Defeating Dictators, George Ayittey (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011) 282 pages
Book Review by Ozodi Osuji
Ayittey wants to fight and defeat tyranny in Africa and around the world. He described the various tyrannical (dictatorial, despotic or autocratic) rulers in the extant world and made a cogent argument as to why they should be defeated and replaced with a mix of Western type liberal democratic institutions and borrowings from indigenous societies.
The book provided excellent descriptions of extant despotic rulers and their countries and pointed out that contrary to what folks may think that these despotic rulers are alien to African traditions. Ayittey seems to think that in traditional African societies, especially in the villages decisions were made in a kind of participatory democratic manner and generally by consensus. He described the indigenous elements that curbed despotic aspirations of those Africans who, perchance, had desired to lord it over their people.
Having made a valiant effort to persuade the reader that traditional African societies were not despotic, he described the many despotic regimes in contemporary Africa and how they came into being and how they are maintained. He seems to believe that the days of these despots are numbered and that the future holds good tidings for liberal democracy. The Arab Spring, he believes, is a sign of what is to come. If the international community were to be serious and work against dictatorships, in a short order the world would get rid of most dictators and all would be peachy.
Ayittey showed almost school boy optimism in his belief that the stirrings for freedom we see all over the world would result in freedom in the whole world. One wished that one could share Ayittey’s positive view of human beings capacity to do the right thing by each other.
In the economic sphere, Mr. Ayittey is a whole hearted admirer of capitalism and robustly recommends it for all countries (to make his capitalism acceptable to Africans, for example, he rooted it in traditional African economic practices while presenting socialism as alien to traditional societies).
The book is simple read; in fact, it reads like a typical daily newspaper so the reader could read it and understand its thesis without much help.
Because the book is easily understood I decided to cogitate on the book’s theses rather than provide a detailed description of the author’s rather overly simplistic approaches to phenomena.
I was fascinated by Mr. Ayittey’s description of his battle, apparently beginning with the committee supervising his doctoral dissertation in 1981 at the University of Manitoba, with the liberal gatekeepers of western academia. He said that he made a case for what he called Internalist approach to African problems, as opposed to what he called the then prevailing externalist approach to African problems. He ran into opposition in trying to make his case. Apparently, his doctoral committee rejected his thesis and had him rewrite his material before they would approve it. Thereafter, he obtained a teaching position at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and was not promoted because some of his fellow faculty considered his thesis unacceptable. At American University at Washington DC he was also pressured to give up his perspective on African affairs or else his position would not be renewed but he stuck to his guns.
At the time that Mr. Ayittey was doing his doctoral research and writing his first books Western universities, more or less, were dominated by left leaning liberal professors who tended to see African and third world issues as caused by Westerners. This was the famous dependency hypothesis.
The dependency hypothesis said that the Metropolis (Western Europe and North America) deliberately structured the international political economy in such a manner that industrial and manufacturing activities primarily took place in the Metropolis (Western Europe and North America) and preserved Africa, Latin America and Asia (the Periphery) a plantation economy that exists to produce raw materials that feed Western industries.
For example, Ghana produces cocoa and sends it to Britain. Britain transforms it into chocolate and other forms of end user goods and then sells them in the world market place. Britain buys cheap (cocoa) and sells high and makes profit whereas Ghanaian cocoa farmers remain poor, often unable to feed themselves properly. The West prospers at the expense of Africans and other non-Westerners.
The West makes sure that comprador politicians are placed in political offices in Africa so that they make the exploitation of their countries resources more efficient for Westerners. The compradors aid and abate Western neocolonialists and contribute to the pauperization of Africa.
This situation seems unacceptable and Western liberal professors raved and ranted against it. In their minds they were fighting for the small man, Africans. They did not want to hear about anyone who said that may be Africans were doing something to contribute to their poverty.
Thus, when Mr. Ayittey came along and preached his hypothesis that Africans and other non-Westerners were a party to their poverty liberals at American universities did not like what he was talking about hence made life difficult for him in academia.
African and third world persons latched onto white liberals teaching that they are innocent persons whom bad Western imperialists exploited. Thus, in post-independence Africa, from 1960 through 2000 CE, folks, such as Chiwenzi, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Gamal Abdul Nasser etc. believed that their poverty was the doing of Westerners.
In the Americas the various black studies departments churned out books that showed how the white man is oppressing the black man. W. E. B Dubois, Weldon Johnson, Elijah Mohammad, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, Walter Rodney, Stockily Carmichael, Henry Louis Gates and others went around telling folks about what the white man did to oppress African Americans and how it is his entire fault that black Americans are poor.
It all seemed true and everywhere these folk’s theses were accepted and taught. In this blame the white man’s atmosphere Mr. Ayittey’s philosophy that what Africans (and what he did not say, African Americans) did play a huge role in their political situation was injected (he seems to believe that Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are his fellow travelers in harping on the role of Africans in their fallen houses).
Folks did not want to hear about how Africans and African-Americans played a role in producing their problems; they just want to hear what the man did to relegate Africans to second class citizenship. If you wanted to obtain a job teaching African studies (then the only type of job available to black teachers at white universities) you had to teach the idea that Africans are innocent victims and that white men are brutal oppressors to be gotten rid of. Here then is the environment that Mr. Ayittey entered and found vigorous opposition to his ideas. He felt marginalized but persisted in his teachings and today feels vindicated by the turn of events.