Last month, I began writing what promises to be a series of articles on African affairs for Atlantic.com, the digital footprint of the venerable monthly literary magazine. I’ve never made the printed pages of The Atlantic under my own name (though in the year 2000 the magazine published a shockingly appreciative and deeply curious article about my distinctive intellectual trajectory). Digital publishing has become the heartbeat of the sort of public engagement that I seek (at least, that I seek through writing; in a modest way, I seek the same ends through teaching and quiet consultations with others). My second article for Atlantic.com, on President Obama’s approach to U.S.-Africa relations, prompted a valuable and pithy private response from George Ayittey, a political economist who hails from Ghana and whose books have exerted an enormous influence on a rising generation of African policymakers and businesspeople because of his emphasis on freedom, responsibility, and the crucial importance of rule of law and honesty in government. Ayittey, who has a new book on defeating African dictators coming this fall from Palgrave, takes issue with my sense that Obama possesses an evolving sense of African borders, and the possibilities of more split-offs in the style of South Sudan, which will become formally independent next month.
Writes Ayittey: “I think you read too much into Obama’s non-doctrine of self-reliance. I don’t think you can equate that to self-determination by a people and, hence, encouraging secessionist bids. In many parts of Africa, self-reliance is generally interpreted as relying on oneself, rather than foreigners or foreign aid. “Self-reliance” was the slogan of many military leaders in the 1970s. I remember Col. Acheampong of Ghana, who championed self-reliance. A particular program of his was called “Operation Feed Yourself,” which was intended to reduce Ghana’s dependence on food imports.”
“Nonetheless, the issue or artificial borders and the potential for break-ups are real but the issue is not being handled properly. I opposed the split of Ethiopia into Ethiopia and Eritrea, just as I oppose the secession of South Sudan because if we take self-determination of a people to its logical limit, we may end up with over 2,000 little Djiboutis all over the continent — each with a Swiss bank account for the president, a one-plane fleet and a state-controlled television station. Nigeria alone has 250 ethnic groups. The source of the problem is not artificial borders but rather strong centralized rule that is produced by the unitary state system — a colonial relic. Remember, in pre-colonial Africa, Africans of different ethnicity have lived peacefully together in large polities — the Ghana Empire, Songhai, Mali Empire, and Great Zimbabwe. All these were confederacies which were characterized by a great deal of decentralization of power and devolution of authority. They allowed heir subjected the local autonomy to maintain their own distinctive ethnic identities. The solution, to me, is a confederation of African states, not secession.”