We Let Africa Down Badly – by Prof George N. Ayittey
An Open Letter to African Academics, Scholars and Intellectuals
Upon reviewing the current upheavals in North Africa and elsewhere on the continent, I felt it is necessary for us – African academics, scholars and intellectuals – to take stock and a fresh look at ourselves: What role have we played in advancing the cause of liberty and improving governance in post colonial Africa. Our record is not very good. Sometimes, self-criticism is necessary in order for us to make progress. You do not have to agree with what I am going to say – diversity of opinion is healthy. There have been outstanding individuals among us who risked death to champion the cause of freedom in Africa. However, as a group we have let Africa down badly by not providing intellectual leadership to the democratic struggle.
“He who doesn’t know where he came from doesn’t know where is going,” says an African proverb. We of the intellectual community are lost; we don’t know where we are going. The recent upheavals in Africa caught us completely off guard. We did not see it coming because we were pre-occupied elsewhere. It seems we are way behind the curve, late to the struggle for democracy in Africa and are now only playing “catch-up.”
As a result, we have become irrelevant to the struggle. The youth, who are driving the struggle for change, no longer listen or look up to us. We have failed them. Afflicted with “intellectual astigmatism,” we can see with eagle-eyed clarity the injustices perpetrated against Africans by the white colonialists and the West. But we are hopelessly blind to the equally heinous injustices committed by African leaders against their own people. Too many of us sold off our integrity, principles and conscience to serve the dictates of tyrannical and barbarous African regimes. Military brutes such as Idi Amin, Sani Abacha, Haile Mariam Mengistu and Samuel Doe etc. could always find intellectuals and professors to serve at their beck and call. Some of us even preferred military to civilian rule. According to Colonel. Yohanna A. Madaki (rtd), when General Gowon drew up plans to return Nigeria to civil rule in 1970, “academicians began to present well researched papers pointing to the fact that military rule was the better preferred option since the civilians had not learned any lessons sufficient enough to be entrusted with the governance of the country” (Post Express, 12 Nov 1998, 5). Imagine.
Worse, we spurned Africa’s own rich heritage – cultural, political and economic – went abroad and blindly copied all sorts of foreign ideologies and paraphernalia to transplant into Africa. We are still at it:
“African academics hailed the establishment of Confucius institutes in the continent at a seminar opened on August 12 in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, saying the institutions are serving as a bridge of culture and partnership between African and China. A total of 25 Confucius institutes have been opened in 18 African countries” (Xinhua, August 14, 2010).
Imagine. Note that we are not building “Ubuntu Institutes.” We have even become part of the problem. Ivory Coast descended into bloody civil war when Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat after the Nov 28, 2010 election. He was once a PROFESSOR of History but now being prosecuted by the ICC. Another is Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal, who was once a PROFESSOR of Law. He refused to accept the two-term constitutional limit and is trying to manipulate the rules to stand for a third term. http://ht.ly/8WOIu
Here is the African conundrum: We can’t achieve much progress – only marginal – with the current crop of leaders and we can’t change or remove them without destroying our countries. The continent suffers from a catastrophic failure of leadership. Since independence in 1960, we have had exactly 216 African heads of state. One would be hard pressed to name 20 good leaders of the lot. Try it and name just 20. I asked my Twitter followers to do this and here is the list they came up with, arranged in the order received:
Gen. Murtala Muhammed of Nigeria, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nicephore Soglo of Benin, Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, John Kufour of Ghana, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Patrice Lumumba of Congo DR, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Pedro de Verona Rodrigues of Cape Verde Islands, Festus Mogae of Botswana, Benjamin William Mkapa of Tanzania, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Ramgoolam of Mauritius, Ian Khama of Botswana, Leopold Senghor of Senegal.
The total is 17. Not a scientific poll but result is telling. Quibbling over whom to include or exclude is pointless. The LARGER point is that the overwhelming majority (over 90%) were not good leaders.
The cause of leadership failure is not cultural but systemic – the product of defective foreign systems and institutions we blindly copied to impose on our people in Africa. The one-party state system, the unitary state system and the socialist economic ideology all resulted in the concentration of UNCHECKED POWER in the hands of the president. Unchecked power has NOT exist anywhere in our traditional system. Rulers are surrounded by councils upon councils to prevent them from abusing their power. Without these councils, the ruler has no power. African kings have little or no political role. Theirs is spiritual or supernatural and confined to their palaces to perform those functions. Further, the power of the African chief is checked by the Queen-Mother, who can remove him, by the Council of Elders, without which the chief is powerless, and by the Village Assembly, which can demand his removal. The village assembly is commonplace in traditional Africa – called Asetena k\Kese among the Ashanti, Ama-ala among the Igbo, Guurti among the Somali, Ndaba among the Zulu, Pitso among the Xhosa, Dare among the Shona, Kgotla among the Tswana, and so on. In the stateless societies such as Igbo, Somali, Gikuyu, Kru, etc., there is no such thing as “unchecked power” because centralized authority does not exist.
In the larger polities, political configuration in traditional Africa was one of confederation, not unitary state system. All the ancient empires of Africa – Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Great Zimbabwe, etc. – were confederacies, characterized by great decentralization – not centralization – of power and devolution of authority. For example, the Oyo Empire in the 16th Century featured a complex system of checks and balances. This empire was in existence even before the U.S. came into being in 1776. Further, Kingdoms such as the Ashanti, Buganda, and Ga are confederacies.
It is also important to note that in traditional Africa, decision-making is by consensus, not majority vote. The absence of a box with ballot written on it does not mean the essence of democracy was unknown in traditional Africa. Democratic decisions can be taken in two ways: By majority vote (the Western way) and by consensus. Each modality has its advantages and demerits. Taking decisions by majority vote is fast, efficient and transparent but the downside is that it ignores minority positions and can result in “tyranny of the majority.” Decision-making by consensus has the advantage that, since it takes all minority positions into account, it is acceptable to all once reached. However, the demerit is that it can take an awfully long time to reach a consensus the larger the number of people involved. Nevertheless, the Nobel Peace Committee and the World Trade Organization (WTO) all take decisions by consensus, as in traditional Africa.
Thus, dictatorship – a ruler with unchecked power – does not and cannot exist in systems that reach decisions by consensus. Dictatorship and consensus are incompatible concepts. Equally important is the fact that military rule cannot be defended upon the basis of African tradition. The military is a colonial institution, introduced to suppress African aspirations for freedom. Fewer than 20 of the over 2,000 African ethnic societies had standing armies. In most African societies, people of certain age-grades served as the “people’s army,” and was disbanded after conflict so that it did not become a drain on the tribal economy. Sure, Africa has a warrior tradition but warriors did not rule. Legitimacy to rule is derived from possession of “royal blood,” “descent from the royal ancestors” or kinship and consent by the Elders – not the possession of a bazooka or warrior skills.
Today’s military doesn’t even understand its basic function in society. It has become a scourge and destabilizing force. Each year, Africa spends about $20 billion on the military and the importation of arms. For what? To kill, loot and destroy. Consider:
Uganda was destroyed by Field Marshal Idi Amin (1979); Liberia by General Samuel Doe (1990); Mali by General Moussa Traore (1991); Somalia by General Siad Barre (1991); Ethiopia by Colonel Mengistur (199; Central African Republic by General Andre Kolingba (1993); Burundi by General Pierre Buyoya (1993); Rwanda by General Juvenal Habryimana (1994); Zaire by General Mobutu Sese Seko (1996); Sierra Leone by General Joseph Momoh (1997); Niger by General Ibrahim Barre Mainassara (1999); Ivory Coast by General Robert Guie (2000); Togo by General Gnassingbe Eyadema (2005); Sudan by Lt-General Omar al-Bashir. Nigeria by a slew of kamikaze military generals. Libya by Col Khaddafi (2011).
Note frequency of “GENERALS.” All those countries would have been saved if their military dictators were willing to relinquish or share power. No military regime has brought lasting prosperity to ANY African nation and the worst civilian government is better than ANY military regime.
Said General Babangida, former president of Nigeria: “Every military regime is a fraud” (The African Observer, Jan 18-31, 1999; p.6). He should know; he stole $8 billion. Other military looters: Muammar Khaddafi of Libya, over $60 billion; Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, over $40 billion; Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo DR), over $10 billion; Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, $7 billion; Sani Abacha of Nigeria, $5 billion. Serious thoughts must be given by Africa’s academics to disbanding the military and serving under military regimes. Costa Rica has no military.
Between 1970 and the early 2004, more than $450 billion in oil money flowed into Nigerian government coffers. But according to Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC0, £220 billion ($412 billion) was “squandered” or looted by Nigeria’s military rulers. “We cannot be accurate down to the last figure but that is our projection,” Osita Nwajah, a commission spokesman (Telegraph, June 25, 2005). The stolen fortune tallies almost exactly with the £220 billion of western aid given to Africa between 1960 and 1997. That amounted to six times the American help given to post-war Europe under the Marshall Plan.
African academics tend to focus on Western-style multi-party majority vote elections as the source of political instability and violence in Africa in recent years. However, that does not explain the current upheavals in Africa, nor constitute the appropriate solution to them. First, multi-party elections are not the primary cause of political instability and violence. The real cause is the adamant refusal of African dictators to relinquish or share political power. The issue is not elections; we have been holding them since 1960. The problem is, since dictators are not willing to give up power, they never lose elections. They manipulate the electoral process and rig elections to retain power. With the exception of Zambia, they “won” all 9 African elections in 2010 and 2011.
In fact, the destruction of an African country, regardless of the professed ideology of its leader, 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). This pattern has been repeated in the 21st Century with electoral violence and destruction in Niger (1996), Ethiopia (2005, 2010)
Ivory Coast (2010), Togo (2005), Zimbabwe (2000, 2008), etc. All this destruction stemmed not from elections per se but the refusal of dictators to accept defeat. Even constitutional term limits are futile because they manipulate and repeal them – in Cameroon, Chad, Namibia, Uganda, etc. Recall that the Mo Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership went unclaimed for two years – 2009 and 2010.
Elections are not the issue. Dictators will always “win” them anyway – regardless of whether or not they are free and fair. Street protestors are not calling for elections; they want their leaders to go. They don’t trust them to hold free and fair elections. Ben Ali of Tunisia “won” all six elections held during his tenure; so did Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Second, the Western-style multi-party “winner-takes-all-and-eats-all” is not the gold standard for democracy. It is unsuitable for Africa and we should not be promoting it. It is divisive and easily degenerates in “tribal politics.” Many of the political parties in Africa are tribally-based. We should be promoting our own consensus-based democracy model as it is “unifying.”
There are two political constructs have led to the proliferation and entrenchment of dictatorships in post colonial Africa. The first is the unitary state system – as opposed to federal and confederal – that centralizes power and decision-making at the capital. The unitary state system is the European model and may be suitable for the Europeans, whose nations are made up of fairly homogenous racial stock, but unsuitable for multi-ethnic African states. We inherited the unitary state system from the colonialists but did not dismantle it after independence. Since power is centralized at the capital city, such a system always leads to competition among various groups to capture that power. The group that captures it uses it to advance the interests of its group and exclude all others – an apartheid-like system. Quite often the competition to capture political power degenerates into civil war. Note that all rebel leaders head straight to the capital city. Why? Because that’s where power is concentrated. Also note that in this competition, the group with the biggest bazooka – the military – often comes up on top.
The second construct is the Western-style multi-party democracy. Recall that in the 1960s, incoming national heroes who won independence for their respective countries were swept into office with huge parliamentary majorities. Then they used such majority to subvert the constitution, declare their countries to be one-party states and themselves “presidents-for-life.” The rest is history. One man one vote came to many African countries one time. Any political system that concentrates power in the hands of one individual will ultimately degenerate into dictatorship and tyranny, which have been our post colonial experience. The causes are the unitary state system and the Western-style democracy. Both constructs are alien to Africa. Traditional African polities were confederal, not unitary state systems and decision-making was by consensus, not majority vote.
We have helped create monstrous political systems in Africa that concentrates so much unchecked power in the hands of the president. And what does he do with all that power? There are just about three things African heads of state know how to do very well: Loot the treasury, squash all opposition and perpetuate themselves in office. Ask them to develop their countries and they will develop their pockets. Ask them to seek foreign investment and they will seek a foreign country to invest the loot. The richest persons in Africa are heads of state and government ministers. So lucrative has the presidency become that they have turned it into their family property. They stay and stay and then groom their wives, brothers, sons, cats, dogs and even goats to succeed them. Haba!
Perhaps, we need to establish an intellectual code. At the minimum, we, as African academics, scholars and intellectuals, should:
Be promoting “African solutions for African problems” – solutions rooted in our own culture and heritage, not by establishing Confucius, Buddha, Shinto or Martian Institutes. We are not Chinese, Americans, Russians or French. The solutions to Africa’s myriad problems lie in Africa itself – not inside the corridors of the World Bank, the inner sanctum of the Chinese presidium, nor in the steamy sex antics of cockroaches on Jupiter. The solutions lie in Africa’s own DNA – in her heritage of participatory democracy based on consensus-building, rule of customary law, checks and balances, free village markets, free enterprise and free trade. There were free village markets in Africa before the colonialists stepped foot on the continent and free trade routes criss-crossed the continent before their arrival.
- Be promoting religious tolerance. Neither Islam nor Christianity is indigenous to Africa. Both are foreign religions. We should not tolerate religious extremism of any kind. Africa has always practiced religious tolerance.
- Not defend any military regime, much less serve in one. Military rule is alien to Africa. Any African scholar or academic who does so should be sanctioned.
- Detribalize and denationalize ourselves. Just because a dictator comes from our tribe or nation doesn’t mean we should support him. A dictator is a dictator is a dictator. We should not tolerate any dictator whether in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Zimbabwe or anywhere on the continent. No such thing as a benevolent dictator. The only good dictator is a dead one.
- We should practice intellectual solidarity. If one intellectual is grabbed, all of us must go to his/her aid regardless of the African country where s/he is held.
- Eschew parochialism. Too many of us write only about our own countries. We should make it a point to adopt another African country and write about it because our problems are very similar.
Our leaders have failed us; our governments are dysfunctional and we, the intellectual community, have been missing in action. We are lost because we don’t know where we came from. Here is a short video that drives home my points: http://bit.ly/vZEcOb
Thank you for taking time to read this and please share if you wish to.
Former Professor of Economics at American University in Washington, DC, USA.
Follow the author on twitter @ayittey