Shaking Off Patrons of Poverty -By Ofuafo Otomewo

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Ofuafo Otomewo

Ofuafo Otomewo


When the great Nigerian political leader, advocate of human and woman rights and fighter for universal adult suffrage, the Late Mrs. Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti in the mid-20th century asked in the famous words that we “boycott all boycottables”, insisting that African economic activities are not puppeteered by the western world to African advantage, she was giving a firm support to the views and stance of scholars like the Late Mbonu-Ojike who had also insisted that African economies cannot be turned into mere fodder factories to feed the Western ones (manufactories). And, also to keep supporting and maintaining the development and advancement of the West to the detriment of the growth and development of African economies, which run comatose and are only kept at a vegetative state, left barely alive to ensure that the West receives the needed material to keep their own economies running.

Sylvester Odion Akhaine tows the line of thinking and argument of these precursors and aptly reiterates their views in the book Patrons of Poverty: IMF/World Bank and Africa’s Problems where he dwells on how the wealth of the world has flowed into and remains concentrated in the hands of a few nations, making for an uneven distribution of wealth since the turn of the 19th Century, and how this lopsided nature of wealth ownership has made some nations of the world to perennially walk on the tightrope of poverty. The book also describes in detail how, in order to maintain the status quo, those who have wangled their way to a vantage position in the global arena contrive to truncate any effort at escape by the disadvantaged to a sure economic foothold, the reason being that the strong can hardly survive or dominate without leeching on the weak.

In chapter one of this influential work, the introduction, we are given a general overview of the content and raison d’être of the book. The content basically being evidence and facts showing that the economic space and markets of Africa and some other countries of the world are grossly impinged on by the global economic powers located in the western world, leading to the weakening of these economies, with the author seeking to bring to the consciousness of all the general misconception that puts the blame for this situation on those who are being infringed upon. This is in addition to the delusion that the solution for overcoming the situation lies in the hands of the same West that had actually wrought the problem on the unsuspecting victims, but yet goes ahead to pull the wool over their eyes, making them think otherwise, whilst leading them into the erroneous belief that they hold the ace to the solution of all these economic woes. The writer thus affirms that the situation Africa finds itself in is the result of a grand plan prosecuted by the West, since the turn of the 19th Century, in order to have economic dominance over the continent and some other countries through the hijack of their opportunities for advantage and advancement, while appending these to its own economies.

The second chapter takes a retrospective glance at Africa before the era of exploitation by the West, citing copious examples of economic activities and systems, which were proof of the continent’s capacity to provide for itself the basic human needs of food, water, shelter and clothing, and how this had changed with time, leaving the continent at the mercy of foreigners and the vagaries of their mercantile schemes. Stating that in the field of agriculture, Africans were self-sufficient in food production and had surpluses in large volumes, the author illustrates through an African proverb how the food situation in pre-colonial Africa was: “it is an offer of help to dine with someone”, revealing an era of surplus. Other significant economic fields, like the cloth-making industry which was commended by even the West as comparable and sometimes superior to those from other parts of the world, were well advanced and construction works were quite outstanding, with Africans building the pyramids of Egypt, the Universities of Alexandra and Timbuktu, which were masterpieces showcasing the level of architectural advancement in pre-colonial times. These were attestations to the workings of African economic systems in the past, making Akhaine wonder: why are we unable to do so today?

In answer to this question, he explains the roots of underdevelopment under three sub-categories, namely slavery, colonisation and the post-colonial elite. He gives highlights to these as they affect the economic development of African states. Agreeing with the views of the Late Julius Nyerere, former President of Tanzania, who stated that slavery had robbed Africa of its most productive human resources, the writer observes that population is a significant element in the dynamics of economics, and that in Europe the slave population provided the impetus and workforce for the further development of labour, the market and demand, while it took from Africa the most qualitative of human resources, depopulating the continent in huge proportions to the extent that Africa’s population growth stagnated between 1650 and 1900, while that of Asia and Europe grew tremendously.

Economically, the effect of colonial rule is noted to have been far-reaching, as it was a period in which the politics and policies of the colonising powers were brazenly determined by economic interests. Giving the instance of how the entire colony population was forced to produce cash crops and mine natural mineral resources to the benefit of the colonising economy, and how capital goods for the colony, in terms of machinery and equipment that can contribute to capital formation, was not development or created, he noted that the only type of relations of production that existed was that in which pre-arranged restrictions on agricultural produce were worked out and implemented for the trade gains of the colonisers’ economy. Colonial production never allowed Africans to produce what they consumed and consequently she became outwardly oriented economically.

Akhaine also points out that Africans, literarily, have a hand in the creation of their own problems, with the notoriety of the post-colonial ruling class, which not only plundered the treasury but also engaged in and upheld financial profligacy in the face of the continent’s debt burdens. This is in addition to the intolerable power struggles, often leading to social violence and contributing to an unstable polity. The writer notes that the post-colonial elite’s attainment of power through complicity with the neo-colonial interests of the West is the primary factor in understanding why Africa has remained impoverished.

In the third chapter, the writer examines the emergence, role and functions of the development agencies set up by the West to spearhead economic assistance to laggard economies in Africa and some other places. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank agencies popularly referred to as the Bretton Wood Institutions were created primarily for the purpose of stabilising and helping the European economy recuperate after World War 2 for the reason that “…when single nations and small groups of nations attempt by special and different regulations of the foreign exchanges to gain trade advantages, the result is instability, a reduced volume of foreign trade, and damage to the national economies. This course of action is likely to lead to economic warfare and to endanger the world’s peace”.

Thus it is stated that the initial manifest function or the altruism of the Bretton Woods system notwithstanding, “These institutions have not been set up for the interest of the poor countries but rather as mechanisms of control by the very rich countries – to beat them into line”. The author notes that in the search for a way out of the woods, the leaders of African economies have had to resort to the same past colonisers who had milked the continent dry of all sources of development, and who then refer them to these agencies which seem to be neutral but are actually under their control, dictating the terms of operation and deciding on policies and conditionalities that are favourable to their own economy. This naturally leaves the borrower in a situation worse than it was before acquiring the loan, thus creating more room for greater economic hegemony by the West.

Chapter four deals with the specific efforts outlined by the West as effectual in solving Africa’s economic problems. Thinking erroneously that the key to economic success in developing countries comprises three things: macro-stability, liberalisation (lowering tariff barriers and market deregulation) and privatisation, the international economic agencies are asked to promote these to the continent. First, the modernisation approach, which the writer notes does not consider the imbalances and developmental disparities between the West and developing nations, especially in the area of take-offs. This results in policies and efforts that skew off the intended path of economic recovery.

Next is the Washington Consensus, which mainly recommends policies that are utilised in and transferred from the Western world. The writer points out the ineffectiveness of such because these are policies that do not take into consideration the peculiarities of the African situation — a continent still struggling to catch up with the modernity of the Western world. This are in areas like fiscal deficits, tax reforms, interest rates, the exchange rate, trade policy, foreign direct investment, privatisation, deregulation and property rights. The writer stoutly objects to these, and subsequently the sneak-through-the-back stratagem termed Mission Creep, which he says were never proposed for the good of developing countries but were meant to expand and entrench the development gap between the rich global North and the poor South and make the continent surrender sovereignty and economic assets to foreign interest with the promise of attracting Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) and achieving current account balance which nonetheless seem elusive. This, to him, is a form of tele-guiding through transferred policies, with the aim of maintaining and perpetuating financial hegemony.

In Chapter five, the writer states that Africa has not been sitting arms akimbo, watching as a stranger while outsiders tackle its problems, as many are predisposed to thinking. In fact, he outlines previous steps taken by Africans to create a path for economic development for the continent — a sort of homegrown effort. Stating the repeated attempts, which have been either quashed by Western economic powers through the aforementioned economic developmental agencies or given no support, he cites and calls for a reconsideration of one very laudable and relevant blueprint — The Lagos Plan of Action (LPA), an initiative by the Organisation of African Unity ( OAU) in 1980, which he deems profoundly insightful and relevant in the key areas of food and agriculture, industry, natural resources, human resources development and utilisation, science and technology, transport and communication, trade and finance measures to build up and strengthen economic and technical cooperation. These include the creation of new institutions and strengthening of existing ones, in terms of the environment and development, energy, women’s development, development planning, statistics and the population.

Chapter six concludes the book in what is a summary of the whole content, which is a discourse on the dialectics of economics and political power-play among nations. Interestingly, Akhaine suggests the way forward as working on and providing homegrown solutions to Africa’s problems, with a view to upgrading its level of wealth to suit its needs. This can be attained especially by building its base of capital goods and knowing that ultimately, help is never going to come from outside but from within.

This work is quite mature in reasoning, vast, extensive and well researched. In a plain, straightforward, down to earth persuasive tone and simple diction punctuated with economic and political registers (found mainly in references) and as dictated by the topic at hand, the dialectics of the book is brought to a level of easily comprehension, with illuminating references that facilitate the understanding Akhaine’s fascinating arguments. This is invaluable resource for the intelligentsia and scholars seeking engagement with how Africa has landed into its current socio-economic issues and how this can be averted towards the right path of sustainable growth and development, through a conscious pulling away from the toxic bind of neo-colonial actors and institutions.

Ofuafo Otomewo is Editorial Director of The Constitution: Journal of Constitutional Development.

Sylvester Odion Akhaine’s Patrons of Poverty will be publicly presented on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 in Lagos.