Two South African boys near the village of Nongidi in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Lungisani Mjaji, GLF

The meaning of “sovereignty” to an African thinker

Writer and intellectual Chika Esiobu on power and authority across the continent

Dr. Chika Ezeanya Esiobu will speak in the GLF Africa 2022 digital conference on 15 September 2022. Get your ticket here.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “sovereignty” in three ways: supreme power especially over a body politic, freedom from external control and controlling influence. But is not therein a bit of a paradox – who or what is sovereign over the word’s very meaning?

As we hear here from Chika Ezeanya Esiobu, a prolific writer, researcher, teacher and public intellectual, sovereignty has been an amorphous force throughout African history, taken from and held onto by the continent at different times and in different ways. Now, its diversity of meanings at the personal, communal, national and regional levels are constantly pushing and pulling one another, while continued infiltration from outside powers makes it even more difficult for the continent to realize its reign supreme.

Nevertheless, Esiobu says there’s one thing that could help bring unity to Africa’s sovereignty – while inherently upholding its many interpretations. Perhaps it’s this very paradox in which Africa’s sovereignty lies.

Courtesy of Chika Eseanya Esiobu

What does “sovereignty” mean to you?

Sovereignty implies authority that is focused on organizing community around common aspirations, to achieve set goals.

Where does sovereignty lie most in your culture?

Sovereignty in traditional Igbo culture lies with the community, however, the individual – both male and female – is empowered to play a key role as a member of community.

How were you raised thinking about sovereignty? What shaped your own sense of power and control?

As an African who grew up aware of both traditional institutions and the more formal government structure, I had a double consciousness of sovereignty.

At the traditional level, the male head of the family wielded authority over decisions in the home, as well as represented the family in the community. The extended family played a key role in decision-making that impacted all families. The extended family has the male group (Umunna) and the female group (Umuada), and both wielded power over traditionally set jurisdictions.

I was also aware of the traditional head of my community, who more or less represented my village and worked with the different extended families to ensure advancement and growth. Yet, growing up mostly under military rule in my country, I was aware that decisions over key matters that affected my family and community lied with the government. These included matters of education, commerce, security, state politics and others.

How does your experience and understanding of sovereignty compare with what that might be in other parts of Africa? What are some of its different meanings and formulations across the continent?

The implication of what constitutes sovereignty across much of Africa, especially south of the Sahara, has changed tremendously over the years. Sovereignty has transformed across stages, spanning the time when traditional institutions or acephalous societies reigned supreme, to when colonialism imposed European sovereignty on parts of the region. The transformation of the sovereign across Africa continued with the transfer of political power from the former colonial authorities to African-led governments, which was an exercise that ensured that sovereignty was still covertly exercised by the former imperialists, through exercising control over the means of production, education and commerce, technology and even the arts.

Much of the formerly colonized countries were unable to even grasp the extent of control still wielded by the former colonial authorities until very recently. Despite the deep-rooted and ongoing assault on the sovereignty of many countries in Africa, still, across the region, traditional forms of sovereignty have endured in different dimensions and remain relevant in grassroots mobilization.

As a continent, over what is Africa sovereign – and lacking sovereignty?

The continent of Africa has no sovereignty over any sector. However, individual African countries wield territorial sovereignty over their allocated land mass. The African Union is a union of African states with the long-term aim of yielding part of state sovereignty to the regional bloc. That vision is yet to be actualized.

That said, Africa is a continent, and realities across the region can only be analyzed on a country-by-country basis and not on the continent as a whole. Many African countries are still very much controlled by the former colonial authorities. Others are much indebted to China and the Bretton Woods system, and these control decisions and outcomes in the territories to an extent. 

What changes in Africa’s sovereignty do you hope to see in your lifetime, and how can these come to be?

Intellectual sovereignty is foundational to societal advancement. In the field of education, which is considered to be the mother of all disciplines, I hope to see an Africa that is fiercely introspective as far as knowledge generation is concerned. Africa’s Indigenous knowledge will have to be at the core of the continent’s research and development across disciplines and sectors. Mainstreamed Indigenous knowledge will strengthen all segments of society, especially the seat of sovereignty – the political sector – where the current governance structures are mostly too expensive, alien to the realities of the region and therefore unsustainable. 

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