Joseph Ki-Zerbo

(1997, Burkina Faso)

...for a lifetime of scholarship and activism that has identified the key principles and processes by which Africans can create a better future.


Joseph Ki-Zerbo was a scholar, historian and writer politically active in Africa and especially in his country of origin, Burkina Faso. As a historian, he focused his work on endogenous development, founding the Centre d'Études pur le Développement Africain (CEDA). One of his main goal was inspiring other Africans to pursue development projects which integrated ecological preservation, social praxis and cultural identity. Along with his work and research centres, he left behind a political philosophy aiming at establishing a different and genuinely African path of development.

Contact Details

Website Joseph Ki-Zerbo Foundation 

Joseph Ki-Zerbo died in 2006.


Joseph Ki-Zerbo was born in 1922. He was educated in Burkina Faso and at the Sorbonne in Paris, graduating with an honours degree in History from the Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris in 1955. He returned to Africa, first to Conakry (Guinea) and then to his native Burkina Faso (the Upper Volta), where he were politically active since 1958. Later he was a MP and leader of the opposition party Parti pour la Democratie et le Progrès (PDP).

Parallel to his political life he was a scholar, historian and writer. In 1972 he published L'Histoire de l'Afrique Noire, the standard work on the subject, which he  updated repeatedly. From 1972-78 he was a member of UNESCO's Executive Council and Professor at the Université d'Ouagadougou. He was a member of the Scientific Committee for UNESCO's 8-volume history of Africa and director of the first volume, Méthodologie et préhistoire africaine, which was published in 1981.

The theme of Ki-Zerbo's work as a historian was endogenous development. In 1980 he founded the Centre d'Études pur le Développement Africain (CEDA) in Ouagadougou about which he wrote:

"CEDA conducts research which is actually rooted in our land for the purpose of determining one or more global hypotheses of understanding, liable to inspire action by Africans and capable of integrating ecological preservation, the social praxis and cultural identity, key sectors which are almost invariably treated as secondary in development projects."

In 1983 Ki-Zerbo was forced into exile by the military regime. He went to Dakar in Senegal where he reconstituted his centre as the Centre de Recherche pour le Développement Endogène (CREDE). It was under these auspices that Ki-Zerbo organised the inter-African and interdisciplinary meeting at Bamako (Mali) in 1989, the results of which were published in 1992 as La natte des autres: Pour un développement endogène en Afrique, which won the European Community's Book prize at the Dakar Book Fair in 1993.

Ki-Zerbo returned to Burkina Faso in 1992 and decided to reconstitute CEDA there. All his previous equipment and his library of 11,000 volumes had been destroyed or dispersed. Ki-Zerbo described the aims of the new CEDA as follows:

"We must return the institutional imagination of African societies to their tradition of creativity across the widest possible range of science and technology, and on this basis rearticulate a theory and praxis that are appropriate to their situations. We must rebuild the identity from which the African peoples have become alienated by the vicissitudes of history and their own amnesia."

CEDA was the base from which Ki-Zerbo conducted his intellectual crusade for a re-founding of African development goals and methods.

The three strands of Ki-Zerbo's life and work - historian, action researcher and advocate for endogenous development, and politician - were closely linked: his profound understanding of Africa's past was the bedrock for a political philosophy which seeked to establish the framework for a different and genuinely African path of development. 


Acceptance Speech by Joseph Ki-Zerbo

December 8th, 1997

Madam Speaker, Ladies, gentlemen, My friends today, My lifelong friends,

I am delighted to be among you this evening, at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, this eminent institution which has already demonstrated many times its dedication to national and international progress. And I salute my co-recipients from other continents who, by their human qualities, give me a very high estimation of this prize.

I am grateful to the Right Livelihood Foundation for having thought of me, and through me of the ideas I have been advocating for so many years. At my age, one is not much given to marvelling at things, but what I see here this evening is really marvellous.

I would like to dedicate this award to the women of Africa represented here with me by those attending this evening, but also by this statue embodying the talent of an artist from Burkina Faso. It depicts a woman carrying out a daily task which has remained vital up to the present time and dates back several millennia - the task of fetching water, drawing it, carrying it over long distances and distributing it.

Many times I have seen my own mother carry out this burdensome but noble task, among many other chores. Water is life. These women deserve honour and gratitude, who bring us water after they give us birth, and thus bear much more than half of our trials and our dignity.

I would also like to pay tribute to the Swedish people and to the whole of this country for having given birth to the initiators of this award. Indeed, the greatest ideas do not stem from one spontaneous source. Even wild mushrooms are the fruit of a given environment. And the originators of this award are the fruit of a civil and political society whose spirit our humanity should be proud of.

Why am I here today, when thousands of others are equally qualified to receive this award? Probably because the Foundation, which acts as a watchful observatory of human merit has chosen to provide a close-up, a "still frame" of a former little herder from the African bush who has now become an intellectual and political leader, and who shared ideas and action with companions such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and many other authorities.

The Foundation also wants to focus the scattered attention of the world, be it only a few minutes, on our African "firefly", which together with many others in the global night announces, invokes and summons the light from a new dawn. This is because Africa, from the depth of its apparent darkness, holds some of the supply of hope for tomorrow's world.

With only 15% of the world's population, Africa bears 50% of some of the most serious afflictions in the world. For instance, 50% of the world's AIDS victims and 50% of the world's refugees are found in Africa. Conflict prevails, almost unremittingly. And yet African culture pleads for peace - witness some of its proverbs: "If there was anything positive in a conflict, dogs would have found it". Or: "Fire has no brethren".

And again: "To wash away blood, one needs water, not blood". Of course, it is also from the African root culture that Nelson Mandela has drawn up most of the heroic and exemplary strength mustered to achieve the reconciliation of the South African people.

Africa, which today seems to be lagging behind, is in fact the cradle of humanity, and has produced over long periods of time the first major inventions of the human mind. It can offer not so much a model or lessons, but original pathways to help immunise our species against the most deadly social viruses.

To achieve this, one must help Africa attain the necessary conditions for its second liberation through democracy and self-development, by empowering the African people and giving them the opportunity to speak for themselves. As the saying goes, "where there is a head, one doesn't crown a knee". One must help the African people to crown their own head, as there are too many "knees", that is to say too many dictators wearing illegally or unlawfully the crown of populations crushed by various shortages - lacking water, food, firewood, medicines, education, democracy, safety, land, information, historical consciousness, etc.

Some Africans - especially those in urban shantytowns, who have lost traditional protections but not yet acquired the social and political protections provided nowadays by richer countries, who do not enjoy a new sense of belonging nor self-awareness as members of a class or a nation - are the most fragile and vulnerable beings in the world. They are just pieces of wood for the stakes of pseudo-revolutions or civil wars.

The continental and global status quo does not offer anything truly positive for Africa in the short or middle term. The selfishness implicit in neo-liberalism is such that 20% of the world's population, living essentially in the North, consume and burn 80% of resources, with shocking wastage, whilst the majority of humans, held as barbarians behind new types of iron curtains, foot the bill of a hypothetical development with horrendous human costs, making them like human sacrifices.

A young prostitute, recently asked by journalists whether she was afraid of AIDS, replied without hesitation: "I'd rather die from AIDS than from hunger". In truth, together with so many other Africans, she has no choice. To be destitute is to have no choice at all.

Africa will not die alone. When African children breathe their last, as seen and heard live on TV in the living rooms of rich nations, it is also a part of the viewer's dignity which is lost. The principle which condemns failure to assist people in danger is thrown overboard, so that the blind ship of the world can pursue its route in the dark.

Africa will not die alone, because aware individuals and groups in the South and North refuse to countenance such an inhuman fate. And also because "he who eats alone, chokes alone". Faced with this situation, what can we do?

The structural adjustment programmes enforced by the international financial institutions have not halted the worsening of the situation - in fact, they have often contributed to this deterioration, by raising many African issues (such as population growth, democracy, development or education) in the wrong way. They have promoted globalisation, or integration to the global market.

Africa has been integrated to the market for several centuries - as an instrument - and to date the profits are piling up elsewhere. So what is this market? The one which by definition crushes the weakest by generating poverty, and then maybe later has the problem looked at by others? Or the one that prevents poverty by providing for the preservation of man even more than for the conservation of nature? According to an African saying, "an old man is worth more than his price".

This means that there is a price beyond the market price, a space beyond the market where accumulation is achieved not just in terms of goods but also in terms of linking up and sharing out, and being able to convert these linkages into goods. Such a space based on integration is better than globalisation, if the latter is to be reductionist and to foster exclusion. Only regionalisation - or integration of African micro-markets through an inter-African division of labour - will enable Africans to emerge onto the global market as more than mere pale (or dark!) onlookers.

The structural preconditions for change in Africa are integration, true democracy on a day-to-day basis with full popular involvement, home-grown development and widespread opportunities for ongoing training. Such is the platform for action chosen by the Party for Democracy and Progress (PDP), foremost opposition party in Burkina Faso.

However, since European and North American nations have favoured stability over democracy in their priorities - though virtually certain to reach neither - the opposition is involved in a one-sided fight, heroic at times, with Africa's foreign partners remaining practically indifferent.

Africa must therefore create its own identity through self-knowledge and awareness of its own interests, within the framework of an original societal scheme. For Africa, "being" must come before "having".

Before looking for means, the continent must adopt strategic goals and paths - which is what CEDA (Centre d'études pour le développement africain) attempts to achieve within an inter African and Southern intercontinental network. Just as "one cannot crown someone in his absence", one cannot develop Africa, as it is just not there.

This said (and done), Africa cannot accomplish its development in autarchic seclusion. It needs travelling companions, who can be exacting but should not pontificate, and who can take the time to know and recognize. The ideal partner for African nations (including, hopefully, the French-speaking ones!), which Sweden tries to be, should help the African civil society to build itself in order to temper and restrain the drifting tendencies of the tropical Leviathans.

The Africa which the world needs is a continent able to stand up, to walk on its own feet rather than on crutches or on its head, in vacuous mimicry or escapism. It is an Africa conscious of its own past and able to keep on reinvesting this past into its present and future. It is an Africa which "lies on its own mat", because "to sleep on someone else's mat is akin to sleeping on the ground".

For almost half a century I have personally fought for this ideal. As Africans would say, I have "drunk much water" - which means I have lived a long time. I have covered at least half a million kilometres driving various vehicles through villages in Burkina Faso. However, the award from the Foundation will not become "a garage" for me.

Rather, I see the Foundation as a "service station", where the fuel provided is the most efficient in human history. It is called hope - hope which transcends all adversity, hope which boosts the struggle for life by giving us reasons to live.

The philosopher Hegel proclaimed that Black Africa was outside history - and after him, Francis Fukuyama suggested that the nation-state, invented by Europe, was the final destination in the journey of reason through history.

Now, not only have we not seen the end of history - in fact it is running faster. Less fast, however, than the truth, the thirst for justice, patience and comparison for the countless lives of all those living today.

No, the course of history has not run out. The race is still on. One day the best one will win: the best one - certainly not the most violent. Africa is the continent of the marathon, and the race continues!

I would like to offer to the Right Livelihood Foundation this statue representing an African woman - not as a hostage, you understand, but as a permanent messenger, an ambassadress plenipotentiary of my gratitude, which will always be with you.

Thank you!


Histoire et conscience negre. Presence Africaine, 1957.

Histoire de l'Afrique noire. D'hier à demain. Paris: Hatier, 1972.

Educate or perish: Africa's impasse and prospects. Dakar/Abidjan: UNESCO-UNICEF, 1990.



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