July 26th, 2005
Border Jumpers
Interview with George Ayittey

George Ayittey, Professor of Economics at American University, Washington, DC

July 24, 2005: Professor George Ayittey, distinguished economist from the American University in Washington, DC, discusses social, political, and economic development in Africa with Anchor, Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: With me now is Professor George Ayittey. He’s originally from Ghana — a noted economist — who teaches now at American University in Washington, DC. Welcome to WIDE ANGLE.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Thank you for having me.

BILL MOYERS: What goes through your mind when you watch that film?

GEORGE AYITTEY: It’s a very heart-breaking film, if you look at the refugees and people were starving in Zimbabwe. And they’re crossing the border and they’re destitute and have to come up with an electrified fence. It’s sort of like a throwback to the apartheid era when the racist regime in South Africa threw an electrified fence against the border in Mozambique and even Zimbabwe to prevent them from coming in. But it’s a horrible situation in Zimbabwe that we have right now.

BILL MOYERS: When I saw the film, I thought, of course, of refugees on the border between Mexico and the United States trying to leave their destitution to come to golden opportunity — the golden arches — of California. Is there any similarity between those two situations?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well the similarities sort of vanish when you consider the fact that Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of the region.

BILL MOYERS: How long ago?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, this was about ten years ago, 15 years ago. But the situation has reversed completely. And the main reason why it has reversed is because you’ve had bad policies and a bad regime and misgovernance in Zimbabwe.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you’ve got a tyrant, a despot, a scoundrel, a thief as the —

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, yes. Mugabe’s become a disgrace to Africa. And I must say this because I am an African and a lot of us looked up to him back in the 1980s when he was the liberation hero. But he’s now turned himself into a murderous despot. But, see, there’s another thing about Zimbabwe and that is it is a repeat of the same African script where we moved out the white colonialists. And then we have black new colonialists. And country after country, they run their countries down an economic slump. Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia. All these countries are following the same script. And that is what is very disappointing about Zimbabwe.

BILL MOYERS: Can you explain that to me? Because the common argument for so long was that this was the heritage of colonial rule. That the colonial whites who ran these countries did not allow Africans to emerge into positions of responsibility and authority. So there was no one prepared when the white colonialists left to take over and run the countries efficiently.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Oh, no. That argument is really a red herring because Botswana was colonized. Mauritius was also colonized. But yet these two African countries are doing very well. The reason why Botswana has done very well is because it’s the only black African country which went back to its roots and built upon its own indigenous institutions.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean went back to its roots?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Back to its roots in the sense that if you go to an African village and there’s a chief and there is, let’s say, a political crisis for example, the chief will call a village meeting. Put the issue before the people. It’s called a kgotla. Now put the issue before the people. The people will debate until they come to a consensus. In Botswana, cabinet ministers are required to attend weekly kgotla meetings.

BILL MOYERS: I was in Botswana many years ago for the Peace Corps. And I actually went with a Botswana official out to the village council. Fascinating.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yeah, this is how you take development to the people. And you build up on the local institutions. Only Botswana did this.

BILL MOYERS: Why did they — ?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, see, in the rest of Africa they assume that the market system was a capitalist institution. So they don’t want to have anything to do with the market system. Not knowing that the markets were in Africa even before the colonialists came to Africa.

BILL MOYERS: At a very local level.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. At a local level. I mean, if you go to West Africa, for example, market activity has always been dominated by women. There was free trade in Africa. There was free enterprise in Africa before the colonialists came. But anyway, they identified markets and capitalism with the West. So they rejected that. And many of them also associated democracy with the West and rejected that as well. So they went to the East and copied Socialist and Marxist models. Mugabe, for example, determined to turn Zimbabwe into one party — Marxist/Leninist state.


GEORGE AYITTEY: But everybody can tell you that Marx and Lenin had very little relationship with black Africa. They were not black Africans. But anyway, they copied all these alien ideologies to impose upon their people.

BILL MOYERS: But not Botswana.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Not Botswana. It went back and built upon its own local institutions. There were markets. There were participatory democracies in their villages. This is what Africa needs to return to and build upon it. Botswana did it. And it is doing very well.

BILL MOYERS: Are the people who are trying to get across that fence, are they following an illusion? Because some people say that Botswana’s success is only relative. That Botswana’s wealth is held by a relative handful of people at the expense of the many, particularly the diamond trade. So are these people trying to get across the border following an illusion?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Oh, no, no. They’re not following an illusion. Look, any economy has its own troubles. But Botswana’s doing well. It is the fastest growing economy in the world. It’s doing well.

BILL MOYERS: Fastest growing in the world?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And it’s because for a long time its economic rate of growth has been clocked at eight percent.

BILL MOYERS: Eight percent a year?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Eight percent a year. Back in the 1970s, in fact, the economic rate of growth was at a dizzying 14 percent. So it’s one of the few African economies that is doing extremely well. Yet it has some problems. And that we have to face. Number one, income distribution in Botswana. And number two, we have an AIDS problem.

BILL MOYERS: You mean the gap between the rich and the poor.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And also you have some unemployment.

BILL MOYERS: That’s growing here, too.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes, of course. All the economies have problems. But then compared with other African countries, Botswana is just the star.

BILL MOYERS: So there is a reality that’s pulling these people.


BILL MOYERS: That fence is not up there just to guard against cattle.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Oh, no. No. It’s sustainable and it is not just a mirage. Botswana’s economic prosperity and success is real.

BILL MOYERS: Would you say that the main reason for the destitution, the poverty, the mess that exists in Zimbabwe is because Robert Mugabe has imposed one-man, one-party rule and there’s no transparency, there’s no openness, there’s no rule of law?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Oh, precisely. There are very little freedoms in Zimbabwe. There are three newspapers in Zimbabwe. They are all state-owned. And the DAILY NEWS, for example, the private independent newspaper, has been shut down. There’s no rule of law. Mugabe has packed the bench with his own cronies. And there are Draconian press curbs that even restrict journalists. Foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country.

BILL MOYERS: We tried to get in a couple years ago and, of course, we couldn’t. We were refused at the border. Our producer —

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yeah. And it is even very, very difficult to organize any political activity in Zimbabwe because according to Zimbabwe election laws, you can’t have a political rally of more than nine people. I mean, imagine, it’s also the same law that you have in Uganda, for example. But at any rate, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has taken over most of the critical institutions and sort of subverted them to serve his interests and interests of his cronies. So, in other words, what you have in Zimbabwe is a kind of a political apartheid system.

BILL MOYERS: Political apartheid —

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. Where if you don’t belong to the Zanu-PF, you’re excluded. And even when food aid is sent to the country, Mugabe’s cronies distribute the food aid to their supporters. If you’re not a member of them, you’re excluded.

BILL MOYERS: This is something that puzzles me, and I’ve been to Africa often. Why do the other African leaders let him get away with it? Why don’t they call him on the carpet, as we say?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, there are two reasons for this. Number one, if you look at certain African leaders, say Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Nujoma of Namibia. See, they form the frontline states in the struggle against apartheid. Back then, in the 1980s, Mugabe provided sanctuary to the ANC guerilla fighters.

George Ayittey, Professor of Economics at American University, Washington, DC

BILL MOYERS: They could operate out of Zimbabwe.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And, therefore, there’s a huge debt of gratitude or indebtedness towards Mugabe. And which is why Mbeki finds himself unwilling to criticize him publicly.

BILL MOYERS: He says he’s practicing quiet diplomacy.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Why didn’t he apply that quiet diplomacy when he was trying to mediate a crisis in Sudan, for example? Or the Congo, for example? Or Ivory Coast, for example? Now there, Thabo Mbeki wanted negotiation with the warring factions in Ivory Coast. Why is he not using the same negotiation tactic in Zimbabwe?

BILL MOYERS: Is it just gratitude? The gratitude that Mugabe gave Mbeki and others sanctuary?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. That’s part of it. The second reason is that Mbeki also faces the same inequitable distribution of land problem in South Africa. So he has to be extremely careful in terms of how to deal with Mugabe. Among the poor in South Africa, Mugabe is very popular because he is seen as doing something to right a colonial wrong.

BILL MOYERS: By what? Doing what?

GEORGE AYITTEY: That colonial wrong is the inequitable distribution of land.

BILL MOYERS: In what used to be Rhodesia, now it’s Zimbabwe, five percent of the whites owned 90 percent of the land.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And then the poor in South Africa tend to see him as a hero because they see him as trying to right a colonial wrong in Zimbabwe. So Mbeki has to be extremely careful in terms of how he publicly criticizes or praises Mugabe because he also faces sadly the same problem in his country. Now, the third reason, if I may?


GEORGE AYITTEY: You see, across Africa there is what I call a colonialist mentality or orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in the sense that a lot of things have gone wrong in Africa in the post-colonial period. And time and time again, any time something went wrong, the leadership claims that it was never their fault. It was always the fault of some external forces, some external evil, external colonial, new colonial forces.

BILL MOYERS: You could blame the outsider.

GEORGE AYITTEY: That’s right. Never themselves. So Mugabe comes across as the epitome of this particular orthodoxy. Anything that went wrong is always the fault of some white conspiracy, what he calls the white snakes in Zimbabwe. He never takes responsibility for his own failures and incompetence. He blames the World Bank. He blames the IMF. He blames the British neo-colonialists. So that sort of argument plays well among the African leaders who are also refusing to take responsibility for their own mistakes.

BILL MOYERS: Even if the other African leaders wanted to oust Mugabe, could they pull it off?


BILL MOYERS: They could?

GEORGE AYITTEY: As a matter of fact, there’s been a precedent. Back in 1979, when Idi Amin was terrorizing his neighbors.


GEORGE AYITTEY: Yeah, in Uganda, Julius Nyerere said, “I’m not going to take this anymore.” And he sent his troops over to Uganda

BILL MOYERS: From Tanzania.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yeah, from Tanzania to kick him out. And so there is what I call an African solution. Now, even recently in Togo when Eyadema died, the military staged some sort of a coup to impose the son on the people. The Regional Organization of West Africa — ECOWAS — said, “No way, this will not stand.” And the military was forced to back down. So there you had the regional sort of organization taking a very strong stance against something that they called a rape of democracy in Togo.

BILL MOYERS: And it worked.

GEORGE AYITTEY: It worked. So this is why Africans are also asking the Southern regional organizations today to also take a strong stance against Zimbabwe. But so far, they have disappointed the people.

BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that if the African leaders do nothing and Mugabe continues his repressive rule there could be a coup?

GEORGE AYITTEY: There could be a coup or the country could blow up. We’ve had this so many times. And this is one of the things which is so maddening because it seems that these leaders learn nothing. Somalia has blown up. Rwanda has blown up. Burundi has blown up. Zaire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Ivory Coast. Now, must we sit there and wait for Zimbabwe also to blow up?

BILL MOYERS: But it seems unimaginable to me that those poor, destitute, frightened people we saw trying to get across that fence from Zimbabwe into Botswana are the fuel for an explosion.

GEORGE AYITTEY: They could be the fuel for explosion, judging from the experiences that we’ve seen in Somalia, Rwanda, et cetera, et cetera. But quite often, there’s always an element of discontent. And it could come from the military as you suggested and to have a military coup, for example. But then time and time again, military coups don’t solve the problem. I mean, we’ve had so many of them in West Africa. And they remove the civilian dictators. And then —

BILL MOYERS: Liberia is a perfect example.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And then these military dictators, you know, turn out to be worse. You can either have a military coup in Zimbabwe. You could either have a rebel insurgency. It could start from the outside. If you look at Rwanda, for example, Paul, their current president Paul Kagame, led a simple rebel force to remove the Hutu-dominated government.

BILL MOYERS: A few hundred people —

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And in Uganda, President Museveni started out with only 27 men from the bush. And so it doesn’t take much to —

BILL MOYERS: Overthrow the government.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yeah. To overthrow the government. It doesn’t take much. And Charles Taylor of Liberia started out with less than 200 men.

BILL MOYERS: I was intrigued recently. President Bush said, quote, that, “Zimbabwe poses an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.” Why do you think you’d make such a statement?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, as a matter of fact, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, called Zimbabwe “an outpost of tyranny”. And the administration’s feeling is that if you have such an output of tyranny, it will always act as a breeding ground for terrorists or maybe pose a threat to US security interests in the region.

BILL MOYERS: Well, we saw that in Afghanistan when a destitute and failed state was taken over by the Taliban and converted into a terrorist operation. You think that’s what the president fears in Zimbabwe?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, there’s that possibility. And let’s not forget that back in 1998, U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were blown up by terrorists because the prevailing type of environment, which is so hostile towards the West, may allow such anti-terrorist activities to ferment in the region. So there is that concern.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s talk about Africa as a whole. I recognize it’s a huge continent with many differences from country to country, tribe to tribe, people to people. But why is Africa so poorly governed?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, to understand Africa, consider Africa made up of two people, two groups of people. There are the elites and then there are the real people. I call them the peasants. Now, the problem is with the elites. Now, quite often, people don’t want to criticize the leaders for fear that they may be labeled as racist. So they shy away from criticizing African leaders. Look, the problem is with the leaders and the elite. After independence, they took over power from the departing colonialists and established two defective systems: a defective economic system and a defective political system. Defective political systems of one party state systems, which were un-democratic, which concentrated a great deal of power in the hands of one individual. Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that if you create a political system in which power is concentrated in the hands of one individual, that system, no matter where you are, would always degenerate into tyranny.

BILL MOYERS: Because there’s no free press. There’s no rule of law.


BILL MOYERS: There’s no court system it’s all governed under the thumb of —

GEORGE AYITTEY: One person. That’s where you have the maximum leader. Now, back in 1990, out of the 54 African countries, only four of them were democratic. Today, the number is 16. Which means that the vast majority of the African people still live under oppression. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: I read somewhere that something like 90 percent of the countries below the Sahara have experienced despotic rule in the last three decades.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Precisely. So you’re talking about a continent where political freedom has been elusive. Even intellectual freedom has been elusive. Out of the 54 African countries, only eight of them have a free press. Which means that Africans are not free to speak or criticize their governments. Now, to me, freedom of expression is very, very important. The media is extremely important because, you see, you need the media. The first thing to solve a problem, the first thing that a society has to do is to expose that problem. And that’s the job of the media. And even if you want to fight corruption, you have to expose it. But you can’t expose corruption if the media is muzzled.

George Ayittey, Professor of Economics at American University, Washington, DC

BILL MOYERS: And if you don’t have transparency, if you don’t have a free press, this means the elites, as you call them, can just steal everything–

GEORGE AYITTEY: Of course, they can, you know, stand on the necks of their people and the world wouldn’t know about it. Especially — this is exactly what is going on in Zimbabwe. People have been crushed, they’ve been starved, they’ve been suppressed. And yet we hear very little about what’s going on in that country.

BILL MOYERS: I was in Europe just a couple of weeks ago. And I was astonished to see huge play given on the front pages of the European newspapers about a recent report from Nigeria that said since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, almost $400 billion has been stolen or misused. That’s astonishing because it’s almost as much as all of the West has given to Nigeria in foreign aid in that time. And it’s nearly six times the help that America gave Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. Stolen.

GEORGE AYITTEY: It’s so disgusting. If you look at the statistics in Nigeria, Nigeria should not be in the position as it is now. Nigeria ought to have been the giant of Africa. Between 1970 and the year 2004, more than 400 billion in oil revenue flowed into the coffers of the Nigerian government. Nobody knows what happened to that oil revenue.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think happened?

GEORGE AYITTEY: It was all stolen.

BILL MOYERS: By the elite?


BILL MOYERS: By the people in charge?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Especially the string of military rulers. Now, the most galling aspect of this is that Nigeria has been given debt relief. Its debt has been written off. Which means that none of these military looters are being held accountable. Nobody is asking them what did they do with the money that they stole from their people. Now if you look at Nigeria’s income per capita, it is about 270, which is about the same level as it was when it came to its independence in 1960. Which means that for that 45 years of independence, nothing has really changed as far as the standards of living of the people are concerned.

BILL MOYERS: If I were a politician, I’d have a hard time looking an American taxpayer in the eye, a working man or woman, and say, “We’re going send some of your tax money to Nigeria,” or to any one of these countries that is governed by a despot. Is that a fair position?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, when you take an African issue, there’s this huge obstacle. The obstacle being that there’s a huge emotionalism that you encounter. There are many Americans who sincerely want to help Africa. And somehow they think that the best way of helping Africa is by handing money over to their corrupt governments. Perhaps they are misinformed about events in Africa. The second obstacle is political correctness. For fear that they don’t want to appear as stingy. For fear that they don’t want to appear as not wanting to help black people. So they might say, “Okay, let’s help Nigeria.” But that’s not an effective way of helping Nigeria. The effective way of helping Nigeria is to deal with the people rather than through their corrupt governments.

BILL MOYERS: And how do we do that? You were recently at the gathering of Western governments, the G-8 Summit in Scotland. And you’ve written and taught and talked a lot about this. What is your prescription for actually doing something serious about the needs and the poverty?

GEORGE AYITTEY: The agreement which was reached at the G-8 was really a sham or hollow. Because number one, Africa debt relief had already been reached before the G-8 Summit. So, it wasn’t part of the communiqu�. Now, the communiqu� said it would be possible to increase aid to Africa by $50 billion in the year 2010, okay. Now, here’s the chicanery and the trickery involved in that political announcement. And that is that the increased aid wouldn’t come on tap until the year 2010. But by then all those who signed that communiqu� will be out of office. So Tony Blair won’t be around for him to be held accountable for a statement which he has signed on to. And second important thing was the trade issue was what a lot of people considered to be very critical to the fate of Africa. Now, at the G-8, the G-8 leaders agreed in principle to a sort of phased trade subsidies, farm subsidies and, you know, trade barriers. But they did not commit themselves to any deadline. So, in effect, if you look at the entire package only $20 billion represents new money. And even this new money comes from reshuffling old programs. So, some are saying that what Africa got is what Asia is losing. It is just a reshuffling of the board, not really any new commitments in terms of money going to Africa.

BILL MOYERS: How do farm subsidies and manufacturing subsidies in the West hurt Africans?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, the farm subsidy issue is really peripheral to the fundamental cause of African poverty. Farm subsidies, you know, take cotton, sugar, tobacco, for example. They affect only a few African exports, cotton exports from Mali, Niger, Senegal and say Nigeria for example. Now, tobacco subsidies don’t affect African tobacco. Look at Zimbabwe. The tobacco industry in Zimbabwe has totally collapsed, not because of U.S. subsidies. And there aren’t any trade barriers against Nigerian oil. There are no trade barriers against African mineral exports. There are no trade barriers against gold, diamonds, et cetera, et cetera. So, see again, the subsidies have been utilized by Africa leaders in order to divert attention from their own economic mismanagement.

BILL MOYERS: If the G-8 Summit was a political chicanery as you said, what was the G-8 concert?

GEORGE AYITTEY: As an African, I appreciate the fact that Western rock bands are trying to help Africa. But then, as an African I look at it and I ask myself “has it come to this — that Africa’s salvation rests upon the success of rock concerts? Are we totally bereft of finding solutions to our own problems in Africa?” In other words, there was a lot of feel-good. People went to the rock concerts. But they thought that in putting pressure to bear on the G-8 leaders, they may be able to open up the oppressors and do something for Africa. But you see the real question is why are we not holding these rock concerts in Africa? What are African governments, what are African leaders doing to help their own people? That has been totally missing in the equation. We all know that government-to-government aid hasn’t helped Africa. More than four Marshall Plans have been pumped into Africa since 1960. And we haven’t seen any positive result out of it. The best way of helping Africa — smart aid — is that which will help the African people. Smart aid is that which will empower the African people. The way to empower the African people, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. All that we have to do is to look at how the world dealt with Eastern Europe. Now there, the West didn’t hand money over to the Communist regimes. It found societies or NGOs like Solidarity and helped them —

BILL MOYERS: Non-government institutions — like The Workers’ Movement in Poland — Solidarity.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Precisely. Why don’t we find the solidarity movements in Africa and help them?

BILL MOYERS: Well, why don’t we?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. And also the West also established Radio Free Europe. So why don’t we establish Radio Free Africa, for example? Information is power. Information is very powerful. Look at the role the media played in Eastern Europe and how it contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. As I indicated, the media is controlled in Africa. Let’s get the media out of the hands of these corrupt and incompetent governments in Africa.

BILL MOYERS: But they’ve got the guns.

GEORGE AYITTEY: This is where, in the past, Western approach towards Africa was leader-centered.

BILL MOYERS: Leader-centered?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Leader-centered. In other words, the West was looking —

BILL MOYERS: Go to Mugabe, go to Nyerere, go to –

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. The West was looking for leaders who were saying the right things, the things the West wanted to hear. Democracy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But I think a newer approach — and this is what I indicated when we went to Scotland — should be one which is institution-based. In other words, the West should be looking at certain critical institutions. For example, like independent and free media. It is crucial.

BILL MOYERS: An independent court. Judiciary.

GEORGE AYITTEY: An independent judiciary.

BILL MOYERS: Name some more.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. That is important. An independent electoral commission. You can’t have free and fair elections if the electoral commission is not independent.

BILL MOYERS: We could use some of that over here.

GEORGE AYITTEY: In the West, you say that if you don’t have an independent electoral commission, we’re not going to give you aid to conduct your elections. The fourth institution that we need is an independent central bank. The military rulers of Nigeria, for example; when Sani Abacha was in power, his goons launched pre-dawn raids on the Central Bank of Nigeria with trucks, they loaded the trucks with billions and billions of certified dollars and carried the dollars out of the country. Let’s have an independent central bank in let’s say not just Nigeria but say Africa. Even if you can’t, rotate governors of central banks in a particular region. Let’s say West Africa or say East Africa, for example. This way they are sure that, you know, at least —

BILL MOYERS: You know, that makes a lot of sense to me as a layman. But the Western leaders who came away from Scotland at the G-8 Summit, they were advocating doubling the amount of traditional aid to Africa.

GEORGE AYITTEY: OK, the world wants to help. But, it doesn’t mean that we should repeat old stupid mistakes by pouring money into an African bowl, which everybody knows, it leaks. Look, corruption alone costs Africa $148 billion a year.Now, cut that half. If African governments would seriously cut that in half, they would find almost more than enough money that Tony Blair would use — the 50 billion that Tony Blair wants to raise for them.

BILL MOYERS: What leverage does the West have to bring that about?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, the West doesn’t have the leverage, but if you want to solve corruption, there are two most effective antidotes against corruption: an independent media and also an independent judiciary in order to have the rule of law.

BILL MOYERS: So, that’s what we should be supporting.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes. Precisely.

BILL MOYERS: We should be supporting a free press in every country?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes, yes, precisely, precisely.

BILL MOYERS: Should we hold up our aid until the government agrees to?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, of course you can say, “Look, if you don’t have a free press, this and that and that and that case–“. In other words, let’s take the Bush millennium challenge account that has something like 15 sort of benchmarks before you get any grant. I have suggested that just a few of these benchmarks — an independent and free press, media — ought to be the first one. You see, to fight corruption, number one, you have to expose it. You expose the corrupt. And number two you punish them. And that’s where you need an independent judiciary — punish them for all for everybody to see. That’s all. That’s not rocket science. But then for Africans to be able to do it, you have to give them the institutional tools. You just can’t preach “fight corruption”, and then allow Mugabe to control the media.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve said that Africa needs tough love. What do you mean by that?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, tough love simply means that for far too long we have not been willing to criticize black African leaders. And that should change. And if we see that African leaders are doing something wrong and they’re not governing justly, we ought to be able to say so. And especially what I have found in Washington is that the white policy makers don’t want to be seen as criticizing black African leaders for fear —

George Ayittey, Professor of Economics at American University, Washington, DC

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, they don’t want to be accused of racism.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Of course, for fear that the Reverend Jesse Jacksons and the black congressional will be jumping up all over them, accusing them of racism. And this hasn’t helped us in Africa. Because look. Oppression is oppression regardless of the skin color of the oppressor.

BILL MOYERS: But how does American money bypass a corrupt government that rules by fear and terror? How can American money works its way beyond those governments?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, this is what I have often been preaching. And that is the solution — has to come from within Africa itself. Because internal solutions are far more sustainable and enduring than solutions which are imposed from the outside. And this is why I’ve always believed that the African people need to be empowered. When I went to Scotland, I was so disappointed in a sense that all this talk about helping Africa seeks to build government capacity. Now, in Africa, most of us see our governments as the problem. Because in fact, we call them vampire states.

BILL MOYERS: Vampires?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yeah, vampire states because they suck the economic vitality out of the life, you know, of their people. The vampire state is simply a government which has been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who would use the instruments of the state machinery to enrich themselves and their cronies and their tribesmen and exclude everybody else.

BILL MOYERS: You make a very eloquent case, but the practicality eludes me. For example, how can the United States help a free press in these African countries without that press being accused by the leaders in those countries of being an arm of American imperialism?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, the free press is very important. It’s one of the reasons that I have said that it’s Africans who have to do this from within. Africans have to be empowered to instigate reform from within.

BILL MOYERS: That means money doesn’t it? How do you get the money to them, George?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, this is why we have to look at the experience of Eastern Europe. How the U.S. funneled money to solidarity groups and civil society groups. It can be done in Africa. In fact, the West funneled money to the ANC in South Africa. They didn’t give money to the apartheid regime. In Africa, we see our governments as the problem. In fact one Lesotho traditional chief said that back in 1989, “Here we have two problems, rats and the government.”

BILL MOYERS: Rats and the government?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes, it is because Africans see government as the problem. In fact we call them vampire states because they suck the vitality out of the people. A vampire state is a government which has been captured or hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who use instruments of the state to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen and exclude everybody else. It’s called the politics of exclusion. Now, if you want to understand why America is rich and Africa is poor, ask yourself, how do the rich in each area make their money> Take the U.S., for example, the richest person is Bill Gates. He’s worth something like $64 billion. How did he make his money? He made his money in the private sector, by selling something, Microsoft computer software. He has something to show for his wealth. Now, let’s go to Africa. Who are the richest in Africa? The richest in Africa are African heads of state and ministers. How did they make their money? They made their money by raking it off the backs of their suffering people. That is not wealth creation. It is wealth redistribution.

BILL MOYERS: By stealing the money —

GEORGE AYITTEY: By stealing the money.

BILL MOYERS: But you see that’s what troubles those of us who are looking for a way to be helpful to Africa. Why won’t they steal money given to AIDS programs and money given to build a civil society?

GEORGE AYITTEY: And it’s because they hold the key institutions in the state. They control the military. They control the media. They control the judiciary. They control the electoral commission. They control the civil service. They control the central bank. This is why it is very important to take these institutions out of their hands.

BILL MOYERS: But how —

GEORGE AYITTEY: And that’s how you empower the African people. We can at least learn from the experience of Eastern Europe. How you can establish a rebel radio station in Zimbabwe for example and help the people. Because the people are hungry for information.

BILL MOYERS: You’re saying there have to be ways to go around these governments. But this puts the people receiving the aid when it doesn’t come through the government in great peril of repression, of arrest, torture.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, it depends the country that you’re dealing with. Look at Ethiopia for example. Ethiopia is also one of those countries which has been a disappointment. You may remember that back in 1985 there was Live Aid to help Ethiopia. 200 million was raised. Half of it was squandered by the military regime, which was there. Now 20 years later we’re doing the same things. Now 30 million people in Ethiopia face starvation. Now, here you can make a case that look, the government has totally abandoned the people. So, you’ve got to find a way by which we can directly help the people and help the people help themselves. But, just handing over money to these governments simply hasn’t worked.

BILL MOYERS: Yours is a contrarian view to American philanthropy and liberalism. And in particular, let me read you something that Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who’s writing about how we solve poverty in the world. Jeffrey Sachs, who’s advising Kofi Annan at the U.N. on how to develop the third world, says, “The poor are poor because of failing infrastructure, poor energy sources, geographic isolation, disease and natural disasters that inevitably conspire to foil progress.”

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, if you go to an African village and you said something like this, very few villagers will believe this. Because they can see where the problem is. If you want to understand why Africa is in such a rut, there’s one word which describes it. And that’s power. Power is what describes the condition of Africa. The inability or the adamant refusal of African leaders to relinquish or share power has been the bane of development in Africa. Look at Somalia. Somalia blew up because of the adamant refusal of General Siad Barre to relinquish or share power. Rwanda blew up because of the refusal of a general. Burundi. Zaire blew up because of a refusal of General Mobuto Sese Seko. Same thing, Sierra Leone, Liberia. All those countries would have been saved if those generals were willing to share political power. Zimbabwe would have been saved if Mugabe were willing to step down or share political power.

BILL MOYERS: And yet right across that border as we saw in that film there is sharing of power.


BILL MOYERS: How did it happen in Botswana again?

GEORGE AYITTEY: But, you see, Botswana is one side of the equation which has been ignored for a long time, by the World Bank for example. And also many American conservatives say you can have development and authoritarianism. When you look at the Asian tigers, for example, they didn’t go for democracy. All they had to do was get the economies right. If you get your economies right, then when people become prosperous, then they would demand their own political rights. And then they will start, you know —

BILL MOYERS: That’s the United States position right now toward China. We overlook the despotism in order to encourage the capitalism.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Yes, but you see, it’s not working in Africa. For in Africa, if you have economic reform, economic prosperity, your economy may do well until it hits a political ceiling. When it hits the political ceiling, if you don’t have an enlightened leadership to open up the political space and then the country blows. Now, you’re seeing exactly this happening in Uganda. And this is also what happened in Ivory Coast for example. Ivory Coast was a miracle, an economic miracle. And yet they blew up.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s the other enigma to me — that Botswana is relatively successful as you say. And yet it has a high rate of AIDS. How do outsiders help AIDS, to combat AIDS in —

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, the Bill Gates Foundation is doing an excellent job and outstanding work in Botswana, for example. I mean, one of the reasons why AIDS spread very rapidly in Africa was because when it first erupted in the late 1980’s, African leaders were in denial. As a matter of fact, the Swaziland ambassador to the U.S. claimed that AIDS was a racist conspiracy to wipe out the black race. They were totally in denial. Nobody did anything to educate the African people. In fact, the leadership was very uncomfortable talking about AIDS in the media. Now, Thabo Mbeki, although I respect him, as the leader of South Africa and recognizing the role that he played, unfortunately has failed in this AIDS campaign. As a matter of fact, has shown very little credible leadership as far as AIDS. In South Africa, for example, you may remember in 1999, he was the one who was denying that HIV causes AIDS. Eventually he changed his position. But then the damage had already been done. But then African leaders, such as Mugabe and Nujoma of Namibia said AIDS was a homosexual disease. So, in fact, Nujoma went to the extent of even barring homosexuals from traveling to Namibia, for example. The total initial response was simply not adequate. When they finally recognized that AIDS was a threat, they focused more on the treatment and ways to give them more money for treatment, which really didn’t make sense. Because AIDS was a disease which has no cure. Which meant that more emphasis should have been placed on preventing the disease from spreading. Now, if you look at the prevention aspect, only four African countries, Senegal, Ghana, Uganda, and Mali, only those countries which have mounted a strong public awareness campaign to educate their people in order to prevent a spread —

BILL MOYERS: Preventive care, preventive concern. George, if I was Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, sitting here and I said to you, “What would you have me do about Robert Mugabe”, what would your answer be?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Switch off the electricity to Zimbabwe. And I know that is a brusque sort of response. But Mbeki should recognize that his own credibility lies on the line. Because the turmoil in Zimbabwe has done more than $37 billion in economic damage to the economies of the region. And therefore if President Thabo Mbeki doesn’t do anything about Zimbabwe or if his approach of quiet diplomacy is inconsistent to this crisis in Sudan and Togo, a lot of Africans would sort of lose credibility in this leadership.

BILL MOYERS: If I were George W. Bush sitting here and I said, “Professor, what should I do about Africa and Mugabe in particular”, what would you say?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, one of the things that the West did during the Cold War, for example, was it dealt with solidarity groups, number one. It also dealt with dissidents, Soviet dissidents who were here in the U.S., especially. President Clinton used to invite Sakharov to the White House, for example. I would like to see President Bush invite some of the dissidents who are here. And also I would also like to see a change in the policy. Because the Clinton Administration relied almost exclusively in its formulation of African policies, it relied almost exclusively on African-Americans.

BILL MOYERS: Jesse Jackson?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Jesse Jackson for example, and I advise President Bush to at least to consult with some of the native Africans who are here in the country.

BILL MOYERS: Going back to our film, we actually heard a Botswana official say that fence is to keep the cattle out.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, I find that argument to be somewhat of a red herring. I can understand Botswana wanting to protect its economic assets. It claims it’s protecting its cattle industry because of the foot-and-mouth disease, you know. But then why electrify the fence? I mean, you have a country, a neighbor, which is starving. There aren’t even enough cows in Zimbabwe for the people to eat let alone stray over the border to Botswana with their foot-and-foot disease. So, the electrical fence and the cattle defense is somewhat overstrained as far as I’m concerned. But Botswana has a problem of influx of refugees. But you see, it’s widespread across of Africa in the same sense. In almost every African corner you find a refugee there. Because they’re fleeing political oppression. And what Botswana needs to do is to take strong action against its neighbor. Look, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania once said that when you see your neighbor’s beard being shaved, wet yours. Meaning that when you see turmoil, a crisis in a neighboring country you must also take action. Botswana can not pretend that it’s going to isolate itself from the turmoil in Zimbabwe. If South Africa’s not providing the leadership, I think Botswana should.

BILL MOYERS: I have talked to economists who say, contrary to what you’ve just said, that debt relief will help the poor in Africa. What’s your response to them?

GEORGE AYITTEY: It depends. Each country has its own special circumstances. Now, in terms of debt relief for example, there’s no question that there are countries like say Mali and Malawi who they paid a huge percentage of their foreign exchange earnings in repaying their debt. Now, if you eliminate their debts, then of course it will make it possible to spend more on education, make it possible to spend more on health care, et cetera, et cetera. But it is not guaranteed. And I’d like to give you an example. Back in 1999, when Uganda got $970 million in debt relief the first thing President Museveni did was to buy himself a presidential jet. So, the second thing too is to make sure that the debt relief actually helps the people. And this is where the stringent conditions that are being applied, in the sense that the West wants to make sure that another binge of borrowing doesn’t follow and that there is some kind of reform to curb corruption, et cetera, et cetera. That’s when at least there can be some hope that at least debt relief will sort of trickle down to the poor.

BILL MOYERS: So, the first line of your argument as I hear you and as I read you, is that corruption has to end before development can really happen.

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, you can’t eliminate corruption completely. As an economist I can tell you that you can’t eliminate it. You can’t wipe out unemployment. You can’t wipe out inflation. You’re always going to have some inflation and unemployment. So, you are always going to have corruption. But the main thing is to minimize it. But, when military rulers cart off the entire treasury then you’ve got a problem. As we’ve seen in say, countries like Nigeria or Gabon. You have Cameroon, for example, where corruption is rampant. Kenya is also another example. Now, all that, sort of eats into the fabric of this society and also makes it impossible to lift the people out of poverty.

BILL MOYERS: How did you come to be so passionate about all of this?

GEORGE AYITTEY: Well, it is because when I see the mess in Africa, I find it humiliating as an African. It deprecates my pride and dignity. And that’s why Africa should not be in such a position, not at all. Because given the mineral wealth of the continent, I mean, you name the mineral, you find it in Africa.

BILL MOYERS: Diamonds, oil —

GEORGE AYITTEY: They’re there. But the mineral wealth of Africa has not been utilized to lift its people out of poverty. That’s what drives me. That’s what makes me angry. And that’s what I want to change the condition at least in my own little way. I can’t by myself. But in my own little way — and sort of provide information to the people so that they can change their condition.

BILL MOYERS: The book is AFRICA UNCHAINED, THE BLUEPRINT FOR AFRICA’S FUTURE. Thank you very much, George Ayittey, for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.


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