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Impediments to African Growth and Development: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions (Part One)

--Cutting-Edge Analytics--

By: Franklin Otorofani
 Published October 12th, 2011

Since the dawn of politically independent Africa in the late 50s and early 60s, the continent has been facing one major crisis, which is not at all political as many might naturally have assumed, but basically economic, which is not readily understood. Although political crisis tends to get all the press due to the sufferings and miseries that they immediately produce with the global press only too eager to beam images of dying children and women across the globe as a result of such crisis, Africa’s real crisis is economic. And that crisis is reducible to one grave anomaly—abject lack of economic empowerment of the citizenry.

This series is therefore designed to address this issue in a comprehensive manner, first by identifying the cultural lacuna and constraints that inhere and currently exist in most African societies and pointing the way forward toward Africa’s economic emancipation. It places great store in the notion that development is basically a mental rather than a physical process or enterprise and in the absence of the right frame of mind it is simply not possible to even talk about development anywhere least of all in Africa. Therefore, a mental re-engineering or what is usually referred to as mental re-orientation is what is gravely required to get Africa out of the woods. When mental energies of African youths are properly channeled in the right direction for the production of values in society the sky is the limit for African growth and development. Dormant and captive creative energies are unleashed and economic miracles will begin to pop out in every nook and cranny of the continent. The reasons why that is not happening presently and the way and manner of getting it up to speed is the major concern of this series.

We know that millions of Africans are talking the talk with many even yelling at one another both within Africa and across the globe with hardly anybody listening to what the other is saying—an affliction that is discernibly slowly, almost stealthily but steadily creeping into the usually measured democratic political space in the United States with its predictably paralyzing effects in Washington, D.C., indubitably the world’s capital of democracy. It is therefore apt to remark in passing that democracy is indeed passing through one of its most tying times as indeed capitalism its most beloved cousin. And if you asked for my opinion I would say from the bottom of my heart that the democracy/capitalism political brands have begun to unravel before our very own eyes as were indeed the communism/socialism brands previously since the last two decades. And if anyone is looking for the evidence of this unraveling it can be found in the limping and prematurely expiring Obama administration that has been castrated by the Republicans since they captured the House of Reps in 2010. For over a decade now with the introduction of globalization the fortunes of capitalism have suddenly turned south and dragging down with it democracy. The economic upheavals in Europe and the debt crisis in the United States are but early warning signs, if you like, if imminent systemic paralysis sweeping across the world like the raging waves of a Tsunami and Washington is directly on the path of that advancing Tsunami.

The Obama administration is now callously forced into a state of inertia to the extent that it has been denied funding by Congress to meet even staff salaries—as happened with FAA employees pay delays due to budgetary wrangling on Capitol Hill. Today, the Obama administration has been denied a full budget to operate and the US government is being run from day to day on ad hoc spending approvals literarily running from month to month just like a household budget due to the effects of the advancing political and economic Tsunami that have caused Washington politicians to talk past one another.

If shutting down the US government over purely partisan disputations between the Democrats and Republicans, thus putting the lives of citizens in jeopardy has now become fashionable for Washington politicians, it is clear that democracy, just like capitalism, has got a black eye in the US, and by necessary implication, throughout the world. There is no question therefore that the lingering political deadlock in Washington, D.C., signposts the direction democracy/capitalism brands are headed going forward. I’m afraid to state it is no good tidings. Having fought and defeated communism/socialism up until the early 90s with no other serious and viable competing ideology left to battle, democracy/capitalism seems to have turned on themselves in suicidal orgies across Europe and America; paradoxically at a time it is winning new converts in Africa and the Arab world (?) leaving these regions in a profound state of confusion as to whether it is worth the trouble after all to take the route dictated by the west. When these democracy greenhorn see nothing but economic chaos in Europe and political gridlock in the US it is apt to give them a cause to pause for a while and reassess their political/economic choices.    

However, we also know that while the rest of the world is busy “thinking” about new development paradigms in an acutely competitive world, Africans are either busy shouting down or at best talking “at” rather than talking “with” one another, that they didn’t know when the train of development left the station leaving them stranded, confused and wallowing in even more self-recrimination. The question, therefore, is who is doing the “thinking” rather than the “talking” in Africa? Where are the adults in the room doing the thinking for the kids running around and wreaking havoc on the continent, or is it the other way around? Odd as it may sound, the answer is— there is nobody. Africa is not thinking. And that is not coming from me but from former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who was once quoted to have declared that “Africa has stopped thinking.”

Now, that is a continent-size statement and collective indictment on an entire continent and its inhabitants. A little condescending, perhaps yes, particularly in the ears of “unthinking” Africans, but was he right? The answer is yes, in the estimation of “thinking” Africans with the right mental presence who had been expressing similar sentiments in more direct pugnacious phraseology. Now check this out real good: Everyone in Africa is busy talking about “the government” not doing this or that for them, and Nigerians are notorious for that—but not a word on what the citizens can do for their nations but rather what they can get from the government. President JFK’s admonition to his compatriots to “think not of what your country can do for you but what you can do for the country,” means absolutely nothing for them. It’s always about the government doing or not doing this or that. A people that cede development to the government alone are doomed from the beginning. And a people that are always looking in the direction of government to give them jobs, give them free healthcare, education as well as housing, are equally doomed from the beginning. And that is what is killing African Americans in the United States, many of whom on public assistance programs have come to see that as their birthrights unwilling to move out of the programs and stand on their feet as real men and women. While it is right to help people stand on their feet it is immoral and counterproductive to program a people not to stand on their own feet but live their lives on the backs of others. 

This is a matter of a culture that thrives on dependency---whether on an uncle in the big city or the government. Thus the uncle struggling in the big city with his own family to raise and care for must take in the cousins and nephews of his relatives and shoulder the responsibilities of raising and educating them in addition to his own. How in the world would he be able to save and invest and grow himself, his family and the wider economy at large? Millions of uncles, nieces, brothers, sisters and other extended family relatives are caught in this culturally imposed dead end, denying the economy their contributions to its growth and development, and frankly speaking stultifying their own growth and development as individual citizens. There has got to be a better way, and only thinking minds will be able to find that path for Africa.

Compounding this scenario is the notion that it is government’s responsibility to provide the basic needs of the citizens such as housing, healthcare, education and the rest. Governments are thus forced to spread themselves thin and go into these ventures and wind up coming short with grossly underfunded and grossly mismanaged ramshackle institutions that cannot even answer their own names. Therefore, the question must be asked:  Is it government and government alone that must establish world class hospitals and medical centers, and not the citizens? Where is it written?  Is it the government and government alone that must establish world class colleges and universities, and not the citizens? Where is it written? And it is the government and government alone that must establish world class transportation in both land, air and sea, and not the citizens? Where is it written? I could go on and on ad infinitum, with citizens ceding their rights to development literarily to their governments as if they were living under socialist/communist regimes. It’s the product of poverty of thought.   

Wealthy Nigerians suffering from both curable and incurable diseases requiring first class medical attention must therefore spend their fortunes and hard earned foreign exchange abroad for treatment including even their presidents and governors and thereby bleeding the nation of billions of naira of otherwise investible funds for national growth and development. Going abroad to study or treatment has been turned into a status symbol by Nigerians many of whom mimic Americans in their speech mannerisms with unnatural nasal inflections—because speaking with foreign accents is, you guessed right, a status symbol. You can see that even in supposedly African home movies that should be selling genuine and authentic African culture to the outside world to appreciate and admire for what it is rather than copying and mimicking others. What a warped mental framework!

 Africa is not thinking at all and she is giving birth to generations of deranged children who can’t think straight for themselves. A modern society cannot be profitably organized on the basis of a culture of dependency where individual citizens are unable to identify and exploit their innate talents and geniuses for the advancement of their society. There is no inspiration from any quarters to get ordinary citizens to grow up independently and aspire to higher levels or even to get their lives started in the first place, with great role models creating values for their nation. On the contrary our youths are exposed to and raised in an atmospherics suffused with negativities about what this or that government or this or that uncle or senior brother/sister has done or did not do for them, rather than what they could do for themselves creating values. Only a desert of thought could produce citizens who come out in life in this way. Let it be known, therefore, that while government has its role cut out in the provision of an enabling environment, national development is not a government’s sole proprietorship, but a partnership with the citizens. Let it be known also that development begins not with glittering physical structures on the ground that we admire and serviceable to us but with thinking where it is first conceptualized and fleshed out. And it belongs only to a people who are capable of thinking and acting out their thoughts to produce material structures. Africa’s problems therefore lie in her poverty of thought, not of material structures per se, which are products of thoughts to begin with.

To the unthinking Africans who might disagree with Prime Minister Blair’s damning verdict, therefore, go these simple questions: Where are the thinking institutions in Africa—think tanks? Where are the scientific and historical societies? Where are the not-for-profit foundations dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and humanity? Where are Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in Africa? Where are the Bill and Melinda Gates, and Carter Foundations? Where are the Councils of Foreign Relations in Africa? Where are the institutes???

Scientific knowledge is not produced in beer parlors but in laboratories and research studies in the field. You could search through the nooks and crannies of African nations and would not come up with even a handful of these institutions that are veritable brain factories in developed nations wholly funded and owned by private individuals and institutions. How is Africa going to grow and develop without them? These wholly private institutions engaged in scientific and social research and the production of new knowledge to advance human development beside government. And they number in their thousands in the United States alone with hundreds of billions of dollars invested in those activities that hugely benefit not just the American but global communities in other nations particularly in the third world.

It is indeed a matter for regret that development begins and ends with governments in Africa with private citizens watching from the sidelines only to launch scurrilous attacks on government when things go wrong. In their warped mindsets they scoff and laugh at their nations’ and Africa’s underdevelopment as if they are somehow detached from or alien to these environments and their development processes. Isn’t it scandalous that Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Carter Foundations are the ones helping to fight AIDS and guinea worms in Africa that are responsible for the decimation of African pollutions? It shows that Africans are seemingly incapable not only of thinking but of helping themselves even where the resources are available in private hands because they are all waiting for their governments to fix every problem and if their governments are not forthcoming as is often the case, so be it: their people must perish unless the benevolent west comes to their rescue. The notion that it is somehow the responsibility of someone else or some other institutions of government to fix our problems is an externalization of the culture of dependency and evidence of absence of economic engagement of the citizenry in general that should assume the responsibility or at least the spirit of being providers of services rather than mere consumers. The pervasive absence of public spiritedness amongst the citizenry even in the face of outward veneer of religiosity is indeed puzzling and mindboggling. Isn’t it shameful, to say the least, that the next malaria or AIDS vaccine will come not from Africa decimated by these diseases but from either Europe or the United States, and from the private sector too, for that matter, rather than the government, although Europe and the US have no malaria disease to deal with?

Any thinking African would be forced to ask: Where are the Foundations in Africa if there are millionaires and billionaires, retired Heads of States and Presidents in Africa? The only exception would appear to be former President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who at least, created a Presidential Library and Research Center his peers in the United States and a Foundation a private foundation to manage which will outlive him just like its counterparts abroad. Yet misguided and “unthinking” Nigerians, including sponsored newspaper editorials, motivated by partisan political considerations barked and railed at the man for daring to raise funds privately under the law through an independent body, to run the foundation.  Rather than the nation looking forward to both sitting and former leaders, including state governors, I might add, using their privileged positions to create multiplicity of such foundations that could outlive them while they can to complement government’s development efforts as their counterparts do in other parts of the world “unthinking” rabble rousers in Nigeria, who are more interested in cheap politicking than in development sought to pour cold water on the move. Visceral hatred for the person of Obasanjo was allowed to trump the good that will inevitably come out of that noble institution created for posterity that will enrich the intellectual life of our society in general and for scholars in particular. That meant nothing to an unthinking people. That OBJ established the foundation “while in office” as opposed to when “he is out of office” when it would be difficult if not impossible for him to raise the needed funds from the private sector given Nigeria’s peculiar environment, became the issue rather than the substance and benefits of the foundation itself, as if it is somehow a crime for incumbents to set up independently funded not-for-profit foundations while in office. These are the very depths to which an unthinking nation could sink.

There is no question therefore that Prime Minister Tony Blair was right on the money, for an unthinking people retard their nation’s nay, their continent’s development. Whereas development is the end product of thought process it becomes extremely difficult for a nation like Nigeria to develop because we are not a thinking but a people largely driven by ethnic and political pettiness and therefore beholden to the self-serving antics of rabble rousers, professional propagandists, and grandstanders masquerading as saviors and redeemers, who talk loudly at others before they think, if at all.

However, Blair’s statement must be qualified with a caveat. Weighty as it is it presupposes that Africa was once a “thinking” continent at one time or the other. And as African historians have made clear to us the continent of Africa was at par with her peers before she succumbed to the scourge of slave trade that was the forerunner of colonialism—both of which decimated the continent from which it is struggling to recover and catch up with her peers. Yet the very fact that African kings themselves were leveling wars against one another to capture their own kind—the best and most endowed males— as slaves for the white man and thereafter subjected to a brutish sea passage, is conclusive proof that Africa was not even thinking at all in the period of the slave trade. However, while Africans kings colluded with the strangers to capture and sell their own into slavery the reactions of succeeding Africans to colonialism was markedly different and even kings too, such as King Nana of Opobo, for example, were forced to join in the fight against colonialism perhaps because it was a direct assault on their powers and influence unlike slavery which produced the opposite results and effects and enhanced their powers and influence. Their involvement in the anti-colonial struggles therefore would appear to be more of a fight for self-preservation rather than by altruistic motivations.     

African began to wake up from its state of suspended animation to think for itself. In spite of the pretensions to the contrary accompanied by massive propaganda by the colonial powers, Africans rightly saw colonialism as an unacceptable assault on their independence and human dignity that could not be whitewashed, which sentiments slavery itself could not evoke in them. Thus began the battle to root out colonialism from the all parts of the continent including Apartheid in South Africa—a total war of self rediscovery and renewal! It was a titanic struggle that was clearly articulated by our founding fathers, including Drs. Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Herbert Macaulay, just to mention but a few.

While it is true that not all those leaders mentioned pursued the dream of Africa’s economic emancipation with equal zeal and vigor, quite a sizeable number of them were demonstrably committed to the ideal at the both national and continental levels as evidenced in Nkrumah’s Ghana and Awolowo’s Western Region. And that was the era when Africa was again at par with and in some cases even ahead of today’s so-called “Asian Tigers.” After all did Malaysia that is way ahead of Nigeria today not come to Nigeria to learn how to cultivate palm trees and produce palm oil? And is she not the world’s greatest producer of palm oil today with Nigeria her master trailing behind? Was not Nigeria not ahead of South Korea after independence, but compare the GDP of both nations today and you will be shocked at the level of retrogression that Nigeria had suffered under military rule. Military rule deliberately slowed down, even halted African growth and development and it is a shame that master coup plotters like Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria are walking the streets of Nigeria as free men and even daring to rule again after setting the nation back more than three decades. 

Therefore, if we were to pursue Tony Blair’s thesis to its logical conclusion, we may be forced to come to the inevitable conclusion that Africa stopped thinking when the military invaded our lives and arrested Africa’s growth and development. With the advent of the military, the groundnuts pyramids in Kano; the Cocoa depots in Ibadan and the rubber and Palm oil depots in both the Eastern and Midwestern Nigeria disappeared from Nigeria’s economic landscapes never to be seen again. And in their places a legacy of corruption graft, corruption and purposeless mal-administration was bequeathed to the next generation of civilian rulers. With Africa’s pre-and post independence political giants sent packing by adventurous bands of marauding military jackboots and with many forced to join their ancestors, Africa’s political field was denuded of experienced and purposeful leadership and thus left largely with political neophytes groping in the dark without ideological compass.

Only a continent that had “stopped thinking” could allow itself to be overtaken and overrun by other continents endowed with far less natural resources as abound everywhere in Africa. Only a continent denuded of cerebral thinkers would refuse to explore its human and natural resources to the hilt and would rather serve as mere provider of raw materials for industrial production of other continents. Only a continent devoid of thinkers would allow itself to fall into a state of collective hibernation while others are busy working producing wealth. Only a continent that had stopped thinking would allow her leaders to brazenly loot public funds abashedly and stash same abroad for safekeeping and then turn around to beg for loans and handouts sourced from these same stolen funds in foreign banks. And only an unthinking continent would allow its sons and daughters to become modern day slaves in foreign lands washing dishes and cleaning floors and toilets and doing all manners of odd jobs with their hard earned academic degrees back home due to lack of economic  opportunities in their home countries. What a shame!

Our founding fathers fought for political independence with their sweat and blood and they won at last after a long and bloody struggle. And it was the responsibility of their successors to similarly launch a struggle for economic independence and see it to the end. Political independence is hollow if not accompanied by economic independence and it would soon be lost too, in no time. This was not lost on our founding fathers. But rather than articulate and prosecute an economic independence war, the same way their forebears did for political freedom, succeeding generation quit the battle preferring instead to made themselves and their lackeys materially comfortable leaving the masses to wallow in abject poverty.

In the end Africa is now on the verge of re-colonization as political independence is no guarantee of economic freedom and emancipation but only a means to an end, which has remained a mirage in virtually all African nations. However, economic freedoms should and must mean economic freedoms for the individual citizens to fully participate in the economic processes of their societies rather than the government.

Therefore, the economic liberation of the African man and woman is the next phase of the struggle, for in it and it alone lies the economic emancipation of the African continent. Governments alone have been running the show in Africa since independence to the exclusion of the citizens themselves and that accounts for the lack of managerial, industrial and entrepreneurial capacities in the continent. For too long have African governments usurped and displaced their citizens’ rights in the economic lives of their nations. The sphere of economic activities belongs not to the government but to citizens as of right and government’s role should and must be strictly limited to regulation and incentivizing along with security provisioning. African government should get out of the way and put their citizens firmly on the driver’s seat in their nation’s quest for economic growth and development.  And citizens themselves must seize the moment and run with it to displace governments from running their economic lives for them and become economic players themselves rather than dependant/ spectators watching from the sidelines. This is in recognition of the time tested fact that its citizens themselves rather than governments that create the wealth of nations. Working under government’s overall superintendence, individual citizens’ economic activities form the building blocks of great economies and the greater the quantum of such activities measured in terms of productivity, the better for their economy, and vice versa. It takes no genius therefore to appreciate the fact that economic empowerment of citizens is the beginning of wisdom. 

However, people should not necessarily have to wait for eternity for their governments or anyone else to do it for them. Self-empowerment should become the governing culture of the people enabling them to constantly hunt for and seize economic opportunities starring them in their faces everyday and everywhere they turn to in their immediate environments, or in the absence thereof, create one for themselves. The folks who came up with social-networking sites, for example, did just that for themselves and their societies, having been raised and nurtured under a culture that places high premium on individual responsibility and independence.  Therefore, until African citizens themselves in all African nations are made to take absolute ownership and total control of African economies and run with them, real and sustainable development, firmly grounded in a culture of development rather than of dependency will remain a fundamentally unattainable proposition in Africa.


Franklin Otorofani is an attorney and political analyst


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