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The African ‘expert’ and academic gatekeeper


In a series of incisive Tweets on 14 April, the indefatigable Dr Godwin Murunga dissected what he summarised as ‘Perils of Afrophilia in African Studies.’ Godwin promised to write a paper on this topic, so my thoughts here should not prejudice what he will put across.

For context, Godwin is Executive Secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, CODESRIA. For close to half a century, CODESRIA has continuously and consistently flown the flag of continental Pan-African scholarship. It has imbibed an unabashed commitment to a radical intellectual genre and has provided an invaluable platform for successive generations of African citizen intellectuals willing to boldly push back against Western imperialism manifest in structures of power and domination but also in the practices of the media and academia.

Making a serious and sound argument on Twitter requires extraordinary finesse and clarity of thought given that this platform is notorious for its severely limiting number of characters one can enter for each post. But in the few short Tweets he made, Godwin was able to strip bare an intellectual epidemic, one that has afflicted Africa for as long as there has been debate over the continent and its people.

Successive generations of African scholars have had to deal with the endless struggle to have voice in the face of legions of Africanist scholars who consider themselves or are held up as the real experts on a continent seen as always available for objectification and the conferring (often self-done) of the status of expertise.

The African ‘expert’ often finds it self-fulfilling and an ostensible source of moral high ground to express love for Africa and display empathy with the suffering masses of the continent – Afrophilia. This leads to all manner of humanitarian crusading and grandstanding on issues of human rights abuses and what Dr Golooba-Mutebi characterises as democracy merchandising.

A great part of Afrophilia entails an exaggerated sense of mission to ‘save’ Africans from their misery and poverty, both material and, I suppose, intellectual. The saviour here is the Africa ‘expert’, predominant a white male, who has unquestionable claim to scholarly authority on key questions and concerns, is a consultant for development agencies such as the World Bank and intergovernmental bodies like those under the UN system, provides expert opinions to major Western media houses and gets praises from many, including African acolytes.

The African ‘expert’ loathes running into some iconoclastic African who cannot sing his praises or one who even remotely asks some critical questions or makes comments that challenge the ‘expert’. When this happens, the African ‘expert’ expresses a sardonic tone and outrage at being challenged or at best seeks cover under the claims of being misunderstood.

CODESRIA has been at the forefront of battels against the distortions by the self-anointed Africa ‘expert’, and as Godwin noted, successive generations of African scholars have to confront new guises of Afrophilia and the saviour ‘expert’.

‘Paternalism based on a display Afrophilia credentials’, Dr Murunga pointed out, ‘seems to be passed on from one to next the generation of African ‘expert’. Unfortunately, he continued, ‘even when it is so obvious to us, those afflicted with this malaise tend to deny it, feign ignorance or simply proceed as if protestations from the Black and Africa world don’t matter.

And here is the clincher that spoke directly to my own experience: ‘A persistent issue is gatekeeping; “experts” want to police who we talk to, where we publish our thoughts, what we say about Africa, and pat us on the back with approval when we say what they like’.

Some weeks before Godwin’s comments, on the streets of Twitter, an African ‘expert’ had issued less than veiled threats against yours truly. According to this ‘expert’ and gatekeeper of African scholarship, my credibility as a scholar was being imperilled by my association with a group of Africans that this ‘expert’ couldn’t stand.

What is more, apparently I was risking my career by having anything to do with this website, Pan-African Review, which the ‘expert’ slammed for engaging in disinformation. Worse, retweeting posts the ‘expert’ did not like made me more or a Twitter troll than an academic.

It was both surreal and bewildering to be told that my standing as a scholar was dependent on who I associate with on Twitter, what I like or retweet and where my non-scholarly opinions are published.

As it turns out, even in the hallowed world of academia where academic freedom is supposed to be such a sacred and sacrosanct norm, for the African ‘expert’ and gatekeeper, the African in me has to be careful about what I say and selective about who I associate with. So much for the promise of freedom and the cause of human rights that Afrophilia purports to stand for.

This encounter brought out fully for me the naked paternalism of the Africa ‘expert’ but also the hubris that attends attitudes by the ‘expert’ towards the continent and its people.

The paternalism is built on purporting to know what is good for Africa and Africans (in this case I was told that it is not good for my career to write for this website). The African peasant does not know what is good for himself or herself, but even the African scholar ostensibly does not know his/her best interests!

On the other hand, the hubris lies in claiming expertise-knowledge and being the gatekeepers of knowledge production about the continent. A very pervasive phenomenon obtains, of bravado and self-assuredness, including making predictions informed by statistical analysis about the future fates of the continent.

At conferences, we hear firm arguments that are steeped in the faith that Africa is there to be studied in its pristine state by the Africa ‘expert’ who has a grip on the issues. In reality, what passes as expert knowledge on a very complex continent and complicated set of problems is often superficial, spurious and shallow. But because it is about Africa, and has the direct or indirect backing of the venerated ‘expert’, it is not always subject to rigorous and critical scrutiny.


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