author was a major influence on prominent anarchists like Peter Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker. Therefore, I have learned some things about anarchist movements in China and other parts of Asia. However, as an admirer of African culture as well, I recently developed a desire to look into anarchist movements in Africa as well. Luckily, one essential volume documenting this history–and sometimes the lack thereof–is the 1997 book African Anarchism: The History of a Movement by Nigerian anarchist activist Sam Mbah and co-author I.E. Igariwey. 


Chapter 1 

The book begins with the authors explaining that while several aspects of African culture and tradition align with anarchist values, no serious successful movements toward anarchism have ever really been achieved in Africa because the people of the continent simply don’t know that the anarchist school of thought even exists. Mbah and Igariwey go on to clarify that anarchism is not an ideology of “chaos” and “disorder,” as it is so often presented in mainstream culture. Rather, anarchism is about the rejection of force and resisting the imposition of a person or group’s will upon another. The authors give several examples of notable anarchist thinkers, such as Peter Kropotkin, Mihail Bakunin,and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and also discuss schools of thought within anarchism such as anarcho-syndicalism and mutualism.

Chapter 2 

This chapter provides a decent summation of the general history of the modern anarchist movement, beginning in the mid-19th century.

Chapter 3

In this chapter, the longest in African Anarchism, Mbah and Igariweh make the case that elements of African society have always contained aspects that are consistent with anarchist values without Africans necessarily being aware of it. They explain that many communities throughout African history have functioned as independent, self-governing, “communalist” entities in which everyone in the community essentially had a say in their own affairs and those of the community as a whole. Religion played an important role in many African tribes but was very decentralized. This resulted in the community coming together as equals rather than being ruled over by religious or political officials. Every adult (especially males) in the community was relied upon to perform basic societal functions and resolve their own disputes. 

These societies lasted for centuries in Africa, but, at the dawn of the 15th century, classism and the division of labor slowly began to find their way into the continent. While certain elements of the village-style communal system remained, Africa eventually became awash with feudalism and proto-capitalism. As an interesting point, Mbah and Igariwey add that even the old communalist village societies in Africa were far from perfect. While they were certainly more egalitarian than future societal structures on the continent would be, the villages and tribes still treated women unequally and practiced slavery to some extent. 

Nevertheless, the authors go on to list several “stateless societies” that existed in Africa centuries ago. They detail three specific ethnic groups that organized horizontal, non-hierarchical societies in the past: the Igbo of Nigeria, the Niger Delta people (also from Nigeria), and the Tallensi people of Ghana. The authors cite an old Igbo slogan to demonstrate the group’s commitment to decentralization: “Igbo have no kings.” Igbo societies were organized and managed by a general assembly, a council of village elders, and even a women-only council called the Umu-ada. According to Mbah and Igariwey, the general assembly still exists in Igbo societies to this day. The Igbo practiced communal farming and were able to grow enough food at a steady enough pace to feed everyone due to their proximity to plentiful forests. 

The authors continue by briefly discussing the Niger Delta people, who were mainly traders and farmers. Some factions of the Niger Delta people organized themselves in a more secretive way than their Igbo counterparts. While the Igbo also had secret societies, certain Niger Delta people had to be more discreet in order to avoid the tumult of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. By contrast, other factions actively participated in the slave trade. Eventually, the slave trade virtually destroyed the Niger Delta people and their “house” system–made up of a farmer or slave trader, his slaves and the descendents of both the slaves and the farmer or trader which would in turn be organized into city-states–and capitalist corporations started to form, ending communalism in the Niger Delta indefinitely. 

Mbah and Igariwey then discuss the Tallensi people of northern Ghana, whose system survives to this day. Theirs is a clan-based society consisting mostly of peasant farmers. Although corporations technically exist in Tallensi society, the authors claim that wealthy clans have no authority over poorer ones and have no access to any special political privileges or favors. The Tallensi have done a fair job, according to themselves, of maintaining a society based on social and political egalitarianism without interference from a state or some other centralized institution. 

Additionally, Mbah and Igariwey talk about the impact of colonialism on Africa’s traditionally stateless societies and how outside pressure imposed on them from great world powers forced them to adopt capitalist economies and a more rigid social hierarchy. The authors also mention that very few Africans have ever benefited from colonial capitalism. The Africans sowed, but most of the reaping was done by the colonial powers themselves. Even today, African economies have become so dependent on foreign investment that very little surplus value is even produced, and the little that is produced is mostly extracted and plundered by Western governments and corporate interests.

Finally, the authors discuss nominally “socialist” movements that resulted in various leaders taking power, such as Patrice Lumumba, Muammar Gaddafi, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Kwame Nkrumah. Mbah and Igariwey acknowledge that these leaders, among several others, practiced the state-based Soviet model of “socialism,” sometimes referred to as “African socialism,” and that these leaders and their ideology has been criticized by many people over the years. They definitively argue that these men failed to achieve anything close to socialism and were merely authoritarian monsters who were only interested in power and bloodlust. Mbah and Igariwey conclude the hefty chapter by pointing out more recent theoretical and practical examples of anarchism in Africa, including a movement in the 1960s after Nigeria won its independence in which left-leaning factions of the new Nigerian government decided to help set up a certain number of kibbutz-style communities like those in Israel. This project also failed, unfortunately, partially due to the chaos caused by the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. 

Muammar Gaddafi’s Third Universal Theory, Julius Nyerere’s philosophy of Ujamaa (“familyhood” or “villagization,”) and Franz Fanon’s strong anti-colonialist stance and support for all workers, including the peasant class as well as his opposition to any help from the state are yet another few examples of African stateless advocacy. are additional examples given. 

Practical, real-world examples of anarchist organizations given by the authors include the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement and the Angry Brigade, both based in South Africa, and The Awareness League, a Nigerian group founded after the effective dissolution of The Axe. There are also movements that are starting to come to fruition in Egypt, Ghana and Zimbabwe. Mbah and Igariwey also say that one of the earliest examples of an anarchist labor organization in Africa was the South African group Industrial Workers of Africa which lasted from 1915 to 1922 and consisted largely of black workers. 

Chapter 4

This chapter details socialism’s development in Africa. The authors explain that in the early 19th century, early colonial capitalists “co-opted” chiefs and nobles “into acting as administrators for the colonists” (p. 55). Mining and manufacturing were soon introduced to the continent, creating a new, urbanized working class. However, many peasant farmers still existed in rural agrarian communities. Unfortunately, not all African urbanites were lucky enough to find jobs and were forced to be either beggars or prostitutes in order to make a living.

The class structure that was developing in Africa started to turn sour in the 20th century, when class antagonism began dominating the life of African workers. As a result, they turned a blind eye to their own exploitation and to the fact that most of the fruits of their labor weren’t even being distributed to their own countrymen, but to their colonial rulers. One consequence of this “colonial situation” was the growth of the trade union movement in countries such as Nigeria and South Africa, in addition to Algeria, Kenya, and Ghana. The authors then go on to highlight the key moments in the history of the Nigerian trade union movement, from its inception around 1897 through the Great Depression and into more modern times such as the 1980s. Unfortunately, according to the authors, while the Nigerian trade union movement has done some good things in its more than a century of existence, the union leadership has almost always had conflicts of interest by maintaining close ties with elites in Nigerian society. 

As for South Africa, some of its trade unions have been relatively more robust and successful than those of Nigeria. The South African Miners’ Union, for instance, set up a Miners Council of Action in 1921 that led to an attempt by syndicalists (who were also members of the IWW) to set up what they called the Red Workers Republic. South African workers who participated in strikes and other forms of action in an attempt to set up the RWR were largely from the mining, energy, and engineering sectors. 

Unfortunately, the South African labor movement was significantly impeded by racial conflicts as the 20th century wore on and apartheid became a part of everyday life in the country. Black labor activists continued to fight for their rights well into the 1970s and 1980s and made some gains, but received little help from the African National Congress (ANC), which the authors criticize as lacking “clear revolutionary political goals” (p. 65). They also criticize the South African Communist party for abandoning their commitment to more revolutionary forms of politics and becoming too complacent with South Africa’s current capitalist status quo. 

The authors go on to briefly criticize the supposed “revolutionary” labor movement in Guinea that lasted from the late 19th century to around 1958 when Guinea became independent from France and the “revolutionary” government ended up taking power and crushing any and all dissent. 

Chapter 5

In this chapter, the importance of economic development is discussed. According to Mbah and Igariwey, the need for economic development is widely believed to be one of the reasons why socialism has not seen much actual success in Africa. Governments have exploited this for their own gain and have come up with their own phrases like “African socialism” to describe their ideologies, which are really just a mixture of authoritarianism and corruption and nothing to do with socialism. Sekou Toure (Guinea), Samuel Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), Menghistu Haile Mariam (Ethiopia), and others are all examples of heads of state who have used this kind of rhetoric to justify authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. 

The authors say that the root of Africa’s economic and developmental woes, of course, lie in its problems trying to recover from its colonialist past. They state that noted academic and author Frantz Fanon accurately predicted that many Africans in poor areas would eventually turn on their own people once their conditions improved and the gap between the rich and the poor widened in African society.

According to Mbah and Igariwey, contrary to what many people may believe, military dictatorships, specifically in Africa, are often much more unstable than the ones who have taken power via citizen-led coups. They cite Ghana and Nigeria as specific cases of countries that have experienced cycles of political corruption and instability. This instability is only exacerbated by intervention from neo-colonialist, neoliberal organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Structural Adjustment Program. Desperate to avoid bankruptcy, African countries will often bend the knee of austerity toward these institutions and cut public services, making people even more unhappy, which, naturally, leads to more instability. The authors argue that chaotic environments such as these are ripe ones in which anarchist movements can grow, but there are still massive barriers that need to be overcome before that happens. That said, there is still some hope.

Chapter 6

Anarchism is an extremely niche subject in Africa. Much like in America and many other places around the world, in Africa, the few people who know about anarchism are likely to view it as some sort of crazy, fringe, ultra-lefty ideology that shouldn’t be taken very seriously. According to the authors, this is the result of several factors, including the African education system, which, to this day, is heavily influenced by its former colonial rulers. Of course, this is only taking into account those students who actually can be educated in the modern sense. Relatively speaking, it is still only a privileged few in Africa that even have a chance of going to a proper school. In short, many Africans have been denied a comprehensive education in the first place, and those who do have one have been misled or not taught at all about topics such as anarchism and socialism. 

Another problem the authors discuss in the chapter is the legal system set up in many African nations. Many countries on the continent have laws on the books that classify any actions advocating for overthrowing the government or changing the statist status quo as an act of treason against the nation, which is often punishable by death, so even Africans who may otherwise agree with more radical sentiments are intimidated into silence for fear of retribution or execution at the hands of the state. Many African nations, particularly those under military dictatorships, are especially harsh toward trade unions, greatly limiting their power and influence at best and crushing them altogether at worst. 

Another problem that anarchism has faced in Africa is clashes between various ethnic groups. Even though workers throughout the continent are in the same position and have the same class interests, ethnic and cultural differences have been a huge impediment to solidarity among them. This fact has been exploited and exacerbated by both corporations and military dictatorships in various countries to crack down even harder on labor movements and institute even more draconian policies.

Furthermore, religious opposition to the questioning of authority figures and the belief in a paradise in the afterlife are other reasons given in this chapter for anarchism’s lack of success in Africa. According to the authors, the cultures of many African nations tend to be quite conservative or reactionary, teaching most citizens to accept the status quo and obey authorities without question. The authors advocate for what they deem “international solidarity” with other parts of the world in order to assist African anarchist movements.

Chapter 7

The final chapter in the book re-emphasizes the authors’ belief that anarchism is the solution to many of the problems Africa continues to experience including violence, inequality, and corruption. While sympathetic to the many nationalist and patriotic movements that exist in the many nations across the continent, Mbah and Igariwey argue that these movements are only amplifying tensions between communities and are not helpful in the long run for African liberation or prosperity. They state again that both capitalism and state “socialism” have failed Africa as they have failed everywhere else, so the continent has no other alternative but anarchism as a viable model of organization. 

My Take:

This book manages to say a whole lot in a relatively small amount of time and space. The book is only 108 pages long, but it is packed with information that is well-sourced and well-written. Originally, I was going to divide my commentary into a positive section and a negative one, but I don’t have a lot of negative things to say. One of my only criticisms is that it comes across as a little too academic and dry at times. I think the authors could have done a bit more to make the book slightly more accessible in order to broaden its appeal. In a way, it’s written more like a college essay or dissertation, rather than a public-facing book. Apart from that, there’s not a lot of downsides to this book. It is still a remarkably enjoyable book to read and it is extremely informative. There is very little information about anarchism in Africa, but African Anarchism: The History of a Movement is an excellent place to start

Although the book was written in 1997, many of the problems discussed in the book by Mbah and Igariwey are still relevant today, so African Anarchism holds up really well despite being published over 25 years ago. This tiny book can give even the most knowledgeable anarchist a tremendous insight into Africa and its relationship with anarchism and the labor movement. I learned a lot from it and I hope many more readers will learn a lot as well. 

As a brief update on some of the countries discussed in this article, today, one of the most prominent anarchist groups in South Africa is the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF), founded in 2003. In Egypt, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, two anarchist groups emerged in 2011: Black Flag and the Egyptian Libertarian Socialist Movement. Similarly, there has been a growth in the awareness and popularity of anarchism in Tunisia since the Arab Spring. Finally, since the coup that ousted Robert Mugabe from power in 2017, efforts have been made by anarchists in Zimbabwe to establish a more organized and definitive anarchist movement in the country.  

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