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Africans deserve to get  economic freedom back
Magatte Wade, zvg.

Africans deserve to get
economic freedom back

The continent had free trade and decentralized institutions for centuries before the colonizers arrived. Now, the revivification of Africa is in the hands of its citizens.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

For many, it seems as if African history begins with the arrival of Europeans and later the Americans. But Africa was the home of great civilizations for thousands of years before that. I’m pleased that Henry Louis Gates, a well-known Harvard professor, recently produced a six-hour documentary for PBS called „Africa’s Great Civilizations.“ It provides a look at more than two hundred thousand years of African history and delivers it in an enjoyable, colorful way. That’s invaluable given most of the other available resources are academic and are therefore often boring, if not off-putting.

Gates points out, for example, that all human beings descend from African roots. All eight billion of us are cousins! Gates also points out that Africa is the source of much of what makes us human, including writing and art and music.

Take Mansa Musa, the fourteenth-century emperor of Mali. Back then, he was the richest man in the world – and likely of all time. And it was largely through trade in gold and salt that Mansa Musa gained his wealth, which he used to conquer new lands but also to create in Timbuktu not just a great trading center but also a city of universities and scholars.

While the first university in the world was founded in Fez in 859 CE (predating Oxford by at least one hundred years), the University of Sankore in Timbuktu (present-day Mali) evolved from a mosque founded in 989 CE and, under Mansa Musa, developed one of the largest libraries in the world – the largest in Africa since the Library of Alexandria.

Mansa Musa, ruler of the Muslim kingdom of Mali, was the richest man in the world in the 14th century. Detail from a map from 1413. Picture: Keystone/Erich Lessing.

As Gates says, these and other magnificent accomplishments provide a “profound refutation” to the belief that Africa had no history before Europeans arrived: “This continent has always been a dynamic, interconnected and integral part of world history.”

Africa and free trade belong together

This interconnectedness was built and maintained as it always is: through trade and commerce. African civilizations grew great on the east coast through trade with Asia. Between 800 and 1600 CE, an estimated five hundred tons of gold, much of it collected from the continent’s interior, moved through eastern ports. The west coast tied itself to Europe and the Americas and trade allowed our earlier empires to become prosperous.

And now African states all have high tariff barriers? What is wrong with this picture? The African Free Trade Agreement, which has been signed by most African nations in the past few years, will finally reduce the trade barriers (if actually implemented as promised by African leaders). But really, why did we need to wait for 2021 to get the free trade within Africa that was our birthright?

Worse yet, that agreement only addresses trade within Africa. Unlike the great past kingdoms of Africa, which traded globally, African nations will almost certainly continue to maintain high tariffs on goods from outside Africa.

As the late economist George Ayittey wrote, economic freedom existed for centuries before the arrival of the colonists; indeed it was a fundamental way of life for virtually everyone in sub-Saharan Africa. The blood of individual liberty runs rich in the veins of African history, as far back as when African tribes used a decentralized governance structure completely unlike the modern African state (which is essentially a European colonial import).

«African tribes used a decentralized governance structure completely

unlike the modern African state (which is essentially

a European colonial import).»

People from all over the world travel to marvel at the Palace at Versailles. But when people talk about Africa, they only talk about the bad stuff. Imagine what the image of France would have been if all the stories about it had focused on its bad sides.

The current dominant outlook goes like this: Europe is beautiful; America is cool; Africa is a shithole. So I make it my job to focus on those parts of the story that have been forgotten. I want to show the world a beautiful place, with cities and villages as civilized as any in the world. Indeed, I want to show that Africans were often ahead of the times. I want to make it clear that if we had not been cut short due to slavery and colonialism, we might have continued to exceed the larger world. I don’t mean some Wakandan fantasy, like in Marvel’s Black Panther movie. I mean a place where the people are both flawed and good and where, maybe, we would have created world-changing ideas. Maybe we would have constructed a government that would have been superior to democracy as we know it today.

When the Europeans arrived in Somalia, they found a culture in many ways like their own. They found tribes that were collaborating. Did they fight sometimes? Of course. We are human. But for the most part, peace was maintained. There were royal courts, and kingdoms were expanded by strategic marriages. It was nothing like what we have today.

But when the European colonizers showed up, they said, “Oh, you bunch of savages, we’re going to bring you civilization.” So we went from a sophisticated decentralized system that prevented domination by strongmen to nation-states designed by colonizers. They introduced centralized systems of control, formal borders, and overarching laws that were and are prone to being corrupted.

The new colonial boundaries didn’t match the tribal boundaries; instead, they were and are perfectly arbitrary. Whoever seizes power within the new borders gains power over the diamonds, oil, foreign aid, and everything else of value, including the other tribes. That’s how democracy becomes a sectarian or ethnic battlefield.

In the United States we mostly think of law as what the legislature passes. But for people who are serious about common law, including the British, the law is judge-made over centuries. Most African law was originally much more similar to a common law legal system. The newly imposed colonial “laws” were completely contrary to our traditions, which created unnatural pressures. That was when we moved from tribes to tribalism, the ongoing ethnic conflict of today.

A revitalizing framework for Africa

This is the history we need to teach about Africa: Before the arrival of the colonists and slavers, Africa had a functioning free-market system connected to the major trade routes of Europe and Asia. The destruction of that system was intentional. It can be re-created now, and must be, for the sake of every generation of Africans.

Let me sum it up for you. Call this my manifesto:

  1. All prosperous nations must allow their people to create value through enterprise.                                                                                                              All nations protect property rights to ensure citizens and business owners are not in fear that criminals or the government will arbitrarily take their property. All nations allow their citizens to create business enterprises freely, without undue restrictions from government overseers. All nations allow their citizens and their enterprises to work within a stable legal framework, featuring relatively unbiased laws and courts that allow disputes to be handled fairly. Most African nations do not provide these fundamental rights to enterprise. In international rankings of Economic Freedom and Doing Business, only Mauritius, a tiny island nation that has now reached almost European levels of prosperity, is in the top tier. A few others, including Botswana and Rwanda, are moving in the right direction. Most African nations are in the bottom half or even the bottom third. Our nations are the worst in the world at providing economic freedom.
  1. Africa should be filled with prosperous nations.                                            But why should it? Why should we care about Africa? Here is one reason, a very self-serving one for me and for you: a rising tide lifts all boats. If Africa is underproducing – and it is, grossly – the continent’s citizens aren’t the only ones who lose. It’s often said in the United States that our greatest resource is our people. In a globalized world, the loss of the talents and energies of more than a billion human beings is incalculable. What could an unleashed Africa bring to every aspect of human endeavor? We have artists, philosophers, academics, businesspeople, and thinkers and doers of every kind just waiting to reveal their talents to the world! I believe there are eight billion geniuses in the world. Each of us came to this Earth with a unique genius, and that genius represents a part of the solution to humanity’s problems. Any time a human being is deprived of manifesting their genius, all of humanity is diminished.

«In a globalized world, the loss of the talents and energies of more than a billion human beings is incalculable.»

  1. Africa must have a can-do mentality and work toward the goals of prosperity through a positive capitalist path forward.                              We cannot succumb to a victimhood mentality. Both NGO forces and anti-capitalists can foster that victimhood mentality. While some NGOs are focused on true empowerment, others too often approach Africans as pathetic objects in need of a White savior. They communicate this message both openly and indirectly. Yes, it can be hard due to a lack of opportunity. Anti-capitalist intellectuals, both in Africa and abroad, endlessly repeat a victimhood narrative about Africa being poor due to slavery, colonialism, and ongoing exploitation. Yes, Africa has been victimized. But until and unless these same intellectual forces articulate and endorse the positive capitalist path forward – which will let us leave that past behind – they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They are the bad guys.

I wanted to manufacture products in Africa for two reasons: first, because I’m very interested in creating jobs back home, especially for high-end products that prove we can break the thatched-roof ceiling. I have to say that even for all of my boldness, it took me a while to get comfortable manufacturing in Africa.

The second reason I wanted to manufacture products in Africa is admittedly more idealistic: if we don’t shout about the need of the African people for dignity, who will? If you and I don’t push for African prosperity, who will? Most African leaders are out to fill their own pockets. Most of those who are leading international aid organizations are unwilling to be full-throated advocates of African enterprise, independence, and self-respect. Even today the norm remains a condescending pity approach to Africans. We must be assertive and persistent leaders of this alternative movement.

My most ardent hope is that we can finally agree that Africans deserve world-class business environments and world-class capitalist institutions, just like those enjoyed by the citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States. I beg of you, if you truly care about Black Africans, if you truly care about us, join me in being a forthright advocate for economic freedom in Africa.

This is an edited extract of Magatte Wade’s new book, “The Heart of a Cheetah” (Cheetah Press, 2023).

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