Contending Zamani(s): The African Concept of Time as a Method to Understand African Conflicts

Author: Ramy Magdy (Cairo University-Egypt)
Speaker: Ramy Magdy
Topic: Narrative and Metanarrative
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


What is the cause of conflicts in Africa? Many answers have been given to explain the reasons for the “inter” and “intra”- African conflicts relating their emergence to varying factors; moral (Bayart 1993), historical (Rodney 1972), cultural (Chabal 2009), structural (Amin 1972), institutional (Mamdani 1996) external (Mkandawire 2001, Apata 2018) and nationalist (Shivji 2003, 2011) . Despite the high degree of validity these answers maintain, most of them missed looking into one of the essential factors in African political life. it is very foundational for the understanding of the machination of power in the post independence modern African state. This essential factor is the African temporality. John Mbiti (1931-) the Africanist philosopher and theologian was credited to be the one who studied systematically what he coined as” the African concept of time’ (Mbiti 1969, 1971). This paper argues that this Mbitian African concept of time-if studied politically- offers a novel analytical horizon to understand the crises of the post independence African modern state and the causes underlying its inability to restrain the conflictual tendencies in African contexts. However, to undertake the task of situating the Mbitian concept of time into a political reading, one has to make some elementary steps. Firstly; to explain the communalist view upon which the Mbitian concept of time is grounded, and secondly; to pre-empt any doubts of African supernaturalism that might arise from exploring the African temporality by explaining the existential nature upon which the African concepts of personhood and destiny are based. By employing the Mbitian concept of time politically after explaining African communalism and African concepts of personhood and destiny, the paper reached a conclusion. This conclusion claims that due to the highly existential nature of the African concept of destiny and the past-oriented feature of the African concept of time, Africans cannot be restrained by any supernatural claim or any futuristic promises that are irrelevant to their context and cut from the communal values of ancestral past. Africans do not think supernaturally or bet for the future. However, those futuristic and supernatural claims that cannot restrain the African subjectivity -ironically- characterize the modern nation state with its “progress”-orientation and “social-contract” metaphysics. Unfortunately, this radical difference in perceptions between the past-oriented African temporality and the future-oriented modern state temporality rendered the post independence African state dysfunctional and unable to operate as a medium for authority.

Keywords: Time, Africa, Mbiti