Intervention—“Defiant Scholarship: Learning from African Intellectuals” by Patricia Daley


In the following Intervention, geographer Patricia Daley reflects on the interviews conducted with Franklin Obeng-Odoom, Sabelo-Ndlovu-Gatsheni, and Sylvia Tamale as part of Antipode’s “Decolonial Thinkers from Africa” series. As a Caribbean scholar who has spent much of her research time in Central and East Africa, Patricia is in ideal position to re-read the pieces published so far through a rich transatlantic archive on Black “defiant scholarship”.

Patricia Daley is Professor of the Human Geography of Africa at the University of Oxford. She is also the Helen Morag Fellow in Geography at Jesus College, Oxford, where she served as Vice-Principal from 2018 to 2021. She was the University Assessor (2015-2016) and co-founder of the Oxford University Black and Minority Ethnic Staff Network. She was elected to the University Council in 2021. In addition to academic fora, she frequently speaks at community events such as the African Liberation Day commemorations. Patricia is a co-editor of the journal Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space and the “Place and Environment” unit editor for Oxford University Press’s digital project “Racism by Context”. Patricia’s research interests include forced migration and belonging, militarism and gender-based violence, and the political ecology of conservation in East and Central Africa. Her latest book, Learning Disobedience: Decolonizing Development Studies (co-authored with Amber Murrey), will be published by Pluto Press in 2023.

Stefan Ouma, Editor, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography


Defiant Scholarship: Learning from African Intellectuals

Patricia Daley, University of Oxford

Antipode’s engagement with three African scholars (Franklin Obeng-Odoom, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, and Sylvia Tamale) aims to challenge the limited presence of African scholarship in debates on global societal transformation, especially in new wave 21st century interventions on decolonisation and decoloniality within the discipline of geography. Except for the work of Achille Mbembe, which has also been repeatedly featured in the pages of Antipode (see e.g. Davies et al. 2017; Death 2022; Hutta 2022; Ortega 2020), African critical thought is rarely engaged with in and beyond radical geography, despite its long history of defiant scholarship[1] challenging imperialism, colonialism, racial capitalism, and Eurocentric knowledge systems; its extensive research on the “premodern” and precapitalist world; and its emancipatory visions for human futures. In this commentary, I would like to explore some of the explanations for the continued marginalisation of African intellectual contributions by discussing how coloniality affects the production of scholarship in and on Africa and its external reception, despite moves to decolonise knowledge by African and African diaspora scholars.

Elsewhere, I have argued, with colleagues, that geography’s “epistemic ignorance” (Grosfoguel 2021) can be attributed to the marginalisation of Area Studies within the Western academy and of Africa in geography (Daley and Kamata 2017), and colonial logics that persist in the discipline in Africa (Daley and Murrey 2022). This peripheralisation is deeply rooted in white supremacist colonial epistemologies that devalue and subjugate African knowledge systems, and promote African exceptionalism. These practices of dismissal are not just common amongst Western liberal scholars but are equally evident in the Eurocentricity and latent racism that informs the worldview of many on the Western left. This commentary builds on Obeng-Odoom’s (2019) substantive discussion on the marginalisation of African intellectual thought. His critique of the “Western Left Consensus” (Obeng-Odoom 2021) follows a tradition of African and African diaspora intellectuals’ refusal to adopt Eurocentric left perspectives uncritically (e.g. as espoused by Hubert Harrison and Walter Rodney).

Africa’s role in the geopolitics of knowledge production is maintained by the long-held prejudice that African scholarship is characterised by empiricism—only addressing realities peculiar to the continent. Lessons from research conducted in Africa, even those using Western-derived theories, are considered to lack universal applicability. White supremacy within the modern academy maintains the intellectual hegemony that Western Africanist scholars have over the production of knowledge about Africa. Such academic propriety is unparalleled anywhere else in the Global South (Mafeje 1996). Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake (1982: 124) described the “mainstream Western social science in Africa … as imperialism”: “it is a crucial tool in controlling Third World perceptions of their world”.

African intellectuals, including those in the diaspora, have been producing defiant scholarship on decolonisation since the imposition of colonial rule, and especially since the beginning of print journalism in the late 19th century (see Daley and Murrey 2022; Grosfoguel 2021; Younis 2022). In Africa, what Mignolo (2009) terms “epistemic disobedience” was partly constrained by the influence of Christian missionary education, which introduced European ontologies and epistemologies as superior, whilst denigrating African thought to the realm of the primitive and uncivilised, thus denying the possibility of dynamism and critical insights (Mafeje 1992). Some of the mission-educated elites and their descendants have remained Francophiles, Anglophiles, and Lusophiles, adopting Western modernity as the endpoint of human progress, and embracing former colonisers as benevolent aid donors. It is this coloniality that explains why, as Sylvia Tamale notes, children in postcolonial Africa start their learning with “A is for apple”. This disjuncture between the language of modern education and that of the children’s social worlds limits the depth of experience that can be brought into their classroom and later academic scholarship. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who wrote his sixth novel Matigari (first published 1986) in his native language Gikuyu, states that colonialism’s “most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world” (wa Thiong’o 1986:16).

Ake (1982) refers to the dominance of “European teleologism” in Western social science that positions actually existing European society as the “ideal society”. Consequently, the discourse of European modernity as a counter to African primitivity limited the capacity of the “educated” to value indigenous experiences and to learn from their histories and cultures. Looking back or internally was stigmatised as romantic introspection and relegated to the realm of ethnic nationalism or, much worse, “tribalism”. This has had implications for the transferal of revolutionary critique into decolonial praxis. Despite the extensive literature denouncing colonial formulations and their saliency in popular consciousness (e.g. Mafeje 1971), ethnicity still provides effective political tools for violence and oppression.

Critical African scholars have challenged the Western academy’s dehumanising views of their peoples and sought to produce alternative scholarship that drew from their lived experiences and those of their ancestors (Archie Mafeje, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Ben Magubane, V. Y. Mudimbe, Ifi Amadiume, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí). For example, in 1963, Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop introduced the matriarchal principle as the foundation of African societies and the basis for a pan-African cultural unity, thereby showing how patriarchy and matriarchy differ between and within the Global North and the South (Diop 1989).

While Western universities experienced a form of creeping neoliberalisation, in many African universities its impact was immediate and blunt (Mamdani 2007; Wuyts and Shivji 2008). The 1970s debt crisis precipitated a trend in state disinvestment in African universities. The decades that followed saw a concerted attack on radical scholarship. Debates about disciplinary relevance focused on whether they were advancing the neoliberal policy agenda. Governments sought to silence critics, ban protests, and shut down forms of activism that addressed injustices. Student activists were expelled, harassed, and progressive newspapers banned (Omanga and Buigutt 2017). With the liberalisation of the university sector coupled with increasing authoritarian practices, African academics were faced with three choices: succumbing to neoliberal orthodoxy and donor approved and sponsored policy research; marginalisation and impoverishment; or joining in the brain drain and fleeing the continent. Many took multiple jobs on the new university campuses springing up and found non-academic side hustles in consultancy or business. With that university based liberatory research declined, and critical thinking was left largely to research centres funded by progressive institutions from the Global North (the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, CODESRIA, founded by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, being the main example). Protecting academic freedom and gender/feminist studies became priorities for radical scholars, as well as transforming Africa’s inherited universities to generate scholarship reflective of the continent’s diagnosis of its own needs (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2017; Tamale and Oloka-Onyango 1997). Mafeje (1992) advocated “non-disciplinarity” as the way forward to Africanise political and intellectual discourse. In the 21st century, the more sustained African challenge to the Western academy in Africa has emanated from South Africa, where academic institutions still have some resources and independence from state and donor institutions, amidst the glaring failure of the modernity project to foster racial inclusivity and the universities to transcend their apartheid education legacies.

Decolonial Marxism

The experience of imperialism in the periphery and the global structural inequalities that it enforced meant that Marxism provided a suitable explanatory framework in Africa. Anticolonial scholarship drew on orthodox Marxism to understand how the productive forces in Africa could “develop”, and neo-Marxists explained the limits of capitalist accumulation as a development strategy. Such was the revolutionary power of Marxism that anticolonial leaders, such as Patrice Lumumba, Amílcar Cabral, Samora Machel, and Thomas Sankara, who espoused socialism, were assassinated by an alliance of conservative African and imperial forces.

Unlike in the Western academy where Marxism and political economy analytical frameworks lost traction due to the emergence of poststructuralist critiques, in Africa, their demise can be attributed to the epistemic violence of neoliberalism. To impose structural adjustment in the 1980s, Marxism had to be discredited by governments and academic institutions eager to gain acceptance from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (Wuyts and Shivji 2008). The collapse of the Soviet Union was used to reinforce the view that there was no alternative to capitalism. Therefore, the intellectual space for sustained Marxist thought in the African academy deteriorated in almost all countries, except for South Africa and to some extent Zimbabwe. Here, post-apartheid, proponents of Black consciousness, the progressive wing of the African National Congress, and the Pan-African Congress drew on Marxism to articulate more just post-racial futures.

In the face of neo-colonial realities, a political economy approach remains central to radical scholarship in Africa. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Morgan Ndlovu, in their edited volume Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century: Living Theories and True Ideas (2021),[2] point out the “planetary vision of liberation” that Marxism presented, and its common ground with decoloniality. Linking epistemic liberation to a reconfiguration of the relationship that African societies have with capital opens the imagination to the possibilities of radical Afrocentric futures.

Modern endemic poverty in Africa might have multiple dimensions but it is racialised, structural, and has deep colonial roots. Franklin Obeng-Odoom’s (2021) critique of Western liberals as well as the “Western Left Consensus” continues the tradition of Black and African decolonisation scholars who refuse to be straight-jacketed by Marxist epistemology. In Marxism and Decolonization, Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Ndlovu (2021) describe Black and African Marxists as intellectuals whose “lives of struggle and ideological orientations reflect how they deployed, critiqued, and stretched Marxism practically in the context of concrete forcefields and battlefields of national liberation histories and anti-colonial struggles”. For them, Marxism and decolonisation “exist as living theories of life”.

Class formation in Africa is still of interest to foreign investors looking for markets in 21st century Africa. Structural adjustment virtually wiped out the middle class in the 1980s and 1990s; however, two decades later, Deloitte, the consultancy firm, produced a report proclaiming a rising middle class with Westernised consumptive patterns as a positive consequence of population growth. They write, “[n]umbers move product … we will focus only on the opportunity on the premise that profit is underpinned by volume” (Deloitte 2013:1). Deloitte’s proclamation led to a flurry of interest in the spending power of the new middle classes—only for radical critique to expose its fallacy (Melber 2016). This new middle class is not to be confused with Africa’s established elites whose excessive consumption patterns and global mobility make them part of the new cosmopolitan Africans or Afropolitans.

Obeng-Odoom’s focus on the significance of land in the debates about planetary futures echoes Tuck and Yang’s (2012) thesis on the fundamentals of land to the decolonial project in North America. In many parts of settler-colonial Africa, the land question remains unresolved. For the continent as a whole 21st century land grabbing by corporations, wealthy individuals, private equity companies, conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and external states, mirrors the 19th century scramble for Africa in its dehumanised practices of dispossession, forced displacement, and impoverishment. Land restitution is often dismissed by both liberals and the Western left as a retrogressive and affective step that is out of line with modern systems of land use and productivity. Obeng-Odoom foregrounds the importance of land as he makes a case for learning from the Africa’s experience of the commons as the basis of a new global ecological political economy.

Global Connections

In his Antipode interview, Ndlovu-Gatsheni demonstrates the solidarities that African intellectuals continue to sustain with radical scholars worldwide, particularly in the Global South. Black and African radical intellectual thought has always maintained a global perspective to understanding and overcoming capitalist oppression (Younis 2022). Pan-Africanism and Third Worldism are geographical imaginaries that challenge the bounded spatialities within which Africans are confined in Western intellectual thought. Thinking beyond the colonial-capitalist social groupings of “tribes”, “races”, and “nation-states” allows for the imagining of social formations with the potential for true liberation.

As with African Marxists, African feminists recognised the importance of forming transnational alliances, within the continent and with the diaspora as part of the Pan-African movement. Sylvia Tamale represents the cohort of African feminists in the academy who have challenged all forms of oppression, militarism, patriarchy, and homophobia. From the early 1980s, African feminists theorising gender were engaging in decolonial praxis, questioning the European experience of gender as the global norm. In her seminal text, Male Daughters Female Husbands, Ifi Amadiume (1987) drew on Cheikh Anta Diop’s understanding of patriarchy and matriarchy in the Global South to explore gender identities in Eastern Nigeria. In the same way, European Marxists dismissed Diop’s matriarchal principle as Afrocentric mythmaking, Western feminists rejected Amadiume’s findings as romanticised accounts of pre-colonial relations emanating from a Nigerian diaspora-based scholar. Africans seeking to understand their societies outside of European frameworks suffer, and may fear, accusations of romanticising the past, or of being preoccupied with ethnicity. But decolonial methods require accessing those ways of knowing that were labelled evil, backward, barbaric, and bush, and were stigmatised and forbidden within colonial education systems. As Tamale explains, these traditional ways are important, especially in warzones where liberal peace negotiations have failed to stop direct violence and people yearn for peaceful co-existence.

In contemporary Africa, elite capture of public goods, external domination, and patriarchal power is crudely enacted and opposition brutally squashed. As Tamale states in her interview, for women, progress has been slow. The reasons are complex and include the de-politicisation that has accompanied gender mainstreaming in development policy, and the channelling of women’s voices into donor-funded NGOs that became vulnerable to state regulation. NGOisation allowed African First Ladies to establish non-profits to counter movements from below. Mainstreaming resulted in the adoption of limits to women’s empowerment. For example, the 30% quota as the level of women’s political participation has enabled authoritarian regimes to plant compliant women into positions of power and declare progress to Western donors. In Decolonization and Afro-Feminism (2020), Tamale’s optimism for liberated futures is grounded in the coming together of pan-Africanism and decolonial African feminism, which makes sense, since pan-Africanism transcended the bounded loyalties and imaginations of nation-states, and decoloniality forces a rethink of gender relations that is non-European in its ontology. But class needs to be part of the equation, as not enough attention has been paid to differences between African women and the disempowering effects of class politics on poor and rural women in African feminist studies.

Concluding Remarks

The voices of African intellectuals should be more prominent in radical scholarship globally, not as interlocutors of African knowledge systems to the Global North, but as purveyors of insights on how to live and struggle in spaces subjected to ongoing practices of accumulation by dispossession. Spaces in which social and medical experiments are tested and refined, matriarchy has been superseded by modern patriarchy, and progress is dictated by external institutions bent on reproducing colonial relations of domination. Finally, there can be no successful addressing of the socioecological crises of capitalism without the centring of race and extractivism in the Global South. Decoloniality has been at the heart of African peoples’ liberatory projects and anticipated futures. 21st century rearticulations of decoloniality allow for consideration of African relational ways of knowing and living on the planet.

Even when academia and the populace were under neoliberal onslaught, public intellectuals remained defiant. Writers, visual artists, and musicians have popularised epistemic disobedience. For decades, the emancipatory lyrics of reggae musicians Bob Marley and Peter Tosh resonated across and between continents. The Nigerian artist Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti’s translated democracy as “democrazy” in his Afrobeat song Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense to reflect the lived realities of electoral politics, and Edson “Azagaia” da Luz attacked the corrupt Mozambican elites in his rap song Cães de Raça (“Pedigree Dogs”). These critiques draw on traditions of communal storytelling in palavers, insakas, and barazas—the social worlds of decolonial epistemologies.


[1] Daley and Murrey (2022: 160) define defiant scholarship as scholarship that “cultivates those ways of thinking and those practices of thinking that are external to, in opposition to, and/or unconventional to the coloniality of knowledge”.

[2] See also Yousuf Al-Bulushi’s two-part interview with Ndlovu-Gatsheni: /


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