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Wanted: Somebody With An African Sensibility Steeped In Controversy’
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Opinions of Sunday, 16 August 2009

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

Wanted: Somebody With An African Sensibility Steeped In Controversy’

We wouldn’t put the advertisement in such a controversial wording, unless we want to make a controversy out of an already controversial situation. Let’s start with the least controversial: There are 54 countries on the African continent. All of them are poor, but some are poorer than others. Just about 8 of them have media freedom. They all have leadership concerns. Corruption is a problem in nearly all of them: it costs the continent $140b a year. Capital flight costs the continent $80b a year. Food imports costs Africa $20b a year. 40% of the wealth created in Africa is not invested on the continent. Nearly all the 54 countries have rich mineral resources. So the continent is not poor. Yet, their peoples cannot feed themselves, and go begging and borrowing to survive. Now, some people are bent of altering the status quo.

This is the awful truth that some African intellectuals want to drum aloud, so that Africans would sit and do things for themselves. Africa’s begging bowl leaks. Need we pour in some more aid? There has been so much talk on the problems facing the continent. It has now almost become a genre worth investigating. And some people are doing well to popularise this genre. They come in different groups, under different labels. The recent group of African intellectuals committed to solving the problems call themselves Afropolitans, a group that includes Zambian-born Goldman Sachs economist, Dambisa Moyo. We have already had the internalists and the externalists. We have also had the consciousness raisers, the thinkers and the truthers. Then, there are the Cheetahs and the Hippos, terms that can be credited to Prof George Ayittey, a distinguished Ghanaian brain in America. The Cheetahs are the doer generation that are dis-satisfied with the continent’s progress, and determined to show a new way of leadership to economic redemption. The Hippos are the vampire elites of yesterday who are ‘stuck in their intellectual patch’, going through the routines of traditional governance to perpetuate their loot from their poor states.

What is common in most of these groups is a common rhetoric, a sentiment that resonates with Barack Obama’s Yes We can. We can cut corruption if we put in place effective monitoring mechanisms. We can realise our millennium Development Goals if we cut down on government spending and develop good educational infrastructure. We can reduce poverty if we create more jobs for people and develop the capacity of local entrepreneurs. We can control poverty if we actually stop receiving aid from western powers and insist on a good share of international trade. We can break free from poverty if we prevent the West from taking a disproportionate share of the benefits of globalisation and introduce the African model into the global development agenda.

I have been following the discussions for a very long time, and have always indicated my hesitation to go along with any of them, because they send the realisation of the noble objectives farther into the future. You would mark the repetitive use of the conditional ‘if’ in the arguments. That at once communicates the uncertain possibility, or rather the possible uncertainty of the African Dream. It seems the crusaders are saying the same things in different ways. But lately, we are witnessing something that promises to be quite different from the usual rhetoric, at least in style, if not in substance. Ironically, it is coming from somebody who was thought unimportant when he started talking years ago. He was even jailed for talking too much. Today, he is worthy enough to advise an American secretary of state on African matters. But is what he says any different from what he has been saying over the past years? Has the line of argument changed?

When Ekwow Spio-Garbrah described George B.N Ayittey as a nobody, he was just a university don who had just lent the debate on African economics his side of the story. He penned Africa Betrayed to popular acclaim, in which he devastatingly attacked African dictators for ruining the continent. In that provocative intellectual exercise, he argued that those who blame Africa’s woes on external forces such as colonialism and the western powers, are naïve, and that the problem is caused by the bad leaders on the continent. He would soon win America with the publication of Africa in Chaos: A comparative History. The book was praised by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Book Review, and The Washington Times, which saw it as “crucial for anyone seeking an understanding of Africa’s condition”. After that, he wrote Africa unchained: The Blueprint for Africa’s Future, where he further criticises the leaders on the continent. However, unlike other works on Africa’s underdevelopment that only talk about the problems, Ayittey takes the discussion further by making some bold propositions. He argues for freedom and advocates that Africa should build and expand on traditional models of free trade and free markets. He expresses optimism that Africa can unchain itself from poverty and corruption when we find responsible and progress-minded people to manage the abundant resources on the continent.

Prof George Ayittey has often been described as a controversial person. A few bloggers and writers have confirmed that Ayittey’s controversy is their inspiration. Yet, the Economics professor, who is listed among the 100 public intellectuals in the world, a group that includes Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins etc, says he doesn’t take kindly to the controversy label. He is not afraid to be called controversial, but he worries why being truthful could be misconstrued as being controversial. To him, it takes controversy to force out the truth about our present situation. He doesn’t employ euphemisms or metaphors to describe the problems on the continent; he charges on the corrupt leaders, whom he calls quack revolutionaries, vampire elites and crocodile liberators, to leave behind old leadership paradigms and move into new areas of modern development. He asks the all important question: Who do we want to help in Africa? Is it the people or the government? He distinguishes between Africans and the African problem. He also distinguishes between government and vampire states-the kind that suck the economic vitality out of their people. He is emphatic that we don’t have governments in Africa; we have a structure in place that only ensures that those in charge make sure their positions benefit only their cronies and their families.

He prescribes a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the African system as the first step to solving the problem. According to him, if anybody wants to help Africa, they must know where the people are. The African economy is divided into three: the modern sector, the informal and the traditional. We need an operational understanding of the sectors before we can make any impact on the lives of the people. He seeks to prove the leadership problem by asking how many African leaders have helped their people. There have been 204 African leaders since 1960. In arresting firebrand, grab-you-by-the-throat fashion, he asks participants at a TED conference to name 20 of them who have been exemplary. There, he lets himself go: He has more biting adjectives for the African leaders. They are either Swiss Bank socialists or an assortment of military heads, or even fufu heads, who care more about themselves than their people.

Recently, Prof Ayittey was invited by the White House in America to coach Secretary of state Mrs Hillary Clinton on what to expect on her trip to Africa. There, he made some important propositions. He also presented autographed copies of his recent book, Africa Unchained to Mrs Clinton and President Barack Obama. Mrs Clinton was not visiting Ghana, so why did Washington find Ayittey’s counsel on Africa necessary? Well, Ayittey is a public intellectual who has shown distinction in his field of work along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it. He is the 63rd intellectual in the world, according to the foreign policy body that puts together the ratings, with Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka at 55. That makes Ayittey one of very few Africans, not more than four, whose efforts are internationally recognised. The only other Ghanaian listed in the group of 100 is Princeton Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah.

The Foreign Policy body itself makes it clear that there are problems with definition and judgement on the selection of the 100 public intellectuals. Beyond being a public intellectual, what has Prof Ayittey done that is strikingly different from what we have been doing? At a recent TED conference, he opened the discussion by asking whether African governments could put together a conference where people would come to give speeches and brainstorm. Well, some of us thought we have been holding more conferences than necessary. We have called them talk-shops, because after talking, nothing happens. Policies are not implemented. Reports are even not read sometimes. So, the situation remains the same.

Some of the Ayittey’s critics are worried about his see-no-good stance on Africa. Compare Ayittey’s views with the redemptive posture normally adopted Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former World Bank Vice President. At a similar TED conference, The Nigerian sought to change the perception that Africa is a continent of corruption and non-performance. She enumerated efforts being made to improve the performance of state institutions and the measures taken to check corruption. Finally, she encouraged investors to go ahead and invest on the continent. She explains how external debt has come down, and how reserves have improved. She gives a new meaning to remittances: Africans abroad send money to Africa not because there is so much poverty there, but because they have confidence in their systems.

Ngozi is refreshing to listen to on aid. Unlike other scholars and African development economists like Dambisa Moyo, who want the aid taps closed so that Africans would sit and do things for themselves, Ngozi turns the aid debate into Africa’s favour. She cites examples of other European countries that also received aid and did well with it. Southern Spain developed their infrastructure with EU aid. Ireland developed their ICT with aid. Ngozi shows the new way: Aid must be catalytic. She vindicates the African position by remembering people that Africa also gave aid to the developed world years ago when their economies started developing. It is all the resources, including human capital, that were used to build the rich economies. She talks of the new chapter of Africa, where people are taking charge of their situations and doing well to improve them.

Ayittey is good to listen to, and he is reassuringly instructive on the way forward, but what good does he serve the investor community? If a prospective investor listens to Ayittey, is he likely to go down and spend his money in a wasted land full of corruption and vampire elites? To be fair, Ayittey does well to show some positive side of the new group of leaders who can change the fortunes on the continent. These are those he calls the Cheetahs. But, by the time he ends his slaughter of the Hippos, he had undone the potential of the Cheetahs. The road to progress looks so bumpy and dangerous. The bad image still sticks with the continent.

In my discussion forum, many of the contributors, mostly intellectuals based abroad, have a similar approach to issues on African development. If we fail to see the good things about ourselves and our systems, how do we expect the peoples of other continents to see anything progressive about us? Coincidentally, nearly all of these intellectuals wrote their Masters and PhD dissertations on Africa. And they follow a particular trend: They did their research as Africans, but they now do the judgment from a western standpoint. Perhaps, that is the problem. You would find the intellectual clique of many societies living next door, never pushing limits to get recognition. African intellectuals live abroad, or must have had some western exposure. The truth is understood as controversy, so those who want to speak the truth may have to sound controversial. And they have to be appreciated in controversial terms to generate debate. In end, who speaks the consensus on what exactly we need to do to change our situation? At any point, we have more than two voices: The intellectual class, and then the political class, who never agree on anything. There is also the non-political account by the international non-governmental sector. The local NGO’s have a view too. In the end, who tells the story best?

Benjamin Tawiah


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