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African Economics and Leadership


Comment by John Powers

Author: John Powers (139)
Date posted: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 12:45:10 PDT
Edited: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 12:51:50 PDT
Comment on: George Ayittey : TED Talk: Cheetahs vs Hippos (0)
Feedback score: 0 +|-

After I wrote about Federalism in Uganda here I got a chance to hear what a friend in Uganda had to say about it. Funny that we'd never talked about it before. Something I find over and over is the more I know, I discover how little I know.

I'm an American. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that as a people and as an idea, we're horribly off-course now. I think when people are lost it's very hard to figure out where we are, but we try to find out.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote:

"Europe is the source--the unique source--of the idea of individual freedom, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom. These ideas are European, not Asian, or African, or Middle Eastern, except by adoption."

I got that quote from Caetano Veloso's book "Tropical Truth" and Veloso is in turn quoting Samuel Huntington quoting Schlesinger.

Ayittey's point about the good in traditional African institutions is counter Schlesinger's insistence on the European origins of liberal values.

Ayittey's point is very valuable to an American feeling that we have lost our way. One reason I think so has to do with appropriate responses to violence called terrorism. I abhor violence, but lately have found myself listening to what military theorists have to say, and I find what John Robb has to say often quite cogent. Robb stresses the importance of resiliency. In learning more about the history of African people, their genius for living well in small societies becomes evident. So Ayittey makes an important point that Africa has lessons from its traditions about liberalism (for lack of a better word).

Feeling lost as an American, "individual freedom, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom" are all part of what course I think we should be traveling, and the path we seem to be diverging.

Ayittey's bit about coming up with a list of African leaders is a trick question for Westerners for how little our media has paid attention to Africa; and when it has the distorted lens used to project its image.

I thought of one of the blogosphere's best writers, Koranten Ofosu-Ammah. If you don't already know Koranteng's Toli a great pleasure awaits there. Koranteng is Ghanaian, living in the US. In the spring, around the commemoration of Ghana's 50th celebration of independence, he posted about Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia. Not all the links in the piece seem to work, so I want to point to one 1979 by Busia Koranteng links, Is Democracy of Universal Application?.

Busia provides a list of essential democratic principles:

  • the recognition of the essential dignity of the individual and the equality of all men;
  • the acceptance of the principle of free and fair elections with the offer of genuine choice;
  • the derival of the just powers of government from the consent of the governed;
  • the accountability of these governments to their electorate and the acceptance of the right of genuine opposition;
  • the principle of justice and equity before the law,
  • and the cherished freedoms of speech, association, movement, conscience and religion.

He then adds Tolerance and expands a bit on that.

Part of Ayittey's rhetoric about traditional African institutions seems to me really to say that liberalism is not foreign to Africa. Ayittey is pointing to the principles Schlesinger and Busia are pointing to too. These principles are fundamental, but not in themselves solutions. Our task is to build institutions upon these fundamentals.

Right at the end of the Reagan years, Frances Moore Lappe wrote a book "Rediscovering America's Values." It's a difficult book, as a Socratic dialog, that in some way doesn't quite work. It's very important because Moore Lappe addresses the crisis with the failure of a liberal worldwiew and the urgency for a better worldview.

"Frankly, my hope in writing this book is to assist us in letting go of a worldview that I believe no longer serves us, a worldview I believe constricts our capacity to find answers to our most pressing problems. My charge will be that this worldview has failed us, both because it profoundly misunderstands our nature and because it is dogmatic, accepting, as it does, certain human-made rules as absolutes."

Frances Moore Lappe is hardly: anti-individual freedom, anti-political democracy, anti-rule of law, anti-human rights, nor anti-cultural freedom. The book is not entitled "Returning to American Values" rather "Rediscovering." In a similar way, Ayittey isn't saying that all Africa need to do is to return to traditional African institutions. He's expressing that the way forward entails rediscovering deep values.

Have mercy! I've blathered on so long and don't think I've made much sense. But, I thought just now of the Langston Hughes poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

Man, do I ever get into trouble when I get into discussions with black Americans online! Part of it is a contention that all of us American are "colored people."

Oh yes, there are great troubles caused by blurring distinctions. Still Hughes' poem moves me so.

Something that bothers me about Schlesinger's quote isn't of course the liberal principles he espouses, but the "ownership" he insists is important. Moore Lappe's critique that we've reified, and thereby ossified, values when we should imagine them more as living and growing qualities.

Actually, I think Ayittey understands this distinction between returning and rediscovering when he talks of traditional African institutions. I maybe really wrong about that. He travels in right-wing circles in the USA. Still, my hunch is that the right wingers don't really understand how subversive Ayittey's views are to their privileged interests.

"A Negro Speaks of Rivers" sings out Soul Power. I like Soul Power, that what some back in the Civil Rights used to render the Gandhian construct satyagraha. The ways of satygraha in the American context is a good example of how Ayittey's traditional African institutions might be interpreted in the new African reality.

So I say: Ungawah--Soul Power!

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