Walter Rodney and 2020 Africa

Walter Rodney

By Kayode Komolafe

“We are like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where the rain began to beat him and so cannot say where he dried his body.” Chinua Achebe.

It was exactly 40 years last Saturday that the radical historian and practitioner of revolutionary politics, Walter Rodney, was assassinated on a street in Georgetown, Guyana.
He was 38.
A bomb was planted in walkie-talkie given to him by an agent on that tragic evening.
In terms of impact, Rodney represented the remarkable ideological influence felt in Africa in the 1970s from South America and the Caribbean Islands.

Rodney was to radical scholarship and revolutionary politics what Bob Marley, a Jamaican, who died a year after him at 36, was to music and indeed culture in general.
Rodney taught in the University of Dar es Salaam and the University of Jamaica. He later returned home to Guyana where he was politically immersed in organising a people’s party, the Working People’s Alliance.
By his praxis, Rodney became such an ideological and political force that the establishment could not tolerate him until he was killed.

Kayode Komolafe

The political personality of Rodney, a Guyanese scholar of African origin, was encapsulated in a tribute paid him on June 27, 1980 at a memorial rally in his honour at the Obafemi Awolowo University (known then as the University of Ife, Ile-Ife).
In the tribute, Wole Soyinka said: “Walter Rodney was no armchair-revolutionary, he was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and its contemporary heir—black exploitation—in the eye, and where necessary, spit in it.’’
With his magnus opus, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1972, Rodney told the development story of Africa in a way that bears resonance to the African condition today.

That’s why forces of human progress must continue pay attention to the ideological legacy of Rodney.
Rodney and other radical scholars had begun to approach the problems of development in Africa with a scientific method before the African intellectual landscape became suffused with neo-liberal ideas.

For Rodney, the central questions of the “many-sided process” of development should be approached in a systemic way. He pointedly drew attention to the roots of the underdevelopment of Africa.
He demonstrated with copious and meticulous research that these roots could be found in the history of Africa’s relationship with capitalist west.

Here, we are talking of the history of slavery and colonialism.
In the book, Rodney puts the matter like this: “To know the present we must look into the past and to know the future we must look into the past and the present.”
To be sure, Rodney never indulged in wringing hands and blaming only the past for Africa’s underdevelopment because as he emphasises in the classic: “None of these remarks are intended to remove the ultimate responsibility for development from the shoulders of Africans.”

He also apportioned blame to the African collaborators with external powers to exploit the continent.
Those issues of development explored by Rodney remain relevant in today’s Africa. The crucial questions posed by Rodney remain unanswered. The problems have only assumed new dimensions.

A few elements of the relevance of Rodney’s ideas to the contemporary Africa would suffice for this remembrance.
For instance, Rodney traced the roots of racism to the western capitalist system. The white racist needed to employ racial superiority to make people of colour serve the socio-economic interests of the white. Incidentally, 40 years after Rodney, the slogan of the current protests against injustice triggered by the murder of George Flody in America is this: put an end to systemic racism.

From the perspective of Rodney, it would be illusionary to expect that an end would be put to racism without tackling its systemic basis. Yes, advances were made by the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the 1960s. Barrack Obama, a black man, emerged as president of the United States.

Yet, racism still manifests in murderous dimensions in America.
It’s a proof of Rodney’s proposition that the problem is not just attitudinal. You need the ideology of racism to exclude the blacks in the access to education and healthcare. Racism is needed to rationalise the injustice of the victims of social inequality, which is a feature of the system.

Rodney exposed the crippling role of external factors in Africa’s development. The 21st Century Africa still has an exogenous view of development. For instance, the Nigerian government does not harvest ideas for economic management and planning from the economics departments in Nigerian universities. Policies are not influenced by indigenous think tanks including the officially established bodies for economic research. The government and its experts are more concerned about the approval of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Fitch Rating is important to government than that the opinion of any erudite economist or economic institute in Nigeria.

In the economic catechism of African governments, “foreign investment” is the solution to economic underdevelopment. What is the result after decades of “foreign investments”? Africa is even becoming de-industrialised.
Africa is steadily walking into another debt trap. Nigeria, which exited the debtors’ club over a decade ago, is today faced with a new asphyxiating debt burden. Nigeria is taking the lead in this perilous path of development.
As reported by Rodney, Africa was “drained” of its socio-economic blood centuries ago by slavery. Millions of productive Africans were shipped to the West. The labour of the slaves was invested in building western capitalism. The “vicious cycle poverty” persists.

In a supreme irony, hapless young Africans are desperate to go to the West in the 21st to sell their labour. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti sang about the second slavery decades ago. Just like the slaves of the old died in the Atlantic, young Africans now die in the Mediterranean sea in a desperate bid to escape to the West in search of a good life.
The migrant crisis is a poignant throw-back to slavery which Rodney and other scholars have richly documented to intellectually arm the struggle for human freedom.

Rodney established clearly the link between Africa’s underdevelopment and the exploitative nature of capitalism in the metropolis. The fruits of globalisation are there on display as worsening global inequality and poverty. As every nation will have to plot its ways out of mass poverty, African nations have to consciously choose a progressive path to development.
China was a victim of years of national humiliation and external aggression. It has asserted itself in the market place of development ideas. It is developing on its own terms and not on the basis of imposed prescriptions. China has proved that each nation has to work methodically to reduce inequality and not expect that the more developed countries would do the job for them out of mercy.

Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah was poised to set Ghana on the path of endogenous development with a rich social content. Nkrumah saw an Africa that could make giant strides in the global arena. But that African dream was aborted by an imperialist- inspired coup in 1966. Since then, Ghana has been experimenting with various imported socio-economic prescriptions.
Another element of the relevance of Rodney is coming to terms with the lack of self-definition of development. Africa must come up with its own concept of development.

African countries abandoned the Lagos Plan of Action which they put together themselves as a continental formula. They embraced instead the packages of structural adjustment programmes actually designed by the creditors. Incidentally, the Lagos Plan of Action was signed in 1980, the year Rodney was assassinated. Since then hardly has any African country taken a developmental leap based on the imported paradigms. How can they take a leap with an adjustment programme that emphasises reduction in the budget for the social sectors – education healthcare, social security etc.? How can a strategy that wipes out the middle class be a guide on the path to a progressive development?

Eminent political economist, Claude Ake summed up the conundrum in his Democracy and Development in Africa this way: “… the problem in Africa is not so much that development failed as that it never really began.” Celebrated novelist Chinua Achebe makes this point eloquently about the African condition in the above epigram.

Take the example of Nigeria. This is a country that many optimists had proposed to be the fulcrum of African development in a triangular alliance with South Africa and Egypt. That dream is yet to be fulfilled. Meanwhile, Nigeria abandoned development planning that was the governance culture in the immediate post-colonial years.

Nigeria has instead crafted many adjustment programmes, visions , development strategies, recovery packages (small, medium and big sizes!). Every administration dumps the package of its predecessor and assembles its own experts and technocrats to script new ones fundamentally based on the same paradigm. No critical question is asked about why the previous vision was not realised.
The cumulative result of these sundry socio-economic experiments is that human development has worsened in the last 40 years.
The social sector has collapsed.

Infrastructure is in decay.
Social life is increasingly becoming miserable with menacing insecurity.
Underdevelopment remains a feature of Africa in 2020 because African governments and their experts fail to learn one thing from Rodney: there should be a political economy approach to development as a process deeply rooted in history.
To borrow from another eminent historian, Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, embarking on a development journey without a sense of history is like driving a car without a rear-view mirror.
In such a situation the path of development becomes hazardous.
-Kayode Komolafe, wrote this piece originally for Thisday.

-Credit: Thisday