Restoring Africa’s Culture and Philosophy Is the Key to Development

Hippolyte Fofack

By fostering the discovery of truth, philosophy can provide the intellectual foundation for development and illuminate paths toward more cohesive and prosperous societies.

As Victor Hugo put it, “Philosophy should be an energy; it should find its aim and its effect in the amelioration of mankind.”

But policymakers across Africa have overwhelmingly failed to emphasise this disposition.

Rather than developing a collective consciousness that would help foster economic convergence and regional integration, most governments on the continent find themselves managing crisis after crisis.

The stickiness of the colonial development model of resource extraction – which is fundamentally disconnected from Africa’s historical traditions and future aspirations – has only exacerbated the problem.

The neglect of philosophy, and the resulting ideological vacuum (especially in the policy arena), is also rooted in centuries of colonialism and slavery.

The dehumanisation of Africans and the repression of their culture became integral to economic prosperity and wealth accumulation in Europe and America.

It involved the systematic destruction of the social structures that defined African societies and held communities together, reflected today in chronically low trust in the state.


Colonial institutions also caused long-lasting psychological damage to Africans.

They turned the descendants of great inventors – including the architects of the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan; the mathematicians who carved the Ishango and Lebombo bones; and the engineers, sailors, and navigators who constructed longboats capable of reaching South America and China as early as the 13th century – into passive victims.

Colonialism made cultural discontinuity inevitable.

Colonisers plundered and destroyed symbols of artistic, historical, and spiritual significance.

According to recent estimates, nearly all of Africa’s material cultural legacy is located outside the continent, with Belgium alone possessing more than 180 000 African artworks.

The looted artefacts range from manuscripts and musical instruments to palace doors and thrones, wooden statues, and ivory masks.

The famed Benin Bronzes, which Nigeria has been trying to repatriate for decades, are scattered all over the world, including at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.


Africans and African states were robbed of the spiritual anchors that shaped their collective imagination and shared history, and that would have promoted social cohesion and cultural continuity across generations.

In a widely praised 2018 report on the restitution of African cultural goods commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron, the authors described museums with looted art as being part of “a system of appropriation and alienation” that continues to strip Africans of the “spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of [their] humanity”.

Such spiritual starvation perpetuates the colonial development model of resource extraction that helped cause it.

The model’s persistence has turned resource-rich Africa into the world’s poorest and most aid-dependent continent, and prevented it from developing meaningful manufacturing industries, which have been consistently shown to expand economic opportunities for workers and enhance global convergence.

This set the stage for recurrent balance-of-payment crises and intergenerational poverty in Africa.


More than any other continent, Africa has been governed by political and economic models that do not reflect its own traditions and that have stifled development by widening the gap between the ingenious past and incipient present, as well as between actual and potential growth.

It has also marginalised the continent in the progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals and global efforts to eradicate poverty.

Tellingly, Africa is home to nearly 60% of the world’s extreme poor, despite accounting for less than 18% of its population.

In his 1986 book ‘Decolonising the Mind’, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o warned Africans that achieving political independence would be easier than freeing oneself from the colonial mentality.

Thiong’o was right: More than six decades after many African countries won independence, decolonising minds remains a challenge.

The overwhelming majority of Africa’s population is still yearning for spiritual nourishment.


Repatriating looted African artefacts is an important first step, but it must be accompanied by the rebuilding of the physical and institutional infrastructure that preserved symbols of African identity and temporality for centuries before the colonial onslaught.

This would help people recover the thread of an interrupted memory and reclaim African history, while increasing the potential for social transformation.

In particular, reforming the education system to reflect the continent’s shared history and philosophical foundations could reshape contemporary African life.

The goal should be to create a shared superstructure that enhances continental coordination and strengthens the foundation of trust.

This will ensure that individuals, businesses, and states can overcome the colonial mindset and foster a new collective imagination and development vision that is authentically African.

The African Continental Free Trade Area, which establishes a single market, is crucial to surmount the imaginary yet significant walls that have been erected between countries.

But more should be done to reduce the short-term risks of competing priorities – balance-of-payments constraints always seem to trump long-term strategy – and to speak with one voice.

Fostering a collective African consciousness at this critical juncture would enable the continent to take advantage of economies of scale and demographic tailwinds to emerge as a major geopolitical player on the world stage.


Absent a strong ideological foundation in the post-independence era, African countries have long embraced development models and ideas rooted in the colonial system of exploitation and cultural repression.

These models have trapped them in a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty and aid dependency, and are now exacerbating the volatility and magnitude of shocks caused by climate change and intensifying migration pressures.

Africa’s future hinges on its ability to transcend colonial constructs, leverage its rich cultural heritage, renew African dignity, and embrace development models grounded in Afrocentric philosophical and historical realities.
In the words of the martyred anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko, “It is better to die for an idea that will live than live for an idea that will die.”

– Hippolyte Fofack, a former chief economist and director of research at the African Export-Import Bank, is a Parker fellow with the SDSN at Columbia University, a research associate at the Harvard University Centre for African Studies, a distinguished fellow at the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils, and a fellow at the African Academy of Sciences.

– Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024

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