BOLD: Some, as you well know, have argued, that given Africa’s communalistic traditions, Socialism is a more natural fit for the continent. What do you say to those who believe capitalism is perfectly fine for the West, but not for Africa?
DR. GEORGE AYITTEY: People who made such an assertion never knew squat about traditional Africa.
First of all, certain distinctions must be made and understood. “Man is a social animal” does not mean man is a socialist. Again, being socialistic does not mean one is a socialist. Similarly, one can be communalistic – as in caring about one’s neighbor and being community-oriented as are most traditional African societies – but that does not mean one is a communist. When a tornado strikes a town in rural America, the folks simply pull together, help one another and rebuild. One can describe them as being socialistic or communalistic\communitarian but hardly as communists. Apply the same logic to traditional Africa.
Socialism is an economic ideology that mandates some government ownership of the means of production and extensive intervention in the economy. These attributes never characterized traditional Africa. Ideology should never be confused with culture.
In indigenous Africa, the means of production were never owned by the tribal government. In the West, the individual is the basic economic and social unit. The American would say “I am because I am and I can damn well do anything I want.” But in traditional Africa, the basic economic and social unit is the extended family. The African would say “I am because we are.” The we refers to the extended family. For example, if you ask an African in the village who does this land belong to, he would say “to us.,” The first Europeans working in Africa misunderstood the “us” and misinterpreted that to mean every Tom, Dick and Harry in the village or the tribe. This is how the colonial myth of communal ownership of land started. The fact of the matter is that land in traditional Africa is owned by extended families or clans, which are in the private sector, not government. Therefore, land in traditional Africa is privately owned. Free village markets have been part of traditional African heritage for centuries. Timbuktu, Kano and Sofala were great ancient market towns. In West Africa, women have been a fixture of market activity for centuries. Prices in traditional African markets are not fixed by Chiefs or tribal governments. They are determined by bargaining.
No African traditional government can tell an African what to cultivate on his farm, where to take his harvest to sell and what price he must charge – all characteristics of socialism. Nor can chiefs tell Africans what type of trade or occupation to engage in. They can become farmers, fishermen, sculptors, weavers, musicians, etc. if they want. Free enterprise was the rule, and free trade routes crisscrossed the continent – even before the white colonialists arrived. Obviously, everyone who describes this set up as a natural fit for socialism doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The real tragedy of Africa is that, not only did the Europeans get it wrong about traditional Africa but also many of Africa’s own modern leaders – from, Nkrumah to Nyerere and Mugabe. It explains why the socialist ideology was such a miserable failure in Africa – it was alien to the continent and never fit into traditional Africa. But the worst part was those leaders never practiced true socialism. With the possible exception of Nyerere, what they practiced was “Swiss Bank socialism” that allowed them and their cohorts of ministers to rape and plunder African treasuries for deposit in Switzerland.
Being the president of an African country is an extremely lucrative occupation. The richest persons in Africa are heads of state and ministers. The family fortune of Moammar Gaddafi of Libya was $200 billion ; Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was $70 billion; Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is $9 billion; General Sani Abacha, former military dictator of Nigeria, was $5 billion; Charles Taylor of Liberia was $5 billion; Isabel dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s President, is $3.4 billion General Ibrahim Babangida, former military dictator of Nigeria amassed a personal fortune of $12 billion [For a perspective, the total or combined net worth of all 43 US presidents — from Washington to Obama — is only $2.7 billion] Some of these leaders claimed they were socialists. Some socialists!
This is why Africa never developed after independence because the leadership never went back to build upon Africa’s own indigenous institutions. They went abroad and copied all sorts of alien and foolish ideologies and systems to impose upon the African people. The only African country that went back and built upon its indigenous institutions was Botswana. Any wonder that it is doing well?
It is not politically correct to say so, but Africa suffers from catastrophic failure of leadership. Since 1960, there have been exactly 235 African heads of state by 2016. I will challenge anyone to name me 15 good leaders out of the lot. Even if one can’ name them, it means the vast majority – over 90% – were utter failures. Look at them, an assortment of military despots, Swiss Bank socialists, quack revolutionaries, crocodile liberators, briefcase bandits, etc. will have destroyed one African country after another – from Somalia, Burundi, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Rwanda to South Sudan – traumatizing and deprecating the dignity of once proud people.
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BOLD: Many of these same critics blame capitalism for the slave trade? What do you say to such allegations?
DR. GEORGE AYITTEY: There were three types of slave trade on the African continent; the West African slave trade, the trans-Saharan and the East African. While the Europeans ran the West African slave trade, the Arabs ran the Trans-Saharan and the East African counterparts. As a black African, I find it particularly annoying and insulting when some scholars focus only on the West African slave trade – as if we Africans must forget about some aspects of our history.
Let’s get something straight. In Africa, the Arabs were no different from the Europeans. Both were invaders, conquerors and enslavers, who imposed their religions on the African people. Neither Islam nor Christianity is indigenous to Africa. If capitalism must be blamed for the slave trade, why not Islam.
Richard Ivory is a former editor for Communities Digital News, an affiliate of the Washington Times. He has worked for the Republican National Committee and currently serves as a board member of Republicans for Black Empowerment. In 2008, he served as a consultant to the Youth for John McCain ’08 campaign. He has been featured in The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN and US News & World Report. He is currently a student at Fordham University.