Premiere: George Ayittey on Cheetahs vs. Hippos

This grab-you-by-the-throat talk by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey unleashes an almost breathtaking torrent of controlled anger toward corrupt leaders — the “Hippos” (lazy, slow, ornery, greedy) who have ruined postcolonial Africa, he says. Why, then, does he remain optimistic? Because of the young, agile “Cheetah Generation,” a “new breed of Africans” taking their futures into their own hands. (Recorded June 2007 in Arusha, Tanzania. Duration: 18:00.)

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First of all, let me thank America for, as a matter of fact, TED Global, for putting this conference together. And, this conference is going to rank as the most important in the beginning of the 21st century. Think African governments will put together a conference like this? Think the AU will put together a conference like this? Even before they will do that, they will ask for foreign aid. (laughter) Also I would like to pay homage and honor to the TED fellows June Arunga, James Shikwati, Andrew and the other TED fellows. I call them the ‘cheetah generation.’ The cheetah generation is a new breed of Africans. Who brook no nonsense about corruption. They understand what accountability and democracy is. They’re not going to wait for government to do things for them. That’s the cheetah generation. And Africa’s salvation rests on the backs of these cheetahs.

In contrast, of course, we have the ‘hippo generation.’ (laughter) The hippo generation are the ruling elites. They are stuck in their intellectual patch, complaining about colonialism and imperialism. They wouldn’t move one foot. You ask them to reform the economies, they’re not going to reform it, because they benefit from the rotten status quo.

Now, there are a lot of Africans who are very angry. Angry at a condition of Africa. Now, we’re talking about a continent, which is not poor. It is rich in mineral resources, natural mineral resources. But the mineral wealth of Africa has not been utilized to lift its people out of poverty. That’s what makes a lot of Africans very angry. And, in a way, Africa is more than a tragedy, more ways than one. There’s another enduring tragedy and that tragedy is there are so many people, so many governments, so many organizations who want to help the people in Africa. They don’t understand.
Now, we’re not saying don’t help Africa, helping Africa is noble. But helping Africa has been turned into a theater of the absurd. It’s like the blind leading the clueless. There are certain things that we need to recognize. Africa’s begging bowl leaks. Did you know that 40% off the wealth created in Africa is not invested here in Africa? It’s taken out of Africa. That’s what the World Bank says. Look at Africa’s begging bowl. It leaks, horribly. There are people who think that we should pour more money, more aid into this bowl, which leaks.

What are the leakages? Corruption alone costs Africa more than 148 billion dollars a year. Yet, put that aside, capital flight out of Africa, 80 billion a year. Put that aside, let’s take food imports. Every year, Africa spends 20 billion dollars to import food. Just add that up, all these leakages. That’s far more than the 50 billion Tony Blair wants to raise for Africa.

Now, back in the 1960s, Africa not only fed itself, it also exported food. Not anymore. We know that something has gone fundamentally wrong. You know it. I know it. But let’s not waste our time talking about these mistakes, because we spent all day here. Let’s move on and flip over to the next chapter. And that’s what this conference is all about, the next chapter.

The next chapter begins with, first of all, asking ourselves this fundamental question: Who do we want to help in Africa? There’s the people and then there’s the government or leaders. Now, the speaker before me, the previous speaker before me, Idris Mohammed, indicated that we’ve had abysmal leadership in Africa. That characterization, in my view, is even more charitable. I belong to an Internet discussion forum, an African internet discussion forum, and I ask them – I said, since 1960, we’ve had exactly 204 African heads of state, since 1960. And I asked them to name me just 20 good leaders. Just 20 good leaders. Maybe, you may want to take this, you know, leadership challenges, you know, yourself. I asked them to name me just 20. Everybody mentioned Nelson Mandela, of course, Kwame Nkrumah, (Julius) Nyerere, (Jomo) Kenyatta, somebody mentioned Idi Amin. (laughter) I let that pass. (more laughter). The point is, they couldn’t go beyond 15. Even if they had been able to name me 20, what does that tell you? 20 out of 204 means that the majority, the vast majority of the African leaders failed their people. And if you look at them, the slate of the post-colonial leaders, an assortment of military fu fu heads, Swiss bank socialists, crocodile liberators, vampire elite, quack revolutionaries. (applause) Now, this leadership is a far cry from the traditional leaders that Africans have known for centuries. The second false premise that we make when we’re trying to help Africa is that sometimes we think that there is something called a government in Africa that cares about its people, serves the interests of the people and represents the people.

There is one particular quote a Lesotho chief once says, that “here in Lesotho we’ve got two problems: Rats and the government.” (laughter) What you and I understand as a government, doesn’t exist in many African countries. In fact, what we call our governments are vampire states. “Vampires” is because they suck the economic vitality out of their people. Government is a problem in Africa. A vampire state is a government which has been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks, who use the instruments of state power to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen, and exclude everybody else. The richest people in Africa are heads of state. They’re menaces and quite often the chief bandit is the head of state himself. Where do they get their money? By creating wealth? No! By raking it off the backs of their sovereign people. That’s not wealth creation. It’s wealth redistribution.

The third fundamental issue that we have to recognize is that if we want to help the African people, we must know where the African people are. Take any African economy. An African economy can be broken up into three sectors: there is the modern sector; there is the informal sector; and the traditional sector. The modern sector is the abode of the elites; it’s the seat of government. Many African countries, the modern sector is lost. It’s dysfunctional. It is a meretricious fandango of imported systems, which the elites themselves don’t understand. That is the source of many of Africa’s problems. Where the struggles for political power emanate and, then, spill over onto the informal and the traditional sector, claiming innocent lives.

Now, the modern sector, of course, is where a lot of the development aid and resources went into. More than 80 % of Ivory Coast development went into the modern sector. The other sectors, the informal and the traditional sector, are where you find the majority of the African people, the real people in Africa. That’s where you find them. And obviously that’s common sense. That if you want to help the people, you go where the people are.
But that’s not what we did. As a matter of fact, we neglected the informal and the traditional sectors. The traditional sector is where Africa produces its agriculture. Which is one of the reasons why Africa can’t feed itself. And that’s why it must import food. You cannot develop Africa by ignoring the informal and the traditional sectors. And you can’t develop the informal and the traditional sectors without an operational understanding of how these two sectors work.

These two sectors, let me describe to you, have their own indigenous institutions. First one is the political system. Traditionally, Africans hate governments. They hate tyranny. If you look into their traditional systems, Africans organize their states in two types. The first one belong to those ethnic societies who believe that the state was necessarily tyrannic, so they didn’t want to have anything to do with any centralized authority. These societies are the Igbo, the Somali, the Kikuyus, for example. They have no chiefs. The other ethnic groups, which did have chiefs, made sure that they surrounded the chiefs with councils upon councils upon councils to prevent them from abusing their power. In Ashanti, for example, a chief cannot make any decision without a concurrence of the council of elders. Without the council, the chief cannot pass any law. And if the chief doesn’t govern according to the will of the people, he will be removed. If not, the people will abandon the chief, go somewhere else and set up a new settlement. And even if you look in ancient African empires, they were all organized around one particular principle, the confederacy principal, which is characterized by a great deal of devolution of authority, decentralization of power.

Now, this is what I’ve described to you, this is part of Africa’s indigenous political heritage. Now, compare that to the modern systems the ruling elites established on Africa. It’s a total far cry. In the economic system in traditional Africa, the means of production is privately owned. It’s owned by extended families. See, in the west, the basic economic and social unit is the individual. The Americans who say, “I am because I am and I can damn well do anything I want, anytime.” The accent is on the ‘I’. In Africa, the Africans say, “I am because we are.” The ‘we’ connotes community, the extended family system. The extended family system pools its resources together. They own farms. They decide what to do, what to produce. They’re not taking the orders from their chiefs. They decide what to do and when they produce their crops. They sell the surplus on marketplaces. When they make a profit, it is theirs to keep, not for the chief to sequester it from them.

In a nutshell, what we had in traditional Africa was a free market system. There were markets in Africa before the colonialists stepped foot on the continent. Timbuktu was one great big market town. Kano, Salaga, they were all there. Even if you go to West Africa, you notice that market activity in West Africa, has always been dominated by women. So, it’s quite appropriate that this section is called a market place. The market is not alien to Africa. What Africans practiced was a different form of capitalism. But then, after independence, all of a sudden, markets, capitalism became a western institution. And the leaders say Africans were ready for socialism. Nonsense! And even then, what kind of socialism did they practice? The socialism that they practiced was a peculiar form of Swiss bank socialism which allowed a head of states and the ministers to rip and plunder Africa’s treasuries for deposit in Switzerland. That is not a kind of system Africans had known for centuries.

What do we do now? Go back to Africa’s indigenous institutions. And this is where we try to get, to go into the informal sectors, the traditional sectors. That’s where you find the African people. And I’d like to show you a quick little video, about a informal sector about the boat builder that I myself tried to mobilize Africans in the Diaspora to invest in.

Could you please show that? (Video starts- 15:41- crowded harbor, boat builders) (talking over video, starts at 16:04- narration at beginning is very low in volume and obscured by video sound). Traditionally, boat building, small boats, there’s an enterprise. This is by a local Ghanaian entrepreneur using his own capital. He’s getting no assistance from the government and he’s building such a boat. A bigger boat will mean that more fish will be, will be caught, and landed, means that he will be able to employ more Ghanaians. It also means that he will be able to generate wealth and then it will have what economists call external effects on a local economy. All that you need to do, all that the elites need to do is to move this operation into something, which is enclosed so that the operation can be made more efficient.

Now, it is not just this informal sector. There is also traditional medicine. 80% of Africans still rely on traditional medicine. The modern health sector has totally collapsed. Now, this is an area, I mean, there is a treasure trove of wealth in the traditional medicine area. This is where we need to mobilize Africans, in the Diaspora especially, to invest in this. We also need to mobilize Africans in the Diaspora, not only to go into the traditional sectors, also, but to go into agriculture and, also, to instigate change from within. We were able to mobilize Ghanaians in the Diaspora to instigate change in Ghana and bring about democracy in Ghana. And I know that with the cheetahs, we can take Africa back, one village at a time. Thank you very much. [Transcription by Robert Thomas Carter]