George Ayittey's critique of "coconut republics" — too good to keep to ourselves

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In the months before each TED, we ask speakers to fill in a short, casual questionnaire for the program guide, answering questions like “Who are your heroes?” and “Family apart, what are you most proud of?” Most speakers write a sentence or two for each. But for TEDGlobal 2007, iconoclastic Ghanaian economist George Ayittey took it to a whole different level. His Q&A came back as a 6-page polemic, including a sharp, off-the-cuff dissection of the toxic “coconut republics” of Africa. Powerful and funny, it was too good to keep to ourselves.

Click here for George Ayittey’s full Q&A >>

Questions for George Ayittey

What are you best known for?

CONTROVERSY. But my admirers refer to me as “unorthodox,” “unscripted” or “The Cutlass (machete),” who slashes through the thicket of suffocating platitudes and excuses to deliver the bitter truth about post colonial Africa.” Personally, I regard myself as an intellectual “rebel,” kicking against the old “colonialism-imperialism paradigm” which has landed Africa in a conundrum. By this paradigm, everything wrong with Africa is the fault of somebody else — hostile external forces (Western colonialism, imperialism, the World Bank, etc.) and never the fault of misguided leadership. Witness Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

I am known for pushing the view that the old paradigm is now obsolete. It is kaput. We need a new way of thinking or a new paradigm that stresses the importance of internal factors as well. For example, brutal political tyranny, arrant economic mismanage, rampant corruption and senseless civil wars have nothing to do with artificial colonial borders or Western imperialism. Rebel leaders do not seek to redraw boundaries; they head straight to the capital city because that’s where power lies.

What are you working on now?

To save Zimbabwe from implosion. We hope to achieve peaceful change in Zimbabwe through the convocation of a “Sovereign National Conference.” It is the same mechanism (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa — CODESA) which was used to dismantle apartheid in South Africa. If it worked in South Africa, then it will work in Zimbabwe.

What are the five words that best describe you?

“African solutions for African problems” — exactly five words. I coined that expression in 1992 when the international community mounted “Operation Rescue” to save Somalia. I argued in a Wall Street Journal editorial what the Somali crisis was an African problem requiring an African solution. I was proved right. The U.N. and the U.S. pulled out of Somali in 1993, bringing an end to the international rescue mission which cost $3.5 billion.

Who are your heroes?

Africa’s peasants. In particular,

* The women farmers who break their backs to produce food,

* The women traders, who bring food surpluses to the markets,

* The native African fishermen, who, without the aid of modern navigational tools, manage to go to sea and return safely to land their catches of fish.

* The native African artisans and craftsmen, who use their own ingenuity to weave one the world’s most beautiful cloths (kente), carve masks and sculptures (the stone sculptures of Zimbabwe).

What products (or books, music, films) have you created?

I have written five books on Africa, established the Free Africa Foundation to advance the cause of freedom in Africa. “Africa is poor because she is not free” is our motto. I have also established “Malaria Free Zones” where we take an African village of about 1,000 people, spray the village to rid it of mosquitoes and give free insecticide-treated bed nets and anti-malarial drugs to the villages. We have established these MFZs in Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Kenya. We work in collaboration with the village traditional authorities. We have also built a school library for the school children in Nkyenekyene (Ghana), a medical clinic at Obregyimah (Ghana) and provided microcredit loans to 100 village women at Teacher Mante (Ghana).

Family apart, what are you most proud of?

Tossing out of office the tyrannical regime of Fte./Lte. Jerry Rawlings in 2000 through the ballot box and establish real democracy in Ghana. President John Kufuor describes me as “one of the architects of change” in Ghana. I worked with activists on the ground to corral the squabbling opposition parties into an electoral alliance. We hope to repeat this success in Zimbabwe.

What headline(s) would you like to read about yourself in 2020?

“Ayittey Told You So.” In 1993, I predicted that Rwanda would implode. Nobody took me seriously and I was dismissed as a “doomsayer.” Rwanda blew up in 1994.

In March 1999, I stunned the audience at the Conference in Porto, Portugal, organized by the Mario Soares Foundation (named after Portuguese president, Mario Soares) that Ivory Coast, Togo, and Zimbabwe will implode.

Nine months later, in Dec 1999, General Robert Guie staged a military coup in Ivory Coast, setting in motion events that eventually culminated in a civil war in Sept 2000.
Earlier in March 2000, the descent of Zimbabwe into chaos and economic collapse began with fraudulent elections. Togo blew up in 2005.

The following African countries are standing in line, waiting to blow up: Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Libya, among others.

I don’t want to read this in 2020: “Ayittey Told You So.”

Describe an idea that you’d like to see spread more widely

That the solutions to Africa’s myriad problems lie in Africa itself and they entail returning to and building upon Africa’s own indigenous institutions of private ownership of the means of production, free village markets, free enterprise and free trade.

Politics apart, what drives you crazy?

Tomfoolery in a “coconut republic.” This invites a comparison with a banana republic. In a banana republic, one might slip on a banana peel but things do work — now and then for the people, albeit inefficiently and unreliably. The water tap has a mind of its own. Occasionally, it might spit some water and then change its mind. Buses operate according to their own internal clock, set according to Martian time — whatever that is. By the grace of God or Allah, a bus might arrive, belching thick black smoke. Food and gasoline are generally available but expensive, if one is willing to contend with occasional long lines. The police are helpful sometimes and protect the people by catching real crooks. There is petty corruption. Now and then, a million dollars here and a million there might be embezzled. Such a banana republic often slips into suspended animation or arrested development.

A coconut republic, on the other hand, is ruthlessly inefficient, lethal and eventually implodes. Instead of a banana peel, one might step on a live grenade. Here, the entire notion of “governance” has been turned completely on its head by the ruling bandits. The chief bandit is the head of state himself. Their water taps run all the time; the people can collect rain water. There are inexhaustible supplies of food and gasoline for them, but not for the people. And there are no buses for the people. Period. Those shiny buses that ply the road are for vampire elites. The people can walk. The republic sits atop vast reserves of oil and exports oil. Yet, there is no gasoline for the people since the country’s oil refineries have broken down. Funds earmarked for repairs had been stolen and refined petroleum products must be imported. The country may also be rich in mineral deposits – such as diamonds, gold, col-tan. Yet, the mineral wealth has produced misery.

A coconut republic is:

1. Where Uganda’s Agriculture Minister, Kibirige Ssebunya, declares that: “All the poor should be arrested because they hinder us from performing our development duties. It is hard to lead the poor, and the poor cannot lead the rich. They should be eliminated” (New Vision, Kampala, Dec 15, 2004). He advised local leaders to arrest poor people in their areas of jurisdiction.

2. Where the country runs out of paper with which to print money (Zimbabwe): “Reserve Bank officials told IRIN that plans to print about Zim$60 trillion (about US$592.9 million) were briefly delayed after the government failed to secure foreign currency to buy ink and special paper for printing money.”

3. Where the government tames hyperinflation by banning price increases: “In Jan 2007, the Government of Zimbabwe said it would tame the country’s 1,600 percent inflation rate by making wage and price increases illegal” (The New York Times, Feb 13, 2007; p.A5)

4. Where the rulers claim they are fighting “terrorists” when they themselves are the real state terrorists (Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe). Charles Taylor of Liberia once had an “anti-terrorism unit” run by his son. Even the warlords of Somalia “formed what they call an anti-terrorism coalition” (The New York Times, May 1, 2006).

5. Where the head of stqate, Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, declares that anyone aspiring to his job needed “to wait like a vulture, patiently,” because he planned to stay in office at least 30 years longer” (The New York Times, April 19, 2006; p.A6).

6. Where about $709 million and another ₤144 million recovered from the loot the Abachas and his henchmen stashed abroad were quickly re-looted. “The Senate Public Accounts Committee found only $6.8 million and ₤2.8 million of the recovered booty in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) (The Post Express, July 10, 2000).

7. Where a former minister of finance was found hiding — where else? — in a coconut tree: “Zambia’s former finance minister, Katele Kalumba, was arrested and charged with theft after the police found him hiding in a tree near his rural home. Mr. Kalumba, who had been on the run for four months, is being charged in connection with some $33 million that vanished while he was in office (The New York Times, Jan 16, 2003; p.A8).

8. Where the head of state, General Samuel Doe of Liberia summoned his finance minister — “only to be reminded by aides that he had already executed him” (The New York Times, Sept 13, 2003; p.A4).

9. Where the police are highway robbers and the judges crooks. Tell a police officer that you saw a minister stealing the people’s money and it is YOU he will arrest. Asked to investigate the brutal murders of Robert Ouko and British tourist Julie Ward, Kenya police issued this report: “Foreign Minister Robert Ouko was presumed to have broken his own leg, shot himself in the head and set himself afire. Two years earlier, Kenyan officials suggested that a British tourist, Julie Ward, lopped off her own head and one of her legs before setting herself aflame” (The Washington Post, April 20, 2001; p. A19).

10. Where the police show their courage by fleeing. On 16 December 1998, Corporal C. Darko and Constable K. A. Boateng at a Police Station in Accra, Ghana, were instructed to go and arrest Samuel Quartey, who was reported to police for being involved in a theft case. “When the suspect came out brandishing a cutlass (a machete), the police officers did what most people would have done — took to their heels with the speed of lightning that could have made an enviable record had they been timed” (The Mirror, 2 Jan 1999, 1).

Coconut antics drive me nuts.

What is the one message you would like to send out to the world?

That Africa is capable of solving its own problems and developing. The leadership has been the problem, not the people.

What project of yours would you like to see brought to fruition?

The boat building project which I will talk about at the conference. The traditional way of fishing by dug-out canoes is arduous and limits the size of the catch. So I am working with a local entrepreneur to build bigger boats so that more fish can be landed by the native fishermen. It fits in my philosophy that the best way of moving Africa forward is go back to our “roots” and improve upon the existing ways of doing things. We, African elites, never did this after independence. We imported nearly everything, including nuclear-powered fishing trawlers to speak hyperbolically, never building on our own. A larger boat built domestically will provide jobs, land bigger catches of fish and save foreign exchange.

Even more important, I would like to change the dysfunctional elite mentality. The richest persons in Africa are heads of state, governors and ministers. So every “educated” African who wants to be rich — and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich — heads straight into government or politics. I would like to change this mentality and show the elites that they can safely make their riches in the private, informal sector; for example, by improving upon the existing ways of doing things — fishing (building bigger boats), marketing (building better markets, not air-conditioned malls), etc. If they make their money in the informal sector, nobody will haul them before commissions of enquiry come a change of government. Had the elites done this, Africa would have written a better post colonial economic report.

What initiatives related to Africa do you see as most important?

Reform, reform, reform. Reform of the abominable political systems with its concentration of power. Only 16 out of the 54 African countries are democratic. Reform of the statist economic system to grant more economic freedom to the African people, as existed in their own traditional economic systems. And reform of Africa’s dysfunctional institutions. In particular, these six institutions are critical:

An independent and free media (Only 8 African countries have this),
An independent central bank,
An independent electoral commission,
An independent judiciary,
An efficient civil service, and
A neutral and professional security (military and police) forces.

Give Africa these six institutions and Africans will do the rest of the job.