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The Cheetah Generation faces “the blind leading the clueless”

Emeka Okafor introduces Ghanaian economist George Ayittey as the inspiration for his blogging career, especially for the creation of his Africa Unchained blog, named after one of Ayittey’s books. Ayittey, Okafor notes, has a reputation as a troublemaker, and he strides onto stage asking, “Do you think Africans would put together a conference like this? The AU? They’d still be asking for foreign aid.”

Ayittey characterizes several of the conference speakers as “the cheetah generation”, fast-moving people who don’t accept corruption, and who demand that democracy and transparency lead to better governance. “Africa’s salvation rests on the back of these cheetahs.” He constrasts them to “the hippo generation”, the ruling elites, stuck in their intellectual patch, complaining about colonialism and imperialism. “They won’t reform, because they benefit from the status quo.” Ayittey acknowledges his anger at a continent that’s so rich in natural resources and so poor in material terms.

“An enduring tragecy is that so many people, governments and organizations want to help the people in Africa, who they don’t understand.” As a result, “helping Africa has been turned into a theater of the absurd, where the blind are leading the clueless.” It’s unclear whether well meaning folks like Bono are blind or clueless in this description, but Ayittey reminds us “Africa’s begging bowl leaks,” and that it would be absurd to pour more money into it, given that corruption costs more than $180 billion a year, and that $80 billion a year of capital flees from the continent.

In the next chapter of Africa’s development, he tells us that we have to ask “Who do we want to help in Africa – the people, or the leaders?” He’s asked friends who are expert on Africa to name as many post-colonial African leaders as they can from the 204 leaders the continent has seen. Most can’t come up with more than 15, and that list includes figures like Idi Amin. This is because most African leaders have failed us: they include “post-military fufuheads and Swiss bank socialists”. They are a far cry from the leadership the continent has known for centuries, traditional leaders who were constrained by councils of elders, not “vampire states” that suck the life from their people.

Development of Africa has overfocused on the “modern sector” – which is generally corrupt and broken – and underfocused on the informal and traditional sectors, which is where most Africans actually work. These sectors, especially the agricultural sector, are based around communal ownership and decision-making. But they’re not socialist – they’re deeply market-based and, in West Africa, based around entrepreneurial women. it wasn’t until post-colonialism that governments declared markets to be “imperialistic” – markets aren’t alien to Africa, which is based around “a different form of capitalism”.

Showing the sorts of enterprise he believes Africa needs to encourage, Ayittey shows us a video of Ghanaian fishermen. They receive no government subsidy, they produce wealth based on what they’re able to catch, and they invest in their boats and other infrastructure, creating jobs for hundreds of others. This sort of entrepreneurship needs to be a focus for African growth if we are to “take back the Continent one village at a time.”