Power is Knowledge:
Dr Chika Ezeanya Esiobu on the relationship between ideas and power.

In Modernity/Tradition by Odogwu Ibezimako

From measurements of time, how we organize calendars, to what names we call ourselves, how we organize markets, technology, agriculture, and societies, what ideas become normalized, are often expression of the will of a dominant class and powerful institutions.

Who gets to define what ideas are important, and how these ideas are translated between generations ? How should individuals who have been oppressed interact with oppressive regimes, and build power for themselves ? This is the conversation we had with Dr Chika Ezeanya Esiobu.

Dr. Chika Ezeanya Esiobu is a researcher, teacher, non-fiction and fiction writer, and a public intellectual. She holds a Ph.D. in African Development and Policy Studies from Howard University in Washington D.C.  Dr. Chika is convinced of the ability of Africans to transform Africa. She is of the view that the acknowledgement of the significance of Africa’s indigenous knowledge – in all fields of human endeavor – is key to the continent’s advancement.

She has worked as a consultant for the World Bank on education and sustainable land management in Africa. Among her other research works include an International Development Research Center (IDRC) Canada commissioned project on utilizing indigenous technology to create employment for women in rural areas in Rwanda. Chika has conducted research for such organizations as the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC).

Dr Chika has been invited to present her ideas across cultures, countries, institutions and platforms, including the London School of Economics, Pan-African Parliament, United Nations Development Program, African Union, Social Science Research Council, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, United Nations Public Service Awards Ceremony, Standard Bank South Africa. She writes extensively about spirituality and Christianity, she publishes children’s writing material through African Child Press, where she looks to bring different cultures together through books.

Dr Chika’s published Indigenous Knowledge and Education in Africa and her ted talk titled How Africa can use its traditional knowledge to make progress is linked in this interview. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do certain ideas get chosen, and how do they stick based on your interpretation of history?

This is a foundational question on this whole topic of indigenous knowledge. It has been said that power shapes ideas. And ideas are promoted by power. When we get down to the basics of what is accepted, and what is promoted, you find out in many societies, it is hardly the masses that decide what is chosen and accepted as ideal. This is not true in all societies of course. I think of Igbo traditional societies where individuals gathered to take decisions within small autonomous communities. Here the power of the masses was instrumental in accepting what was accepted as policy. In more recent times, we don’t find this happening. In politics, in the media, in knowledge production and education, we find that it is the ideas of the dominant class that is usually imposed on the rest.

Now in a modern democracy, this idea of the majority view is usually a minority view presented to the majority, in such a way that makes it look as if it is the majority’s idea. And that is why it takes so much effort and critical analysis to step back from what seems obvious, in order to understand the politics at play in what is presented as an idea with mass appeal. These are usually ideas pushed down by the dominant class.

Scientific research.

Even in the field of scientific research, there seems to be this understanding that science is universal. The idea that science is universal, is the idea of the dominant class in the field of scientific research. They want the rest of the world to believe that their idea is universal. When an alternative idea is brought by someone outside this class, it is dismissed as irrelevant and substandard. But who determines quality, and who determines the standards ? This is a question of power.

There is a book that was written by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of the Scientific Revolution. It exposed the bias in scientific research from the way research questions are framed and from the way research methods are decided. Inherent in such, are certain biases which those who craft the questions are aware, or not aware of. From the way those questions are being asked, from the way the hypothesis is crafted, this already introduces bias into that research.

There are many examples that I can name. A research question for example that suggests “lack of innovation among African farmers in rural areas is a major cause of poor harvest.” The way this research question is framed has already introduced a bias in the mindset of the researcher amongst that population of the study. Show me a hypothesis, and I can almost show you the bias behind that question.

Universal Knowledge.  

There is no universal knowledge. All though there may be some truth that may be universal, the pathways to arriving at that place is not universal. If there is a process that works in Kenya or South Africa, it does not mean it will work in other parts of the world. If there is a process that works in America or the United Kingdom, it should not be imposed on other parts of the world.

There should be an alternative voice that allows for differences in the community, and differences in experiences. This is the voice that is being oppressed when it comes to idea generation, and what is accepted as the reality of the other.

So power plays a critical role. It can also be so subtle. It will take stepping back to understand the power play behind idea generation. The powers that support the imposition of ideas is so oppressive and it breaks down a person or a people. We need an understanding that it is morally wrong to impose the ideas of someone on another, and it is worse when that other is unable to advance and make progress as a result of that imposition.

So the first strength that is needed to stand up is moral strength. If this moral strength is lacking, whatever strength that is being brought forth to stand up against this imposition of ideas usually weakens at some point.

How did World Bank Policy shape the trajectory of knowledge production on the African continent?

In summary, prior to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP), there were quite a few African universities like the University of Dare E Salam in Tanzania, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and universities across the continent, who  were doing well in terms of research. They were spending money on research and development and training university graduates. They offered programs geared both at education, and also knowledge development.

The World Bank came up with an education policy in sub-Sharan Africa, that pretty much said that university Education was too expensive for African Governments to manage and Administer. The SAP created a framework that encouraged African universities to defund or commercialize. This means that the universities were still owned by the government, but the institutions were made to raise their own funds. African universities like Makerere (Which was such a strong research university) began to introduce courses not aimed at the development of the nation, but courses that were geared at getting students to pay. It became market-oriented, instead of development or nation advancement oriented.

Higher education was reduced to business centers, where education was peddled to the highest bidder. Universities were asked to scrap masters and PhD programs and told that their brightest scholars should be sent to foreign universities. Imagine the effect this has on African Society? Many of the professors who had the intellect had to leave, and this was a massive source of brain drain across the African continent.

This took universities into massive decay. Within this decade, the world bank came out with some form of apology about the unfortunate effects of the structural adjustment program and especially apologized for the impacts of education in Sub Saharan Africa. Imagine the destruction that has happened over the past 30 years, and we do not know how long it will take to rebuild. Unfortunately, we did not have the leadership who was intellectually and morally sound to recognize the effects of the SAP. If African leaders had come together to say no to the SAP, Africa would have been lightyears of where we are today, but we can still start to rebuild !  

How was it that our leaders willingly accepted these programs? In my mind, there are two significant reasons. First is the conditioning of the mind through missionary education and the socializing of the political elite through foreign education. Secondly, the cold war plays such a critical role, newly independent African nations who were trying to chart a way forward where caught in an ideological warfare between so-called capitalism and communism. They may have had to make crude political decisions that were less about national development, but securing international relationships that allowed them to be viable. What was happening in the mind of these young, usually men? What was it about their education that did not allow them to be reflective? And what is about the historical era, that created a climate that maybe caused them to make really crass political choices. Also to add, there were people like the Nyerere’s, and Sankara’s, and Lumumba’s who offered an alternatives.

It is so hard to get into the mind of a man, and a generation you do not belong to. They say that history cannot be judged, except by historical standards.

One thing is that those who tried to fight were killed. And Nyerere’s who was not killed was so financially destroyed that he could not do much with his ideas. The prize of their major export of Tanzania was dropped in the international market, the CIA invaded his country, and he was almost a dead man even though he guarded himself so much. Those who tried to fight did not make much progress. So I guess that discouraged those who wanted to stand up and make a change.

But I must emphasize, and this is consistent with Fanons Wretched of the Earth, and Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the oppressed, historically the way education was introduced to the continent, and the oppressive colonial structures, really subdued Africans, that we begin to believe in our cognitive inferiority. The African was taught, and those who did not go to school heard it across the radio, that they were inferior. This was even more intense for those who did not have a formal education.

For many of our leaders, the priority was political independence. One of the most prominent leaders said, “Seek ye first the political kingdom.” He spoke from his heart, he meant it, he fought for the independence of his people, and the rest of Africa, but he did not have the exposure or the understanding that It was not just a political disengagement. It also had to be mental. So we have lacked that mental power to disengage foundationally. But we can still develop it, and instill it, which we are all trying to do right now.

In your observations, how do you see Africans building power? Do you see people building alternative institutions they can rely on for self-sustenance?

There is dissatisfaction with the status quo. The younger people are asking questions that they realized that the older generation cannot answer. And so they are looking for ways to create a new reality for themselves, and dump the old reality since they see a lot of fault in the old reality in which that generation cannot respond to the gaps that they have observed. So younger people are creating new platforms and are trying to share them. Musicians are coming up with original sounds that fuse multiple genres, a couple of years ago, if you went to a night club in Lagos in Capetown, you would hear just music by an American artist. Today, go to any club in major cities, you will hear African musicians, there is such a beautiful revolution happening. Nollywood is becoming such a force to reckon with globally.

I look at the hair revolution among African women, which is just beautiful! Many African women are realizing that the products they are using on their hair causes cancer, quite a few Africans are coming to that place where they use natural moisturizers.

We see African fiction writers coming up with their ways of writing, pioneering new syntax and language, and are refusing to conform to older standards. So we hope that this soft power- the power of artistic expressions steep into other sectors, where we come to a place of appreciation of who we are.

I hear what you are saying, but I want to push you a bit, to talk about some of the more difficult things. Soft power is incredibly important, but it seems to me that the challenge is capital, scale, and legitimacy, and because of the historical migratory patterns, a lot of knowledge production is happening outside the continent. And that is not to take away from the people who are doing incredible work on the continent. What we want to know is how are people leveraging capital, what kind of alternative institutions are being built? I think we are passed the phase of seeking legitimacy from foreigners. But the question is, how do we look at ourselves, still hold ourselves to high standards and build together.

When I go to Africa, and I look around, I get deeply concerned. I am concerned that we are chasing after the same growth trajectory that the western world is trying to change, but which it finds itself so deeply immersed in. We are chasing that same ultra-capitalist pathway to progress. Those pathways place capital above the human person, above morals, above social relationships. That is not a pathway to growth. This is the pathway that is promoted across Africa, and the west is finding itself trying to turn back from that.

I attended the world economic summit in 2019, and there was the finance president of France, presenting to the finance president of other countries – it was a room full of the capitalists of the world. And he was talking about how capitalism has failed them! The way capitalism is being developed it cannot sustain human development. It is anti-equality, it is unjust, it raises a few and oppresses the rest, but then African countries are buying into this faulty mindset. And that is what is turning the continent upside down. There is an idea that what we need is more money. You may come to a country, and there are new shiny roads and new shiny buildings, and you think then things must be good, but the citizens are so oppressed, and there is a killing of the human spirit. It is only a matter of time, such a structure cannot last.

You do not build structures for advancement, you build people for advancement. And how you build people is by freedom.

What is real power, how can it be built, and sustained ?

In the world, we emphasize the financial strength or the intellectual strength that is needed to fight oppression, good! Those things are necessary, but it is this moral strength that is so essential to understand the injustice of the imposition of ideas, especially when it is not working. Even when it seems to be working, it is only a matter of time before it falls through. If it is superimposed, if it does not come from within, it will not work.

It is by equipping them with moral strength and giving people the freedom to choose. And you build people by giving them freedom. And this is how people grow. By not imposing what you think is good, but building their moral strength and allowing them the decision. The whole idea about the imposition of ideas on people causes trans-generational destruction to people.

Whoever believes in fighting injustice should see it as a personal responsibility, as much as lies within your power, and with as much experience you gather over the years, you must play your own part in enlightening the masses. Your part may not necessarily be to fight the powerful structures in place. Usually, they are so strong that if you try to fight them, you might self-destruct, and they continue with what they have been doing for years and you are gone. Remember, you are fighting to live, and what you must do is enlighten the masses and let them take up their responsibility.

When we realize how much we have been oppressed by the powers that be, we get so angry, and sometimes, we turn out anger towards fighting the powers that be. And we leave the job that needs to be done which is to sit back and enlighten the masses and allowing them to make these choices on a daily bases.

Let me give you an example. You may have seen my ted talk. I went to this African country in early 2018/2019 and this young man came to me, I had never met him before, he was so thankful and grateful, and he didn’t even tell me why until I asked.

He said he was a highly placed government official, and he said before I listened to your TED talk, I was so intimated by the international organizations that would come and we received loans from. These organizations would come, but they would dictate to us  the ways these loans should be dispersed and what it should be used for.

In the hearts of my colleagues we know that what they were suggesting would not work, but we could not voice our objections, we felt helpless, because they were the ones giving us the money, and we felt they had the right to tell us what the money will be used for.  He said until I listened to you talk, I didn’t have to allow the lending agencies dictate what is done with this money in our country. The next time we had to enter into a negotiation, I had all my colleagues watch your talk, and we were firm. After consulting with our constituencies we brought out a list of items we believed should be invested in.

He said the representatives were extremely shocked, they felt insulted and they walked out on us. He said after a couple of weeks, they us back, and accepted all our terms and dispersed the funds, and a as a result, these sectors are being transformed.

And this is what is needed. We don’t need to spend too much time on criticism and condemnations on the powers that be. They have their own agendas, and we should have ours.  We need to enlighten our own people. As I have said, the moral aspect is deeply foundational. Intellectually, socially, financially, all these things come together in order to build a person to the power play, and the imposition of ideas that exist in the world order.

We must also take our religious platforms seriously. We are afraid to talk about religion because The West does not talk about religion. Research shows that Africans are the most religious people on earth. Africans believe in their religious leaders more than they believe in their Government. Religion is a strong platform for bringing change and advancement across Africa. And I won’t shy away from saying it. This is my truth, and it is what research shows.

This is a really important point you raise. Religious institutions are critical both from a moral standpoint, but also from an infrastructure standpoint. They have the organizational capacity to deliver social programs more effectively than many local governments do.

Thank you! We also need to look at education. And we need to fund both formal and informal education. We need to build the African personality. When you build up the person, the person creates wealth. Wealth creation is not the difficult thing. When you build up a person of character, and a person of dignity, the natural by-product is to create value. Not just wealth for the sake of competition but wealth for the sake of preservation of the community, and at large the continent of Africa.