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Volume 3  Number 3  •  Winter 1999
Other Issues:  

Book Title:   Africa in Chaos
Author:  George B. N. Ayittey
Published:  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998
Pages:  399
Reviewer:  Mwangi S. Kimenyi, University of Connecticut
This book review appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of The Independent Review

George B. N. Ayittey’s latest book, together with his previous ones (Indigenous African Institutions [Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers, 1991], and Africa Betrayed [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992]), places Ayittey within a small group of African scholars whose commitment to classical liberalism is a breath of fresh air on a continent where most well-known scholars are statists. Ayittey and like-minded African scholars regard advancing the ideas of classical liberalism as the cornerstone for the restoration of civil society in Africa.

In Indigenous African Institutions, Ayittey carefully documented features of African indigenous institutions that were to a large extent suited to advancing civil society. In particular, those institutions had in place a system of checks and balances that restrained the powers of the chief and thus assured that leaders would be responsive to the wishes of the public. In addition, property rights in indigenous African institutions were fairly secure, and leaders did not have powers of arbitrary expropriation. By and large, in African indigenous institutions, unregulated markets were the norm. In Africa Betrayed, Ayittey documented the failure of Africa’s leaders after independence from colonial rule.

In Africa in Chaos, Ayittey advances the arguments made in his previous books and provides a detailed report on the chaos in Africa and its origins. He also proposes various reforms to deal with the crisis. The book is an excellent chronicle of events that have led to the demise of civil society in Africa.

Economic conditions clearly indicate the chaotic state of affairs in Africa. The continent (more specifically sub-Saharan Africa) is richly endowed with some of the world’s most valuable natural resources, including a wide variety of minerals, untapped hydroelectric potential, and farmland. With a huge population and diverse resources, the continent’s potential for economic growth is enormous. Yet countries in this region record the lowest standard of living in the world. A large proportion of the population lacks food security and frequently suffers from malnutrition and even starvation. African countries lag far behind in all measures of economic well-being, including proportion of population in poverty, infant mortality, life expectancy, and caloric intake. Infrastructure, such as government buildings, roads, railways, and telephone and electric facilities are in a state of disrepair. In many instances, the basic services crucial for economic activity do not exist. In fact, infrastructure in most of these countries has deteriorated since they attained political independence. The evidence clearly shows that political independence has not advanced the material well-being of Africans in general.

What explains the dismal performance of African economies? Ayittey’s book provides a detailed account of government policies that adversely affect the functioning of markets. Instead of building on markets that prevailed in the indigenous institutions, African leaders adopted policies that involved heavy intervention in markets. By putting in place various regulations and market controls, governments assured that the task of resource allocation was left to politicians. As is well known, political allocation goes hand in hand with inefficiency and waste. Nevertheless, such allocation provides rulers with opportunities to extract rents. One result of this form of government intervention is that farmers, whose performance is a key to economic development, face extremely high taxes and other forms of intervention that undermine production incentives. Furthermore, in many countries, property rights are insecure, and leaders often engage in arbitrary expropriation.

Another cause of economic crisis has been the mistaken belief that large modern projects are equivalent to economic progress. Supported by foreign governments and international organizations, numerous capital-intensive projects were started in Africa. Many of these projects were not carefully thought out and did not take into account local needs and capabilities. In many cases, the projects not only failed but also left the countries with unmanageable debt burdens. Also contributing to the economic crisis has been the reliance on numerous public enterprises that are extremely inefficient and largely dependent on the national treasuries for their existence.

If political independence did little to advance the material well-being of the majority of Africans, even less was accomplished with regard to the advancement of individual liberties. There is no doubt that colonial rule was oppressive. Institutions and laws established by the colonialists were clearly designed to serve the interests of colonialists, not Africans. As Ayittey documents, however, political independence in Africa has given rise to some of the most oppressive governments in history. The first wave of civilian leaders adopted oppressive laws and outlawed political competition. Laws were enacted that undermined the freedom of expression, and in virtually all countries, governments enacted laws that empowered rulers to detain opponents without trial. In numerous cases, those opposed to the government were killed or disappeared mysteriously.

The civilian leaders were replaced by even more oppressive military dictators who were not only harsh but corrupt. They mismanaged the economies and at the same time shamelessly ransacked the treasuries of their respective countries. The first wave of military leaders was replaced by other coup-installed leaders, each one claiming that he would get rid of corrupt and inept officials. Thus, during the 1960s and 1970s, the military coup became the primary method of leadership change in Africa. With every coup, conditions seem to have worsened. Indeed, most African-led governments were more oppressive than the white-led apartheid government of South Africa. Without doubt, Africans have suffered much more under African rule than they did under colonial rule.

To compound the problems, most countries have experienced a variety of internal conflicts. Armed conflicts in Somalia, Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Sudan, and other countries have resulted in millions of casualties. Although the independent governments claimed that they would unite all the people, the institutions adapted at independence were clearly not suited to dealing with those societies. The internal conflicts in Africa have greatly undermined social and economic progress.

Nevertheless, political independence did provide Africans in leadership positions with lucrative opportunities for amassing wealth. Ayittey documents numerous cases in which leaders have used the state as an instrument to enrich themselves and their cronies. Public property is misused. Leaders extract bribes on government contracts and engage in outright theft. Economic controls and regulations provide ample opportunities for officials to receive bribes and favors. Thus, while the largest proportion of Africans continues to experience extreme economic deprivation, a few have amassed huge amounts of wealth. A telling example is Zaire’s Mobutu, who had amassed wealth of more than $10 billion, and yet his country ranked among the poorest in the world.

Ayittey is critical of some of the commonly proposed solutions to the crisis in Africa. For example, foreign aid and loans, such as those advanced by the international organizations, appear to have no positive impact in the long run. In fact, in most cases such aid has contributed to the crisis. Ayittey proposes reform policies that concentrate on the restoration of civil society, whereby civil and economic liberties would be guaranteed. To achieve such a society, Ayittey proposes building on traditional systems of governance. For example, he proposes the establishment of institutions based on the confederacy principle. Such institutions would be more responsive to the public and would more effectively constrain the actions of leaders. Ayittey makes a persuasive case regarding the importance of economic freedom in dealing with the economic crisis in Africa.

The general thrust of the book is in line with the arguments advanced by neoinstitutionalist economists. Missing, however, is a coherent theoretical explanation of why the current institutions emerged in Africa and not in other parts of the world. In other words, what is so peculiar about Africa that explains the emergence of the institutions we observe there today? In seeking an answer to this question, one can consult some excellent works that complement Ayittey’s work. John P. Powelson’s Centuries of Economic Endeavor (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), for example, provides a careful discussion of the evolution of institutions of economic development. His ideas about the power-diffusion process and its relevance to African institutions is particularly informative. John Mukum Mbaku (Institutions and Reform in Africa: The Public Choice Perspective [Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997]) provides a public-choice analysis of African institutions and the challenges to reform. My own book, Ethnic Diversity, Liberty, and the State: The African Dilemma (Aldershot, Eng.: Edward Elgar, 1998), focuses on the role of ethnic diversity in explaining the current crisis in Africa. Therein I suggest various institutional reforms, including the establishment of federal polities and the adoption of constitutions that separate government powers and guarantee property rights and economic liberties.

In sum, Africa in Chaos is an informative book that advances our understanding of African institutions. The book is clearly written and rich in detail. It should be particularly helpful to the “development experts” who are involved in prescribing policies to Africans but who themselves have limited understanding of African institutions.