Why our intellectual elites need to begin an entirely new conversation about our nations
African intellectual elites exhibit a conceptual contradiction. When economic performance is poor they argue that the major source of the problem is bad leadership. And when they talk of leadership, our intellectual elites often mean one person – the president. Their argument implies that they believe the destiny of our nations can be shaped by the actions of a single man or woman. This is the “great hero of history” thesis as championed by the Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle. It actually calls for strong man rule, unrestrained by either institutions or other societal forces. This is a call to tyranny.
At the same, our intellectual elites also argue that African leaders should be democratic and rule through institutions. Some assume such institutions to exist and, therefore, claim leaders are stifling them. The more thoughtful ones recognise the infancy/absence of these institutions and argue that leaders should create/grow them.
But whatever the premise, these arguments want a president to act as a tyrant and a democrat at the same time, to personalise and institutionalise power all at once, and to exercise unrestrained authority over the nation and yet be subject to checks and balances.
If our leaders are the problem, why is our continent singularly unlucky to produce them in large numbers? Besides our presidents and their entourage do not come from outside the continent; they are born and bred in our communities, educated in our schools and … in our churches and mosques. So they reflect the values, norms and shared mentalities of our society.
Africa has had 278 changes of government since 1960. With the exception of post-genocide Rwanda there has not been much fundamental change in governance over these 50 years and more. This implies that the problem must be more deeply structural. Indeed, how come Western nations do not produce these bad leaders?
So the belief that the problem of Africa is leadership is narrowly focused. Consequential leadership has to be diffuse. Successful nations have good leadership at all levels of society. There has to be good leadership at home level, the village, local school, and religious centre etc. There has to be good leadership at individual business and businesses associations’ level, in religious, civic and educational institutions, etc.
Look at Western society: which president transformed the USA from a poor agrarian society into a modern industrial complex? Which prime minister, chancellor or president transformed the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy or Sweden? Which political leader launched the industrial revolution and built the institutions of these societies?
Many people may refer to East Asia and point to Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping, Park Chung Hee, or Chiang Kai-shek. Yet East Asian societies had achieved a high level of social organisation by 1000AD that Europe could only envy. Introduce capitalist dynamics in these societies with their history of nationhood and statehood, their accumulated technical skills and institutional competences and you would need a short time to transform.
Two or three years ago I watched a documentary titled `The Men Who Built America’. It was a story of business titans such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tom Scott, and Henry Ford who built businesses that transformed America. There is no mention of presidents except towards the end; and even then only as puppets of these business titans. So why is Africa waiting for Carlyle’s great hero of history to save it from backwardness?
I am reminded of Karl Marx’s argument regarding capitalist transformation being possible only through political action. But Marx’s own political action came not from politicians but from the national bourgeoisie who, through the development of a shared class consciousness, created collective organisations to advance their interests politically. Watching the transformative power of American business titans confirms the Marxian view that poor nations need national (or even indigenous) capitalists to build successful capitalist societies.
Yet capitalists vary in terms of their individual and/or collective capacities across nations. These capacities can be in terms of the amount of capital they command, the organisational and technical skills they possess, their social cohesiveness as a class, the political power they wield, and most critically the ideological influence they have over society. In discussing failure at capitalist transformation it may be more profitable to study the capabilities of our national capitalist classes, especially indigenous ones.
This study is lacking in our books and in our debates on social and traditional media. Instead the dominant ideology for our development is the one advocated by international capital through its arms – IMF and World Bank. It is an ideology that argues that our development is only possible through Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) yet, except for city states like Hong Kong and Singapore, I do not know of any nation that has been developed by FDI.
For most nations, the early presence of multinational capital has been a major constraint to the development of a national capitalist class and thereby its ability to transform.
The dominant ideology in our countries promotes the interests of foreign capital often at the expense of national/indigenous capital. State and non-state elites in Africa share this ideological bias – that you need FDI and international competitive bidding to develop. So the commanding heights of our economies are taken over by foreign capital while our roads, dams, airports and railways are built by the Chinese.
This faith in FDI and international competitive bidding has undermined the development of policies by governments in Africa to actively cultivate domestic/indigenous capital by protecting them from the cold winds of international competition.
I admit that the little of what exists as a national bourgeoisie in Africa is poorly organised (if organised at all), is ethnically divided, and financially weak. Lacking social cohesion and, therefore, a shared vision of national transformation, the divided capitalist elite come to the state in search of particularistic advantage. Politicians exploit this to win over individuals by giving them preferential access to state benefits.
This has subverted the development of a common class consciousness and the construction of effective organisations to promote their interests politically.
More than anything else, the relationship between the state and business in Africa could provide a much richer explanation to the challenges to economic transformation. Our single-minded focus on politicians without understanding their relations with both local and foreign capital is misleading.
Unfortunately, anyone who says the dominant ideology among our elites, and not our political leaders, is the major obstacle to our development risks being accused of excusing the rapacity of these political leaders. It is the proverbial act of grasshoppers which, once put in a bottle, begin eating themselves.