The Coming of the African Cheetah
A review of George Ayittey's "Africa Unchained"
E. Ablorh-Odjidja, Washington, DC, March 21, 2005
In the words of George Ayittey, Africa Unchained is about "unleashing the entrepreneurial talents and creative energies of the real African peopleŠand 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 on to 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 result 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 a 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 lieŠin 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.