Rarely are students of African politics required to read the work of African intellectuals or even center the arguments of the very people under study. It is so often the case in academia that Africans are subjects of Western analysis through Western lenses for a Western audience. Therefore, the utility of African decision-making is valued only as far as it fits into Western models. For this and many reasons, Worldmaking after Empire is a refreshing take on African intellectualism. Getachew examines the assertion that rather than a nation-building project, which is so often the subject of much political theory, figures like C.L.R. James, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, and Nnamdi Azikiwe were concerned with worldmaking.
Getachew describes worldmaking as a project that seeks to reorient global, political, and economic structures away from existing international hierarchies of domination. Citing the inaugural speech in which Nkrumah articulated his global goals—“‘Our independence,’ Nkrumah famously maintained, ‘is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent’”—Getachew then adds, “This connection between Ghana’s independence and African emancipation not only looked forward to the formation of new African states but also envisioned national independence as the first step in constituting a Pan-African federation and transforming the international order” (1).
As Getachew explains, decolonization went beyond merely realizing the ideal of an international community of sovereign and equal states that many have attributed to the seventeenth-century Peace of Westphalia. Instead, the author asserts that such an ideal was inaugurated by twentieth-century decolonization. By claiming a right to self-determination and asserting sovereign control over national territories, anticolonial nationalists were engaged in a “thoroughgoing reinvention of the legal, political, and economic structures of the international order” (25). Furthermore, Getachew argues, “[a]nticolonial nationalists turned to worldmaking because they were keenly aware that national independence in a hierarchical world order was a precarious achievement” (29). The author traces this history through three key moments: the institutionalization of self-determination in the United Nations, efforts at regional federation in Africa and the Caribbean, and the push for a New International Economic Order.
Getachew asks the reader to rethink or unlearn the belief that the end of slavery or attainment of independence by African states was a call for the inclusion of the black diaspora. Instead, an examination of Woodrow Wilson’s writings shows that to the average Western/white thinker/politician, the black person remained inferior and undeserving of equal inclusion. Wilson and South Africa’s apartheid president Jan Smuts “effectively re-cast self-determination as a racially differentiated principle, which was fully compatible with imperial rule. Their shared project of appropriation and resignification was mobilized in service of counterrevolutionary ends and drew explicitly from Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, as well as their rejection of nineteenth-century experiments in emancipation” (40). The partnership between Smuts and Wilson is evidence that the existing world thrived on racist structures that could never imagine a world in which black people are treated as equals. This is why Liberia and Ethiopia, two independent states, are not given their due respect in the international structures.
In the cases of Liberia and Ethiopia, their inclusion in the League of Nations and later the United Nations posed a challenge for their sovereignty because the UN was unequal, and smaller, dominantly black states were never considered equals. Although the League of Nations was set up to uphold self-determination, it was in fact a counterrevolutionary institution. The voices of Liberia and Ethiopia, despite their advancements, especially in issues of race, did not matter and this remains true in today’s politics. This state of inequality allowed for the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia by Italy. Italy justified their position by arguing that Ethiopia had become an “outlaw state” (65). Nearly half a century since its founding, the United Nations refuses to include any African countries in the Security Council. The UN nations have maintained the power balances of a colonial period that no longer serve the needs of a more modern world.
At the center of Getachew’s argument is the idea that these early African thinkers wanted to go beyond self-determination and instead engage in the more significant worldmaking project. They wanted to disrupt the hierarchical ordering of global politics. This desire to disrupt existing systems was anchored in the belief that the world, as it then existed, did not leave much room for black ingenuity and unity. The new world that they proposed would be expressed in the collective organization by African leadership through pan-Africanist ideals. This is also where thinkers like Nkrumah faced their biggest challenges. The broad pan-Africanist ideals did not always support the home country because, at ground level, individuals and political opponents were much more interested in resolving domestic issues. The tensions between domestic interest and pan-Africanist ideals might explain why these grand ideas did not gain much traction and why the decolonization project is ongoing.
There is also the interesting dynamic that these leaders, while seeking to disrupt the colonial confines of the world, also became undemocratic. They would go on to use the same draconian policies of colonialists to consolidate power around themselves that contributed to their demise and perhaps even delayed the anticolonial project. Nkrumah wanted to govern without term limits and was eventually thrown out by a coup that started a wave of coups in Ghana. Perhaps the goal for decolonization should also be about creating more equal societies within the home country. An outward-looking political approach is important, but not at the expense of the rights of citizens.
Worldmaking after Empire focuses mainly on elite leaders. This narrow focus is not a weakness but an opportunity for future scholars to explore how mass movements engaged with elite proposals and why it has taken a long time to achieve the ideals of proper decolonization. It would also be fruitful to study the engagement between leaders and diaspora-based organizations within the continent. There is also a need to explore what worldmaking looked like for activists, for women’s groups, and those who advocated for various ethnicities. I would have liked to see the inclusion of female thinkers, even if they were not world leaders. Perhaps their views would give us better insight into why the worldmaking project has taken so long to realize.
Overall, Getachew has written one of the most important books of our generation. At a time when the decolonizing agenda is once again on the table, it is important to think critically about what a decolonized world should look like, and what factors are of the utmost importance in achieving such a world.