Human Rights at a Crossroads in Africa Critical Appraisal of Rights Discourse for an Authentically African and Christian Ethics of Human Flourishing and Reconciliation

Agbo, Chikere A. (2011) Human Rights at a Crossroads in Africa Critical Appraisal of Rights Discourse for an Authentically African and Christian Ethics of Human Flourishing and Reconciliation. Licentiate thesis, Santa Clara University Berkeley, California.

[img] PDF (Human Rights at a Crossroads in Africa Critical Appraisal of Rights Discourse for an Authentically African and Christian Ethics of Human Flourishing and Reconciliation)
Human Rights at a Crossroads in Africa Critical Appraisal of Rights Discourse for an Authentically African and Christian Ethics of Human Flourishing and Reconciliation.pdf - Accepted Version
Restricted to Repository staff only

Download (966kB) | Request a copy


As the foundation of modern notions of justice, peace, and freedoms, human rights are an important issue in Africa today. Many view the recognition and the practice of human rights on the continent as essential for addressing many problems in modern African societies. Of particular importance is the belief that the practice of human rights has the potential for augmenting the quality of life of ordinary African people by addressing the persistent crushing poverty and inequities on the continent. This assumption does not ignore the current arguments about the analytic, conceptual, or formal as well as the substantive theories of human rights. However, the ‘complex emergencies’ in Africa and the need for an urgent response to those emergencies qualify the pursuit of such questions. Hence, whether understood as values implicit in all cultures and/or the United Nations’ specific principles formulated as universal standards, the recognition of human rights as access to basic goods and conditions necessary for human flourishing is considered key to addressing the devastating poverty, malnutrition, diseases, and violence in Africa. Today, the complex emergencies are seen in many African people, who lack access to basic necessities of life such as employment and decent pay, quality education, adequate nutrition, healthcare, housing, clothing, physical security, and essential freedoms. This is difficult to understand given the abundant human and natural resources with which the continent is endowed. Moreover, extreme poverty persists on the African continent despite the timely ratification of different international conventions on human rights by many African governments, the proliferation of both local and global poverty reduction and developmental strategies on the continent, and an ever more ‘interdependent’ and prosperous world. While no single factor is accountable for the complex socioeconomic crisis in Africa, there is no doubt that the poverty of many people on the continent is due in large part to structural deprivations related to both the indifference of most African governments to the plight of the people and the precariousness of the global economic arrangements. It is even unfortunate that where and when African governments attempt to provide some basic goods and services to their people, these gestures appear merely as charity rather than the recognition of the people’s legitimate claims. In our modern and pluralistic societies, without a change in the understanding of the African’s rights that attends to these basic necessities, as well as the correlative duties incumbent upon the governments and citizens, Africa will continue to lag behind developmentally, and the extreme poverty, disease, and conflict will continue to persist on the continent. This thesis argues that in order for poverty and misery of many in Africa to end and the dignity and worth of the ordinary African to be restored, access to basic necessities of life should be considered and treated as basic human rights. Further, a critically contextualized language of rights for Africa will recognize that these rights need to be predicated upon the core African social, cultural, and religious values of communal solidarity and interdependence of beings, ‘mmadu/chi’ (personhood in Igbo language), ‘ubuntu’ (shared humanity in Sotho of Bantu language), and “ujamaa” (extended family) in Swaili, as well as the Christian social vision of Imago Dei and agape that places the common good as the fundamental socioeconomic principle. The focus on the theme of justice and reconciliation from the perspective of rights in this work is based on at least four interrelated reasons. First, rights are the most important tools for guaranteeing social justice and reconciliation in modern society, and many African societies are already grappling with the challenges of modernity. Rights and obligations are so central to the issue of justice that their exclusion diminishes the chances of addressing the root causes of extreme poverty and injustice in Africa. Second, because of the universal importance of human rights discourse and its potential for ordering a pluralistic society, any ethical discourse in Africa today needs to take the issue of human rights seriously if it is to contribute to the liberation of the African people from the cycle of poverty, ignorance, oppression, and disease. Third, social, demographic, and economic changes have resulted in the individualism and political extremism, which not only have adversely affected solidarity characteristic of traditional African societies, but also have threatened peace in Africa. Hence, nearly every African is hurting from either current and/or past injustice and oppression meted upon them or their forebears. While some victims do forgive and are open to reconciliation, others have precipitated cycles of revenge which continue to perpetuate violence in Africa. Commitment to healing and social reconciliation is therefore an essential part of the pursuit of economic justice and human flourishing in Africa. Finally, a holistic approach to the issue of poverty and human degradation will necessarily include ecological concern. This is because the recognition of human rights and the respect for nature are an integral approach to the flourishing of life on African continent. I see my task in this theological investigation as fourfold. In the first chapter I will undertake a critical analysis of the condition and the experience of the ordinary people in Africa today in what I refer to as “anatomy of the problems.” I will do this by examining the World Bank’s and United Nations’ various reports on Africa. Also, I will employ my direct experience of working with the poor in Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria in understanding the situation of the poor in Africa. This analysis is critically important to this work because, as an African proverb says, “if one does not know where one is coming from one may not know one’s destination.” I hope to explain why the condition of ordinary African people is characterized by extreme poverty and the daily struggle for survival. I hope to explore the irony of mass poverty in a continent endowed with so many material and human resources. In chapter two I will show how the solution to endemic poverty in Africa depends on the political realization and implementation of the minimal economic rights as fundamental rights in Africa. In this instance the critical appropriation of the insights of American social theorist Henry Shue’s “Basic Rights” will be useful. First, it will help me to appropriate the philosophically compelling arguments for minimal economic rights as basic rights. Second, it will help me to see the correlative duties that are essential for social guarantee of minimal economic rights for all people. Third, Shue’s argument will be important in understanding the distinction and interdependence of rights, be they civil and political or economic, social, and cultural. The contents of human rights are not realized in a vacuum. Rights talk will be inadequate if it does not incorporate the political reality and the contexts of the people. In chapter three I will address the rights issues from an interdisciplinary approach, utilizing such perspectives as history, sociology, and cultural studies. Through cultural studies I will explore the prevailing socio-economic model in Africa and show how the communal solidarity as a distinctive characteristic of African societies has the potential of both fostering as well as undermining justice in most African societies. Specifically, I will examine the traditional Igbo model of solidarity as an example of both the opportunities and tensions in the relationship between secular human rights and traditional values in bringing about poverty reduction and social justice in Africa. The goal of focusing on one culture is for an in-depth examination and to avoid overgeneralization. I will allude to an aspect of the culture that has been established beyond doubt to be a shared characteristic of all societies on African continent. Specifically, I will retrieve the core concept of ‘mmadu/chi’ in Igbo, “ujamaa” in Swahili, or ‘ubuntu’ in Bantu language, which speaks of solidarity and shared humanity as a basis of building just societies and overcoming human degradation . In chapter four I will draw upon the wisdom of the synodal fathers at the recently concluded Second Synod of African Catholic Bishops, which took place in Rome from the 4th to 25th October, 2009 as well as from the traditional Christian social vision of Imago Dei and agape for this reflection. These Christian values and the core African values are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they mutually complement each other. The integration of the African and Christian core values is necessary for providing motivation and justification for human rights on a macro level of the African societies. In this chapter I will show how the principles of Christian social teaching such as common good, solidarity, and social justice can expand the African communal solidarity for the guarantee of the basic rights of all in modern pluralistic African societies. I am not unaware that such a Gospel vision of the society where everyone counts and everyone is responsible for all is an ideal. It is the responsibility of the members of a community to constantly work in order to realize such an inclusive, just, and peaceful society. For African continent the quest to build such a society goes beyond fulfilling the minimal economic rights of individuals to include the healing of the memories of African people who have been individually and collectively violated by the many years of unjust socio-religious, political, and economic realities. In chapter five I will show how the call for reconciliation, justice, and peace, which was the theme of the Second Synod, not only can create a harmonious society, but also bring about a society where there is abundance of life. Using the situation of Nigeria, I will demonstrate how social reconciliation is a privileged instance of realizing African solidarity and how rights, rather than constituting adversarial relationships as in western philosophical liberalism, support integral and comprehensive reconciliation of groups and peoples. I will also show the importance of the inclusion of the modern legal/juridical instrument of justice to address the root causes of conflict and violence in Nigeria. So far the focus is narrowly on the immediate interest of the human person. To a large extent one can say that the attention to the immediate wellbeing of human person in Africa is justified as long as poverty and injustice in African society continue to endanger the human species in this part of the world. However, the solution to creating a society where life flourishes in a sustainable way is not limited to a narrow anthropocentric outlook on life. The exclusively anthropocentric view on life makes human beings embark on a reckless exploitation of nature in order to satisfy not only the basic needs rights, but also the superfluous wants of human person. The growing research on climate change and other ecological problems that arise from excessive industrialism shows a link between human degradation and the neglect of the environment. In this chapter six I will demonstrate the inadequacy of the prevailing economic incentive solution to environmental crisis, such as pervasive environmental pollution in Niger Delta, Nigeria. I will examine how the promotion of the African communal solidarity that extends to the environment in addition to the modern environment ethics that advocates for respect for nature can help human beings desist from considering only the instrumental value of other members of the ecosystem to embark on recognizing their inherent worth. Such attitude to nature will make the earth not only habitable for us, but also preserve it for future generations. In this last chapter I will show that at the end, the search for justice, reconciliation, peace, and flourishing of life on African continent is the search for a peaceful and just ecological family. This last task will be followed by a general recapitulation of the main points, a consideration of areas for further research, and a conclusion. The African crisis is a complex one. Therefore, it will be presumptuous on my part to claim to deal with the complexity of the African situation in one single piece of research. Moreover, in beginning this research from the rights perspective, I am also aware of my limits as a student of theology and social theory in understanding all the technicalities involved in both international human and environmental rights discourse. I am approaching the rights language with the firm conviction that rights are first of all a common human experience before they become legal/juridical issues. So the rights addressed in this thesis focus on the human dignity that flows from simply being human. Finally, there is a major shift in the social sciences. Not only is there growing need for interdisciplinary approaches to problems, but also, no single discipline claims to possess an exclusive and exhaustive solution to human problems. The area that is rarely explored is how theology (African and Christian) and rights ought to interact to advance human solidarity and dignity as well as flourishing of life in Africa. The exploration of such approach has become necessary for the liberation of the African people from poverty and misery. The originality of this research is in advancing the debate.

Item Type: Thesis (Licentiate)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Divisions: Africana
Depositing User: Tim Khabala
Date Deposited: 13 Sep 2017 07:34
Last Modified: 13 Sep 2017 07:34

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item