Some notes on AIAC’s quest to choose “The most influential African thinker alive”

Africa Is a Country launched yesterday an extremely interesting initiative – a poll to choose “The most influential African thinker alive”. Voting is open until next Monday and I urge to do it – and also to nominate other possibilities, as they will take into consideration those names most put forward.

Personally, I have just voted and also left a comment/rant on AIAC’s blog, raising some questions which surround the possible choice. I copy it below.

I would love to hear more thoughts on this!

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 century 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!

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