​​In memory of George Ayittey, innovator and champion of a free market in Africa

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In June 2007, Ghanaian economist, acclaimed author and scholar George Ayittey delivered an impassioned call from the TEDGlobal stage in Arusha, Tanzania. Railing against a political class he felt had let the continent down for more than half a century, he challenged Africa’s most innovative youth — whom he deemed its “cheetahs” — to take back their continent from decrepit leaders who were overly dependent on foreign aid. “Africa’s begging bowl leaks,” he famously said.

The impassioned, warm and forceful TED Talk was a defining moment for many of us and has been described as a turning point in our viewpoints of the African continent. “Africa hasn’t any other choice but to build and be productive,” George told us. “The continent must move from a lens of external causation for its challenges towards a more introspective, inward-directed approach to addressing its various obstacles. Back in the 1960s, Africa not only fed itself — it also exported food. Not anymore.“

George was an intellectual force of brazen honesty. His words — while encouraging and often entertaining (as they captured his cunning wit) — cut paths through the pretense of niceties to expose the economic travesties of Africa’s governments that many dare not surface. “I regard myself as an intellectual rebel,” he once said of himself, “kicking against the old colonialism-imperialism paradigm which has landed Africa in a conundrum.”

Africa’s betterment was a lifelong cause that George believed in. With great passion, he saw the continent’s way forward to be one where Africans return to their roots and build on their Indigenous institutions. A brilliant analyst of African economies, George was also a fierce internalist. His life’s work distilled a feeling that generations of Africans had themselves sensed but not yet articulated — a belief that the continent, despite its exploited history, needed to look inwards, embrace its past and rebuild pre-colonial African systems and institutions that once supported economic prosperity. In a 2005 interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, George clarified an economic past many people — including Africans — were not aware of. “In West Africa, market activity was always dominated by women,” he said. “There was free trade in Africa. There was free enterprise in Africa before the colonists came.”

A prolific writer, George was a champion of wealth creation and homegrown solutions. His writings are some of the most decisive explanations on how to dismantle and rebuild Africa’s economies; how to re-establish indigenous African institutions; how to defeat dictators; and how to successfully apply African economics. For anyone seeking scholarly yet action-oriented insights into how a highly functioning African economy could and should work, his writings are essential reading. His groundbreaking publications include the seminal Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Development as well as Africa in Chaos, The Blueprint for Ghana’s Economic Recovery and Africa Betrayed, among others.

At the start of his 2007 TED Talk, George called TEDGlobal in Arusha “the most important conference of the 21st century.” Of course, we happily agreed at the time, but now — many summers later — time has shown us just how critical and wise George’s words were. In fact, they resonate even more strongly today. 

In a phone call with me a couple of years ago, George discussed the new wave of optimism that is taking hold on the continent: the vibrant startup community; celebrated inventors; the innovation ecosystem grown by the TED Fellows from the Arusha conference; a continent fully embracing its need for industry, not aid.  Not every great philosopher has seen change begin to happen in their own lifetime, but George saw a glimpse of Africa’s future, as he hoped it would be, starting to take hold. We are grateful to have played a hand in that. 

George, there’s no going back now. The cheetahs are running at far too great a speed to be stopped. You gave them permission to do things differently, and they listened. You will forever be one of the most important voices of Africa’s next chapter. We will long miss you.