Africacapitalism Or Capitalist Africa? By Kayode Komolafe
In a tribute to the memory of Comrade Baba Omojola, who died last week in Akure, President Goodluck Jonathan acknowledged the patriotism of this great revolutionary fighter and a leading light of the Nigerian Left. There is something ideologically significant about this unusual official acknowledgement. Omojola died at 75 while on a trip to the Ondo State capital to participate in one of the preparatory meetings towards the proposed national conference. A brilliant economist, Omojola was one of the finest elements of the Left of his generation. For that exceptional generation, the struggle for a socialist Nigeria was the career they chose in their youth. Their commitment was total. They were consistent. Sadly, their breed is a vanishing one.
It is, therefore, one of the indicators of the ideological dynamics that at his old age Omojola became more intensely involved in the resolution of the National Question. This trend, which is eminently worth pondering, was also noticeable in some his comrades such as Comrade Ola Oni and Dr. Tunji Otegbeye, who passed on before him. Forty years ago, in the days of the young Omojola, the emphasis was doubtless on class struggle; the question was about the path to Nigeria’s development and not how ethnic nationalities would “live together” as they say nowadays. The issue was about how the poor who constituted the overwhelming majority would be liberated from the shackles of hunger, ignorance and disease; the issue was neither their ethnic origin nor the language they spoke. The philosophical anchor of that generation of Nigerian revolutionaries was simply the materialist conception of history: man must eat and be clothed and sheltered before thinking of ideology, religion, nationalism or ethnic affiliation. But then times have changed greatly in ideological terms.
If the revolutionary mood of those days had not waned, Omojola and his comrades would have shown a greater interest in another conversation unofficially initiated by an accomplished businessman than they have done with the seemingly indeterminate conference planned by the President. The Left of those days would be actively interrogating this other conversation, which unfortunately seems to be largely ignored by even scholars of all ideological hues.
Here we are talking about ideas being canvassed by the 50-year old Tony Elumelu. He was the Group Managing Director of the United Bank for Africa and he is now the Chairman of Heirs Holding and the Tony Elumelu Foundation. He is calling for Africacapitalism as a path to African development. From Elumelu’s perspective, Africacapitalism, “an inclusive brand of capitalism”, represents a paradigm shift. Elumelu has been reported as putting his concept like this: “ Africa capitalism is a call to the African private sector to invest for the purpose of catalyzing economic development that will lead to prosperity and social wealth”. The elements of Africacapitalism are Increased Competitiveness, Home Grown Initiative, Long-term Investment and Impact Investment. According to Elumelu, “ it is not just about creating wealth in business. Let’s make sure that the community where we are operating is enhanced in terms of access to certain basic services and social facilities”.
This is an appreciable rethink of the role of the private sector in development. It is such a fresh air that we are hearing that the role of an economic player in the society should be more than unbridled accumulation of profits. In other words, despite the Magaret Thacthers of this world, the society is greater than the market.
The set of ideas which Elumelu encapsulates in his Africacapitalism merits a greater attention from the Right, Left and Centre. To start with, it is salutary that having made good money, Elumelu still has time to think about the place of Africa in the global capitalist system. This trend of finding time to think about our problems should be encouraged regardless of our ideological differences. It was the late radical political economist, Professor Bade Onimode, who once observed that at the root of the crisis of development in Africa was the lack of deep thinking about the issues before the poor continent. Elumelu is working towards a change. It is a trend that would enrich the necessary debate about the development options.
The African elite should re-examine the inherited shibboleths from the West about the death of ideology. The end of ideology is a phantom invented to obfuscate discussions. There is no economic development taking place in any part of the globe that is not based on ideas and that is what the whole talk about ideology is all about in today’s Africa. And you need to think deeply to produce great ideas. If you fail to produce ideas for your own use, the ideas of others would be imposed on you. This is the tragedy that underlines Africa’s underdevelopment.
Secondly, Elumelu’s ideas are a slight departure from the neo-liberal excesses, which ruled the wave globally before the crash of 2008. Even some of the extreme ideologues of capitalism in the West have been tempered by the crisis of the casino capitalism. There have been calls for a rethink about economic management in sober quarters.
It is important that he, at least, recognises the place of “social wealth” and the “basic needs” of the community hosting business organisations. In reality, these ideological concessions may amount to only some crumbs from the capitalist master’s table in the long run. It is, however, significant that it is borne out of a rethink. In other contexts, the rethink has led some countries to the idea of “social market economy ” as in Germany and Chile and the strong social protection mechanisms in the Nordic countries. In some other places, thoughts are on about “welfare capitalism”.
For good reasons, Elumelu’s Africacapitalism deserves a through interrogation. His coinage of Africacapitalism is reminiscent of the polemic of the Tanzanian Marxist economist, the late Abdurahman Babu. In his African Socialism or Socialist Africa, Babu dismissed the idea of African socialism prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.
According to him, without prejudice to Africa’s peculiarities, the aspiration should be for a socialist Africa because of some universal ingredients of the system. Babu was, course, operating from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from Elumelu. Similarly, it is suggestible that the Africa of Elumelu’s vision, in effect, is a capitalist Africa. With that, there should be no illusion of what impact this will make on the condition of poor. The record of global capitalism is clear: two out of three human beings are excluded from its benefits. It is yet to find answer to mass poverty in a definitive manner. There are also universal features of capitalism such as inequality, social exclusion and exploitation whether it is America, India or Nigeria.
So it may not be enough to merely rebrand Africa’s capitalism. In the absence of a revolution, the very useful ideas of Elumelu should be complemented by the role of a socially responsible state. The needed massive investment in the social sectors (especially education and health) in favour of the poor majority would never come from Elumelu’s entrepreneurs, whether they are foreign or local. The reality of political economy is such that in the capitalist Africa, which is what Elumelu is actually canvassing, the business of economic management will not be that of the private sector. That will still remain the duty of a competent, patriotic and responsible government.
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