Communism in Africa: On Ubuntu and Nationalism

As I noted in my previous article – an inquiry into the historical claims of communism in Africa – many medieval African societies had structures that proved otherwise. We know of some societies that allowed for the representation of individual interests, which includes regular examples like the Ashanti (Ghana) and the Yoruba (Nigeria). Both societies throughout their history emphasized individual interests through the household with significant checks on possible hijack of these interests by chiefs serving as representatives of each household.

This recognition of individual interest through the household was equally common in other communities with similar social structures to the Asante and the Yoruba. Interestingly, nationalists and former leaders of Zambia and Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere agreed with the existence of this household democracy when they separately noted, as quoted by Quasi Wiredu in A Companion to African Philosophy:

Kaunda: “In our original (African) societies, we operated by consensus. An issue was talked out in solemn conclave until such time as an agreement could be achieved.” Nyerere: “In African society, the traditional method of conducting affairs is by free discussion. The elders sit under the big trees and talk until they agree.”1

Clear enough, traditional Africans were careful not to fortify an individual with excess power or to neglect the reach of those that represented their choices in councils. Even the kings in some cases, as mentioned in part 1, were authoritatively limited by equally relevant institutions, most often the cult or age-grade groups.

Whereas, the misrepresentation of the power structure in indigenous African societies by some Africanists and nationalists during the struggles against colonialism, as highly centralized or comparable to that proposed in communist philosophy, is wrong. In fact, the closest principle one might find to communism in African history, if at all any, is the idea of ‘communalism,’ which is evident in the same household representative system.

Nearly all scholars that draw the communist comparison with indigenous African societies derived their argument from the misinterpretation of the concept of Ubuntu. An idea that depicts African humanism, which is sometimes used in place of unity in political movements.

Ubuntu and Communism 

Ubuntu ( as spelled in Zulu/Xhosa) or uMunthu (in Chewa) is the bedrock of sound human relations in traditional African life. It is the collective conscience of intra-human relations and the essence of social morality.2 It is, so to speak, the foundation of African morality and social interaction.

Ubuntu, from a wider perspective, reflects the African understanding of humanism, dignity, respect, and proper conduct. Augustine Musopole, Malawian theologian and authority on African culture, draw the communal correlation when he defined uMunthu as the total of human integrity and a crucial (idea) to cosmic inter-relatedness, harmony, and salvation with strong communal dimensions.4

This helps make the difference between the African idea of community and the sort of community intended in communism. More so, the contemporary usage of the term (Ubuntu) is more entrenched and observable in movements like pan-Africanism, Negritude and Black Power, which of course, influenced nationalist struggles for independence across sub-Saharan Africa.5

However, radical nationalist leaders seized this appeal to build the interpretation of Ubuntu on African socialism – a sort of collectivism rooted in African culture and values – and later, their political case for anti-European agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. To these leaders, communism and its mother philosophy, socialism, were the true guiding principles in indigenous African societies, and as such must be reinstated.

They further argued that African life has always had the community as its center without necessary relevance to personal interests. But this is not only wrong based on a generalized view of all African societies as similar in social structure rather than unique, but also contradictory to the many pieces of evidence that affirms a cultural respect for the individual and the limitation of monarchs as identified in part 1.

Nationalism and Communism

This confusion was greatly propagated as a reaction to colonial rule. Many nationalist leaders formed an alliance with the Soviet Union and other countries in Eastern Europe to oppose the “capitalist West.” They would usually meet to discuss strategies against the imperialists with a return to African socialism as a common goal. Of course, this was also at the height of communism in places like Cuba and the Soviet Union itself.

The affiliation also had some political dimensions, too. First, nationalists wanted to ensure they had the affection of these communist states should independence struggle take a militarized turn, and secondly, they wanted an alternative means to financing their statist agenda in case things does not go well after disintegrating from the West.

Most of these nationalists participated in the 1945 Manchester Conference that significantly defined the independence struggle. They include Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Léopold Senghor (Senegal), Sékou Touré (Guinea), Tom Mboya (Kenya) and Wallace Johnson (Sierra Leone), who vehemently encouraged and practiced communism in their respective independent countries. Of greater interest was Julius Nyerere and his adoption – and eventual failure – of Ujamaa in Tanzania.

The idea also stretched to countries that were embroiled in brutal liberation wars with the European imperialists like Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola. Taking a closer look at the communist reforms in Tanzania for instance, one would quickly discover that the imposition of such an indiscriminately unifying philosophy on existing independent social structures was responsible for its failure.

Nyerere launched Ujamaa in 1967 to reinvigorate traditions and values similar to pre-colonial Tanzanian societies with the collective prosperity as an end. He hoped that the system would create an economically productive country through centralization and the elimination of private enterprise. But things did not work as planned.

This was primarily because the communist arrangements, and the supposedly reinvigorated cultures struggled to fit in modern Tanzania. And as expected, the system had grave social and economic implications on future development efforts far after Nyerere was gone. Ujamaa impoverished many innocent Tanzanians and laid the foundation for an economically problematic state, which still struggles to find footings today.

Guinea, under Sékou Touré, experimented with a similar variant of African socialism and consequently had a brutal political landscape with an acutely bizarre economy to deal with. In places where post-independence leaders verbally advocated for liberal economic reforms like Zaïre (under Mobutu Seko), Cameroun (Ahmadou Ahidjo), Togo (Gnassingbé Eyadema), and Gabon (Ali Bongo), selfishness and cronyism did not allow for good results and they all pretty much failed as the communists did.

Meanwhile, understanding the non-political dimensions to African nationalism is a prerequisite to uncovering why socialism and communism took root in post-independence Africa.

In part 3 of this series, I will attempt a further discussion of nationalist struggles and its other connections with communism. I will also draw a philosophical correlation between individualism and African morality to better highlight its philosophical relevance.


  1. Kwasi Wiredu, A Companion to African Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004) p. 252
  2. Ruele Khoza, “Ubuntu Botho Vumunhu Vhuthu African Humanism.” (Discussion paper, 1994).
  3. Christoff Pauw, Traditional African Economies In Conflict With Western Capitalism (Pretoria: University of Pretoria Library Services, 1996) p. 374
  4. Augustine Musopole, “Towards a theological method for Malawi,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 1993, p .82-42
  5. Khoza, p. 5