Moses Ebe Ochonu, historian at Vanderbilt University, returns to Ayittey's piece and the response by Kennedy Emetulu
I have read Ayittey's piece as well as yours. I share all your concerns about his prognosis and
recommendations. Like you-- and this is well known, I am a committed advocate of the Sovereign National Conference (SNC) solution. But the leap of logic (or is it illogic) that enables Ayittey to construct a nexus of ideological connection between the institutions of judicial redress in precolonial Africa and the SNC phenomenon eludes me. I am not entirely convinced that the SNC movement has its archaeology in a homogenized set of African conflict resolution
But I am hardly surprised that he has returned to a personal archive of his: the ideas set out in his first book, in which he advocated a return to a rather romantic African historical imaginary as a solution to Africa's economic crisis. The facade of antiquity has always authorized Ayittey's bold, not to say controversial, prescriptions for overcoming Africa's challenges. In other contexts, the valorization of the African past makes more sense, but in this one, it seems like a stretch. Ayittey's trans-historical leap smacks of a curious manipulation of the SNC imperative to fit a favorite personal prescription--the return to a supposed precolonial socio-economic essence. The SNC imperative can be sustained, it seems to me, on its own merit as a programmatic intervention for socio-political redress and does not need the appeal to antiquity for its utilitarian authority.
And, of course, the invocation of the African past as a blueprint for ameliorative and redemptive action in the present is a slippery slope. The abuse and distortion of the lessons of the African past is unfortunately the fort of African dictators opposed to the liberal political reforms that Ayittey envisages as the outcomes of the SNC. In fact, African autocrats
have proven to be infinitely adroit in their strategic, even if dubiously self-imposed, roles as
purveyors of Africanisms and the glories of the African past. For this group of rulers, a romantic,
perfectly orderly African precolonial past has to be willed into existence as a mask to deflect persistent Western pressure for liberal economic and political reforms.
I think that what ultimately undermines the continuity that Ayittey attempts to construct between the public judicial and remedial performances of the African past
and the SNCs of the present is the fact that a cursory interrogation of the ways in which some of these so-called precolonial judicial sessions were conducted reveals a disturbing web of elite manipulation, rigged outcomes, and intentional miscarriage of justice that were facilitated precisely by the fact that such spectacles were ultimately subject to the overriding judicial proclamations of sovereigns--kings and chiefs who were sometimes invested in the outcomes of the cases being purportedly resolved. And, of course, you 've discussed how one cannot extrapolate the features of interpersonal conflict resolution to the
far more complex terrain of inter-communal conflict.
I also think that even if one were to allow Ayittey's analogy between the past and the present to stand, and if one accepted SNC as a reincarnation of an ancient African tradition, one would still have to account for the actual efficacy of this solution in the present.
In doing that, one must consider its failures and
successes. If the SNC model succeeded in Benin and
South Africa, it failed woefully in the former Zaire and Togo. The question of why it failed in these
locales is as interesting a question and subject as
why it succeeded in the other two settings.
This is why one must not invest the SNC with excessive emancipatory potential. In addition to pushing for the model's adoption all over the troubled swathes of
Africa, one must also ensure that political incumbents
give it a chance to succeed. This can only be done, in
my opinion, through a system of sustained
international pressure, which is often made impotent
by the exigencies of international politics and
It seems to me also that Ayittey's fixation (or is it obsession) on the culpability of the African ruling elites--a prognosis which no one denies-- has blinded him to the ways in which the cultural economies of some African societies actually foster a mentality of impunity and political excess on the part of the oppressive and rapacious elites. This may be the supreme irony of the African condition: that, as equipped as African rulers tend to be with the apparatuses of coercion and control, they paradoxically derive some proto-legitimate authority from the inertia, surrender, and cultural rationalizations of the very Africans that purportedly suffer the deprivations that come with misrule, autocracy, and state-sponsored violence.
Thus, an ethnical change is also a necessity. And the cornerstone of this ethical reorientation must be secured with increased emphasis on accountability and redistribution of wealth. For cultural surrender is often brought about by economic vulnerability, which itself is ultimately a product of the financial malfeasance of the ruling elite.
Turning to more theoretical issues regarding Ayittey's write-up, I cannot help thinking that Ayittey's elevation of tradition as an antidote to the crisis and wars of the African present is a foil for his more controversial ideas, which some may find irreconcilable with his current reification of African traditional methods of conflict resolution. This reading may sound far-fetched, but Ayittey's oft-expressed preference for a "second colonization" of Africa---a conceptual stand-in for his idea of supplanting African ruling elites with Western expatriates and institutions of neo-liberal economic and political superintendence---coexists uneasily with the proclamations about the efficacy of African traditional solutions. If some have (mis)interpreted this somewhat contradictory intellectual advocacy of Ayittey's to mean a recommendation of Western socio-political and economic tutelage for Africans or their elites and have therefore called it an endorsement of the historical injuries inflicted on Africa by Western forces, it is hardly surprising.
The point that I am making is that Ayittey cannot have it both ways. Ayittey cannot be denigrating the capacity of Africans to manage their affairs, urging members of African ruling elites, including noble ones like Mandela, to step aside for foreign or indigenous
white economic and administrative managers and at the same time claim to be a believer in African or Africa-derived solutions. In Ayittey's episteme, African practices are both the causes and the solutions to social upheavals on the continent. What this does is to write-off foreign causal agency from the crises on the continent and to replace it with a foreign redemptive agency. Suppressed in this process are the various levels of complicity and culpability of foreign forces in the various crises wracking the continent. Furthermore, in this thinking, tradition is
both a culprit through its current absence and a hero through its putative and purported benefit as a guide for conflict resolution. What is left unaccounted for is the why and how of traditionís
exit from African political affairs in the first place. A more complete process of accounting may lead us back to colonialism, which Ayittey would not discuss.
The analytical authenticity that is bestowed on Ayittey's prognosis and recommendations by the appeal to African historical sociology becomes a foil and a powerful one at that for what is actually essentially a Western liberal solution, which, while agreeable to many African and Africanist intellectuals, should be packaged in universal rather than parochial, particularistic terms. Africans need solutions to their seemingly endless experiences of violence and destruction. It really does not matter what the genealogy of such a solution is. The solution must be grounded in universal values underwritten by the imperative of fairness, inclusion, justice, and access. To reach the conclusion, as Ayittey does, that such values and the interventionist approaches founded on them are Western and are thus bound to fail in
bringing resolution to Africaís many crises, is a disturbing specie of cultural and racial relativism,
not to mention a capitulation to the widespread characterization of Africans as exotic subjectivities unsuited to liberal and humanistic values supposedly
original to Europe and its diaspora in America.
This kind of Othering must not constitute the core of a commissioned position piece that may inform American policy on humanitarian and diplomatic engagements with
African social crises. It seems to me that it is an endorsement of an agenda already afoot in certain US diplomatic and think-tank circles, whose ultimate aim
is a near-total disengagement from Africa and the devolution of political, social, and economic
responsibility for Africaís many upheavals to flawed ill-equipped, and conflicted African institutions.