Reclaiming development alternatives

Post-Colonialisms Today provides an antidote to Western-centric analysis of Africa in a special issue of 'Africa Development.'

Black Star Gate, Accra 2015. Credit Rachel Strohm via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed.

A new calendar year ushers in the usual array of tropes on Africa. They include why the continent is failing, what it should be doing better and why it has so much resilience in dealing with its own frailty. Overwhelmingly, Western institutions (NGOs, credit rating agencies) repeat tired mantras of the international financial institutions, ignoring the insights of African scholar-activists and the historical backdrop to the continent’s contemporary crises. Neglect of such analysis leads to the failure to understand why and how different African countries are in the mess that they are.

The antidote to Western-centric analysis is the superb collection of essays in a special issue of Africa Development, a journal of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which emerged from the Post-Colonialisms Today project. The range and insight of the collection is difficult to capture in a short review, but there are two continuous themes among contributors: the importance of revisiting the historical past and the significance of sovereignty, or the absence of it.

As introduction authors Tetteh Hormeku-Ajei, Aishu Balaji, Adebayo Olukoshi, and Anita Nayar put it, the collection challenges “the continued hegemony of neoliberalism in policymaking in Africa.” The introduction notes the amnesia about how early post-independence leaders tried to secure the “newly-won freedom of their countries through policies that were designed … to promote autonomous development processes anchored on the demands and needs of a home market.” Julius Nyerere, for example, rebuked the international financial institutions (IFIs) when they accused him of failure, noting that at independence 85% of Tanzania was illiterate and they had just two trained engineers and 12 medical doctors—after 43 years of British colonial rule. Under Nyerere, Tanzania ensured 91% literacy, that all children were in school and that per capita income grew dramatically. After reluctantly accepting IFI diktats, key social and economic indices plummeted. In discrediting the first 20 years of autonomous and autochthonous African post-independence development policy and strategy, the IFIs provided a narrative to justify what became the ruinous years of structural adjustment. While the heart of the neoliberal project is to discredit African strategy and practice, this collection highlights that the idea of African post-independence failure was manufactured and “deliberately misleading.”

The first 20 years of post-independence Africa had promise and were influential in trying to reverse the colonial inheritance: African leaders, mostly radical, were often successful, even if for a brief period of time, in addressing political and economic fragmentation (especially reliance on primary commodity exports). The authors of this collection explore how several African leaders recognized their country’s subordinate position in the global system and understood the importance of assembling African agency to address and change that relationship. As Sara Salem writes, a unifying theme in the collection is that “[d]ecolonisation across Africa brought about historical changes; it was a moment of solidarity, optimism, and radical rethinking of political and economic systems.” Contemporary rearticulation of colonial relationships has reproduced the problem of earlier independence leaders, who sought to reduce dependence on former colonial powers by promoting nation-building, industrialization, economic and agricultural diversification, pan-Africanism, and the development of a new economic order.

Jimi Adesina examines the pan-African agenda, reviewing variations and similarities of Léopold Séda Senghor, Nyerere, and Kwame Nkrumah in their approaches to socialism, pan-African unity, nationhood, economic development, epistemology, and democracy. In their different ways, the three African leaders each tried to develop, coordinate, and mobilize the full range of domestic resources to reduce dependence on external interests and maintain sovereignty. Adesina emphasizes the crucial Nyerere leitmotif “unity” and obstacles to it, including the variable capacity across the continent to challenge imperialism. He highlights the importance of not reifying African leaders, the “diversity of postcolonial imaginations,” and quoting Nyerere, that “the sin of despair would be the most unforgivable.” But so too would be an optimism that is not grounded in analysis of existing radical social forces and the power of imperialism. Unless imperialism is understood and challenged, new agendas for pan-Africanism, sovereign national projects, and policy autonomy will wither on the proverbial vine.

Kareem Megahed and Omar Ghannam review Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempt to industrialize Egypt’s economy as a way of challenging imperial interests. They argue that while new incumbents of the Nasserist state often used words like “socialism” and “planning,” they “did not actually, as is commonly believed, implement a central planning nor a socialist approach.” Nasser’s land reform and new tenancy laws transformed large sections of rural Egypt while leaving intact the property, rights, power, and influence of old feudal elites. Megahed and Ghannam provide a useful reflection on the external and internal limitations of Nasser’s postcolonial project, noting the inherited restricted industrial base and the need for increased investment. Their biggest critique is that Nasser “attempted to give workers a measure of economic freedom and progress without giving them the political means to protect these very gains.” One of the reasons why the project fell apart, despite gains in productivity and improvement in the well-being of the poor, “was the lagging of democratic workers’ representation, which allowed the project to be hijacked” by imperial powers.

Akua Britwum draws attention to the under-researched importance of agricultural transformation in challenging uneven incorporation into global capitalism and plotting a strategy for sovereignty. She explores this topic through the cases of Ghana and Tanzania, reminding readers of the key strategic potential of the state in production, distribution, and employment creation. Britwum draws important connections to contemporary African development constraints, noting how the absence of sovereignty continues and is evident in the “failure to fully de-link national economies from the global capitalist political economy that had positioned African countries as primary producers.” This means that dependence on “earnings from cash crop exports to finance development expenditure” remains, limiting any influence the state might be able to exert over productive resources. Britwum is scathing about the failure of independence to reduce patriarchy and the development plans’ failure to recognize that gendered stratification is “inimical to national development.” However, she makes clear that there are positive lessons for development planning from the Ghanaian and Tanzanian experiences, such as “their sturdy ideological focus that led them to prioritize domestic needs,” the state’s role as a “principal economic actor,” and their focus on agriculture. Nkrumah and Nyerere’s imperatives of African socialism provided an important, although not long-lasting “ideological grounding in the imperative for African socialism.”

Chafik Ben Rouine reminds us of before neoliberalism, when countries’ central banks helped mobilize resources to facilitate post-independence agrarian reforms and industrial strategy. Ben Rouine highlights the historical success of Tunisia’s central bank in mobilizing, controlling, and channeling credit to the needs of the national economy. He notes how the 1960s was a period when the state tried to develop a vision of decolonization and self-centered development, though it ultimately floundered due to “trust in external financial support, an overly centralized bureaucracy” that did not understand the specificity of Tunisian agriculture, and “a vision of development too focused on the West.” Tunisia’s limited but important attempt at greater autonomy from the world capitalist system ended after structural adjustment began in 1986 and neoliberalism destroyed central bank independence.

The volume is tied together by Sara Salem’s contribution on radical regionalism, feminism, sovereignty and the pan-African project. She argues that sovereignty in the immediate post-independence period was seen as a regional, pan-African, internationalist project of decolonization. Salem highlights the role that African feminists had in shaping policy that challenged colonial structures of global capital, including policies of industrialization and nationalization to promote independent development. She shows the important role that “regionalism” played in this, which for Salem refers to “the Third Worldist belief in various decolonized regions coming together to confront colonial capitalism” and is part of emerging pan-Africanism. Salem’s analysis pushes contemporary pan-Africanism to explore “radical regionalism” and feminist contributions to “conceptualize agency and sovereignty and incorporate gender into debates around African independence.”

The lessons in this collection apply to understanding the constraints and opportunities for meaningful African sovereignty in the 21st century. They are salutary and somewhat depressing, reflecting on the ways in which attempts at autonomous postcolonial development were knocked back by the forces of imperialism. Yet they also provide the tools for understanding and confronting contemporary imperialism, reminding us of the need to interrogate the mantras of the IFIs and the triad of the US, European Union and Japan.

Further Reading