African Conception of Human Rights

Term Paper, 2019

9 Pages, Grade: A (8/10)









ABSTRACT: Many have argued that traditional African societies gave no room for the expression of individual rights. What rather existed was group rights - i.e. group rights competed with and suppressed individual entitlements in the traditional African settings. Arguably, it must be said that whiles modern conception of human rights is attributable to the modern western history, no culture can claim any historical glory. The idea of equal and inalienable human rights was missing not only in non-western traditions but also in western societies. For many Africanists, traditional mores gave better expression to human rights than the current neo-colonial states. The different worldview regarding cosmology, ontology and metaphysics, gave expression to their human rights conceptions. African societies are built on the principle of communitarianism manifest in the extended family systems. Thus, the stricter sense of individualism, which is at the core of modernism is inconceivable in Africa. Individual and group rights are entwined in a typical African setting. Collective rights, arguably, complement rather than compete with individual rights. The full enjoyment of individual rights is inseparably conditioned on the rights of the group to which one belongs. I delve into this debate to examine the nexus between communism and expression of human rights in Africa.


Human rights has become a concept of universal relevance (Deng, 2004). In the contemporary global system, issues regarding human rights have gain currency and taken centre stage in international discourse and form essential component of good governance and every development discourse. In the past, hardly did governments exclusively gave close attention to the subject of human rights (Gutto, 1991:6). But, it must be said that the process whereby human wants and values were transformed into legalized human rights systems was a slow one and involved demands made by subjugated groups against their contemporary and future rulers. These processes involved both social and political revolutions. Scholars often cite the Magna Carta (1215), the American Independence Declaration (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) as the historic milestones to the contemporary human rights conventions’ origins. The formation of the United Nations after World War 2 in 1945; and the Universal Declarations of Human Rights so made in 1948, represent major global attempts to ensuring peace, security and human dignity worldwide and, a conscious effort by the international community to develop, protect and promote basic rights of humanity (Magnarella, 2000; Emeakaroha, 2002; Deng, 2004; Donnelly, 2007; Oyewo, 2014).

As a social concept, scholars are opinionated about the true meaning human rights should take and whether or not it should be universally applicable. Whilst the Western-oriented scholars and analysts alike deem it universal and argue that it is inherent in the values of Western cultures as compared to non-western cultures, others are of different views. The non-western scholars, especially those in Asia, Africa and the Golf region argue that their traditional mores also supported human rights long before they encountered the west. Again, human rights issues should be / and or are actually contingent on the specific culture that gives experienced meanings to the lives of the individuals found within its jurisdiction. Thus, they call for cultural relativism of human rights and reject what they deem Euro-centric, Judaeo-Christian conception of human rights (Gutto, 1991).

This essay wades into the raging debate to examine the assertions that traditional African societal worldview promoted collectivism (community spirit and obligations) which tend to sacrifice individual rights. I do this by briefly examining the traditional Akan worldview or conception of being or the person and community and how that gave expression to individual human rights and dignity. I argue that whilst it may have taken Western scholars to consciously develop and champion the modern conceptions of human rights, African traditional mores and value systems made room for the protection and promotion of individual dignity and was supportive of human rights, even though more attention has often been paid to community life, collective rights and individual responsibility to the collective or community (Jack Donnelly, 2007; Frempong, 2006; Gyekye, n.d. Wiredu, 1990).

The paper is based largely on review of secondary information in the existing literature and examination of few traditional Akan belief systems, and practices manifest in their proverbs, artefacts, folklore, legendary, etc. that give expression to the human person, society or community, and individual rights and dignity.


Even though in principle, most if not all scholars agree with the fact that human rights issues are very crucial in the contemporary world. There is disagreement however, over the nature and constituents of human rights based on philosophical, ideological and cultural differences. Whilst some [usually the western-oriented scholars] argue strongly for the universality of human rights; others have repudiated it and argued for cultural relativistic conception (Acheampong, 2000); thus bringing to the fore, the two main schools of thought - Universality and Relativism (Deng, 2004; Donnelly, 2007; Ghai, 2001).

The Universalist school claims that human rights have universal validity and so therefore must necessarily apply to all - regardless of religion, race, cultures, time, political systems and level of economic development. Since they are accepted by all states and peoples, they apply equally and indiscriminately to every person and are the same for everyone everywhere (Arat, 1991; Acheampong, 2000; Jack Donnelly, 2007). The kind of normative human rights propagated by this school emanate from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and are therefore deemed as distinctively Western, even though the underlying principles are universally valid. Here, human rights usually refers to the set of normative standards outlined by the International Bill of Rights - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) (Acheampong, 2000; Deng, 2004; Donnelly, 2007).

The root of the Universality argument lies in the fact that human rights discourses should reflect the universal quest for human dignity. The controversies notwithstanding, the basis in the universality of human dignity is not just intrinsic but more importantly often explicit in these human rights instruments (Deng, 2004: 500). However, the critiques see these set of normative human rights as promoting and imposing western cultural values and norms on the rest of the world as the universal standards to enhancing human dignity and individual rights.

On the contrary, the Relativist School insists that human rights are based on specific cultural realities and, that since cultural values significantly vary, there cannot be any universally accepted and applicable rights (Arat, 1991; Ghai 2001; Acheampong, 2000; Jack Donnelly, 2007). Deng (2004: 500) observes “although universalism appears manifest in human nature, relativism - based either on culture, region, religion, or differences in public policy priorities - is a reality dictated by conditions on the ground, and cannot be dismissed lightly. The overarching challenge, however, is about assessment of the viewpoints on both sides aimed at nurturing and narrowing understandable ideological gaps toward a reasonably utmost consensus”. Arguably, inherent in all cultures is the protection and enhancement of dignity of the human person as well as the proposition of various norms and procedures for its pursuit, and therefore, it will be useful to appreciate how local African cultures seek to achieve this otherwise global objective (see Wiredu, 1990; Deng, 2004). Relativism should be seen as a “local support and enhancement of universalism that at the same time explores the sources of genuine conflicts between the local and the universal. … those who argue that international human rights, as now articulated, are Western in origin do not necessarily object to them on that account, but merely wish to underscore the fact that what is at stake is the opportunity for all major cultural blocs across the globe to negotiate the normative content of human rights law and the purpose for which the discourse should be legitimately deployed. [And] the specific language used in articulating these standards may obviously differ from society to society, but the underlying idea of human dignity inherently remains universal” (see Deng, 2004: 500).

On his part, Acheampong (2000) observes that underlying the philosophical debates of human rights is the dominant Western worldview. Such philosophical discourses, he argues, are derived from the natural law and natural rights theories and legal positivist ideal. The natural law perspective is derived from laws of nature especially found in liberal theorists such as Locke’s contractual theory. The argument is that natural laws emanated from divine will or metaphysical absolutes and confer on human beings, certain entitlements by virtue of their humanity. Proponents of this school opine that any positive law must be subordinated to natural law, which is regarded as everlasting, and universal in its application and constant or unchangeable. This perspective gives expressions to the Universalists ideal. Thus, for example, these scholars define human rights to quintessentially apply to every human being equally. For example, according to the United Nations (1987) “human rights are those rights which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human beings” (Acheampong, 2000: 109). Similarly, Sheridan Ramphal (1981), a former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, characterizes human rights in the following terms: “Human rights are as old as human society itself, for they derive from every person’s need to realize his essential humanity. They are not ephemeral, not alterable with time and place, and circumstance. They are not the product of philosophical whim or political fashion. They have their origin in the fact of human condition, and because they have, they are fundamental and inalienable. More specifically, they are not conferred by constitutions, conventions or governments. These are not instruments, the testaments of their recognition; they are important, sometimes essential, elements of the machinery for their protection and enforcement; but they do not give rise to them. They were born not of man, but with man” (Acheampong, 2000: 109).

Contrary to the natural rights arguments, legal positivism deems human rights as meaningful only when they are grounded in law as right and, are enshrined in a legal system and enforceable within certain time space. Therefore, for the legal positivists, the only human rights every individual human being is entitled to enjoy are positive rights and not the so called natural rights which, the positivists argue, only exists in positive morality. The implication here is that, rights are those recognized by the legal systems of every state and their enjoyment are thus limited to the extent of their availability in the laws and their enforceability. To buttress this point further, Jeremy Bentham’s (1970) argument is worth quoting: “Right is the child of law, from real laws come real rights, but from imaginary laws, from ‘laws of nature’ come imaginary rights…. Natural right is simple nonsense, natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense” (Acheampong, 2000: 115).

On their part, the Marxist-Leninists scholars also bring material twist to the discourse on human rights. For example, according to Kartashkin (1982) The Marxist-Leninist theory deduce human rights not from the ‘nature’ of man but from the position of an individual in the society and above all, in the process of public production (Acheampong, 2000: 115). For them, human rights, like all other things, emanate from the material conditions of life and not from any universal and metaphysical law[s].

The ensuing debates leave us with several questions to answer in order to bring clarity to the quagmires surrounding the idea of and discourse on human rights. Are human rights really universal? Or they are relative to time, culture, region, religion and other human experiences? Are rights ideally individualistic or collective? Do we have a unique western conception of human rights different from other cultures? And the overarching questions this paper tries to address: Has Africa any unique conception of human rights substantively different from those normative set of rights promulgated by the International Bill of Rights? Again, did the traditional (African) Akan societal values give expression to individual entitlements, dignity or human rights and freedoms? I interrogate these issues quite further.


The usual orthodoxy is that African traditions are more communal, collectivist and egalitarian than the western individualistic cultural settings. The argument is that the traditional African view of the person is markedly communal based on their worldview regarding cosmology, ontology and metaphysics which eschews individualism (see Busia, cited in Frempong, 2006). The African societies, they argue, are built on the concept of corporate brotherhood and communitarianism based on the egalitarian extended family system. Thus they argue further, that the stricter sense of individualism which is at the centre of modernism is inconceivable and has no place in the collectivist African societies (Frempong, 2006).

The individual in the (African) Akan traditional setting had certain rights to himself and personal existence outside his community. There was a clear conceptual distinction between the individual and his society, community, or family, consequently their human rights. This can be found in the Akan philosophy or conception of the person (onipa) where the individual is perceived as a union of three elements: - life principle (okra) believed to come directly from the Supreme Being via which a person’s destiny is determined; the blood principle (mogya) inherited from the mother; and the personality principle (sunsum) inherited from the father. Out of each elements emanated a set of individual human rights (Frempong, 2006; Gyekye, n.d.).

For example, by virtue of the okra every person has an inherent value owe to no earthly circumstances or authority. This afforded the individual equal opportunity to pursue his or her destiny ordained by God. Life was therefore, regarded as sacrosanct (Frempong, 2006: 387-389; Wiredu, 1990; Gyekye, n.d.) by the African. This traditional Akan worldview of individual rights are evident in several maxims, proverbs and wise sayings. For example, an individual who feels pressurized to act against his or her own will could invoke the maxim which literally translates “Nobody was present when I was taking my destiny from God” (obi refrɛ ne Nyame no, na obi nnyina hɔ) (Frempong, 2006: 387). Another maxim that expresses dignity of the individual person reads: “All persons are children of God; no one is a child of the earth” (nnipa nyinaa yɛ Onyame mma; obiara nnyɛ asaase ba) (see Gyekye, n.d.; Wiredu, 1990).

These proverbs imply that the Akans conceived personhood as a theomorphic being, having in their nature an aspect of God - the okra (the soul - the divine nature, as having an antemundane existence with God). As observed by Kwame Gyekye, “the okra is held as constituting the innermost self, the essence of the individual person. A human person is thus metaphysically conceived as more than just a physical object. As a child of God, a person must be held as intrinsically valuable. The intrinsic value of every person implies that just as God is an end in Himself in the macrocosmic perspective, so is a person an end in him or herself in the microcosmic perspective. Thus, as an end in him or herself and therefore, as self-complete being, I doubt whether it makes sense to speak of the community as conferring personhood” (Wiredu, 1990; Deng, 2004; Frempong, 2006).


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African Conception of Human Rights
University of Ghana, Legon  (Department of Political Science)
A (8/10)
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african, coneption, human, rights
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Gilbert Arhinful Aidoo (Author), 2019, African Conception of Human Rights, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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