An African Solution Solving the Crisis of Failed States: George B.N. Ayittey Is a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation. He Is the Author of Africa Unchained (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005) and Indigenous African Institutions (Transnational Publishers, 2006)

By Ayittey, George B. N. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

An African Solution Solving the Crisis of Failed States: George B.N. Ayittey Is a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation. He Is the Author of Africa Unchained (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005) and Indigenous African Institutions (Transnational Publishers, 2006)


Ayittey, George B. N., Harvard International Review


What United States President Barack Obama said in his July 2009 speech in Accra, Ghana, while remarkably accurate, was not new. In fact, his message confirms what some of us have been saying for decades, best summarized in his words as: "Africa's future is up to Africans ... Development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing ... That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential ... a responsibility that can only be met by Africans." Africa's destiny lies in her own hands and the solutions to her myriad problems lie in Africa itself--not inside the corridors of the World Bank or the inner sanctum of the Oval Office or the Kremlin. Moreover, Africa's salvation lies in returning to and building upon its own indigenous institutions and heritage.

"African Solutions for African Problems"

When Somalia imploded in 1991, African leaders blamed the ravages of Western imperialism and urgently appealed for international assistance. The UN Security Council, in Resolution 751, authorized the establishment of the United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM). Due to the delayed arrival of peacekeepers and armed looting of relief food supplies, what began as a minor peacekeeping operation led to a deployment of 30,000 US troops to oversee and protect international humanitarian operations under the code name Operation Restore Hope. With this objective, US Marines and Rangers landed on Mogadishu beaches on December 9, 1992. But the mission, costing over US$3.5 billion, went awry. Following the deaths of 18 US Rangers, the United States pulled out of Somalia in 1993, and the United Nations followed a year later.

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That disaster led me to coin the expression "African solutions for African problems," which derives from two unfortunate phenomena. The first is the unnerving propensity of African leaders to seek foreign solutions to every crisis rather than look inside Africa for them. Second, though noble and well-intentioned, foreign solutions often do not fit Africa's unique political and socio-cultural topography and have thus failed. Furthermore, foreign solutions often prove financially costly and take a great deal of time to implement.

Unfortunately, people have hijacked and misused the phrase "African solutions for African problems." In the West, some interpreted it to mean that Africans needed no Western help and would solve their own problems themselves. In Africa itself, some leaders understood the expression to mean solutions crafted in Africa by African leaders or organization such as the African Union, rather than in Washington. However, both misinterpreted the true meaning. The real African solution is one rooted in African culture, tradition, and heritage, but not cut off from the rest of the world.

In law, Western jurisprudence focuses on punishment for the guilty. In contrast, the African notion of justice mandates restitution, forgiveness, and reconciliation to restore social harmony. Africans believe that when two people fight, the entire village is affected. Therefore, conflict resolution requires not just a settlement between the two disputants but also an effort to repair frayed social relationships. For example, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established after the dismantling of apartheid in 1994, based itself on this African tradition. If every white person, guilty of apartheid crimes, received punishment according to the Western notion of justice, few whites would remain in South Africa. Thankfully, the nation still enjoys considerable racial diversity.

In Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide which saw the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis, the government found that the formal court system would never be able to try the 100,000 plus suspects. Such a process would have taken at least two centuries. To restore peace, reconciliation, and justice, the government turned to the traditional courts--gacaca.

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An African Solution Solving the Crisis of Failed States: George B.N. Ayittey Is a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation. He Is the Author of Africa Unchained (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005) and Indigenous African Institutions (Transnational Publishers, 2006)
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