The most influential African thinker

If we could ask our readers (and critics, and everyone else) to pick Africa's most insightful intellectual, who would they pick? 

Mahmood Mamdani (via Wiki Commons).

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 own 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 off, 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.

Achille Mbembe (Photo: Heike Huslage-Koch / Wikimedia Commons).

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 some of you like, 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?

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:

The candidates are:
Samir Amin, academic, activist (Senegal/Egypt)
Jean and John Comaroff, academics (South Africa/United States),
Chinua Achebe, writer (Nigeria),
Mahmood Mamdani, academic (Uganda),
Mamdouh Habashi, academic, politician (Egypt),
Kwame Anthony Appiah, academic, philosopher (Ghana/United States),
Achille Mbembe, academic (Cameroon/South Africa),
 J M Coetzee, writer (South Africa/Australia),
Issa Shivji, academic (Tanzania),
Nawal el Saadawi, writer and activist (Egypt),
Wole Soyinka, writer, activist (Nigeria), and
Virginie Toure, activist (Cote d’Ivoire).

Further Reading