George Ayittey, in the spirit of a vigorous debate that clarfies the African conditions, responds to Moses (No. 138)
Your apology has been accepted. I would also request your forgiveness
for my tempestuousness. I get irritated when I feel I have to defend
Africa's heritage to an African.
It is obvious from your write-up that you do not subscribe to President
Thabo Mbeki's "African Renaissance," nor the aphorism: "African
solutions for African problems," which, by the way I coined in 1993 when
Regarding the sovereign national conference (SNC), I think you need to
realize that EVERY model or solution has its own limitations. Even the
U.S. electoral college system has its limitations. Fact that a model may
have limitations doesn't mean we should not try it. More disturbing is
your call for "MORE foreign engagement and involvement in African crisis
resolution efforts and political engineering" because you feel the
indigenous SNC requires immense foreign pressure and involvement to
Moses, this is where you and I part ways because this is exactly the
mentality of African leaders. They "internationalize" every African
problem, making its solution require foreign involvement or
international participation and cooperation. This is why they are
constantly appealing, appealing and begging and begging the
international community for assistance. You will never, ever hear or see
me calling for foreign involvement in an African crisis situation. Ever!
It deprecates my dignity and pride as an African, which is why I coined
the expression, "African solutions for African problems" in 1993.
Besides, this approach is flawed in many ways:
1. "Internationalization" of an African problem allows the leaders to
escape taking full responsibility for the problem. If the problem
remains unsolved, they can blame the international community for not
2. We cannot rail against "foreign meddling in African affairs,"
"Western neo-colonialism and imperialism" and then invite foreigners to
be part of the solution. If colonialists and imperialists caused our
problems, as some claim, what is the point inviting them to be part of
3. Common sense should tell us that, if we allow them to be part of the
solution, they will solve the problem to THEIR ADVANTAGE. Have we not
learned anything from our historical relationship with them? Even today,
over 80 percent of U.S. aid is spent on American contractors,
sub-contractors and goods and services. So who is helping who?
4. Foreign solutions do not work well in Africa. Witness Somalia. What
happened when we relied on foreign intervention to save Rwanda? In July
2000 at the OAU Summit in Lome, African leaders demanded $13 billion in
compensation from the U.S. and France for their FAILURE to intervene in
5. Experience should tell us this: Introduce a "foreign element" or
internationalize an African problem and you render the problem
INSOLUBLE. This is because you introduce into the equation an element
over which you have absolutely NO CONTROL. Remember this Fanti proverb:
"If you rely on someone else for food, you will go without breakfast."
6. Has it occurred to us that the international community is thoroughly
FED UP with Africa? They use the more diplomatic term "donor fatigue."
Africa is the only continent that is constantly unloading its problems
onto the international stage. Even Kofi Annan is fed up with African
At the July, 2000 OAU Summit in Lome, Togo, Kofi Annan, ripped into
these African leaders. According to Ghana's state-owned newspaper, The
Daily Graphic (July 12, 2000),
"United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told African leaders that
they are to blame for most of the continent's problems. Mr. Annan said
Africans were suffering because they themselves are not doing enough to
invest in policies that promote development and preserve peace. He told
the OAU Summit that Africa was the only region where the number of
conflicts was increasing and pointed out that 33 of the world's 48 least
developed countries were African.
Mr. Annan said Africans bear much of the responsibility for the
deterioration of the continent's security and the withdrawal of foreign
aid. "This is not something others have done to us. It is something we
have done to ourselves. If African is being bypassed, it is because not
enough of us are investing in policies, which would promote development
and preserve peace. We have mismanaged our affairs for decades and we
are suffering the accumulated effects" (p.5)
There was a reason why United Nations Secretary General Mr. Kofi Annan
lashed out at African leaders. During a brief stop-over in Accra after
the Summit, 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). The U.N boss said that as
an African Secretary General, he gets a lot of support from the region.
However, the conflicts in the region impede the full development of the
continent. "When you mention Africa today to investors outside they,
they think of a continent in crisis, and no one wants to invest in a bad
neighborhood" he noted (The Guide, July 18-24, 2000; p.8). 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;
So, Moses, if you want MORE foreign involvement in the resolution of
African crises, good luck and count me out of it.
RE: AFRICA'S INDIGENOUS INSTITUTIONS
I would rather you did not put labels on them, such as "republicanism",
"neo-liberal values," etc. on them because they can be misleading and
confusing. What may be neo-liberal to you may not be to others. You
In states like the Sokoto Caliphate, Buganda, Bunyoro, Great Zimbabwe,
Benin, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, to name a few, various forms of despotism
held sway-some undergirded by religion, others semi-secular in nature -
but all subject to the unquestionable whim of a sovereign. In these
states and more in
precolonial Africa, the idea of a "republican" village meeting for
crises resolution and/or political decision making was anathema. Other
states possessed a hybrid of the despotism and republicanism. Here
village meetings were occasionally convened but ultimate verdicts
resided with the kings.
Peter Bauer wrote that: "Despotism and kleptocracy do not inhere in the
nature of African cultures or in the African character; but they are now
rife in what was once called British colonial Africa, notably West
Africa" (Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in Economics of Development.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984; p.104). Is Bauer distorting
African political heritage? So what kind of "despotism" prevailed in
those states? Most historians would affirm that one notable feature of
African traditional polities was great devolution of authority and great
DECENTRALIZATION of power. Almost all the ancient African empires were
CONFEDERACIES. You can organize a society along 3 basic lines:
1. The Unitary system, with centralization of power at the capital (the
2. The Federal system, where the center is strong but there is
decentralization of power to the states.
3. The Confederal system, where the center is weak and the constituent
states have more power. The larger traditional African polities, such as
Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Great Zimbabwe were confederacies. Even the Ga and
Ashanti Kingdoms were confederacies of six republics. This explains the
tendency of African empires to splinter.
When Ayittey talks about DECENTRALIZATION OF POWER as an article of
Africa's political heritage he is not romanticizing about Africa's past.
He is suggesting this as a possible SOLUTION to our political problems.
Note that modern-day Switzerland, where bandit African heads of state
keep their loot, is a CONFEDERATION of 9 cantons. The mistake we made
after independence was to retain the European UNITARY system with
centralization of power. Even Nigeria, which was supposed to be
"federal" became centralized.
Of course, we must be careful about generalizing about traditional
Africa. But despite Africa's immense cultural diversity, certain
commonalities can be isolated. The Village Meeting is one of them. You
are wrong when you say that it was occasionally convened in some states
and that in some "republican" states it was an anathema. Moreover, the
ultimate verdicts resided with the kings. Could you name these
"republican states" where the village meeting was anathema? And where
were the verdicts subject to the ultimate approval of kings.
Fact is, African kings had no political role. Theirs was spiritual and
supernatural. African philosophical belief system divided the universe
into 3 parts: the cosmos, the world, and the earth. Each has a god and
if any of them is "angry" , terrible things would befall the community.
The king's role was to intercede to placate the gods to ensure peace,
harmony, etc. To perform this role well, the king was "fortified" with
supernatural powers and secluded in his palace. The Yoruba oona, for
example, was forbidden to come out of his palace, except under the cover
of darkness. If some calamity were to befall the village or community
(such as poor harvest, drought, for example), it meant the king was not
doing his job and he was BEHEADED (regicide). How I wish regicide would
be brought back! Eyadema, Abacha, Mugabe, and the rest of them never had
it so easy! Just hand them over to the CUTLASS!
Jan Vansina (1987), who extensively studied the kingdoms of Central
Africa, found that, "the king's (political) role is small: he is the
representative or symbol of the chiefdom and may have some religious
duties, but his participation in the political decision making process
is insignificant" (Kingdoms of the Savannah. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1975; p.29). In fact, the king hardly made policy or
spoke. He had a spokesperson, called a linguist, through whom he
communicated. He hardly decided policy. His advisers and chiefs would
determine policies and present them for royal sanction. His role in
legislation and execution of policy was severely limited.
The Ga people of Ghana took this to the extreme. The Ga mantse (king)
had no role in political affairs or authority except only in times of
war. In many other ethnic societies, however, the king was the physical
symbol of his kingdom, a personification of sacred ancestry and the
religious head of his tribe as well as the link to the universe. As
such, the vital force of the king must never decline; nor must the king
die, since he embodies the spiritual and therefore material well being
of his people. The consequences would be devastation: droughts would
occur, women would no longer be able to bear children, epidemics would
strike the people. Great care, therefore, must be taken to prevent a
break in the line of transmitted power.
In other words, the African king was not involved in the deliberations
of the Village Assembly; nor were the decisions taken there subject to
Moses, fact that this slogan has been hijacked by some corrupt African
despots does not mean it is devoid of any inherent merit. African unity
is concept that has been bandied about by even Mobutu, Abacha, Doe and
other unsavory characters. But that doesn't mean we should not pursue
Back-to-roots is the result of a brutally frank assessment of African
reality. The majority of the African people are simple illiterate folks
I would call "peasants" - a term not used derogatively. They STILL go
about their daily economic activities using CENTURIES-OLD practices,
traditions, systems and institutions. Agriculture is their primary
occupation and 80 percent of these peasant farmers are WOMEN. About 70
percent of African peasants rely on TRADITIONAL MEDICINE. They still
have their chiefs and traditional rulers, who command far more respect
and authority from the people than central governments seated hundreds
of miles away in the capital city because the chiefs are closer to the
people and understand them more.
This is not romanticizing about antiquity. This is still a reality in
Africa. In my view, the chiefs are Africa's most important human
resource but African elites saw them as a threat to their power. So they
stripped the chiefs of much of their traditional authority and
marginalized them. But in South Africa, they are fighting back fiercely.
Says Benjamin Makhanaya: "The ANC [government of South Africa] wants to
transplant customs from other countries here, and that will destroy the
Zulu nation and all that we value. We are poor, but do you see any
beggars in the streets like you do in the cities? The inkhosi
(traditional chief) makes sure that we are all provided for. The
municipality will make beggars of us. When I have a problem, I can go
see the inkhosi any time, day or night. I don't need an appointment.
They can have their civilization, brother " (The Washington Post, Dec
18, 2000; p.A1).
More than a third of South Africa's 44 million people live under the
jurisdiction of one or another of the nation's 800 tribal chiefs, or
amakhosi as they are referred to in the Zulu language. "Traditional
leaders here have endured colonialism, war and nearly 50 years of
oppressive white minority rule, only to face extinction at the hands of
the black-majority government that vanquished apartheid six years ago
and installed democracy" (The Washington Post, Dec 18, 2000; p.A1).
"Africans want change because there is so much suffering here", said
Patekile Holomisa, an inkhosi and head of the Congress of Traditional
Leaders in South Africa. "But Africans are above all else devoted to
their ancestors, and they do not want to betray that by becoming
something that they are not". (The Washington Post, Dec 18, 2000; p.A1).
Development means improving the lives of the PEASANTS, not developing
the pockets of the elites. To improve their lives, you must start from
the BOTTOM-UP. You must go down to THEIR level, understand the way THEY
do things, not how they should do it. Like I said, these peasants still
go by activities using ancient practices and systems. You cannot improve
their lot if you do not understand their systems. Dispute this. Going
back to roots is NOT romanticizing about antiquity; it is a PRACTICAL
imperative if you want to improve the lot of the African people. But we,
the elites, NEVER did this.
Take agriculture, for example. Today, Africa cannot feed itself. It
imports food worth $18.9 billion a year. This is about the same amount
of FOREIGN AID Africa receives from all sources in a year. In other
words, we turn around and use the SAME foreign aid we receive to import
food! Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Africa not only fed itself but
exported food. Not anymore. What happened?
So many factors explain the decline in agriculture (collapsed
infrastructure, senseless civil wars, price controls, marketing boards,
etc.) but the elite approach to agriculture was "TOP-DOWN". We read
about or saw how food is produced in say the U.S. and therefore, our
peasant farmers must adopt the same techniques (the tractor mentality).
Take Nigeria. Unable to feed itself, Nigeria gave up and turned to
imports. By 2004, the country was spending $3 billlion a year on food
imports - including rice, chickens, and dairy products (The Washington
Times, July 18, 2004; p.A6). In July, 2004, President Olusegun Obasanjo
invited about 200 white farmers, whose farmlands have been violently
seized by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, to resettle in in Kwara state.
Bukola Saraki, the governor of the state, said: AWhen we found oil [in
the Niger delta], we didn=t ask people in southern Nigeria to look for
shovels to dig for it. We brought in foreigners with expertise. Our land
is an asset that is not being utilized. The only way to do that is to
bring in people with the necessary skills.@ In Kwara, we don't have oil,
but we have 2.3 million hectares [5.7 million acres] available for
agriculture" (The Washington Times, July 18, 2004; p.A6).
Much of that land along the Niger River is fertile and is seldom farmed
and the governor has been spearheading a national drive to wean Nigeria
off its oil-based revenue and make itself self-sufficient in food. But
the governor's "Back to the Farm" campaign launched in 2003 flopped
miserably. The governor discovered that "Kwara's peasant farmers, most
in their 60s and 70s, were unfamiliar with modern technology and had no
capital to buy tractors" (The Washington Times, July 18, 2004; p.A6).
You see the "tractor mentality"? The governor's approach to peasant
agriculture defies common sense. First, illiterate peasant farmers
cannot be expected to be familiar with modern technology and have the
capital to buy tractors! An agricultural program involving peasant
farmers, based upon such ridiculous premises cannot be expected to
succeed. Second, the governor's solution to the agricultural debacle was
to invite white commercial farmers from Zimbabwe. This meant that he was
ABANDONING his own peasant farmers in his state. He should have asked
why the land was not being utilized. Did he think of giving incentives
to his peasant farmers?
Moses, does this make sense to you: Kwara state governor has given up on
his peasant farmers and brought in white commercial farmers from
Zimbabwe to feed his state. Meanwhile, the peasant farmers will go about
their subsistence agriculture, using ancient practices and primitive
implements. Ayittey says go back there - to your roots - and IMPROVE
upon the peasants' way of doing things. We, the elites, with our
copy-cat mentality never did this. So let us bring in white commercial
farmers from Jupiter to come and feed us.
At a May 2000 conference on medicinal plants and traditional medicine
for the new millennium, conferees issued "The Nairobi Declaration"
demanding full and formal recognition of traditional medicine. [For a
full report of the conference, see
http://www.para55.org/caretreat/trad_med_mine.asp]. Moses, were they out
of their minds romanticizing about ancient medicine?