Obama Accra Speech Vindicated 'Internalist' School

Published on 28th September 2009

Obama in Accra, Ghana                             Photo courtesy













Ghanaian born Economist Prof. George Ayittey sees US President Barack Obama’s famous statement that Africa’s future is in Africans’ hands as an “intellectual vindication” for the “Internalist School” of African development. In the following interview, Kofi Akosah-Sarpong discusses with Prof. Ayittey a wide range of African development issues and whether Africa has concocted its own home-grown development paradigm. 

Q. Why is Barack Obama’s speech in Accra an “intellectual vindication” of the “Internalist School” of African development?


A. Here are some highlights from President Obama’s speech in Accra on July 11, 2009:


The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.


Development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.


No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, which is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.


Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.


As we provide this support, I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human rights report. People everywhere should have the right to start a business or get an education without paying a bribe. We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don't, and that is exactly what America will do.


The world will be what you make of it. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable and to build institutions that serve the people. You can serve in your communities and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease, end conflicts and make change from the bottom up. Yes you can.


But these things can only be done if you take responsibility for your future. Opportunity won't come from any other place, though — it must come from the decisions that you make, the things that you do, and the hope that you hold in your hearts.


Freedom is your inheritance. Now, it is your responsibility to build upon freedom's foundation. And if you do, we will look back years from now and say that this was the time when the promise was realized — this was the moment when prosperity was forged; pain was overcome; and a new era of progress began.


Africa’s destiny lies in her own hands; it does not lie with some external agency or on the rocks of Jupiter. Nearly all the obstacles that have held Africa back that President Obama identifies are internal factors. He lashed out at bad governance: corruption, rule of brutality, tyranny, tribalism and patronage. Development depends on good governance, he said. He was even more explicit: “The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy.” “Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.” These institutions are built from within Africa, not imported from Venus.


Q. Broadly, what is the “Internalist School” of Africa’s development?


A. The causes of Africa’s lack of development have always evoked heated debates. On one hand are those who portray Africa as a victim of powerful external forces and conspiracies. This group may be described as “externalists.” On the other are those who believe that the causes of Africa's crisis lie mostly within Africa – in the nature of government or governance and the environment created by government policies. This group may be described as the “internalists.”


The Externalists


The externalists attribute Africa's woes to external factors. Disciples of the externalist school include most African leaders, scholars, and intellectual radicals. For decades the externalist position held sway, attributing the causes of almost every African problem to such external factors as Western colonialism and imperialism, the pernicious effects of the slave trade, racist conspiracy plots, exploitation by avaricious multinational corporations, an unjust international economic system, inadequate flows of foreign aid, and deteriorating terms of trade.


In his book, The Africans, African scholar and historian Professor Ali Mazrui claims that almost everything that went wrong in Africa was the fault of Western colonialism and imperialism. "The West harmed Africa's indigenous technological development in a number of ways" (p.164). He attributed Africa's collapsing infrastructure (roads, railways, and utilities) to the "shallowness of Western institutions," "the lopsided nature of colonial acculturation" and "the moral contradictions of Western political tutelage" (p.202). In fact, "the political decay is partly a consequence of colonial institutions without cultural roots in Africa" (p.199). Therefore, self congratulatory western assertions of contributing to Africa's modernization are shallow: "The West has contributed far less to Africa than Africa has contributed to the industrial civilization of the West" (p.164).


Decay in law enforcement and mismanagement of funds were all the fault of Western colonialism too. "The pervasive atmosphere in much of the land is one of rust and dust, stagnation and decay, especially within those institutions which were originally bequeathed by the West" (p.210). They signal "the slow death of an alien civilization" (p.204) and Africa's rebellion "against westernization masquerading as modernity" (p.211). Western institutions are doomed "to grind to a standstill in Africa" or decay. "Where Islam is already established, the decay of western civilization is good for Islam since it helps to neutralize a major threat" (p.19).


Since independence in the sixties, almost every African malaise was ascribed to the operation or conspiracy of extrinsic agents. The leadership was above reproach and could never be faulted. The late President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, even blamed corruption on European colonialism. Asked who introduced corruption into Zaire, he retorted: "European businessmen were the ones who said, 'I sell you this thing for $1,000, but $200 will be for your (Swiss bank) account'" (New African, July, 1988, 25).


In his address to the third Congress of the Democratic Union of Malian People in 1988, former President Moussa Traore observed that, “The world economy is passing through a period characterized by monetary disorder and slow trade exchanges. The worsening crisis is affecting all countries, particularly developing countries.Due to the difficult situation, which is compounded by the serious drought, socio economic life has been affected by serious imbalances that have jeopardized our country's development growth. Debt servicing, characterized mainly by state to state debts are a heavy burden on the state budget. The drop in the price of cotton, which accounts for much of the country's foreign earnings, has led to a great reduction in export earnings" (West Africa, 16 May 1988, 876).


“President Daniel arap Moi accused the IMF and other development partners of denying Kenya development funds, thus triggering mass poverty” (The Washington Times, June 3, 1999; p.A12). According to the Chairman of Ghana’s ruling NDC, Issifu Ali, whatever economic crisis the nation is going through has been caused by external factors. “He said the NDC has since 1982 adopted pragmatic policies for the progress of Ghana, adding that the macro-economic environment of 1999 has been undermined by global economic developments" (The Independent, Nov 18, 1999; p.3).


According to Zimbabwe Independent (April 27, 1999), “Mugabe rejects the criticism of those who blame the government for the economic crisis. It is, he says, the fault of greedy Western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and the drought” (p. 25). President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe also blames Western sanctions, British colonialists, racists and “snakes” (whites) for ruining his economy.


African organizations such as the African Union are also steeped in the externalist orthodoxy. The New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) claims that Africa’s impoverishment has been accentuated by the legacy of colonialism and other historical legacies, such as the Cold War and the unjust international economic system. Colonialism subverted the "traditional structures, institutions and values," creating an economy "subservient to the economic and political needs of the imperial powers" (para 21). Colonialism, according to NEPAD, retarded the development of an entrepreneurial and middle class with managerial capability. At independence, Africa inherited a "weak capitalist class," which explains the "weak accumulation process, weak states and dysfunctional economies." (para 22). More recent reasons for Africa's dire condition include "its continued marginalization from globalization process." (para 2). NEPAD seeks $64 billion in investments from the West. Now, Col. Ghaddafi, the chairman of the African Union, says Israel is the cause of Africa’s problems.


The Internalists


Internalists are the new and angry generation of Africans, who are fed up with African leaders who refuse to take responsibility for their own failures and, instead use colonialism and other external factors as convenient alibis to conceal their own incompetent management. Internalists believe that, while external factors have played a role, the internal factors are far more significant in causing Africa’s crisis. This school of thought maintains that while it is true that colonialism and Western imperialism did not leave Africa in good shape, Africa's condition has been made immeasurably worse by internal factors: misguided leadership, mis-governance, systemic corruption, capital flight, economic mismanagement, declining investment, collapsed infrastructure, decayed institutions, senseless civil wars, political tyranny, flagrant violations of human rights, and military vandalism.


The origins of the internalist orthodoxy can be traced to the 1970s when a rash of military coups tossed out of office some of the first generation of post colonial African nationalists. Coup leaders seldom mentioned colonialism, slave trade, the World Bank or other external factors as motivating them. They always cited economic mismanagement, corruption and inadequate pay – all internal factors. Furthermore, the civil wars that ravaged Africa in the 1970s and 80s were not sparked by external factors. In fact, rebel leaders have never sought to redraw artificial colonial boundaries. Rather, they have been driven by internal grievances – against the state. Representing groups that have been politically marginalized, rebel leaders head straight to capital cities where power lies.


Since 1970, more than 40 wars have been fought in Africa. Year after year, one African country after another has imploded with deafening staccato, scattering refugees in all directions: Sudan (1972), Angola (1975), Mozambique (1975), Ethiopia (1985), Liberia (1992), Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Zaire (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Congo DRC (1998), Ethiopia/Eritrea (1998), Guinea (1999) and Ivory Coast (2001). And year after year, grisly pictures of emaciated bodies of African famine victims are paraded on Western television in urgent appeals for humanitarian assistance.


Some wars never end (Algeria, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, Western Sahara) while others restart after brief lulls. At least 20 African nations are currently wracked by conflict and civil strife. Populations have been decimated, infrastructure destroyed and homes razed. The economic toll has been horrendous: devastated agriculture, deepening poverty, declining investment, increasing social misery, and a massive refugee population of mostly women and children. Children are abducted into child soldiery and women fall prey to marauding soldiers, turning refugee camps into breeding grounds for the spread of AIDS. Since women constitute about 80 percent of Africa’s peasant farmers, Africa's agriculture has been hardest hit -- so severe that Africa, which used to be self-sufficient in food in 1950s, now imports 40 percent of its food needs. The World Bank estimates that Africa's agricultural production would increase by as much as 30 percent if the civil wars would end.


The vast majority of Africa's conflicts are intra state in origin. They are not about driving away colonial infidels; nor redrawing colonial boundaries. They are about political power, pure and simple: Power to plunder resources; power to allocate resources to oneself, cronies and kinsmen; power to perpetuate oneself in office; and power to crush one's enemies. These are internal factors.


The destruction of an African country, regardless of the professed ideology of its government, always begins with some dispute over the electoral process. Blockage of the democratic process or the refusal to hold elections plunged Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, and Sudan into civil war. Hard-liner manipulation of the electoral process destroyed Rwanda (1993), Sierra Leone (1992) and Zaire (1990). Subversion of the electoral process in Liberia (1985) eventually set off a civil war in 1989. The same type of subversion instigated civil strife in Cameroon (1991), Congo (1992), Kenya (1992), Togo (1992) and Lesotho (1998). In Congo (Brazzaville), a dispute over the 1997 electoral framework flared into mayhem and civil war. The military's annulment of electoral results by the military started Algeria's civil war (1992) and plunged Nigeria into political turmoil (1993). All this destruction stemmed from the adamant refusal of one individual or the ruling elites to relinquish or share political power. This has nothing to do with the slave trade, colonialism or external factors.


By the beginning of the new millennium, the externalist doctrine had lost so much credibility that even Africa’s children no longer bought it. Chernoh Bah, president of the Children's Forum asserted that Africa's socio economic problems are a direct repercussion of incompetent and corrupt political leaders who usurped political office via the gun. "Some blame colonialism for Africa' plight while others blame the continent's harsh climatic conditions. I think the reason is the kind of political systems we have had over the past decades”, he said. (Standard Times [Freetown], April 2, 2003; web posted). At the United Nations Children's Summit held in May 2002 in New York, youngsters from Africa ripped into their leaders for failing to improve their education and health. "You get loans that will be paid in 20 to 30 years and we have nothing to pay them with, because when you get the money, you embezzle it, you eat it”, said 12-year-old Joseph Tamale from Uganda (BBC News, May 10, 2002).


Prominent Africans also started lashing out at the leadership. U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, himself an African, excoriated African leaders at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Summit in Lome in July 2000. He pointedly told them that they are to blame for most of the continent's problems. “Instead of being exploited for the benefit of the people, Africa’s mineral resources have been so mismanaged and plundered that they are now the source of our misery” (Daily Graphic, July 12, 2000; p.5). Earlier in the year at a press conference in London in April, 2000, Kofi Annan, “lambasted African leaders who he says have subverted democracy and lined their pockets with public funds, although he stopped short of naming names” (The African-American Observer, April 25 – May 1, 2000; p.10).


During a brief stop-over in Accra, he disclosed in a Joy FM radio station interview that "Africa is the region giving him the biggest headache as the Security Council spends 60 to 70% of its time on Africa. He admitted sadly and that the conflicts on the continent embarrasses and pains him as an African" (The Guide, July 18-24, 2000; p.8). Ordinary people are speaking out too. Said Akobeng Eric, a Ghanaian, in a letter to the Free Press (29 March - 11 April 1996): "A big obstacle to economic growth in Africa is the tendency to put all blame, failures and shortcomings on outside forces. Progress might have been achieved if we had always tried first to remove the mote in our own eyes" (2).


The African people, fed up at the incompetence of their people, started lashing out. Angry at deteriorating economic conditions in Ghana, thousands of Ghanaians marched through the streets of the capital city, Accra, to denounce the ruling regime of President Rawlings. “If Jerry Rawlings says the current economic crisis is due to external forces and therefore, beyond his control, then he should step aside and allow a competent person who can manage the crisis to take over," Atta Frimpong demanded (The Ghanaian Chronicle, Nov 29, 1999; p.1). Appiah Dankwah, another protestor blamed the NDC government for mismanaging the resources of the nation.


In Zimbabwe, the people did not buy President Mugabe’s claim that “Britain, greedy Western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and the drought” were responsible for the country’s economic mess. They rejected his request for constitutional revisions to give him more draconian powers in a February 15, 2000 referendum, handing him his first political defeat in 20 years of virtually unchallenged rule.


President Barack Obama echoed these internalist sentiments when he said in Accra on July 11, 2009 that, “the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.”


To be continued.




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