Justice and the Othered Minority

Lessons from African Communalism
  • Anselm Kole JimohEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


There are minority groups in every human society, which are often leftovers of the “one” major group of persons within such society viewed as the self-contained group that has nothing to do with the “other” minority groups. The Other is conventionally seen as a threat to the one. Othering within societies invariably results in the exclusion of the Other from the one. By Othering, we mentally or practically classify an individual or group as “not one of us” and, therefore, inferior or less a human person than we are, a process of casting another person, group, or object into a position or role different from mine or ours, and I or we consequently establish my or our identity in opposition to the Other person in a relationship of superiority that allows me or us vilify the Other. Through Othering, we create a system of social exclusion that systematically blocks the Othered minority individual or group from rights and opportunities that are fundamentally the prerogative of all. Hence, issues of justice for the Othered minority naturally arise. This is manifested in the xenophobic treatment of African foreigners in South Africa and Christian minority groups in the mainly Muslim North of Nigeria. The socially excluded is confined to the fringe of society as the minority, whose basic and fundamental rights become privileges by virtue of the Otherness. This chapter critically analyzes and evaluates the manner of othering and exclusion of minority groups in African societies. My primary concern is to examine the role of African communitarian theory in the face of Othering in African societies. I argue that our constant awareness and acknowledgment of our commonness beyond self-contained groups ensures justice and equity in our interpersonal relationships in any human society.


Othering Justice Xenophobia Globalization African communalism 


The empirical manifestation of differences in the global world at large and African societies in particular requires a critical analysis, especially within the context of well-known African communitarianism. Every human person is a composite of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, etc. These vary in degrees as individuals differ by virtue of environmental, social, psychological, and mental abilities. These differentiations do not make an individual a lesser person than the “Other” individual. “Othering,” which is a concept that encapsulates the phenomenon of differentiations, invariably results in the exclusion of the “Othered.” It negates the fact that human differentiations do not ontologically imply one lesser or inferior individual to another superior individual. It classifies persons in society into the minority and the majority. Often, the minority groups are treated as inferior, and their fundamental rights are considered privileges by the majority group. Aside the issues of justice herein, such classifications have resulted to violent conflicts in form of ethnic and religious clashes. Specific cases would be the xenophobic treatment of African foreigners, especially Nigerians, in South African and the rancorous relationship between the Christian minority groups in the mainly Muslim North of Nigeria.

In this chapter, I shall critically explore the concept of Othering, the question of justice in relation to Othering, and the implication of Othering for human coexistence. The aim is to examine the role of African communitarianism in the phenomenon of Othering. My argument is that our constant awareness and acknowledgment of our commonness beyond the self-contained groups ensures justice and equity in our interpersonal relationships in any human society. For a systematic presentation, therefore, this chapter is divided into four main sections: (i) a philosophical theorization of the notion of Othering, (ii) the implication of Othering for human peaceful coexistence, (iii) the injustice of Othering, and (iv) African communitarianism and Othering.

Philosophizing the Notion of “the Other” and “Othering”

The “Other” could be an individual, religious group, gender group, race, sexual minority, or nation. Essentially, Othering casts the “Other” into a role that is often a lesser or inferior one; thus, it is a superior/inferior distinction. It connotes denigration and scapegoating by denying the Other the basic characteristics that make her the “Same.” These include reason, dignity, love, pride heroism, nobility, and ultimately human rights. The differentiation instantiated by Othering establishes a group’s (or individual’s) own identity against another group (or individual) through opposing the other group or individual in a manner that vilifies the “Other.” An example of this is the ancient Greeks’ classification of non-Greeks as “barbarian.” (cf. Harrison 2002). This typical example of Othering continues to manifest itself in different forms throughout human history to present day civilization.

Othering is a systematic distinction between “the Us” and “the Them,” which creates the grounds for the Other to be exploited and oppressed. It is a process by which “the Us” differentiate themselves from “the Them,” a form of reductive action in which an individual or group is labelled and conceived as a subordinate social category. The Othered is excluded as unfit to belong according to the norm of the social group. By social group, I mean two or more people who interact with one another because they share same characteristics and, therefore, have a collective sense of unity (Turner 1982, 15–40). Othering is a twenty-first-century problem that undergirds territorial disputes, sectarian violence, military conflict; spreads disease, hunger, and food insecurity; and implicates climate change (Sassen 2014, 149–151).

Othering includes various expressions of prejudice based on group identities to propagate inequality and marginality. The most noticeable expressions are in racism and ethnocentrism, a situation in which persons of different races and cultures are evaluated on preconceived standards and customs of one’s own race and culture and adjudged inferior and, therefore, subjugated. John Powell and Stephen Menedian (2016) define Othering as “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.” Although, they do not consider the dynamics, processes, and structures referred to here as universal, they consider the core mechanisms by which they engender marginality as largely similar across contexts. In other words, while their axes of differences vary contextually, they involve similar set of underlying dynamics.

Othering is expressed in a variety of ways. These include among others religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone. They all share similar broadly inclusive conceptual framework that captures various expressions of prejudice and behaviors which include, but go beyond, atavism and tribalism. For example, religion, sex, and exclusionary norms of gender-based Othering transcend tribes, ethnicity, culture, and races; yet they are active expressions of Othering. This chapter is particularly interested in the Othering based on religion and ethnicity as they relate to the Muslim-Christian clashes in Northern Nigeria and xenophobia in South Africa, respectively.

Othering is initiated in different ways. It could arise from an encounter between civilizations that hitherto had no previous knowledge of each other, like the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Within a few years, the native or indigenous inhabitants of the New World were enslaved through torture and killing; their culture and civilization was despoiled, desecrated, and destroyed, the underlying issue being the conception that the natives were not of the same species as their conquerors. Aside arising from initial encounter between two traditions, culture and civilization, Othering can also be the product of two groups that are quite familiar with each other, even lived peacefully in close proximity for centuries. The Bosnia cleansing and the Rwandan genocide and, in more recent times, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the now perennial religious insurgences in Northern Nigeria are typical examples.

Otherness as the characteristics of the Other connotes being different from the social identity of a person; it is identifying with the self in opposition to the Other (Miller 2008, 588–591). This conception is espoused in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949); “the Other,” which for De Beauvoir is the second, is a construction in opposition to the self, vice versa. As Powell and Menedian (2016) aver, “studies since the 1950s demonstrate the tendency of people to identify with whom they are grouped, no matter how arbitrary or even silly the group boundaries may be, and to judge members of their own group as superior.” According to researchers in mind sciences, human beings naturally tend toward categorical distinctions, even though the categories that emerge from these distinctions and the meanings that are associated with them are socially determined. Thus, Douglas Massey states that “human beings are cognitively programmed to form conceptual categories and use them to classify the people they counter” (2007, 242). Some of the fundamental factors that contribute to this cognitive programming include our environments and social contexts; they prime us to observe particular differences and prescribe for us which differences are important and which ones are not. Associations that evolve from such human classifications are descriptive and transmit social meanings that guide how we navigate our social worlds (Powell and Menedian 2016).

Sociologists, in the 1950s, postulated the theory of “group position” to explain how race prejudices develop. Herbert Blumer (1958) thus expresses it as follows:

Through talk, tales, stories, gossip, anecdotes, pronouncements, news accounts, orations, sermons, preachments, and the like, definitions are presented and feelings expressed … If the interaction becomes increasingly circular and reinforcing, devoid of serious inner opposition, such currents grow, fuse, and become strengthened. It is through such a process that a collective image of a subordinate group is formed, and a sense of group position is set.

By implication, boundaries and meanings assigned to group definitions result from complex collective and social processes. They are not products of individual bias or interactions. Therefore, group-based identities and the meanings assigned to them evolve simultaneously from a complex social process of interactions rather than an orderly, sequential process (Powell and Menedian 2016). Once group-based identities are established, they become fundamental and affect our perception of the groups involved.
Even though the notion of Othering was first coined by Gayari C. Spivak as a systematic theoretical concept, it draws on several philosophical and theoretical traditions (Jensen 2011, 64), traceable to the Hegelian master-slave dialectics. The latter is often understood as a theory of self and other where the self is constituted against the other. Lajos Brons very lucidly articulates the influence of Hegel on the notion of Othering when he states that:

Under the influence of Hegel… and Freud…, ‘the other’ became a central, albeit rather polymorphous theme in much 20th century French philosophy. The concept of ‘the other’ has been used (therein) to designate a range of rather different but interrelated ideas that are not always (clearly) distinguished. (2015, 74)

The French existentialist, De Beauvoir, draws largely on the Hegelian notion to articulate her position on how men are considered the norm against women who are considered as the Other. She argues that women are only conscious of themselves according to the characterization given to them by men, which constitutes the Otherness of women and produces a subjectivity (cf. Hughes and Witz 1997, 49). On the basis of her theorization, she develops a theory of self and other to argue gender and hierarchical social differentiations (Hughes and Witz 1997, 16). According to her, “the category of the Other is as fundamental as consciousness itself…otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. No group ever defines itself without simultaneously posting the Other facing itself” (1949, 18).

Emmanuel Levinas had earlier presented a critical ethical position that differs from that of De Beauvoir. For Levinas (1948), “the other” is another individual, mind, or body that is mostly not known to the interpreting self. This understanding overturns the Western notion of a paradigmatic relation between the self and the Other, where the other plays no significant role or its reduced to a faceless enemy (Brons 2015, 74). Elsewhere, Levinas (1979) considers the Western conceptualization a solipsistic negation of the Other based on a repugnance for the proximity of the other. The latter is consequent upon the antipathy for the inaccessibility of the Other by the self. Therefore, in Levinas’ understanding, the Other is “a neighbour, and the self is constituted in its relation with that other-as-neighbour” (Brons 2015, 74).

Edward Said conceives Otherness in terms of imaginary geography that is reductionistic, distancing, and pathologizing. Using the Orient and Europe as case study, he argues that “the Orient is incorporated and fixed, as the function of orientalism” (cf. Jensen 2011, 64). This is characterizing “the Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theoretical stage whose audience, managers and actors are for Europe, and only for Europe” (Said 1978, 71–72). Said’s Orientalism “combines a notion of ‘the other’ with exocticism, the commercial exploitation of constructed otherness, to analyse the Occidental picture of the Orient” (Brons 2015, 74). The West considered the Orient as “the others” who are to be studied by them (the West). The Orient are basically opposite, inferior, and passive; they are to be ruled and dominated by the West, who are considered superior and active. Such a consideration unveils the realization that we define ourselves through the Other and understand ourselves within the context of what we are not (Kitzinger and Wilkinson 1996, 8).

Jacques Lacan provided an abstract theoretical explication of Otherness in which he conceives “the other as something (more than someone) outside of and/or in some way opposed to the self” (Brons 2015, 74). Lacan’s idea brings two important points to the fore: (i) the central role of language in constituting identity and (ii) the fact that identity is fundamentally gained in the gaze of the powerful (Gingrich 2004, 11). According to Lacan, we form the ego in our early stages of development as children, when we contemplate our faces in a mirror. We recognize ourselves as an Other against the consciousness of the subject. This is, thereafter, sustained in the recognition of the Other against our self-consciousness. Louis Althusser explains this with the concept of interpellation, which is an ideological notion in Marxist theory. Interpellation refers to how major social and political institutions constitute the identities of individual subjects by “hailing” them into social interactions (1971, 11). Here, individuals are structured by ideology to occupy specific subject positions, which confers identity on them (Jensen 2011, 64).

Lawrence Cahoone summarizes the notion of “the Other” in postmodernist literature and theoretical context as “the apparent identity of what appear to be cultural units … maintained only through constitutive repression, an active process of exclusion, opposition, and hierarchization” (2003, 11). In other words, Othering implies a hierarchical dualism in which the first is privileged or favored and the Other is deprivileged or devalued. Often, the process is veiled in such a way that the hierarchical dualism is assumed to be inherent rather than something constructed.

Inferring from the foregoing theorizations, Spivak describes Othering as a multidimensional process, which consists in several forms of social differentiations. This can be understood as, or in conjunction with the notion of intersectionality, interlocking systems of oppression. Kimberié Crenshaw (1991) coined the term intersectionality as an analytical framework to describe bias and violence against black women; it explains how interlocking systems of power impact on the most marginalized in the society. According to her, intersectionality is a lens through which we comprehend where power comes and collides and where power interlocks and intersects. It considers class, race, sexual orientation, disability, and gender as various aspects of humanity that exist together in a complexly interwoven process.

For Spivak, Othering is classed, raced, and gendered. It “concerns the consequences of racism, sexism, class (or combination hereof) in terms of symbolic degradation as well as the process of identity formation related to this degradation” (Jensen 2011, 65). Identity formation in Othering “assumes that subordinate people are offered, and at the same time relegated to, subject positions as others in discourse. In these processes, it is the centre that has power to describe, and the other is constructed as inferior” (Jensen 2011, 65).

Contemporary literature on Othering fundamentally builds on Spivak’s conception. For instance, Mette Andersson considers Othering as a process of racialization (2010, 7). For Ruth Lister, it is the “process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – between the more and the less powerful – and through which social distance is established and maintained” (2004, 101). Michael Schwalbe elucidates this understanding when he describes Othering as “the defining into existence of a group of people who are identifiable, from the standpoint of a group with the capacity to dominate, as inferior” (2000, 777). In this process, a dominant group defines into existence another group that is considered inferior (Schwalbe et al. 2000, 422); the inferiority extends to the moral and intellectual aspects of the Other. Therefore, the Other becomes a stereotype and are ultimately dehumanized (Lister 2004, p. 102). These various conceptualizations present Othering as a reductionism that essentially lowers or diminishes the Othered to some negative characteristics.

On this basis, Jensen defines Othering as:

[The] discursive processes by which powerful groups, who may or may not make up a numerical majority, define subordinate groups into existence in a reductionist way which ascribe problematic and/or inferior characteristics to these subordinate groups. Such discursive processes affirm the legitimacy and superiority of the powerful and condition identity formation among the subordinate. (Jensen 2011, 65)

This definition captures the sense in which I employ the concept of Othering in this paper, a system of social exclusion that brings about imbalance of power. The Othered is considered a threat and as such blocked off and deprived of fundamental rights and privileges that are the prerogative of all. The Othered, considered as a threat, is fenced off, discriminated against, and made to feel unwanted, except she contents with being the second fiddle. Such a situation precipitates issues of justice as the Othered is fundamentally denied rights and fairness. This is the case with the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the rancorous relationship between the minority Christians and the majority Muslims in Northern Nigeria.

Othering and Human Peaceful Coexistence

As the hundred-day genocidal rampage by majority Hutu against the minority Tutsi of Rwanda demonstrated to the world, Othering has a dangerous implication for our peaceful coexistence as human beings. It plants a seed of toxic hatred among individuals and groups, who, otherwise, could and should coexist in harmony and peace. It breeds harmful discriminations among individuals and groups and creates boundaries that are inscribed in our minds. Consciously and unconsciously these boundaries manifest in the world as they inform our decisions and thereby affect our behavior (Krieger 1995). The ubiquity of Othering makes its expressions vary across time and space. The xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the rancorous relationship between the minority Christians and the majority Muslims in Northern Nigeria are case studies of the implication of othering for human peaceful coexistence.

Xenophobia in South Africa as a Case of Othering: Xenophobia is the fear and distrust for what is considered strange and foreign. A situation in which we are suspicion of the activities of the Other such that we generate the desire to eliminate the presence of the Other in an attempt to secure our purity and identity. It exalts one’s culture with exotic, stereotyped, and unreal qualities (Bolaffi 2003, 332).

Although they do not exactly mean the same thing, xenophobia and racism are often confused and used interchangeably. Racism does not have a single definition in contemporary times; it, however, generally refers to the belief that one race is superior to another and the consequent discrimination against the conceived inferior race. It is the “belief that humans are subdivided into distinct groups that are different in their social behaviour and innate capacities and that can be ranked as superior or inferior” (Newman 2012, 405). On the other hand, xenophobia is distinguished by opposition to foreign culture and not necessarily to people of another race. The confusion between both concepts arises from the possibility that people who share the same national origin may also belong to the same race. Following its Greek roots, the Oxford English Dictionary (2004) defines it as “deep-rooted fear towards foreigners.” We may describe xenophobia as a kind of new racism that discriminates against the Other based on nationality or ethnicity.

Recently, there has been a wave of xenophobic attacks against makwerekweres (a derogatory term used for foreigners) in South Africa. These attacks, far from being sporadic, are the consequences of long-simmering anti-migrant sentiments which have steadily increased in the country since the 1990s. With the collapse of apartheid South Africa, the country’s borders became open to foreign migration. Dissatisfied with failed democracy promises, many South Africans directed the blame to foreigners, attributing the lack of employment and scarce resources to foreigners rather than the whites or the government (Bridger 2015). The fear or hatred of foreigners has a long history in South Africa. It can be dated back to the 1914 looting of British-owned shops by poor Afrikaners (Giliomee 2003, 383).

Apartheid South Africa was strategically isolated from the rest of the world. There was censorship of information and global culture by her apartheid leaders. Leaders of other nations restricted economic ties and applied cultural and sporting sanctions against the apartheid government. In schools, students were taught selective history, which left them largely unaware of the history and politics of other countries. The resulting ignorance from the latter has contributed to the present hostilities toward foreigners (Morris 1998, 11–25). During the apartheid era, South Africa was considered an exception in the African continent because of the European population and level of civilization. It was considered different from the supposedly homogenous, dark, and undifferentiated Africa. Although apartheid has ended, there is no much shift in this thinking as there are still frequent derogatory references to other African countries whose nationals are blamed for the country’s high rate of crime. Furthermore, apartheid created a deep line of division between South Africans as the apartheid system was built on ridged divisions between those who belonged and those who did not (Bridger 2015). Violence was the common way of policing the boundaries of exclusionary citizenship. This subsequently fostered a culture that considered violence as a legitimate means of resolving conflicts, gaining power, and inflicting punishment. Such culture seems to have become a default position in moments of pressure as it is still commonly used to separate the “Us” from the “Them.” Thus, historically, South Africans are poised toward disliking persons of other nationalities.

The worsening situation of xenophobic violence in South Africa since 1994 is attributed to:

The country’s violent past, inadequate service delivery and the influence of micro politics in townships, involvement and complicity of local authority members in contractor conflicts for economic and political reasons, failure of early warning and prevention mechanism regarding community-based violence; and also local residents claims that foreigners took jobs opportunities away from local South Africans and they accept lower wages, foreigner do not participate in the struggle for better wages and working conditions. Other local South Africans claim that foreigners are criminals, and they should not have access to services and police protection. Foreigners are also blamed for their businesses that take away customers from local residents and the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Other South Africans do not particularly like the presence of refugees, asylum-seekers or foreigners in the communities. (“Xenophobic violence in democratic South Africa”)

The high level of industrialization of South Africa makes it attractive to foreigners, especially African foreigners, who seek greener pastures. The influx of such migrants puts pressure on the available resources and, therefore, generates competition. This often translates to dislike of non-nationals on the part of the recipient state. It leads to profiling people and insinuating negative assumptions based on nationality. From 1994 to 2015, there was a steady progression on documented cases of xenophobic attacks in South African townships. Victims of these attacks were mostly African foreigners from Congo, Somalia, Senegal, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria among others.

Irrespective of these explanations that allude to economic crises, political transition, relative deprivation, and apartheid, all of which contain some truth but not sufficient, Hussein Solomon and Hitomi Kosaka insist that “the most important reasons behind the prevalence of xenophobia in South Africa are economic and the tendency to criminalise foreigners” (2013, 26). The basic cause of xenophobia is the misguided sense that foreigners constitute a threat to the identity and individual rights of the recipients.

Issues about the rights of foreign nationals and the safety of living in South Africa naturally arise from such violence against them. Thus, xenophobia is a social justice issue that cannot be neglected. It “undermines social cohesion, peaceful co-existence, and good governance, and constitutes a violation of human rights” (Solomon and Kosaka 2013, 6). Social justice issues are not selective, such that we support social justice for some and not for others. As human beings, irrespective of ethnicity and/or culture, we all have basic fundamental rights based on our human nature. One of such rights is freedom from discrimination. To trample on anyone of our basic fundamental human rights is to perpetrate injustice against human nature.

Christian-Muslim Relations in Northern Nigeria: Nigeria is “currently battling so many religious and ethno religious conflicts that has created toxicity and mutual distrust between Muslim and Christian communities” (Quadri 2015). There are, of course, many parts of Africa that suffer currently from deteriorating relations between Muslims and Christians. Nigeria’s case, however, seems more obvious. Since the 1990s, the conflicts between Muslims and Christians in Northern Nigeria have worsened and become violent and deadly. It is quite a complex situation that some trace back to the British colonialist venture in Nigeria (Smith 2015, 7).

The Sokoto Caliphate was captured in 1903 and made the Northern Protectorate by the British colonialist. In 1960 it became part of the independent Federal Republic of Nigeria. The dominant group and leadership were Muslims, while the ethnic minority Christians were Christians. According to Taiye Adamolekun, Islam and Christianity coexisted peacefully prior to the birth of modern Nigeria with the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates by Sir Frederick Lord Lugard. Both religions competed for converts from traditional religion, although the competition was cutthroat, but it was peaceful as both religions tolerate each other believing that family solidarity was more important than that of religion (2013, 59). However, with the objection of some Muslims to Christian evangelization in 1991 that turned violent, the relationship between the majority Muslim and minority Christian communities has become rancorous, sometimes characterized with orgies of killing and looting (Smith 2015, 7).

Militant Islamic fundamentalism, which is largely responsible for the rancor that has deepened between the Muslims and Christians in Northern Nigeria, began in the early 1980s. Militant Islamic groups perpetrated atrocities that destabilized particularly the northern part of Nigeria. These include:

The Maitasine uprising in Kano city in December 1980, the Bulunkutu uprising in Maiduguri in October 1982, the various religious riots in Kaduna in October 1982, Jimeta, Yola riots [in] 1984, Kastina riot, Gombe riot [in] 1985, the Kafanchan riots, Tafawa Balewa, Zango Kataf and the violent demonstrations in Sabon-Gari, Kano by Muslim Students Society (MSS) in October 1992 … All these series of riots were characterised as religious crises or conflict aimed at purifying religion. (Adamolekun 2013, 62)

Matthew Kukah (1993) asserts that these religious crises, especially the Kafanchan crisis in Kaduna state, were a turning point in the relations between Christian minority communities and the majority Muslim communities. No gainsaying that the rancorous relationship between the Muslim majority and Christian minority Northern Nigeria is an expression of a form of Othering, which the British colonial policy of Indirect Rule worsened. According to Moses Ochonu (2014), the Indirect Rule policy is:

A divide-and-rule system that required sharp ethno-religious differentiation among Nigerians, made religion and ethnicity preeminent markers of identity and pushed exclusionary identity politics into the political arena. As a result, in Northern Nigeria, minority ethnic groups, mostly Christians, defined and still define themselves against the Muslim Hausa-Fulani majority rubric of Middle Belt, which is usually a stand-in for “non-Muslim.”

The consciousness of the other as inferior and, therefore, should be subjugated is prominently expressed in the intolerance of the Christian minority communities by the Muslim majority. The implementation of the sharia law in the northern states of Nigeria testifies to this, as it disregards the rights and freedom of non-Muslims to ways of life outside the framework of Islamic religious legislations. Thus, the freedom of religion of the minority Christian communities is trampled upon. Citizens of the same nationality, and even same ethnicity and culture, are treated as inferior because they profess a different faith from the majority Muslim communities. Their safety in their fatherland is endangered; their means of livelihood is destroyed as it happens with Fulani herdsmen burning farm products and grazing their cattle on the farm of locals in the attacked communities.

Justice and Othering

Justice is a concept that occupies a central place in societal life, and it cuts across issues in ethics and legal and political philosophy. According to John Rawls, it is “the first virtue of social institutions” (1999, 3), which implies that the appropriateness of social institutions depends on issues of justice. Justice is a property of individuals and institutions derived from the law, which makes it a wide range concept with roots in all aspects of human life and coexistence. Therefore, it takes different forms and applies in different ways in different situations (Miller 2017). It takes different understanding depending on the philosophical affiliation and perspective of the conceptualizer. However, irrespective of the conceptualization, it narrows down to administering fairness. Fairness is a synonym for giving everyone their dues. Thus, justice is both the disposition and the act of moral rightness or virtue of character and a desirable quality of political society (Pomerleau, “Western Theories of Justice”). Othering is a form of social exclusion that denies the Other of fundamental rights and privileges. Therefore, it is a perpetration of injustice.

Othering implies that “the Other” is treated as less deserving, less worthy of respect, and not entitled to protection. The Other is treated differently by the surrounding community and, in some cases, by the law. Every human being has fundamental rights that are inalienable. These include the rights to self-determination, liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of association among others. These are privileges and entitlements individuals have as human beings. They are not depended on one’s race, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. So, denial of these basic human rights is tantamount to denial of justice.

The phenomenon of Othering is essentially based on self-protection and self-preservation against imaginary fears, which may be existent or nonexistent. Supposing that these fears are real, it still does not justify discrimination or exclusion of the Other, as it does not guarantee the protection and preservation of the self. To deny someone freedom as a human person is to demeaning the person’s humanity, causing her to lose her dignity and respect. This is against the philosophy of communalism that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community. Communalism is the belief that community relationships mold the identity and personality of the individual while not necessarily negating her individuality. This belief is central to the African ontological world view and understanding of the human person. In principle, it negates the exclusionary inclination of othering.

African Communalism and Otherness

Here, I use African communalism and African communitarianism interchangeably. My interest here is to establish the meaning of African communalism and its role in the system of Othering. Therefore, the questions of consideration are: What is African communitarian theory or Afro-communitarianism? What role should it play in the system of Othering? The African communitarian theory (ACT) emphasizes our duties as human beings toward one another based on the African concept of the person. The latter, which is a central theme in African metaphysics, consists in what makes the individual human being a person. This is usually analyzed from two perspectives: the descriptive approach, which analyzes the constituent parts of the human person, and the narrative approach, which explicates the social status of the human person (Jimoh 2016, 94–97). The narrative approach elucidates the ACT, which is fundamental to the discourse of this paper.

According to David Lutz, the non-individualistic notion of the human person is one of the most striking features of the sub-Sahara Africa culture (2009, 313–328). The individual is a communal being whose personality evolves from relations with other human and living beings; they live, not just in a state of independence but as members of a community, in relationships and interdependence with others. Thus, John Mbiti argues that we are conscious of our being only in relation to other beings and, as such, we are aware of our responsibilities, duties, and privileges to ourselves and others (1969, 108–109). N. K. Dzobo (1992) reiterates the same submission, which in my opinion shares the same underlying assumption that girds the process of Othering in the influential Hegelian dialectics of “self and the other.” Herein, the self is constituted in relation to the Other. However, it does not share the consequential submission of the self being opposed to the Other, but rather, it is akin to Levinas’ notion of the other as neighbor.

I argued elsewhere, drawing from Friday Ndubuisi (2004) and Olatunji Oyeshile (2006), that the person is communitarian by nature because she interacts and interpenetrates with others by exercising her attributes of rationality, capacity for virtue, and freedom of choice. These are individual attributes not bestowed by the community but that the person develops through the community (Jimoh 2016, 98). Kwame Gyekye avers that the communitarian nature of the individual has multiple expressions, which include the necessity of community life and the interdependency of the individual who is naturally oriented toward others (1992, 104).

The consensus of scholars in available literature is that African cultural orientation esteem “communal values like mutual aid, care and concern for others, interdependence, solidarity, reciprocal obligation and social harmony” (Jimoh 2016, 98). These enhance communitarianism and prime the individual to internalize societal communal values. It would be misleading to infer that the communal character of African worldview subordinates the individuality of the human person like Marxist collectivism does. On the contrary, individuals recognize and attain their own true good by promoting that of others (Lutz 2009, 314). Despite strong community consciousness, the rights of individuals and their existence as independent entities are not neglected; they are guaranteed free speech, free movement, and free action (Ike and Edozien 2001, 155). We find this same point in Gyekye’s comment that “community does not obliterate or squeeze out individuality” (1996, 32).

Gyekye’s strong defense of the ACT, which speaks to the theme of this paper, is a moderate communitarianism that accommodates rights. This has been lucidly articulated by Motsamai Molefe (2017). According to him:

[Gyekye] is most famous for his defence of “moderate communitarianism” (MC). I [Molefe] understand MC as a normative political theory; it defends a consequentialist principle of right action grounded on fundamental norms of the common good and dignity. This normative political theory is an attempt to proffer a plausible Afro-communitarianism that has a place for rights. MC is a response to what Gyekye considers an extreme form of communitarianism in the African tradition, which has no place for rights. He insists that a plausible communitarianism has to find a place for rights. (2017, 182)

Interpreting Gyekye’s moderate communitarianism further, Molefe argues that while Gyekye exalts Afro-communitarian ethos that prizes communal values, he calls for “a dynamic balance between the demands of a communitarian ethos and the liberal regime of rights in light of the demands of modernisation and modernity” (2017, p. 182). Moderate communitarianism provides a place for common good and rights, which is an interplay between the duties to promote common good while not putting aside rights.

Common good refers to the notion that the “good of all determines the good of each … the welfare of each is dependent on the welfare of all. [It] requires that the individual should work for the good of all, which of course includes her good” (Gyekye 1995, 156). Common good is shared by all individuals, and within the communitarian scheme, the individual finds the highest good in its material, moral, and spiritual dimensions, as she relates with others working toward the good of all. Therefore, we achieve the highest good for the human person when we work for the common good. The common good is fundamentally associated with human good.

Dignity, on the other hand, is our human feature to recognize the equality of all that entitles each one of us as human beings to moral respect and rights. It is “the capacity for self-assertion which the individual can exercise, presupposes, and in fact derives from, the autonomous nature of the person” (Gyekye 1992, 112). Autonomy, which is intrinsically valuable for every human being, is our rational will to self-govern and self-direct our actions. It is the individuality of the individual, which communitarianism does not usurp.

Moderate communitarianism as a moral-political theory is grounded on two fundamental moral norms: the common good and dignity (Molefe 2017, 185). Common good attunes us to our duties toward the well-being of all, while rights ensure our dignity is preserved as all individuals receive the basic moral respect that is their due. The idea is contrasted to radical communitarianism, which is the view that “gives exaggerated conception of the community, wherein the community is construed as always prior to the individual and this conception of the community fails to recognise the individuality of the individual and the rights that naturally belong to a human person insofar as a person is essentially autonomous” (Gyekye 1992, 108). The implication of such a radical conception of communitarianism is that it over estimates the role of the community to the point in which it undermines the individual’s intrinsic worth. Moderate communitarianism, on the contrary, balances this excessive emphasis to reflect a dynamic equilibrium between the individual and the community (Molefe 2017, 186). Therefore, the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on whether it maximally promotes the common good without a violation of the dignity of the human beings and vice versa.

Radical communitarianism, which is the classical understanding of African communalism, could be exploited to justify cases of Othering like the xenophobia in South Africa. This would be a situation in which a community tries to defend and protect itself and members against perceived “nonintegral members” of the community, where the latter are foreigners of other nationalities. By nonintegral members, I specifically mean individuals considered as outsiders based on their different culture or nationality. Where the common good of the community is exaggerated over the dignity and human rights of the individual, there would be violation of human dignity in an attempt to promote such common good. In this sense, we can argue that the classical notion of African communitarianism has not clearly drawn the line as it relates to rights and dignity of all irrespective of nationality or culture. Therefore, in subtle ways, it encourages and justifies Othering cases like xenophobia.

On the other hand, moderate communitarianism is “grounded on our obligation to ensure the quality of life for all human beings – the common good; but in our quest to promote such a life, we should never trample the dignity of a human being” (Molefe 2017, 189). To promote the good of all human beings in such a way as to violate the dignity of some human beings is not acceptable in a plausible communitarian theory. Dignity serves as a constraint as well as serves to ground rights (Molefe 2017, 189–190). Thus, Gyekye emphasizes that to suppose “that communitarianism will have no place or very little, if at all, for rights will be false” (1992, 114).

The moderate ACT would not accommodate Othering like the cases of the xenophobia in South Africa, neither would it tolerate the rancor between the majority Muslim and minority Christian in Northern Nigeria. These two cases demonstrate infringement on the dignity and rights of the Othered minority as their fundamental rights are trampled upon and even the common good of all is negated for the good of some. The minority status of the Othered is not a reduction in their human dignity and, therefore, does not delimit their rights. Numeric number, nationality, or anything else does not constitute a factor in the humanity of any human being. Rights that guarantee the dignity of human beings are intrinsic to our human nature and, therefore, inalienable.


Powell and Menedian (2016) have argued that the only viable solution to Othering must consist of inclusion and belongingness. Belongingness is an unwavering commitment to tolerance, acceptability, and respect for differences; it is a welcome for all people in such a way that they feel themselves as part and parcel of the society. Belongingness humanizes the Other and challenges and rejects negative representations and stereotypes. It brings marginalized out-groups into the center of societal concern. True practice of belongingness goes beyond just being expressive to be institutionalized. The ACT captures this noble idea of inclusion and belongingness. Therefore, I strongly hold that African communalism provides some lessons on the issue of justice and Othered minority.

I made a case elsewhere for African communitarianism against the individualism and selfishness that I considered to be tearing Nigeria apart in recent times. I argued that individualism is antithetical to African communalism; therefore, we require “commitment to common good and interest, understanding of our individual place in the chain or reality, in which we mutually complement each other and define our being” (Jimoh 2017, 45). This will contribute to tackling the injustice occasioned by Othering.

Most contemporary literature eulogizes globalization, and, indeed, it is a progressive factor in human civilization; nonetheless, it has its own baggage of negative implications for our African culture of communitarianism. Globalization here refers to “the interdependence of countries, peoples, races and institutions in politics, economics, arts, science and technology” (Jimoh 2017, 45). In my opinion, it has severed Africans from their Africanness. By Africanness, I mean “the cultural bias binding Africans to their roots and ontological beliefs in oneness and communality” (Jimoh 2017, 45).

Globalization is a positive phenomenon that has the capacity to bind human beings of different persuasions together in a system of intercultural exchanges. It, however, has to be properly integrated; otherwise, it could erode the indigenous culture of a people by superimposing a culture, not only foreign but at variance with the indigenous culture. Given the latter as the case, rather than consolidate the benefits of globalization, a people may become deluded hybrids who neither know their indigenous culture nor are able to appropriately internalize the foreign culture they attempt to embrace. The tension arising thereof creates the grounds to breed dangerous individualistic tendencies that are counterproductive to African communitarianism.

The lessons from African communalism in relation to the issues of justice and the Othered minority are that we return, through cultural revival to our Africanness. Such a cultural revival should cognize and acknowledge the developments of civilization, especially globalization. Therefore, it should not be a wholesale, blindfolded return to the past, as it would be fatal to our progress. The cultural revival that I advocate should be a cautious tread that recognizes modern civilization, growth in technology, and the rule of world culture. It should not overlook what is good and positive and can enhance the values and practices we intend to revive. Therefore, as I argued elsewhere, “we should first, guide against attempts to imprison ourselves in the past. We should reject foreign cultural impositions that dissipate our esteem for togetherness, human dignity, and respect for elders” (Jimoh 2017, 46). Dons Eze expresses my sentiments when he posits that in our attempts toward a cultural revival, we should “recognise the weaknesses or limitations of communal society, its cleavages and differentiations … come to terms with subjectivity by modifying traditional and foreign cultural values in conformity with the realities and exigencies of the day” (Eze 2014, 146).

We need to be constantly aware and positively acknowledge our commonness beyond self-contained groups. This will ensure justice and equity in our interpersonal relationships in any human society. The cultural revival of our African communalism, which would include the practices of our ancestors that strengthen us in a civilized and globalized world, would be a step in the right direction. Such an awareness should eschew traditional cultural practices that weaken our bond and trap us in the past. It would orientate us to welcome one another as it would dispel the fear of the Other and, therefore, encourages us to live peacefully in mutual coexistence.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySS. Peter and Paul Major SeminaryIbadanNigeria

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