The straightforward thesis of the slim but powerful new book published last year by the Lagos State University (LASU) – based political economist, Dr Sylvester Odion Akhaine, is vividly captured by its graphic title – ‘Patrons of Poverty: IMF/World Bank and Africa’s Problems’. Published in Germany by LAMBERT Academic Publishing, the book runs into a little over a hundred pages divided into five simple and readable but tightly structured chapters. The thrust of his argument is that in our globalised world characterised by information technology revolutions and capital flows volatility, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, through their policies and activities, “have continuously relegated African economies to the backwaters”.
He contends that Africa’s protracted crisis of perennial underdevelopment can only be properly explicated and understood within the historical purview of the tragic incidences of slavery, colonialism and contemporary neo-colonialism as represented particularly by the policies imposed on the continent by hegemonic International Financial Institutions (IFI) like the IMF and the World Bank.
Many would contend that this is a tired and tortured argument that treads the worn path earlier charted by such radical scholars as Walter Rodney, Bade Onimode, Samir Amin, Claude Ake, Adebayo Olukoshi and scores of other radically inclined African intellectuals. Those who hold this view say that it only constitutes an attempt by Africans to evade responsibility for the plight of their blighted continent over five decades after the termination of formal colonial rule. Yet, the veracity of this position cannot be credibly refuted. It is impossible to comprehend Africa’s dire, desperate and dismal present without reference to her traumatic, disturbed and turbulent past.
In a press statement issued at the Action Group Federal Headquarters, Lagos, on 28th June, 1961, the foremost Nigerian statesman and politician, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, made this point with characteristic pungency. “From the beginning of recorded history” he declared, “the black man has been the most conspicuous butt of all manner of inhuman treatment. In the palaces of the Arabian Potentates – both in the Middle East and in North Africa – he was degraded and enslaved. When the so-called ‘Dark Continent of Africa’ was discovered the European marauders hunted him down like a common beast, captured him, and sold him into slavery in the Americas and the West Indies. The era of trading in, and of enforcing the services of black slaves, terminated only to be replaced by the European Powers, which initiated it with a legalized form of political and economic enslavement of the entire peoples of the Continent of Africa…For more than sixty years thereafter, black Africa suffered under the grinding heels of alien conquerors and settlers”.
Dr Akhaine has done Africans a great service by simplifying and making more accessible to a wider audience the ideas of earlier seminal scholars on the crisis of poverty and underdevelopment in Africa. As he puts it “The continent has no independent policies; it is continuously guided by transferred policies of leading global powers that are desirous of maintaining vertical relations of dominance between them and the dominant countries”. In chapter two of his book, the author undertakes an overview of the current pathetic and dehumanising position of Africa in the global political economy. He traces the roots of underdevelopment in Africa to the brutal eras of slavery and colonialism as well as the continuation by conniving African leadership elite that pursue pro-imperialist policies, which only lead to further submergence of the continent in the miry clay of underdevelopment.
In this regard, Akhaine disagrees vehemently with the school of thought, which states that the slave trade was actually of benefit to Africa. According to this school of thought, slavery resulted in increased prosperity of such pre-colonial states as Dahomey, Benin and Oyo and that slavery served as a form of population control to avoid famine. In addition to these, the pro-slave trade school of thought believes that apart from helping to introduce into Africa new crops such as maize and cassava, slavery rescued the slave victims from poverty in Africa to more affluent lives in European and American destinations. Countering these racially jaundiced perspectives, Akhaine points out that the slave trade, which lasted approximately three centuries, actually had a negative and catastrophic effect on population growth in Africa, deprived the continent of the more productive and vigorous sections of their populations while also causing a severe dislocation of Africa’s local economies as a result of intra-African slavery wars.
In the same vein, Akhaine contends, colonialism had a deleterious and retardation effect on African economies. The colonial administration forced Africans to produce so called cash crops as well as mine mineral resources for the benefit of the colonial economy. This led to a distortion and disarticulation of African economies, a distortion they are yet to recover from till date. Again, colonialism discouraged capital goods production such as equipment and machinery in the colonies thus inhibiting the capacity of these colonies for meaningful domestic capital formation.
In this chapter, Akhaine asks why and at what stage Africa became synonymous with chronic dependency and pervasive underdevelopment. He points out that Africa was in reality economically self-sufficient before the continent’s encounter with the forces of slavery and colonialism. In his words “the present crop of African leaders need to know that the continent’s conditions were not always as it is; its people once dominated and tamed their environment; they never had unemployment; they produced what they consumed and had food surpluses and that in the context of the prevailing global constraints these feats are still possible”.
Not only was Africa self-sufficient in food production in contrast to today’s dependency, the continent had taken impressive strides in industries such as cloth-making, iron smelting and soap making among others. These products, he says, had as far back as the 17th century, penetrated European markets especially the Iberian Peninsula. It was thus the brutal encounter with slavery and colonial imperialism that effectively arrested the self-reliant economic and technological development of Africa.
Of course, Dr Akhaine does not shy away from confronting the roles which corrupt and tyrannical post-colonial African leadership elite – Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Soko, Marcia Nguema, Sani Abacha, Robert Mugabe etc – played in looting, exploiting and perpetrating the worst human rights atrocities in their countries. He, however, makes the point that the emergence and perpetuation in power of this perverse post-colonial leadership could not be divorced from the machinations of the colonial imperialists. This point is buttressed by the implication of the advanced imperial countries in the undermining and elimination of patriotic and progressive African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara or Murtala Muhammed who were genuinely committed to the liberation of the continent and the actualisation of her potentials.