Biafra . . .
In our time it came again . . .
Emboldened by half a millennium
Of conquest, battering
On new oil dividends, are now
At its black throat squeezing . . .
Must Africa have
To come a third time?
—Chinua Achebe, “Biafra, 1969”1
In his analysis of human rights languages and metaphors, Makau Mutua argues that the human rights project reproduces colonial imageries of Africa’s savagery and barbarism. In his early work, Mutua argued that human rights discourse is characterized by a narrative of saviors, victims, and savages, where the victims and savages are Africans in need of rescue and civilization. Although the position of “savage” has now shifted from individuals to the African state, Mutua’s tripartite classification remains intact in many analyses of the role of human rights discourses and practices in Africa. The emphasis is on Africans’ cultural incapacity to rule, and human rights are proposed as a means through which to rebuild the African nation-state, exemplifying liberal democracy and good governance. Although such tropes continue to infuse contemporary human rights and humanitarian languages and practices, a narrow focus on a savior/savage analysis overlooks the strategies and social positions of various translocal actors and their conscious appropriation of these languages and metaphors. Such a dichotomous analysis of human rights and humanitarian practices also prevents us from understanding how various transnational players mobilize gender, ethnic, and class disparities to fight for justice and contest the global connections that produce violence and dispossession at this particular moment. This special issue highlights these nuances and explores interconnected themes related to the cultural politics of human rights and humanitarianism in Africa.
Ongoing political conflicts in Africa, such as those in the Congo and the two Sudans, together with other transformations initiated by the Arab Spring in 2011, continue to generate debate about human rights and humanitarian interventions in the continent. Building on Mutua’s critique, the authors in this dossier move beyond the savior/savage narrative to re-interrogate the meaning of rights and national and transnational solidarities in the post–Cold War era. The five essays here examine the tensions between master narratives and counternarratives, the mobilization of new celebrities and humanitarian activists, the “intimate politics” of rights in low-income urban households, the re-Orientalization of Islam and Muslim cultures, and the continuous denial of pastoralists’ land rights.