This article appeared in Consent #8 (May-July 1989)


- George B. N. Ayittey

{Mr. Ayittey, of Ghana, teaches economics at Bloomsburg (Pa.) University and is an associate with the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace (Stanford, California). The following article originally appeared in an October 1988 edition of the Washington Times.}

Africa faces a deep economic and social crisis. Ravaged by famine which has claimed more than 3 million lives since 1985, it is saddled with $200 billion in foreign debt and little to show for it except abandoned factories and decaying roads, ports and other facilities.

Most African leaders continue to blame colonialism, American "imperialism", international lending institutions and a hostile global economic system for their problems. But even the allegedly "backward and illiterate: peasants of Africa know better. More than 8 million peasants have voted with their feet on their leaders' economic policies. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the world's refugees today are in Africa. Earlier this decade, some Ghanaian peasants even called on Britain to recolonize the country.

True, colonialism did not bequeath much to Africa. Yet, in many countries the leadership could not even hold onto, let alone expand, what little Africa got. When Zaire gained independence in 1960, it had 31,000 miles of main road. Today, fewer than 3,500 miles are usable. In Uganda, Makerere University, in the 1950s called the "Harvard of Africa", is in ruins.

The destruction even extended to Africa's own indigenous institutions. For centuries, African natives pursued economic activities on their own. All the means of production, except land, were privately owned by the tribesmen, not the chiefs. Dugout canoes, fishing nets, hunting gear, livestock and huts always belonged to the natives. The land was communally owned, but the produce was sold by the individual farmers in free and open weekly fairs.

These native institutions of free enterprise and free trade were all present, albeit at a pristine stage, well before the Europeans set foot in Africa. Early explorers also discovered a dense web of trade routes crossing the continent. Most notable were the Trans-Saharan trade routes, which existed as far back as the 10th century, well before Africa's "discovery" in the 15th century.

Located at the southern end of the Trans-Saharan trade routes were such important market towns as Timbuktu (Mali), Salaga (Ghana), and Kano (Nigeria). In East Africa, there were similar free trade routes along the Zambesi River and Sabi Valley, linking Mombasa (Kenya) and Ivuna (Tanzania).

More important, Africa's traditional rulers did little to interfere with this economic activity. In fact, one of the customary roles of the chiefs was to provide a peaceful atmosphere for their subjects to engage in trade and commerce. The chiefs seldom monopolized commerce, fixed prices or operated tribal government enterprises. Profits from commerce were for the peasants to keep, not for the chiefs to expropriate.

After colonization, the European rulers sought to control economic activities but failed as often as they succeeded. While there were many abuses, such as forced labour on plantations, for the most part native economic activities remained free.

In fact, the Europeans never monopolized any economic activity - agriculture, fishing or commerce. A few large European firms dominated various sectors of the economy, but many native businessmen, despite their lack of skills, competed successfully with European firms.

Upon independence, not only colonial institutions, but even Africa's own indigenous institutions came under assault. Native traditions of free markets and free trade were viewed by Western-educated African leaders as colonial institutions designed for the exploitation of the peasants.

In Guinea, President Sekou Toure's dogma of "Marxism in African clothes" made unauthorized trading a crime. Policy roadblocks controlled internal trade, cross-border smuggling was punishable by death and farmers were forced to deliver annual harvest quotas to "Local Revolutionary Powers".

In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah's "socialism" sought nothing less than "the complete ownership of the economy by the state". By 1970, nearly 6,000 prices relating to more than 700 product groups were controlled. Indigenous free markets were literally blown up and burned by government troops.

Asked what he understood by "socialism", a member of Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's Cabinet replied: "Socialism means what is mine is mine, but what is yours we share". Under the eccentric ideology of "Mobutuism," the president of Zaire is now one of the richest persons in the world, with more than $8 billion in Swiss bank accounts.

Even Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has lamented the situation. While "South Africa is noted for its vicious violation of human rights, (it) is also very sad to note that there is less freedom in some independent African countries than there was in the much-maligned colonial period," he said last year.

Only by restoring Africa's heritage of free enterprise and free trade can we find a viable cure for the current crisis.

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