Coming of the African Cheetah
A review of George Ayittey’s “Africa Unchained”
In the words of George Ayittey, Africa Unchained is
about “unleashing the entrepreneurial talents and
creative energies of the real African people…and a
blueprint for Africa’s future.”
Dr. George Ayittey, a distinguished professor at
American University in Washington, D.C. and the
first among his generation to recognize that
“African problems must be solved by Africans,” has
written this book to help push Africa on to
prosperity. His approach to the solution of African
problems was much derided by some in the 90s, but is
now gaining popularity with reformers and world
leaders in the new search for ways to help Africa.
Whether at the front of Congress, in conference
rooms at the World Bank and IMF, on numerous radio
and television talk shows; or during the various
crises which have engulfed the continent, Ayittey
has sturdily maintained the “solution by Africans”
approach as a departure point for solving the
seemingly intractable problems on the continent.
Ayittey, in a sense, has all along been the Jeremiah
of Africa, saying things that some don’t want to
hear. Will his critics, who are many, now wait for
result or would they rush out to call him a false
In Africa Unchained he sets out to explain why and
how Africa ought to be saved. In a characteristic
manner, Ayittey is unsparing in his prescriptions
for Africa, and in his criticism of the African
elite. He has no faith in either the current
leadership, or the ones preceding them. Rather, he
places faith in the new leaders to come, whom he
calls the “African Cheetah,” his version of the term
Ayittey is often criticized, mostly by his fellow
intellectuals, for his brutal assessments of
conditions in Africa. They describe him variously as
an “Uncle Tom,” a “Sell-Out,” or an Afro-pessimist.
Often, his response to these critics has been to
draw “a distinction between African leaders and the
African people,” or the field hands who are governed
and the men in the state houses who are the
In Africa Unchained, Ayittey’s analysis of the
historical facts of Africa’s post independence
experience makes his usual harsh style credible. So
when he asks in his prologue “if I have a very
strong cutlass (machete) whom should I go after?”
you know exactly whom he has gone after and why.
For Ayittey, the problems gained their most impetus
during the post colonial period, when leaders got
their priorities mixed. Cherished leaders like
Nkrumah and Nyerere are drubbed for policies Ayittey
claims were wrong headed.
This writer would agree that, indeed, some of these
policies, as described by Ayittey, were wrong; but
differs in thinking that the period was also one of
intense experimentation, and, therefore, things were
likely to go wrong.
Many things under Nkrumah went right. The grace for
his period is that no one would today doubt the
sincerity with which he tackled the experiment. As
for Nkrumah stashing money abroad, nothing has been
tendered as evidence other than the hearsay which
started on February 24, 1966 when he was overthrown.
Nkrumah, after nine years in office, never had the
chance to self-adjust his policies before being
overthrown. Those leaders who came after had the
benefit and the responsibility to amend some of his
policies. And indeed, Ayittey agrees with this
assertion. Thus, it is the failure to do so by these
pretenders to leadership that must give Ayittey’s
book real vitality.
Ayittey condemns statist intervention in the
economy. He commends some governments for
recognizing lately the need to move from socialist
models to allow foreign capital infusion by making
their markets “more open, permitting profit
These governments had hoped to attract Foreign
Direct Investment (FDI) to spark growth and
development . But Ayittey laments that all the good
intentions and the innovations are yet to overcome
the “negative image” that Africa has acquired over
the years. Thus the economies of these countries
still remain sluggish.
Africa continues to remain unattractive for the
investor; contrary to all evidence of healthy
returns on investment. Not even rich Africans prefer
to keep their monies there. Ayittey chastises the
late president of the Ivory Coast, Houphouet Boigny,
for asking “what sensible man does not keep his
wealth in Switzerland, the whole world’s bank?”
It is perplexing to read Ayittey’s book and still be
aware that some have called him a sell-out. His love
for Africa is apparent in this book. His description
of the “low level” efficiencies that make Africa
work is lovely to read. What he calls the
“astonishing degree of functionality, participatory
form of democracy, rule of customary law and
accountability of the traditional African society,”
is respectful and easy to applaud. These are words
of facts as well as love. He cannot be the
Afro-pessimist his detractors sometimes call him.
Otherwise, how could he put so much faith in the
simple African peasant he calls “Atingah”?
The critical question to ask is: Is Ayittey being a
romantic by placing so much faith in the African
peasant and the simple things that so far have
provided “low level” efficiencies to the economies
of Africa? The notion may sound simplistic to some.
But given that the technological and scientific
marvels of the West had their primitive beginnings,
I will give this approach a strong support. The
experiments have been done. The need now is to
provide the right environment to nurture the
confidence that will make the feats possible. And
this is what effective leadership can do.
As Ayittey’s long held view of solution for the
African problem suggests, salvation “does not lie…in
the crisis-laden modern sector.” It rides on the
“backs of the Atingas (peasants) in Africa.”
Instead of investing in the Atingas, who support the
bulk of the economy in Africa, Ayittey says African
leaders have forgotten them in the shuffle for
development and that the low class Atingas
(peasants) never featured in the grandiose
developmental schemes of post colonial Africa.
For Ayittey, it is possible to turn Africa around.
This means empowering the peasants and freeing them
to pursue the various enterprises they are already
good at. Africa needs “a completely new approach”
and an absolute paradigm shift for this to happen,
according to Ayittey.
Ayittey describes the attempts so far as mostly
disingenuous. And he blames this on the elite, whom
he calls “the vampire parasitic elite minority
group.” No wonder the majority of his critics, are
found in this group.
Africa Unchained is Ayittey’s third book. It is
published by Palgrave Macmillan. It was released
about a month ago and already has caught the
attention of the book world with favorable reviews
from the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The
New York Times.
For anyone in academe, government or a seeker of
solution for Africa’s seemingly intractable
problems, Africa Unchained is the book to read.
E. Ablorh-Odjidja, Washington, DC, March 21, 2005