Academic journal article African Studies Review

Currency Devaluation and Rank: The Yoruba and Akan Experiences

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Currency Devaluation and Rank: The Yoruba and Akan Experiences

Article excerpt


Jane Guyer has clearly demonstrated in Marginal Gains (2004) that the ranking of people historically was linked to quantitative scales of money. Guyer's study focuses on the Igbo and Ibibio, two societies in which ranking was by achievement rather than ascription. How do ranking and money interface in other African societies with strong monarchical or centralized social systems? What impact does currency instability have on rank in such societies? This paper examines these questions. Focusing on the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Akan of Ghana, it evaluates the degree to which ranking has been affected by currency devaluation and economic instability since the mid-1980s.


This article explores the connections between money and ranking in two of Africa's hierarchical societies as they underwent economic and financial crises. The main purpose is to investigate first, the influence of money on ranking; second, the influence of currency devaluation on economic and social hierarchies; and third, the influence of currency devaluation on the emergence and reconstitution of the "new elite."

In the process of this investigation, I encounter two major methodological issues. The first is the challenge of viewing a national, even global, issue through the lens of ethnic study. Indeed, the article demonstrates the importance and limitations of micro-level study in the context of the twenty-first century. Currency valuation, devaluation, and associated economic decisions are made at the national level, with direct or indirect international influences. Yet the phenomenon of ranking manifests itself at the local, micro level. These manifestations sometimes take place independendy; but since the advent of foreign, especially European, contact and the introduction of several widely circulating national currencies, rank has mimicked and interrogated these national developments. The nature of such interrogation has been developed and presented in the article. More micro-level studies are needed, and more comparative analyses are essential to revealing the changes in ranking among the specific ethnic groups.

The second issue has to do with sources. The scholarly publication on the financial crises in West Africa often was not commensurate with the depth of the problem. There was no lack of bitingly critical articles in the newspapers and magazines-critical of the governments, the IMF and World Bank, the corrupt politicians and the autocratic military juntas who are believed to have had a hand in making and implementing those bad policies. However, articles are few that connect the monetary and economic crises to disruptions in the existing social order or hierarchy. In my effort to address the subject historically, I searched the government archives in Nigeria and Ghana for extant information on the colonial understanding of ranking. This also yielded very little of value. Therefore, I have used oral sources, including interviews with several faculty members in Nigerian and Ghanaian universities, to supplement available written materials. This is only a start; anyone who would like to study this further will need to spend a significant amount of time combing the newspapers and online commentaries, including blogs.

The article is divided into four sections. The first section reviews the findings and conclusions on the subject of money and rank among the Igbo and Ibibio that Jane Guyer presents in Marginal Gains (2004). The second analyzes historically and sociologically the phenomenon of rank among the Yoruba and the Akan. The third is an analysis of various episodes of currency devaluation by successive governments of Nigeria and Ghana. Criminal acts and "coping mechanisms" adopted by the citizens are examined, such as the existence of dual foreign exchange markets, roundtripping, and advance payment fraud. The fourth section returns to the subject of rank and considers a number of questions about the emergence, reemergence, or disappearance of the middle class. …

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