A review of Africa Unchained

Published on 28th June 2005

We must breed tigers in Africa

Matthew Lockwood writes on the need for non-standard remedies in Africa. He states \"...What Africa needs is to shake off its dependence on primary commodity exports, a problem underlying not only its marginalization from world trade but also its chronic debt problems. Many countries rely today on as narrow a range of agricultural and mineral products as they did 30 years ago, and suffer the consequences of inexorably declining export earnings. Again, the campaigners\' remedy - to improve market access for African exports to Europe and America - is wide off the mark. While imperfect, various preferential schemes already give the poorest African countries excellent market access. To understand how Africa might diversify we must look elsewhere, to the experience of east and south-east Asia. Not only have these countries revolutionized their trade performance in the last four decades to become world leaders in everything from clothing to computers, they have also achieved the holy grail of broad-based growth. The \"Asian miracle\" has seen countries poorer than their African counterparts in the 1960s virtually eradicate $1-a-day poverty today. If you really want to know how to make poverty history, it is this transformation that you must grasp...\"

Heart of a Tormented Continent

There is an appealing logic to the latest multimillion-dollar aid package for Africa announced last week by George Bush and Tony Blair. It is supposed to help rob terrorists of a breeding ground and, in a humanitarian spirit, relieve the continent of some of its misery. But anyone who has followed the fate of Africa over recent decades might wonder: Why should these millions of dollars have any better effect than the billions that have gone before? Why does the West feel the need to keep pouring money into Africa? One answer has to do with the underlying conventional wisdom, which blames Africa’s miseries on the delayed effects of Western colonialism. Yet as the decades pass it becomes apparent that, although there is some truth to the claim, there is more to Africa\'s problems than that: A solution will require radical changes in the way Africa is governed and in the way its economies function. George Ayittey makes such an argument in; \"Africa Unchained\" (Palgrave, 483 pages, $35), a superb analysis of the continent and its recent ordeals. Colonialism plays a part in Mr. Ayittey\'s account, too, but in a different way. For him, the continent\'s problems stem from the characteristics of the governing elite. In \"Africa Unchained,\" he draws a sharp distinction between African governments -- generally corrupt, socialist, centralizing -- and the informal sectors of the African economy, which the elite\'s misdeeds have impoverished. At independence in the 1960s, Africa was a net exporter of food; now it imports $18 billion of food per annum.

But where did the elites pick up their bad habits? Mr. Ayittey describes in detail the economics of pre-colonial African societies. Property was held in common among the extended family but not by the community as a whole, while economic activity was undertaken for profit, with prices set by hard bargaining. Government operated through consultation, with chiefs exercising power only after full discussion with a council of elders. Thus the modern pattern of one-party or one-person rule, state ownership and state controls over prices and distribution is an import from Europe, not an African tradition.

Free Institutions

Mr. Ayittey\'s claim that democracy and free markets, not autocracy and communal ownership, are a legacy of Africa\'s own past is important, since it provides a rationale for Africans to move toward a system that can work. It presents a striking parallel to the work of parliamentarian historians at the time of the English Civil War, who traced English civil liberties back before Magna Carta to the Anglo-Saxon \"Witanagemot\" -- a gathering of tribal eminences -- and to the free institutions ascribed by Tacitus to the Germans of the first century. These historians gave their liberal cause legitimacy; Mr. Ayittey\'s researches may give a similar legitimacy to free institutions in Africa.

As for what those institutions might be, Mr. Ayittey calls for independent judiciaries, independent media and, not least, independent central banks. He would like to see power devolve as much as possible to Africa\'s traditional leaders -- at the village and regional level -- who are closer to the people they rule and less able to escape abroad from the penalties for corruption and malfeasance. He notes that Africa\'s governments today too often divert what money they have -- from aid or from oil and mineral revenues -- to military spending, wasteful prestige projects and tax-haven bank accounts. Here, too, local control would help. Aid in particular -- Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair take note -- needs to be targeted locally and regionally, rather than nationally, and it needs to be dispensed much more quickly than it is now, and in much smaller amounts.

What chance is there of such reforms actually happening? Less than one might wish. Part of the problem still comes from the West. When the principal cadres of Westerners dealing with Africa are aid agencies, charities and NGOs, rather than the financiers and businessmen who predominate in India and China, one has to expect that Africans, elite and otherwise, will be exposed to a high level of economic illiteracy. Still, capital and investment will not flow towards Africa until it has done more to shrink the power of its governments and provide havens, secure against tax, inflation and expropriation, for the savings of its striving peoples. And in this regard Western attempts at institution-building will be of little help. It is for Africans to build their own models of governance. Luckily, as Mr. Ayittey shows, they have a proud tradition to draw upon --and never mind the colonizers.

The Coming of the African Cheetah

In the words of George Ayittey, Africa Unchained is about “unleashing the entrepreneurial talents and creative energies of the real African people…and a blueprint for Africa’s future.” Dr. George Ayittey, a distinguished professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and the first among his generation to recognize that “African problems must be solved by Africans,” has written this book to help push Africa onto prosperity. His approach to the solution of African problems was much derided by some in the 90s, but is now gaining popularity with reformers and world leaders in the new search for ways to help Africa.

Whether at the front of Congress, in conference rooms at the World Bank and IMF, on numerous radio and television talk shows; or during the various crises which have engulfed the continent, Ayittey has sturdily maintained the “solution by Africans” approach as a departure point for solving the seemingly intractable problems on the continent. Ayittey, in a sense, has all along been the Jeremiah of Africa, saying things that some don’t want to hear. Will his critics, who are many, now wait for results or would they rush out to call him a false prophet?

In Africa Unchained he sets out to explain why and how Africa ought to be saved. In a characteristic manner, Ayittey is unsparing in his prescriptions for Africa, and in his criticism of the African elite. He has no faith in either the current leadership, or the ones preceding them. Rather, he places faith in the new leaders to come, whom he calls the “African Cheetah,” his version of the term “Asian Tiger.” Ayittey is often criticized, mostly by his fellow intellectuals, for his brutal assessments of conditions in Africa. They describe him variously as an “Uncle Tom,” a “Sell-Out,” or an Afro-pessimist.

Often, his response to these critics has been to draw “a distinction between African leaders and the African people,” or the field hands who are governed and the men in the state houses who are the governors. In Africa Unchained, Ayittey’s analysis of the historical facts of Africa’s post independence experience makes his usual harsh style credible. So when he asks in his prologue “if I have a very strong cutlass (machete) whom should I go after?” you know exactly whom he has gone after and why.

For Ayittey, the problems gained their most impetus during the post colonial period, when leaders got their priorities mixed. Cherished leaders like Nkrumah and Nyerere are drubbed for policies Ayittey claims were wrong headed. This writer would agree that, indeed, some of these policies, as described by Ayittey, were wrong; but differs in thinking that the period was also one of intense experimentation, and, therefore, things were likely to go wrong. Many things under Nkrumah went right. The grace for his period is that no one would today doubt the sincerity with which he tackled the experiment. As for Nkrumah stashing money abroad, nothing has been tendered as evidence other than the hearsay which started on February 24, 1966 when he was overthrown.

Nkrumah, after nine years in office, never had the chance to self-adjust his policies before being overthrown. Those leaders who came after had the benefit and the responsibility to amend some of his policies. And indeed, Ayittey agrees with this assertion. Thus, it is the failure to do so by these pretenders to leadership that must give Ayittey’s book real vitality.

Ayittey condemns statist intervention in the economy. He commends some governments for recognizing lately the need to move from socialist models to allow foreign capital infusion by making their markets “more open, permitting profit repatriation.” These governments had hoped to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to spark growth and development. But Ayittey laments that all the good intentions and the innovations are yet to overcome the “negative image” that Africa has acquired over the years. Thus the economies of these countries still remain sluggish.

Africa continues to remain unattractive for the investor; contrary to all evidence of healthy returns on investment. Not even rich Africans prefer to keep their monies there. Ayittey chastises the late president of the Ivory Coast, Houphouet Boigny, for asking “what sensible man does not keep his wealth in Switzerland, the whole world’s bank?” It is perplexing to read Ayittey’s book and still be aware that some have called him a sell-out. His love for Africa is apparent in this book. His description of the “low level” efficiencies that make Africa work is lovely to read. What he calls the “astonishing degree of functionality, participatory form of democracy, rule of customary law and accountability of the traditional African society,” is respectful and easy to applaud. These are words of facts as well as love. He cannot be the Afro-pessimist his detractors sometimes call him. Otherwise, how could he put so much faith in the simple African peasant he calls “Atingah”?

The critical question to ask is: Is Ayittey being romantic by placing so much faith in the African peasant and the simple things that so far have provided “low-level” efficiencies to the economies of Africa? The notion may sound simplistic to some. But given that the technological and scientific marvels of the West had their primitive beginnings, I will give this approach a strong support. The experiments have been done. The need now is to provide the right environment to nurture the confidence that will make the feats possible. And this is what effective leadership can do.

As Ayittey’s long held view of solution for the African problem suggests, salvation “does not lie…in the crisis-laden modern sector.” It rides on the “backs of the Atingas (peasants) in Africa.” Instead of investing in the Atingas, who support the bulk of the economy in Africa, Ayittey says African leaders have forgotten them in the shuffle for development and that the low class Atingas (peasants) never featured in the grandiose developmental schemes of post colonial Africa.

For Ayittey, it is possible to turn Africa around. This means empowering the peasants and freeing them to pursue the various enterprises they are already good at. Africa needs “a completely new approach” and an absolute paradigm shift for this to happen, according to Ayititey. Ayittey describes the attempts so far as mostly disingenuous. And he blames this on the elite, whom he calls “the vampire parasitic elite minority group.” No wonder the majority of his critics, are found in this group.

Africa Unchained is Ayittey’s third book. It is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It was released about a month ago and already has caught the attention of the book world with favorable reviews from the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. For anyone in academe, government or a seeker of solution for Africa’s seemingly intractable problems, Africa Unchained is the book to read.

Source http://www.africaunchained.blogspot.com/

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