The most influential African thinker alive

At the end of 2011 we contemplated asking you, dear reader, who you think was the most influential African thinker alive. We abandoned the idea for a while because of our thing against lists (except our end of year lists, of course). I got the initial idea from the British blog, Left Foot Forward, which had run a contest to determine “the most influential leftwing thinker of the year 2010/11.” The result of the Left Foot Forward contest is here. Based on reader choices, Left Foot Forward came up with the usual suspects (among others, economist and columnist Paul Krugman, columnist Polly Toynbee, journalist Will Hutton, author and academic Owen Jones, and Caroline Lucas, the leader of Britain’s Green Party) but also with some strange ones (Tony Blair? Barack Obama? Bernard Henri-Lévy?). On that latter group: it is true that one man’s leftwing is another’s rightwing. That said, an inevitable blind spot of Left Foot Forward’s list was that “left-wing thinker” is synonymous with “Anglo American,” and of course heavily British. So, it got me thinking: If we could ask our readers (and critics, and everyone else) to do the same thing, who would you pick?

So here we are. To start things of, we came up with a list of candidates we canvassed internally. Not everyone will be happy with the list, but we tried thinking of a range of intellectuals representing different parts of the continent, not just from one country. As South African writer Zakes Mda recently tweeted: “Zimbabwe compares only with Nigeria in the per capita production of African intellectuals (scholars, writers, scientists, economists etc.)” In fact, an earlier draft of the List was heavily South African and Egyptian. (That draft was not supposed to be up and one reader responded in kind. It’s been corrected.)

We confess this list is subjective and that is why we have a second round where your suggestions will make up the choices.

Others wanted to know why we’re not including people on twitter: Our response is that we are not sure 140 characters make you “an intellectual.” A lot of stuff on twitter, including our own tweets, is half-baked and amounts to what Americans call “carnival barking” (in the service of traffic or attracting followers), so it is better to leave that alone. (Of course, some of the people below have twitter accounts.)

A next consideration was: the list of names below might be well-loved voices among the intellectual chattering classes, but how influential are they really? For example, the Comaroffs are certainly academics whom we all respect, but how many people would even have heard of them as opposed to intellectuals who write in the popular press and shape thinking more broadly perhaps. We wondered about that, but realized we could not find a serious thinker who could rival them while writing in the popular press.

The polls will open today and you can vote till next Monday. Once polls close, we will arrive at a shortlist of five. Then it gets interesting: We will have a second, separate round of voting based on your recommendations. That is while you vote in round one, we’ll compile a list of ten names from your suggestions in the comment section, on our facebook page and on Twitter. Candidates who are already on the first list, won’t be included on the second. A second vote/poll will proceed and we’ll announce the result. We will then combine the top five vote takers from the second list with the top five vote takers from the first list. There will then be a third and final round of voting based on the new combined list that will take one week. After that we will announce the overall winner. How’s that? So here are our candidates for round one:



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. You criticised the Left Foot Forward list for been too Anglo-American and British. What is the difference with your list, which is heavily South Africa (6/12) and Egypt (4/12)? Are you trying to tell us that most of Africa’s thinkers are South Africans and Egyptians?

    As a protest, I refuse to vote.

  2. Ngugi wa Thiong’o? Ali Mazrui? great scholars from Kenya! I can’t vote because this is not a realistic depiction of Africa’s finest thinkers!

  3. Tajudeen Abdul Raheem? Yes he is gone but his thought and influence lives on. And he has only been gone since 2009.
    I second Dambisa Moyo.
    Ayaan Ali?
    Would have been useful, perhaps, to have some clarity about ‘intellectual’ and ‘influential’

  4. First of all, congratulations AIAC for this initiative – and for you initial list. Very high quality names there.

    Second, my reservations:

    A first obervation is that I could not agree more with some of the questions above regarding what defining “influential” may mean and its relationship to “intellectual”. Influential in the sense that it reaches and shapes the mind of many people? In that sense, probably some of the continent religious leaders should be included. Desmond Tutu springs to mind.
    Influential in the sense that can sway political decisions and affect policies, then someone like Dambisa Moyo, as it has been suggested should be up there (although I am not convinced by her intellectual weight). By contrast, someone like Appiah – rightly in your list – is extremely influential within academic circles, but is this sphere of influence not too reduced to be considered as influential?

    A second one concerns the definition of intellectual presupposed here. We are looking mostly at XX intellectuals – of which Africa had a great number and of high quality – but maybe the character of intellectuals are different.
    I believe technological changes mean that Ory Okolloh – as suggested above – should indeed be considered among those most influentials.
    Also the social dimension of influence would require considering activists – as you rightfully have Virginie Toure, but including also Aminata Traoré (Mali), or S’bu Zikode (from the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement).
    And the cultural dimension of influence: K’naan has been suggested, but also Ntone Edjabe from Chimurenga, or artists such as Yinka Shonibare (British-Nigerian, true, so what is the definition of African is another question – not ready to open this one though!)

    Besides these observations and suggestions for the next list, two glaring omissions from your list in my view.
    One, has already been suggested Ngugi wa Thiong’o – since his “decolonising the mind”, very few people have been more influential in terms of the philosophy and politics of language.
    The other one is – I suspect – much more controversial (although I would love to read people’s views on this). I hesitate about him being defined as intellectual, but nonetheless he has devoted a lot of time to think about Africa and Africans, at the same time as being extremely influential in the continent politics. This is Thabo Mbeki, of “I am an Africa” speech, African Renaissance ideas and also mediator in international conflicts. Suitable for the list?

    Thanks again for the initiative and look forward to the final list!

  5. The most influential African thinker alive is not known to most of us (and certainly not the TED crowd). He is most likely to be a religious figure – either from a branch of Fundamentalist Islam or from Evangelical Christianity.

    If he is Muslim, he is likely to be Egyptian and his medium of communication is likely to Arabic. If he Christian, he is likely to be Nigerian and have a permanent slot on several cable TV channels.

    These individuals hold sway over millions of poor Africans who have never heard about most of the names on this list presented.

    We may not agree with any of these individuals, but to deny their influence is merely to lie to one’s self.

    Can any one guess who these people / this person could be?

    1. That’s a good point. Probably David Oyedepo (Winner’s Chapel). That I recognize his influence doesn’t mean I like him or his politics though.

      What about Aminata Traore?

      1. How can Aminata Traore be the most influential African when nobody outside Mali even knows she exists? I don’t and I can claim to be reasonably well educated and nobody I know does.

        If the truth must be told, David Oyedepo, Chris Oyakhilome and Ernest Adeboye are more influential than anyone on that list – they are well known through out Christian Africa.

        Rashid Al-Ghannushi is more influential than Nawal el-Saadawi ever was in Muslim Africa.

        I think we Western obsessed intellectuals suffer from a mental block. An “Arab Spring” movement took place in Northern Africa and new regimes were established. On what principles were these regimes established? Do these principles have anything to do with anyone on that list?

  6. Oh, I was so disappointed at not seeing many women in your list that… I overlooked the “alive” detail. This rules out 2 out of 4… But I add Nadine Gordimer, so long.

  7. Thank you for making the initial list and starting this conversation. It seems like there could be more women on this list. How about Waangari Maathai? Aminata Sow Fall? Leymah Gbowee? Ama Ata Aidoo? Flora Nwapa?

  8. This is not relevant. It’d be better to introduce us to these thinkers and let us know what they are about instead of building a hall of fame.
    As a senegalese, I know only 4 persons on the list!

  9. 20 Comments and the silence is more than deafening. I would say that was such an Economist move that you pulled in coming up with the list of nominees.

    1. @Maina: we’re not quiet; we’ve been monitoring suggestions in the comments section. We will have a response to suggestions and a new list next week. We are careful not to give endorsements. One point we’ll make clear is that people who have passed away won’t make the second round list.

    1. Please can anyone tell me what Wangaari has done and what exactly her impact has been? I live in Nigeria very few people know whether she existed. Yes she was a celebrated environmentalist, but did her influence extend beyond the borders of Kenya?

      Some of us assume that individuals that are celebrated in the West are automatically influential throughout Africa.

      Dambisa, on the other hand, is very popular with the intellectual class here. Naturally because she rails against overpaid aid workers and the aid industry that relentlessly paints a negative picture of Africa.

  10. Agree re: Amina Mama, unfortunately Wangaari Mathaai passed away a few months ago but Sylvia Tamale should also definitely be on the list!

  11. I’m amazed that Frantz Fanon isn’t on that list, either – is he a well-known thinker in Martinique, or is he simply an African thinker who happens to be lauded by left-wing Westerners?

    1. Fanon was an Afro-Caribbean thinker, not an African one. Martinique is definitely not a part of Africa …

  12. And: Historian Jacob Ukunoritsemofe Gordon, Nigeria and USA, African and African Diaspora history.

  13. Yeh I so think that africa must wake up and smell the coffee, we must fight for a realistic version of life eg; education systems is all fake…y are our puppets so stupid they not even thinking we’re do we come from. Yestaday we were kings so can we tell the young ones who is us today, slaves it is. As for the disease called HIV….africa let’s wake up. A revolution of a mind is when u still a child

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