BPR’s Benjamin Koatz spoke with George Ayittey, president of the Free Africa Foundation, associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and professor at American University. Dr. Ayittey has been named one of the top 100 public intellectuals of our time by Foreign Policy.
Brown Political Review: You have frequently said, “Africa is poor because she is not free.” What do you mean by that statement?
George Ayittey: Africa is not politically, economically or intellectually free. The solutions for Africa’s problems have to come from within Africa. You can’t find solutions to problems when you don’t have intellectual freedom. Of the 55 African countries, fewer than 10 have freedom of expression, freedom of press and economic freedom, and fewer than 13 are democratic. We African people fought for freedom from colonial rule back in the 1960s, and we still are not free because all we gained from independence was to exchange sets of masters. We have governments that are totally useless, sponge off [the people] and don’t provide basic services like clean water, electricity and healthcare. But we can’t speak out against it, and the United States cannot bring change; if the West wants to help, then it should support what Africans are trying to do for their own countries. It is the people who must do it themselves. You need to have a free media removed from the hands of the government, an aggressive attorney general to go after the corrupt and prosecute them and an independent judiciary.
BPR: The Free Africa Foundation aims to “devise African-based solutions to Africa’s problems” and shape a better understanding of how to effectively aid the continent. What has your work with the foundation entailed?
GA: I set up the Free Africa Foundation back in 1993 with the help of Nelson Mandela’s daughter and her husband. We fought against the apartheid system in South Africa. But with so much focus on South Africa, the rest of Africa was forgotten. So much attention went to white oppression of blacks in South Africa, but we have not paid the same attention to black Africans killing their own citizens. We never paid much attention to Rwanda, where more than one million people were slaughtered and an apartheid regime existed between the Hutus and the Tutsis…Our only work is freedom. We do not care about the color of the oppressor. Freedom is freedom; oppression is oppression. Too often people come to define freedom in racial terms. Independence was in name only for this very reason. We replaced the white man with new colonialists, and the oppression of the African people continued unabated.
BPR: Is there a legacy of colonialism that makes it difficult for Africans to be free?
GA: The European model [of government] that we had in Africa during colonialism was something that we retained after independence and that leaves a lot of power in the hands of a few people. This is a unitary state system, where all the important decisions are [made] in the capital, as opposed to a federal system, where the center has quite a lot of power, but the constituent parts have some power as well, or a confederate system. If you create an unequal system where you concentrate a lot of power in the center and in the hands of one individual, it will always lead to tyranny. A unitary state system is more suitable for a country with a uniform population. But when you talk about a population with a lot of different nationalities, it becomes more difficult. That model was not suitable for Africa. Africa has an indigenous system; it had empires before colonialism. Take the Ghanaian empire, the Malian empire — they were confederacies, imperial configurations that allowed for significant delegation of authority and decentralization of power. After independence we should have moved towards a political system that was characterized by devolution of power. The fact that we can’t has been the root of so many of our problems.
BPR: You’ve spoken of using a political structure resembling a council of elders to help Africa become freer. What would that configuration look like?
GA: Traditional African governments have at least three units: the chief, the council of elders — which is autonomous — and the people. The chief and the council of elders together must reach a unanimous verdict. If they can’t, then they call a meeting for the people to debate it. In traditional Africa, we govern very directly. People can speak freely at our village meetings. Freedom of expression was not invented by the West. We have had these concepts for a long time all over Africa. If you have a bad chief, the council of elders can remove [him].
BPR: You have said that the only good dictator is a dead dictator. Do you stand by this?
GA: No dictator — civilian or military — has brought lasting prosperity to any African country. No one. Don’t come and tell me that we need a good dictator. We have never had one that has done well for the poor in our countries. Nonetheless, the Cheetah Generation [a new generation of African activists] is not involved in killing dictators.
BPR: How do you evaluate Nelson Mandela’s legacy in Africa?
GA: Mandela is one of the greatest leaders of modern time in Africa. He wasn’t selfish, and when he wanted to dismantle the apartheid in South Africa, he chose a system based on the African village model…Mandela set up a convention of many delegations, representing almost all of the important people in South Africa — even right-wingers. When they came, they hammered out a new compact to move Africa forward, which is [an] unambiguously African [process]. Second, Mandela believed in reconciliation. The West believes that you punish the guilty. In traditional Africa, we believe that jurisprudence should focus on restitution, reconciliation and restoration of social harmony. Let’s say that you have two people fighting in your village. Anybody else in the village directly or indirectly affected will have a chance to speak. The chief will listen to all, and make a decision. Mandela also only stayed for one term. The rest of the African leaders, on average, stayed for 14 years. That’s why he was different.