University of Cape Coast
Thursday 8 November 2007
The Cramping of the Will
In this second Lecture I propose to discuss some of the factorswhich brought about the cramping of the will early in the post-independence period. In the main, the cramping of the will was a result of two factors: crisis in governance and economic failures.
Virtually all African countries proceeded to independence on the basis of constitutions that had been agreed between their leaders and the departing colonial masters. The extent of the input by the African leaders in the making of these constitutions often depended on how much the colonial authorities were in control of events leading to independence. But by and large the government of African countries at independence was in the hands of the democratically chosen representatives of their people. Thus the leaders who took their countries on the journey from independence were sensitive to their people’s aspirations and welfare and accordingly their conduct in the first years of independence was generally influenced by this sensitivity. The problems that befell governance in African countries began with the progressive loss of the bond between those in government and the people they governed; in other words, the progressive loss of the democratic basis of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.
The first blow to the governance of many African countries was struck by the spate of military coups d’etat they experienced. George Ball, Under Secretary of State of President Lyndon Johnson in the United States, wrote that he could not remember the number of times he was woken up during his years at the State Department to be “informed of another military coup d’etat in an African country whose name sounded like a typographical error.”Robert Calderisi in his book to which I referred in my first lecture recalled that by January 1968, there had been 64 military coups, attempted coups and mutinies on the continent.
In West Africa the experience began with the overthrow of President Sylvanus Olympio in 1963 in Togo and in less than three years after that it spread to other countries including Nigeria and Ghana. The script used by the coup makers in announcing their takeover of government was always substantially the same, namely that “we have taken over government in order to end corruption and dictatorship and to restore unity and stability to the nation.” Paradoxically, some of the announcements often added restoration of ‘democracy’ to the justification of the coup.
In my view, the soldiers involved in masterminding and executing military coups d’etat in African countries bear large responsibility not only for the disruption of democratic evolution, but also to a good measure, for the economic decline in the countries that experienced the coups. It is true that in most cases, there were political problems in the countries concerned, but I believe that there were no such problems which could not have been ultimately resolved if not by the politicians themselves, then by a combination of the politicians and non-partisan elders in the society, including traditional leaders where they existed.
The common experience is that military intervention in politics has never ended corruption in any of the countries concerned; and even in those countries where some progress was made in fighting corruption, the military, in the absence of elections, invariably fell victim to the saying attributed to Lord Acton that “power corrupts, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”
Although there have been a few ex-military leaders who subsequently became effective democratic assets to their countries, Africa’s experience of military coups d’etat has reinforced me in the view that even the most benevolent coup cannot be a worthy substitute for a civilian government however flawed.
The second completely self-made factor that contributed to the crisis in governance in a number of African countries, was the emergence of the one-party system.
Many of you in this room will be familiar with what life was like in the era of one-party rule; but the younger generation would either have been born after that period or were too young at the time to have any living memory of it. You will therefore understand if I dwell at some length on this episode of Africa’s history which did so much to choke off the springs of initiative and creativity, lowering productivity and weakening the continent’s negotiating position externally.
The political parties of African nationalism were sui generis. They were not political parties in the conventional sense of the term. They were coalitions forged to end colonial rule. As W B Yeats might have put it, the nationalist parties of Africa trembled of everything that was patriotic; but its adherents were not all idealists! There were of course nationalists who were driven by the desire for their people to become free and take charge of their destiny, but there were those who had joined because their careers had been blocked and frustrated by the colonial system: businessmen denied access to credit, demobilised soldiers with countless grievances arising from their experience in the last World War; cocoa producers facing an uncertain future because of swollen shoot and many others besides. African nationalist parties were truly broad churches in the best Anglican tradition.
And there was usually one major political party of its kind in each colony, but even where there were two or more as was the case in Nigeria and here in Ghana before independence, the differences between them turned not on policies or who could build more and better schools or hospitals. What divided them was often who could bring down colonialism faster. Consequently there was hardly any discussion of policy at this stage nor were the reasons for the demand for freedom ever fully spelt out before the event.
Julius Nyerere spoke for all the nationalist parties on this matter. This is what he said:
The African nationalist demands for ‘freedom’…
were never spelt out before independence. It was
generally felt that the meaning of these words was
self-evident and that details of constitutions,
institutions and other inter-state relationships would
be mere clutter in the independence campaigns, and
would only serve to distract attention from the
major task. All these things were regarded as
matters on which there would have to be a lot of
internal discussion and negotiation, and they could
more appropriately be dealt with after the nation
had won its right to determine such things for itself.
This policy was followed almost everywhere in Africa
until the final stages of the independence struggle.
Clearly then, the consensus on which the parties of African nationalism rested was contingent and provisional. Yet within a few years of independence, one-party systems were declared up and down the continent, so widespread was the practice that by the turn of the 80s there were not more than four genuine multi-party democracies in Africa, if that.
The justification for the one-party system tended to be broadly the same. The predominant need, so the argument went, was for development to make a reality of independence; development required national unity and therefore national mobilisation from which the nation was not to be distracted by the divisions and rivalries of political competition. Multi party politics stimulated ethnic divisions and all the centrifugal forces which years of colonial management had brought into being. Only the one-party state could deal with this threat.
One-party system, the argument continued, was in keeping with traditional African political arrangements which had no room for organised standing opposition, indeed some maintained that the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ did not exist in any African lexicon; in some cases the practices of the one party system were called African socialism and communalism. The adherents of the single party state seemed to have had no end of justifications in support of it.
In the result, divergence between word and deed could not be greater. What had happened was that a contingent coalition forged to achieve a specific objective, namely fighting imperialism and colonialism, had transformed itself into the will and prophet of the people for which it had no warrant. It made for little equity and fair play. Where the one- party state was described as an instance of African socialism and communalism, it was neither the one nor the other. Its practices were, in the words of Professor Willie Abraham, “by and large species of authoritarianism which were neither African in spirit nor communalistic in manifestation.”
Beyond that, the one-party state generally played considerable havoc in society. In many countries, it simply meant one-man rule, coadjuted by a phalanx of sycophants, some gaping more than others, but sycophants all. It enthroned the rule of mediocrity, where one man was as good as another and a round peg could do quite nicely in a square hole. In fact it was a golden age for sycophancy and the placeman. There was no question of speaking truth to power. In the absence of effective accountability, one party rule greatly facilitated the peculiar brand of corruption which has plagued this part of the world so for long – a sterile and locust style corruption.
There is a story which Julius Nyerere used to enjoy retailing about this African style corruption and which Robert Calderisi has reported in his book, The Trouble with Africa. The story runs as follows:
…an African minister visited a colleague in Asia and
was impressed by the man’s lavish home. “How did you
afford all this on a Minister’s salary?” he asked. Pointing
through his living room window, his host said: “Do you
see that large bridge in the distance?” “Yes” replied the
African. “Well, part of its budget came my way,” the Asian
explained. The next year, reciprocating the visit, the Asian
asked the same question. “Do you see that road down in
the valley?” asked the African. “No” he replied. “I see
nothing.” “Exactly”, explained the African. “I financed
this house instead.”
One-party rule imposed conformism on society and took the resulting silence as consent to the point that, in some cases, of encouraging the emergence of ‘Life Presidents’. It created a moral atmosphere at once corrupting and repulsive. In the circumstances, those who could not or would not compound with the system took the path of emigration. Others went into internal exile to preoccupy themselves with contingent and personal interests. It was the beginning of the loss of our professionals, a drain which the economic crisis accelerated and which in turn further deepened the crisis. In fact nothing did more to cramp African will than the one-party system or the military dictatorships which followed the military coups d’etat in various parts of Africa. All this was happening when the need for communication and trust between rulers and ruled could not be more urgent if Africa was to overcome the mounting crisis.
Besides the internally generated situations that I have spoken about, there were other non-African made factors that contributed to political instability with its resultant adverse impact on development in a number of countries during the first two decades of independence. The first of these was the destabilising legacy of the arbitrary demarcation of boundaries of most African states by the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884/85. It was a recognition of the potential for internecine inter-territorial border disputes arising from this historical fact that led African leaders at the foundation of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa in May 1963, to include in the Charter a provision for the respect of the existing national boundaries. In West Africa where homogenous ethnic groups were divided into separate countries such as in Ghana and Togo, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and in Nigeria and Niger Republic, we have been able to avoid inter-territorial disputes, thanks to the wisdom and culture of the leadership and peoples of those countries. But other countries have not been equally fortunate as shown in Ethiopia and Eritrea or in the great lakes region where conflicts and wars have been fought in the name of ethnic or territorial solidarity.
Another externally induced political factor was the destabilisation policy pursued for more than a decade by the apartheid regime in South Africa. Countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe had to divert substantial parts of their national resources to cope with the consequences of that policy.
Now to the contribution of the economic factor to the cramping of the will. The first serious signs of trouble began to appear in the mid-sixties. I intend to use the fortunes of cocoa on the world market as an illustrative case and for the obvious reason that cocoa was and remains Ghana’s principal source of external revenue; because of its strategic position in the economy, its ups and downs on the world market have had recurrent political repercussions on the country.
Between 1949/50 and 1964/65, the production of cocoa in Ghana was nothing short of stupendous. In this fifteen year period Ghana’s production of cocoa beans rose from 248,000 tons to 590,000 tons. In other words, Ghana had more than doubled its production of cocoa but was to earn increasingly less for it in real terms.
In 1954/55 when Ghana produced some 210,000 tons she received £8.5m in revenue. For the 1964/65 crop of 590,000 tons Ghana received only £62.5m. While cocoa and other primary commodities fetched less and less on the world market, the cost of manufactured goods, especially capital goods, which the producer countries needed for their economic development, rose higher and higher. By 1962, with the worsening terms of trade already well advanced, Ghana needed to export 98 per cent more in volume of cocoa than she had exported in 1954 to buy the same volume of imports that she had bought in that year. Another example which was perhaps even worse was what happened to Tanzania between 1965 and 1972. According to Nyerere, Tanzania in 1965 needed to produce ten tons of sisal in order to buy one agricultural tractor. By 1972, to buy the same tractor Tanzania needed to export thirtyfive tons of the same sisal.
The continuing post-war boom in commodity markets was what had enabled the emerging independent African countries to build schools, hospitals, roads and bring about other social infrastructural transformations which were beginning to change the face of Africa. A lot had been achieved and the expectation was that a lot more would be achieved. It was a period of unprecedented optimism: optimism of the heart and optimism of the intellect. And in the expectation, not unreasonable in the circumstances, that a measure of prosperity would continue for the foreseeable future, a number of African governments even began to plan for industrialisation. These were the conditions on which the projections and anticipations of Ghana’s industrialisation programme under the Seven-Year Development Plan were based.
But by the beginning of the seventies, the boom in commodity prices had effectively come to an end; and government by expansion was being replaced by the management of recession.
The question often asked, especially by non-economists is: what had brought about the collapse of the commodity markets? Two main reasons have been put forward to explain it: one general and of a political nature stated implicitly rather than explicitly; the other, more specific and pointed and of an economic nature. The first reason, the political explanation, was most recently restated by Guy Arnold in his massive tome, Africa: A Modern History, published two years ago, the launching of which in London I had the pleasure to chair. This view basically sees the economic problems of African countries, including therefore the depreciation of commodity prices, as the revenge of the ex-colonial powers for the loss of their empires. On this view the economic crisis is of a piece with the machinery of neo-colonial control. According to Guy Arnold “much opinion in the West, especially among the colonial powers, was against it [meaning independence]; or perhaps, more accurately, felt that if independence had to come the question then was how these states could best be controlled”.
The second explanation, the economic one, comes from Peter Calvocoressi and sees the problems purely in terms of falling demand for commodities with the end of the post-war reconstruction in Europe. This is how he puts it:
Replenishing the shortages created by the Second World
War kept the demand for African products high and their
price healthy. But these trends were already being
reversed during the 1960s, the decade of most decolonisation.
There is no doubt that throughout the decolonisation period there was not a leader of the first rank in European politics who viewed the granting of colonial freedom to Africa with anything like the generosity with which William Gladstone had sought to grant Home Rule to Ireland in the latter part of the 19th century. In commending his Home Rule Bill to the House of Commons, Gladstone had concluded with these words: “Ireland stands at the bar and waits. She asks for a blessed act of oblivion, and in that act of oblivion our interests are even greater than hers.” At the end of the Anglo-Boer War, Campbell Bannerman, then British Prime Minister, was even more generous towards the defeated leaders of the Boer Republics who came to England to ask for Home Rule and received the Union of South Africa.
In marked contrast and as you know, most of Africa had to fight all the way, inch by inch, to attain independence. The Algerians, the Mozambicans, the Angolans, the Guineans of Guinea Bissau and the Namibians had to fight protracted wars against settler colonialism. Guinea Conakry voted for early independence outside the French community in 1958 and was severely punished by General de Gaulle who stripped the country of everything movable, including electric bulbs and writing desks for school children. Generosity then was evidently not a feature of decolonisation in Africa.
Beyond this I have no window into the hearts and minds of the ex-colonial powers and while Guy Arnold’s general explanation may have some validity I am in no position to pronounce definitively on it. Whatever caused the crisis, what African governments clearly needed was a floor in the market to halt the fall in commodity prices and to provide a degree of stability and predictability over a reasonable period. And this is what African governments set out to achieve from the international community.
Initially, they sought to grapple with this problem on an individual basis, each beating a separate path to the doors of the international financial institutions, principally the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. It was a case of each for himself. In contrast, the international financial institutions, with the concurrence of donor governments, gave all their clients, sovereign large countries and sovereign small countries alike, the same advice: devalue! No regard whatsoever seemed to be paid to the peculiarities and special needs of individual cases. In the eyes of the international financial bodies, each case was as bad as the other and there seemed to be no reason why one size should not fit all.
The international financial institutions and donor governments were all convinced that the trick of policy out of the crisis of commodity production was devaluation on a generalised basis; and so throughout the remaining years of the 1960s and the whole of the 1970s, devaluation became the universal panacea which the institutions of what later became key participants in the Washington Consensus imposed. Many African leaders had serious misgivings about the efficacy of the cure that was being administered but they had practically no cards in their hands.
The consequences were to be disturbing. All over commodity-producing Africa, economic retrenchment ensued. African governments on independence, it will be recalled, had very rightly concluded that the task of post-colonial reconstruction had to begin with education and training on the one hand, and the expansion of health care on the other. These were and remain the most critical sectors of social development, for practically everything else depended on a healthy and trained work force. Yet these were the very sectors on which the brunt of public expenditure cuts fell at the dictation of the international economic directorate.
African governments were learning to their cost that sovereignty entailed much more than political independence. I have already quoted Peter Calvocoressi. Let me quote him again: “Independence ceremonies were described over and over again in terms of power being handed over on a plate. In substance, however, there was either little power or no plate.” Basil Davidson for his part says that decolonisation in Africa was more the transfer of crisis than the transfer of power. Both authors are substantially correct.
The economic crisis called for a close partnership between the various African governments and their people of the kind that had been built to defeat colonialism or the kind of partnership which President Nasser had forged with his people, enabling him to nationalise the Suez Canal successfully, build the Aswan Dam and embark on a subsequent programme of industrialisation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, remarkably few governments bothered to take their people into confidence and to explain to them the nature and causes of the economic crisis or what they were doing to deal with it.
The only exception to this general rule known to me was Julius Nyerere who was scrupulous in explaining Tanzania’s economic difficulties to its people and perhaps, more importantly, could look his people in the eye and say to them that Tanzania was poor not because he and his ministers had stolen their money and put it into Swiss bank accounts but because of an adverse international economic climate. Julius Nyerere could do that because he and his government held the moral high ground in their relationship with their people which the majority of African governments had by this time long lost.
When it became clear that devaluation would not resolve the crisis the international financial agencies decided on a sterner measure – structural adjustment. It was not really a new departure; it was more a strengthening of the harsher aspects of policies they had already commended to African governments over the years and in the belief that if the cure did not hurt, it was not working. In particular, these policies called for further and deeper cuts in public expenditure which meant in social development expenditure, with education and health continuing to be prime targets. African leaders were pressurised and cajoled in one breath to implement these policies and the more willing among them were extolled as realistic leaders imbued with political courage and held out as exemplars to the reluctant others.
Special Sessions of the UN General Assembly started to be convened in the 1980s to discuss what came to be called the ‘Critical Economic Situation in Africa’. At these meetings African governments were expected to come clean on their policy failures, both of commission and of omission, to enter into new commitments enjoining them to persevere with the imposed structural adjustment policies in return for absolution in the form of increased financial assistance and new economic recovery and development plans. The Economic Commission for Africa prepared a report proposing a ‘compact’ between Africa and the international community involving commitments from the one side and pledges from the other.
Of course nothing came of these Special Sessions of the General Assembly or indeed from the increased dosage in the old cure except in marked worsening of the already critical economic situation in Africa. There then emerged a new gospel of salvation: there was nothing basically wrong with the cure as such; the trouble was with the Africans themselves, through their lack of democracy and their corruption. And so democracy, good governance, accountability and an end to corruption became the new watchwords. The recent report of the Africa Commission sponsored by former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is unequivocal on this: “the issue of good governance and capacity building,” the Commissioners wrote, “is what we believe lies at the core of all Africa’s problems. And till that is in place Africa will be doomed to continue its economic stagnation.”
There is no doubt that there is much truth in this assertion and I will return to it later. But there are also some underlying root problems which are ultimately of a moral and political nature. Let me illustrate this point by way of one of my invidious comparisons. Ghana and Malaysia became independent in the same year 1957. At the time Ghana was comparatively much more developed than Malaysia: it had a bigger pool of educated manpower and it had greater financial reserves. In 1961 Dr Mahathir, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, visited Ghana on a parliamentary delegation, and spent three weeks in the country based in Winneba. And according to him Ghana was still ahead of Malaysia in socio-economic terms. In 1993 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Cyprus, he was asked by a Ghanaian to explain what it was that had enabled his country to outstrip Ghana so dramatically. His reply was simple. Malaysia’s rise, he said, was the result of three factors: political stability, hard work and good management.
Malaysia had drawn up a development plan which had been extensively debated and which had provided the basis for an agreed national approach to its development. I should also add that in the course of its reconstruction Malaysia’s leaders always urged the people to prove to the world that colonialism had been a waste of their time. Policy initiative therefore remained and continues to remain in the hands of Malaysians themselves, brooking no orders from any international financial agency. Or take the case of South Korea, another tiger economy. In 1960 Ghana and South Korea were at about the same level of economic development. Today South Korea is a donor to a number of African countries.
What image of Africa emerges from all this?
Having tried and failed first to produce and export their way out of poverty and to negotiate fairer terms of trade with the industrial world, most of Africa has been reduced to aid dependency and a debt burden from which there is, on present trends, little prospect of an early release. Both aid and debt have in fact tended to aggravate the situation. For every two dollars given in aid Africa gives back one dollar in debt repayment and the occasional rounds of debt reduction do not go anywhere near the heart of the problem. This was why Nigeria, helped by increased revenue from its production of crude oil, strove to pay off all its external debt, and now has a mission to become one of the world’s twenty largest economies by the year 2020.
However, most of Africa in its present state cannot industrialise on an individual country basis. The necessary accumulation of capital which might have been possible in conditions of continuing prosperity, is now practically impossible with the possible exception of those few countries like Nigeria and Angola with strategic resources such as oil which the world desperately needs. The problem of capital accumulation is exacerbated by the fact that Africans themselves keep as much as forty per cent of their savings outside the continent when the comparable figures are six per cent for East Asia and three per cent for South Asia.
It is not only that Africa has failed to industrialise; what is even more disturbing is that no one now seems to expect Africa to do so. The donor governments and the international institutions, usually so forthcoming with advice on African development, never mention industrialisation. The list of recommendations drawn up in the report of the Africa Commission is similarly silent on the issue.
I have already highlighted some of the social consequences arising from Africa’s deepening under development. The statistics of social deprivation, mortality rates, the growing population of street children unknown until the beginning of the eighties, the HIV/Aids pandemic, are easily enough accessible. These are the visible and quantifiable parts of the problem; but there is also the invisible and unquantifiable aspects of the crisis.
As you know, the anti-colonial campaign had as one of its driving objectives the restoration of African self-respect and dignity. In the days of the slave trade Africans were advertised on the slave blocks as ‘pieces’, as though they were strips of clothing. As I mentioned in my first lecture, slavery greatly facilitated the colonial project because it inured others, especially in Europe and North America, to view Africans as somehow less than human and therefore outside the van of humanity. Ending foreign rule therefore came to mean pre-eminently restoring African dignity. Kwame Nkrumah’s proclamation at midnight of 6 March 1957 that a new African had arisen in the world able to fight his own battles has to be seen against this background of centuries of humiliation.
The deportation of five Europeans within the first week of independence in Tanzania in December 1961 was because they had insulted Africans. By this act the Government wanted to tell the people and the world that if the people of Tanzania had achieved nothing by their independence they had achieved the right to be respected. It is this right to be respected, to be accepted on terms of equality with the rest of humanity, which the failures of African economic achievements is bringing into question. Thousands of young Africans, despairing of a future in their own countries, are taking incalculable risks across inhospitable deserts and the perils of the sea, to reach Europe and what they perceive to be a better life. Let me illustrate this with the example narrated by Robert Calderisi in his book.
At the beginning of August 1999 two boys stole across the airport tarmac in Conakry and curled themselves up in the undercarriage of a Sabena aircraft bound for Brussels. They knew the risk they were running but obviously thought it worth taking. In the event they were either frozen to death or asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen. Whatever the cause they arrived in Brussels dead. But before dying they left this written message addressed to “Your Excellencies, the citizens and officials of Europe.” This is what it said:
It is only in the private schools that people can enjoy good
teaching and learning, but it requires a lot of money and our
parents cannot afford it because they are poor…therefore we
African children and youths are asking you to set up an
efficient organisation to help with the development of
Africa…If we are sacrificing ourselves and putting our
lives in jeopardy it is because we…need your help.
It is rare in history to encounter such a letter from the grave. There could be no greater indictment of African independence. We used to speak of lost decades but it is as well that the world has stopped counting these lost decades. Instead we should be speaking now of lost generations because that is the human reality behind the bland statistical figures.
The generation that fought for independence rightly considered colonial rule as an infamy; but that at least was an imposed infamy. What is happening today is a greater infamy because it is largely self-imposed. And if we fail to end it as we have failed in the past so many years, then our claims to respect and equality in the world will be asserted without any conviction and received with ridicule.
In my third and final lecture I will discuss some of the ways out of this infamy so that we can restore the will to build self-reliant societies whose destinies will be in our own hands.