The New Intellectuals of Empire

In a powerful polemic against the new intellectuals of empire, Yusuf Serunkuma addresses an African audience. Serunkuma warns his audience of a new breed of missionary-scholars who speak to the visible wrongs in our midst, but they hardly ever offer any context, longue durée, causation, and abstraction, to the point that they have even conscripted disciples from among us. This new breed, he argues, is more tactical, more sophisticated, but as dangerous as their colonial predecessors.

By Yusuf Serunkuma

It has become increasingly common for scholars, activists and politicians who see Africa from African vantage points to be outraged by neo-orientalist portrayals of Africa by activist-scholars and media from the west. By ‘African vantage points’, I mean that they tend to explain and offer context to the well-publicised crimes of Africa’s leaders as opposed to calling them out and campaigning for sanctions and intervention from the benevolent west.  I mean, whilst they would be critical of Muammar Gaddafi or Robert Mugabe, they are unwilling to support coalitions of the so-called ’vanguards of justice and human rights’ to flush these bad leaders out, even if flushing them out comes by way of sanctions. These scholars and activists are my main audience in this essay – because I claim to be one of them.

It is my contention that we need to be kinder to the West’s celebrity-missionary intellectuals and media. They commit no crime when they ’misrepresent’ the continent. In fact, misrepresentation as a term does not even apply to them as, indeed, they are not mispresenting anything but simply doing their job – which is mainly writing for and informing their home audiences on how to see Africa, which remains an abundant wild reserve for game and exploitation. It would be liberating for the African activist and scholar to beware that over 95 per cent of academics, mainstream media outlets such as the BBC and CNN, and the myriad commentors including bloggers, columnists, and overly sanctimonious tweeps on Africa from the West will — oftentimes involuntarily, instinctively or by association — follow the foreign policy positions of their countries.

So, Michela Wrong, Nic Cheeseman, Robert Guest and many others remain intellectuals of empire. But with a sophistication; they are not crude like their predecessors (such as the colonial anthropologists and explorers who were, among other things, openly racist and abusive). This new breed of missionary-scholar speaks to the visible wrongs and actual abuses by African leaders, but they hardly ever offer any context, longue durée, causation, and abstraction. They treated their subjects as exotic and geographically contained with neither global-local connections, nor power games with the new colonial powers etcetera. Indeed, these outright half-analyses have been used quite successfully to even conscript disciples from amongst us. You will constantly hear African university graduates chanting tired buzz words about democracy, free market economies, the need to attract foreign investments, praising IMF and World Bank data, and congratulating themself after more aid is released. They’ll then focus on small and obsolete campaigns such as decolonisation, demand reparations to appear cool and sophisticated. All this is the work of the new breed of the intellectuals of empire, which is more tactical, more sophisticated, but as dangerous as their predecessors.

Reflecting on Wrong’s recent book, Do Not Disturb, Jörg Wiegratz and Leo Zeilig have reminded us about the timeless trope of monsters in Western media and academia in reference to African ‘autocratic‘ presidents. It is worth stressing that presidents that are labelled ’monsters’ are not necessarily innocent individuals; they are and have actually committed crimes to fit the label. But while their badness ought not to be denied, it has to be understood as a timeless fact of all politicians: their monstrosity ought to be understood as a function of power – so the truism that ‘power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – and this is not limited to Africa.

In truth though, those characterised as monsters across formerly colonised places have been men [and women] unwilling to allow modern imperial plunder disguised as free trade and often packaged in the slick language of human rights. Please note that monsters do not begin as monsters in both their political character, and the ways in which the world sees and writes about them. Frequently, they simply undergo a key turn, which often happens at that sobering moment of encounter with the imperial capitalist machine. Slovenian theorist, Slavoj Zizek has described this moment, as a ‘key dilemma’ for any president seeking to champion the lives of the wretched of the earth under a corrosive capitalist modernity.

Ugandan president Idi Amin started out as a darling of the West. But he became a monster as soon as he chose to get the natives out of the backwaters of the economy, which actually meant taking the economy away from the Indian-Asians, the ‘deputies of colonialists’ as historian Lwanga-Lunyiigo called them.[1] After Amin radically pulled the rag from under their feet — as Kenya and Tanzania had done using their legal systems — Uganda’s former colonisers who had actually shipped Indians into the region and deliberately privileged them over the natives, were the first to demonise Amin labelling him an autocrat, a monster. Once politically ‘bad’, Amin also became bad in the scholarship and media coverage. Most famously, he became a ’white pumpkin’ in popular media circles.

Queen Elizabeth II bestowed a knighthood on President Mugabe, which was clearly a subtle bribe to get him to ignore land reforms, a burning issue at independence in 1980. For 20 years, Mugabe remained a darling of the West, never antagonising white farmers and instead, becoming ensnared in endless negotiations with them and the UK government to find a less radical or less painful way to allow them to keep their colonial loot. Even when the British government gave Mugabe money to buy land for redistribution, the white landowners refused to sell. Caving into pressure in the late 1990s from inside his own party and from former combatants, Mugabe then took a hard stance on land. Shamelessly, Zimbabwe’s former colonisers took back their bribe, and the media and academia competed in badmouthing Mugabe. On the heels of UK government sanctions, were tons of monsterizing scholarship and media coverage.

In nearby South Africa, the gift for his political-economic naivety was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Nelson Mandela which was working wonders. Mandela admitted in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, that he had blatantly defied the ANC’s resolutions in his ignorant and childlike pursuit of political independence. In effect, he left South Africa’s entire economy in the hands of white South Africans. As Zizek puts it, if Mandela had really won, he would never have become a darling of the West — and of the world. Similarly, before Kagame started taking a hard stance towards the West, he had been their darling for years. He is now their monster.

Ever wondered why with all Museveni’s crimes, he is yet to become a monster? Well, Museveni is in Somalia, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo – doing mercenary work for the western democracy merchandising imperialists.  He is providing the calm under which foreign mining companies enjoy Congolese resources, and also providing the environment under which European pirates enjoy Somalia’s marine resources. Thus, despite his well-documented crimes on Ugandans, he is yet to make the label, a monster.

The point I am making here is that a huge percentage of scholarship and media in the West reflects the foreign policies of their states. This is true not just in the so-called “formerly colonised” places, but it is also true of Europe’s and America’s relations across the world where their exploitative tentacles are being resisted. Mainstream scholarship, and media, which is largely ‘a bunch of frauds’ as Noam Chomsky puts it, will often find the ‘ethical imperative’ to blast leaderships in Russia, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, China, and even helpless Palestine — as long as their multinationals face stiff opposition attempting to monopolise the economies of these countries.

The crime of the leaderships of these countries is trying to extract maximum benefit from their mineral resources — especially oil, gold, lithium and platinum — and fighting for their land. As these leaders are derided by EU and American politicians, western scholars and journalists endlessly chant their badness. These same scholars and media also sweat blood and tears to ensure that the crimes of empire are not exposed. Ali Mazrui told us as much in 1997 when the BBC censored him for reporting factually about Muammar Gaddafi. More recently, The Conversation killed a well-researched piece by Matthew Alford on how ’western media rationalises and amplifies state-sanctioned violence and wars as millions die.’

Please note that these fellows in the Western-based media and academia hate being associated with their countries’ foreign policies. They will vehemently deny this accusation. They strut themselves around as independent objective academics and analysts building their craft purely on fieldwork and theory. This is rightly undeniable but to a degree.  There are two glaring handicaps with their claim: first, you’ll never hear them speak out against the crimes of their own countries the way they do about those of other countries or their leaders. You do not see them calling out Israel’s colonisation of Palestine. You do not see them joining Black Lives Matter, nor see them call out the wars in Yemen, Iraq, and the entire Middle East that were started on absolute deception.  And this isn’t a case of disciplinary focus or areas studies. That would be a clumsy excuse. A true activist-scholar has to start by calling out the crimes of own countries.  Sadly, you have heard them downplay the double standards of structural adjustment, or simply remain silent. They are happy to harp on about democracy and human rights as if there is no connection between livelihood and governance. It is as if they do not see the continued ruins of structural adjustment as local African populations remain disempowered and emasculated – and the double standards with which Europe and North America still enforce the Washington Consensus onto Africa as they themselves do the exact opposite at home.

Second, and this is an important point I intend to make: working or simply following the foreign policy positions of their countries cannot be seen as a crime on the part of these activist-scholars and media. They really have no choice. Even those most aware of their positionality in this game – by far the fewest – end up with very limited choices. To appropriate David Scott, they did not choose to do this job, they were simply conscripted. They did not choose to work for their countries as earlier intellectuals of empire did. To survive as scholars, they have to stay true to the mission of the master who not only introduced them to these parts of the world, but who also enables their intellectual and financial power to undertake scholarship in these parts of the world.

That the majority are unaware of or simply deny their conscription to the imperial machine is how it is meant to be. This is because the conscription is more discreet and takes many subtle forms including their training, funding, legitimation by their schools, historical connections, etc. This is an existential dilemma.  Just one telling example, there are exponentially more scholars from the UK than from France or Germany working in the former British colonies, in the same way that there are more scholars from France than from the UK in the former French colonies. And although this form of conscription runs deep, it remains not just largely invisible but unconsciously suppressed.  Should it be strange that there are almost zero scholars from the colonies doing fieldwork in Europe and North America.  To this day, it is still viewed as almost comical that an African university started a centre for the study of the Americas.[2]

The bigger point I wish to make is this: scholarship is closely linked to the economy—and to politics. Until Africans develop their economies to fund their own scholarship, these men and women from the west will continue to say whatever they want – and there will always be good evidence to back up any arguments they choose to make, which actually makes their scholarship appear sound and objective. But as Foucault has told us, to focus on a particular argument or focus on a particular subject is often a political position and not an intellectual one. It is not intellectual persuasion or a case of overwhelming evidence. It is power and politics.

My intention is not to make the conscription of Western media and scholars at the service of their countries’ foreign policies a crime (though perhaps if they acknowledged this fact, they would be humbler and less sanctimonious). It is to remind African intellectuals and activists that there is a need to spend more time fighting at home to better their politics and economies. This, in turn, will give them the intellectual and political power to also push our side of the story – which will also be, as Nigerian historian Yusufu Bala Usman would put it, a political position.

Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers and it was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.

Featured Photograph: Eric Dutton (right), Palmer Kerrison, and Governor Robert Coryndon at Government House in Nairobi, 1924. Dutton was an academic geographer and a major force behind early urban-planning programs in East and Central Africa and author of four books. Permanently disabled by war wounds, he was also permanently infatuated with the moral rightness of British imperial culture (Garth Myers, 1998).


[1] Since they were neither settlers nor natives at independence, the only category left in this push and pull for belonging and identity was deputies to the colonialists. Quite inexplicably, the Indian-Asians stayed on in the East African colonies even after the end of colonialism. Had they become natives or settlers?

[2] In 2018 South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand started the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS).


  1. Excellent piece.
    This is why we have decided to create the Pan African Federalist School on African Development. It purpose being to Reorient the discourse on African Development from its Present Day Reformist posture to one which aims at a Systemic Change meaning the end of Neocolonialism and the Restoration of the Full Sovereignty of African People.
    The African Academia and may with the Civil Society Organization are today the enablers of the Maintenance of Neocolonialism.


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