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Article abstract: Employing intellectual tools fashioned by phenomenology, existentialism, and, especially, hermeneutics, Serequeberhan sought to articulate a postcolonial African philosophy rooted in the “lived experience” of African political liberation.

Early Life

Tsenay Serequeberhan has a dual parentage, natural and political. He is the son of his father, Serequeberhan Gebrezgi, and his mother, Assegedetch Aradom; however, Serequeberhan is also the child of Eritrea’s protracted struggle for freedom and self-determination. Less than four months after his birth, Eritrea, on September 11, 1952, was federated with Ethiopia, largely as a result of the geopolitical interests of the United States. The union was not one of equals. The Ethiopian regime, under Emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly violated the terms of the federal agreement. Finally, on November 14-15, 1962, Eritrea was annexed and made a province of Ethiopia.

Resistance to Ethiopian domination and movements for Eritrean liberation began even before the 1962 annexation. During the early and mid-1950’s, students became increasingly militant, partly in conjunction with armed liberation movements such as the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM), established in 1958, and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), formed in 1961. Secondary school students, including Serequeberhan, were often involved in protests and demonstrations. The ideological orientation of the activists became increasingly Marxist, especially after the demise of the ELM and the subsequent splintering of the ELF and its ultimate replacement by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in the early 1970’s.

However, Serequeberhan pursued a philosophical rather than directly political path. He left Eritrea to continue his education in the United States, a center of overseas Eritrean activism. He received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 1979. His undergraduate specialization suggests the continuation of his early Eritrean political focus, as does his membership in the Eritrean Mass Association for Independence. However, events in Ethiopia during the late 1970’s hinted at the difficulties of a strictly Marxist approach. The Haile Selassie regime had been overthrown in 1974 by the Provisional Military Advisory Committee, called the Derg. A period of chaos ensued, ending in February, 1977, with a coup led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu, employing massive military aid from the Soviet Union, attacked and scattered the EPLF, which had been on the verge of success in Eritrea. A Soviet-backed Marxist regime in Ethiopia had decided that a Marxist-oriented liberation movement in Eritrea was no longer “progressive.”

Life’s Work

Serequeberhan’s change in focus from political science to philosophy signaled the start of his search for intellectual foundations to assist in the support of African political liberation. Political developments in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and other African nations during the 1970’s and early 1980’s revealed the limitations of Marxism as a political philosophy. Marxism was European in its origins and Eurocentric in its outlook. It was abstract and “totalizing” in its social, economic, and political analyses, dogmatic in its philosophical presuppositions, and deeply involved in superpower rivalries and the Cold War. Despite its faults, for Serequeberhan and many other African political intellectuals Marxism remained of some use, especially in its emancipatory aspirations and its critical, dialectical approach. However, it was far more modern European than African and therefore more neocolonial than postcolonial.

Serequeberhan’s first attempts to develop an African political philosophy consistent with indigenous liberation movements occurred within the context of African philosophy. When Serequeberhan began his graduate work in philosophy at Boston College in about 1980, African philosophy fell into two categories: ethnophilosophy and professional philosophy. Broadly speaking, ethnophilosophers were Christian missionaries and their African students who understood philosophy in terms of traditional African religion; professional philosophers were Marxists for whom philosophy was to be scientific. To the minds of Serequeberhan and some other young African philosophers, this debate was both anachronistic and irrelevant to contemporary African realities. It was repeating, to no useful purpose, the nineteenth century European argument between religion and science. Implicitly, the terms of the debate merely relegated Africa and Africans to philosophical nonexistence.

These critical considerations squarely pose Serequeberhan’s problem: How—that is, in what terms—is Africa to have philosophical existence? The answer that he returns is deceptively simple (and therefore requires some extended discussion): Africa is to have philosophical existence in terms of existence. Which is to say that Africa is to have philosophical existence in terms of post-Nietzschean philosophies of experience, existence, and historicity. Also, Africa is to have philosophical existence through (reflection on) the practical process of liberation from colonial and neocolonial subjection. In other words, Africa will move from nonexistence (or dependent existence) to (autonomous or self-determining) existence by “making itself” in the process of “making history.” This history—or more accurately, these histories—will be political, and the existence that they provide will be both historical and philosophical. The comprehensive process, therefore, will be “historical African political philosophies.”

In the early 1980’s, Serequeberhan began the detailed studies required for the realization of this ambitious philosophical project. He drew primarily on historical/philosophical and contemporary/political sources. He worked with an eye toward demonstrating the partial utility of continental European thought for the predicament of neocolonial Africa. He was convinced that Africa must liberate itself, but he grasped the important truth that the twentieth century European thinkers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer were, on balance, philosophical supporters of the African cause.

Husserl (phenomenology), Heidegger (existentialism), and Gadamer (hermeneutics) have, as far as Serequeberhan is concerned, one most fundamental lesson to teach. That lesson is that any philosophical doctrine or system is rooted in and limited by the “existential” (the historico-linguistic) situation of the philosopher. In terms first articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche, elaborated by Gadamer, and adopted by Serequeberhan, that existential situation is the philosopher’s horizon. The horizon is determined by one’s standpoint or viewpoint; it is literally “as far as one can see.” No standpoint is nonsituational; therefore, every horizon is limited, no matter what the viewer, the theorist may claim.

Given this insight into the relation between philosophy and existence, Serequeberhan worked through two implications. First, European philosophy could not possibly live up to any claims to universal or absolute truth. Especially, Hegelian or Marxist claims to grasp the “meaning of history” and thus to end it (on European terms) are necessarily spurious. To the extent to which all schools of African philosophy implicitly operated within a European framework (and Serequeberhan became convinced that they did), these schools became an unconscious, ironic affirmation of European hegemony and neocolonialism. However, Africans could be free if they took post-Nietzschean philosophy seriously.

The second implication is the positive practical corollary of the first. Africans could not liberate or create themselves by merely studying post-Nietzschean European philosophy. Instead, they had to practice—act out—that philosophy. If liberation is active existence, then African liberation requires African action.

Given this necessity for action, for Serequeberhan, the word “source” acquired a different meaning, one that is both fuller and deeper that its use in European contexts. European sources are textual, and although African sources are becoming textual, they nevertheless remain closer to the underlying experiences. Because Africans are in the process of making history, African philosophers are simultaneously African activists. With this understanding, Serequeberhan investigated the “thoughtful activism” (or “activist thinking”) of twentieth century philosopher-revolutionaries Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon.

The practical revolutionary work and writings of Cabral (in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) and Fanon (in Algeria) posed this question for Serequeberhan: What is specifically African liberation? In other words, in what ways do the past, present, and projected historical experiences of Africans differentiate them from other “social entities”—peoples, classes, genders, believers, and so forth—who have been suppressed and have desired the self-realization dependent upon freedom?

Gradually and creatively, Serequeberhan grasped the relationship of two ideas from Fanon and two from Cabral and began to weave them together into the outlines of a broad historical-political-philosophical process. Fanon contributed these ideas: First, Africans had been very thoroughly “colonized,” especially to the extent to which middle-class Africans had been “assimilated” to European habits by formal education; second, this colonization of body, mind, and spirit had rendered the African a “thing” devoid of “internal” humanity. Although Fanon had died at an early age, Cabral had lived to see the liberation process develop further in his homeland; accordingly, his ideas were more hopeful and positive. Cabral understood that revolutionary intellectuals were committed to liberation but very abstract in their thinking. Sensitivity to particular practical circumstances was needed. First, the leaders needed to turn away from universalistic modern European thought-ways and to “return to the source,” the ordinary, far less indoctrinated African. Second, sustained contact with these Africans, especially those in the countryside, permitted the spiritual reconversion—in Cabral’s term the “re-Africanization”—of the urban intellectual.

These four concepts—colonization, thingification, return to the source, and re-Africanization—outlined for Serequeberhan the specifically African liberation process. The articulation of this process and of its philosophical foundations in the “lived experience” of existential phenomenology and the “horizons” of hermeneutics is of course a matter of academic philosophy. Executing this broad and original synthesis occupied Serequeberhan throughout the remainder of the 1980’s and the early 1990’s. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Boston College in 1988 with a dissertation entitled “The Possibility of African Freedom: A Philosophical Exploration.” This dissertation served as the basis of Serequeberhan’s influential work The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy: Horizon and Discourse. In the period between the dissertation and publication of that book, he edited the important collection African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (1991) and published or presented numerous philosophical papers.

Husband of Nuhad Jamal and father of sons Nesim-Netssere and Awate-Hayet, Serequeberhan would teach philosophy, African philosophy, and African studies at Boston College, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Hampshire College, Simmons College, and Brown University. Throughout his career, writing as an African philosophically concerned with African autonomy, he would produce writings on African politics, particularly issues concerning Eritrea.

Following the setbacks of the late 1970’s, Eritrea’s EPLF had followed a course similar to and partially inspired by Cabral’s Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). EPLF’s long-term “strategic retreat” during the 1980’s had resulted in a PAIGC-like moderation of Marxist ideology and closeness to the common people. The result was strong, deep support for Eritrean independence. Military successes in 1988 and 1991 led to the collapse of Mengistu’s Derg, the transformation of EPLF into the Provisional Government of Eritrea, and in a referendum held on April 23-25, 1993, a 99.8 percent vote for Eritrean independence. The liberation struggle, which effectively began in the year of Serequeberhan’s birth, thus ended. Overseas Eritreans began to return home, to assist in addressing the problems of nationhood. In 1999, Serequeberhan began his association with the Research and Documentation Center of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, Asmara, Eritrea.


In 1998, about five years after publication of The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy and about ten years after the research on which it was based, Serequeberhan published an article entitled “Africanity at the End of the Twentieth Century.” In it, he argued that African identity or “Africanity” is a work in progress, of which formal political liberation is only a first step. African existence, in Eritrea and most other African nations, remains a struggle, in Serequeberhan’s opinion, for that mass-participatory political and economic democracy necessary for complete humanity.

By the age of forty-seven, Serequeberhan had brilliantly exploited the political potential of European philosophy. He turned existential and hermeneutical philosophy away from universality and toward historicity and particularity. Serequeberhan demonstrated, through his study of leaders such as Cabral and Fanon and movements such as PAIGC and EPLF, that postcolonial African historicity is explicitly political.

Serequeberhan thus helped to open the way for the development of African political philosophy. This philosophy, as envisioned by Serequeberhan, is political because it issues forth from the continuing struggle against neocolonialism and creates a positive African identity that is not a mere negation of Europeanization. However, Serequeberhan cautioned against not only a universal but also a continent-wide political philosophy. Instructed by European classicists such as Gadamer and modern Africans such as Cabral, Serequeberhan had become well aware that many of the sources of African identity are particular and that identity is forged in emerging nationhood. His own “existential” return to Eritrea at the end of the twentieth century suggests a move toward developing Eritrean political philosophy.

Additional Reading

Cabral, Amilcar. Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings. Translated by Michael Wolfers. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979. An extensive collection of Cabral’s theoretical and practical writings, which have been a major influence on Tsenay Serequeberhan’s thought. Includes an introduction by Basil Davidson and very useful biographical notes.

Connell, Dan. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1993. An eye-witness account by an American journalist of the EPLF’s long struggle for Eritrean independence. In addition to the reportage, Connell provides a solid account of EPLF’s PAIGC-like evolution from rigid Marxism to pragmatism. Includes moving photographs of all aspects of the war situation.

Dallmayr, Fred. Alternative Visions: Paths in the Global Village. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. A discussion of the philosophical aspects of global multiculturalism. Serequeberhan’s The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy is considered in the context of Cabral’s “return to the source.”

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967. First published in French in 1952. The work that represents Fanon’s “psychological” influence on Serequeberhan, in terms of African identity. Chapter 5, “The Fact of Blackness,” is especially important.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1966. First published in French in 1961. Fanon’s seminal discussion of violence in situations of liberation from colonialism, deeply influential for Serequeberhan’s treatment of these issues. Contains a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Iyob, Ruth. The Eritrean Struggle for Independence. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A scholarly study of the entire sweep of Eritrean history from 1941 to 1993. Iyob’s work is especially useful in sorting out and tracing the development of the many groups involved in liberation. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Okere, Theophilus. African Philosophy: A Historico-Hermeneutical Investigation of the Conditions of its Possibility. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. May be read as the philosophical preface to Serequeberhan’s much more political The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy. Okere’s conclusion points in a practical direction.

Owomoyela, Oyekan. “Deconstruction and Capitulation: African Responses to European Misconstruction and Objectification.” Research in African Literatures 27 (Summer, 1996): 151-154. A review article that emphasizes the deconstructive, philosophical rather than reconstructive, practical aspects of Serequeberhan’s The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy.

Senghor, Leopold Sedar. On African Socialism. Translated by Mercer Cook. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964. Senghor’s work is characterized by one African philosopher as an endlessly discussed myth, and the philosopher was criticized by Serequeberhan for his “passivity.” Nevertheless, Senghor’s thought is a touchstone for consideration of Africanity.

Zegeye, Abebe, and Siegfried Pausewang, eds. Ethiopia in Change: Peasantry, Nationalism, and Democracy. London: British Academic Press, 1994. A collection of scholarly essays exploring the past and present relationships between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Chapter 5, discussing student movements during Serequeberhan’s youth, is of special interest.