Opinions Mon, 20 Jul 2009

Obama’s Speech – An Intellectual Vindication

George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D.

In Ghana, President Obama received tumultuous welcome. His speech to Ghana’s parliamentarians was well-received across Africa by the people to the discomfort Africa’s gang of “hippos” – the nasty, ornery and unrepentant hard-knocks. Not even bulldozers can dislodge them from power until deaths do them apart. One – Omar Bongo of Gabon – passed away this June after 4 years in office. He once quipped that “Africa without France is like a car without a driver and France without Africa is like a car without fuel.” And he was an African leader? My foot.

I listened to Obama’s speech with a bemused sense of vindication. To many of us, what he was saying was not new. We have known of these “self-evident truths” for decades – just that we were afraid to say so openly or publicly. The courageous editors, journalists and writers who did say so, were punished severely with beatings and prison terms; some, such as Dele Giwa of Nigeria, paid the ultimate price. Nor could one do so in North America.

For reasons of political correctness white were reluctant to speak of corruption, nepotism, tribalism or despotism in Africa for fear of being labeled “racist.” Nor were African-Americans who felt the need to express “racial solidarity” with their African brothers and sisters. Therefore, for a long time, no one could speak candidly about Africa. I, George Ayittey, tried to in the 1980s.

When I wrote in my Ph.D. dissertation in 1980 about an impending crisis in Africa that this crisis would be the result of “internal factors” – such as senseless civil wars, corruption, tribalism, military vandalism, despotism, etc. -- my thesis committee refused to accept my dissertation. They ordered me to expunge all references to “internal factors” from the thesis. I refused and for nine months I battled them. Back then – and even today – the “externalist orthodoxy” held sway: That nearly everything that has gone wrong in Africa is the fault of some external factor -- such as the lingering effects of the slave trade, colonial legacies, Western imperialism, unjust international economic system, and even earthquakes on Jupiter! The leadership was above reproach; they could do no wrong. They were saints.

Back then, the externalist doctrine was led by such African intellectual giants such as Professor Ali Mazrui. The internalist camp was pitifully sparse, populated by such luminaries as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Those of us in that camp were pilloried, reviled and called all sorts of names. Speaking for myself, I have been called a “traitor,” “imperialist lackey,” “colonial stooge,” “Uncle Tom,” a “house slave,” and accused of “bashing Africa” and “washing Africa’s dirty linen in public.” For speaking out and writing about despotism, corruption, senseless wars and other problems in Africa, I was tossed into jail in Dakar, trailed by security forces in Ghana and Zimbabwe, had my hotel room raided by security forces in Nairobi and my office firebombed at American University in Washington in 1998. But I wasn’t deterred.

The instinctive reaction by African leaders to every crisis on the continent was to appeal to the international community and beg for foreign aid. That, to me, deprecates Africa’s pride and dignity. Being an internalist, I aggressive pushed for “internal solutions.” I coined the expression, “African solutions for Africa’s problems” when Somalia collapsed in 1992. The solutions to the myriad of Africa’s problems lie in Africa itself – not along the corridors of the World Bank, the inner sanctum of the Soviet presidium, nor on the planet of Jupiter. These solutions require returning to Africa’s own roots and building upon its own indigenous institutions. Nor does Africa need foreign aid. Its begging bowl leaks horribly. Corruption, alone, costs Africa more than $148 billion a year –which is six times the $25 billion in foreign aid Africa receives from all sources.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Western donors and the World Bank paid little attention to corruption in Africa. They knew African despots such as Mobutu Sese Seko were skimming a large slice off Western aid dollars. However, since this was during the Cold War, they considered it a “necessary evil.” Democratic governance was scarcely on their radar. Foreign aid to Africa was governed by two forces, depending upon which political party was in power.

Western liberals saw foreign assistance as a “moral duty” of the rich countries to help their poor counterparts. Few questions were asked. Western conservatives pointed to the dependency syndrome aid could engender. Democracy was not particularly their concern, claiming that development was possible under authoritarian regimes. They pointed to the Asian Tigers and Chile as examples. If only a poor country could get its economy right, increasing economic prosperity would eventually lead to greater demands for political freedom. That was the route the West followed, it was argued.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989 radically changed received intellectual orthodoxy. African despots who had copied the Soviet model no longer had any clothes. Winds of change swept across Africa, toppling a few long-standing autocrats, such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Western donors began to attach political conditionality to their aid programs. In 1991, for example, Western donors and the World Bank withheld aid and loans to Malawi and Kenya until they established multi-party democracy. But very quickly, wily autocrats learned new tricks to beat back the democratic challenge. They empanelled a fawning coterie of sycophants to write constitutions, appointed a pliant Electoral Commissioner and held coconut elections to return themselves to power. The democratization process was stalled by willful chicanery, vaunted acrobatics and strong-arm tactics. In 1990, only 4 African countries were democratic. The number rose to 15 in 2000 and has remained stuck at 16 today.

Progress on economic reform has been abysmal. Between 1981 and 1991, the World Bank spent about $25 billion on Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in Africa in an attempt to dismantle statist interventionist behemoths that had been strangulating Africa’s economies. The idea was to move Africa from state-controlled to market-based economies by removing state controls, price controls, and privatizing inefficient state-owned enterprises. But the SAPs were a flop. According to the World Bank, in 1994, of the “adjusting” 29 African countries, only 6 could be deemed “success stories”: The Gambia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. But no sooner had it been announced than countries started vanishing off this phantom list of success stories. Within a year, The Gambia, Nigeria and Tanzania were no longer on the list, replaced by Lesotho, Guinea and Uganda.

During this time, I argued that the sequence of reform was wrong. Moving a state-controlled society to an open society required four types of reform: political, economic, intellectual and institutional. It was important to get the sequence right. I argued that intellectual freedom (freedom of expression, freedom of the media, etc.) should come first, then political, economic and institutional in that sequence. Freedom of expression is vital if Africans must decide the type of political system best suited for them or hold their leaders accountable. But the West remained steadfastly wedded to the notion of “strong leaders” and Western policies toward Africa remained “leader-centered.” No one best epitomized this than President Bill Clinton, who believed he could find a transformative leader – an Abraham Lincoln – and form partnership with.

In his historic trip to Africa in March 1998, he hailed Meles Zanawi of Ethiopia, Isaiah Afwerki of Eritrea, Joseph Kabila of DR Congo, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as the “new leaders” of Africa, taking charge of their own backyard. But barely two months after his return to the U.S. Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war and the rest of the so-called new leaders turned out to be reform acrobats and crackpot democrats, who were at each other’s throats in Congo’s war – Africa’s First World War.

Nor was Africa's democratization process successful under Clinton's watch. Although Senegal and Ghana have made successful democratic transitions in 2000, the number of African democracies has remained at 16 -- out of 54 African countries -- since 2000. And more African countries have imploded since President Clinton took office in 1992: Somalia (1993); Rwanda (1994); Burundi (1996); Zaire (1996); Congo-Brazzaville (1997); Sierra Leone (1997); Congo (1998); Ethiopia/Eritrea (1998); Guinea (1999). Clinton's Africa policy came under fire even in the black American community he sought to placate. In April 2000, black American Congresswoman, Rep Cynthia McKinney (D, Georgia) berated: "I am sorry to say this administration has no Africa policy -- or what it has tremendously failed" (The Washington Times, April 14, 2000; p.A17). And in a January interview with The East African newspaper, she described Clinton's Africa Policy as "such an abysmal failure." "How can someone so friendly end up with such an outrageous, atrocious, horrible policy that assists perpetrators of crimes against humanity, inflicting damages on innocent African people?" she asked. Similar sentiments were expressed by Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica that spearheaded the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. He dismissed Clinton’s policies in Africa as a “disaster.”

The Clinton Administration’s Africa policy was “leader-centered.” It sought to develop warm, cozy relationships – euphemistically called “partnerships” – with "new leaders" of Africa. As Grace Bibala wrote in The East African (Jan 18, 2001), "William Jefferson Clinton's desperate and possibly naïve search for a partnership with a `new breed' of African leaders was doomed to failure."

I argued back then that a new approach must be adopted that placed less emphasis on the rhetoric of African leaders and more emphasis on institution building. Leaders come and go but institutions endure. Six institutions are critical: An independent central bank, an independent judiciary, an independent electoral commission, an efficient civil service, an independent and free media, as well as a neutral and professional armed or security forces. These institutions are vital for the establishment of the environment Africans need to craft solutions to their own problems. And these institutions are established by civil society, not leaders. The Clinton administration was misguided in its belief that it could micromanage African affairs from Washington. The U.S. can help but it cannot supplant the initiative and efforts Africans themselves must make to solve their own problems. Nor can the U.S. be of much help if African leaders and governments are unwilling to establish the institutions needed for Africa to progress. Here are some excerpts from President Obama’s speech to Ghana’s parliamentarians on July 11, 2009:

Development depends upon good governance. . That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.

History is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.

As we provide this support, I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human rights report.

Guess who has been saying these things for the past 20 years or more. Well, “Ayittey is a nobody” which is what Ekow Spio-Garbah, Ghana’s Ambassador to the U.S. said back then in 1996. Obama is a somebody. Maybe from now on, when Ayittey speaks people will listen.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s speech is unlikely to move Africa’s gang of unrepentant hard-knocks., who are ferociously resistant to change. Not even bull-dozers can dislodge them from power. “No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years,” said President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda in 1986. He is still the president. Reform is anathema to the ruling vampire elites.

· Ask them to cut bloated state bureaucracies or government spending and they will set up a “Ministry of Less Government Spending.” · Ask them to establish better systems of governance and they will set up a “Ministry of Good Governance.” · Ask them to curb corruption and they will set up an “Anti-Corruption Commission” with no teeth and then issue a Government White Paper to exonerate the corrupt ministers (Ghana in 1996), sack the Commissioner if he gets too close to the fat cats (Kenya in 2002), or send the anti-corruption czar off for further studies in Britain (Nigeria in 2007) .

· Ask them to establish democracy and they will empanel a coterie of fawning sycophants to write the electoral rules, toss opposition leaders into jail, hold fraudulent elections and return themselves to power.

The reform process has stalled through vexatious chi canery, strong-arm tactics, willful deception, and vaunted acrobatics. Only 16 out of the 54 African countries are democratic and fewer than 8 African countries are “economic success stories.” Intellectual freedom remains in the Stalinist era: only 8 African countries have a free and independent media. But without genuine reform, more African countries will implode.

Africa is stuck in a veritable conundrum.


The writer, a native of Ghana, is Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation, both in Washington. His latest book is Africa Unchained

Columnist: Ayittey, George Dr.