Atlas Network mourns the passing of eminent advocate of African freedom, Dr. George B. N. Ayittey

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Atlas Network mourns the passing of a long-time friend and eminent advocate of African freedom, Dr. George B. N. Ayittey, who died on January 28, 2022, in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dr. Ayittey distinguished himself as an Africanist per-excellence and one of the preeminent intellectuals of his generation. He belonged to a cohort of African scholars who refuse to succumb to the intimidation of dictators nor be bought to promote their tyrannical agenda. Dr. Ayittey’s resilience pushed him into the limelight as a leading African economist but also brought him threats and assassination attempts. He survived several physical attacks by suspected state-sponsored assailants; his office at the American University in Washington, D.C., was firebombed in 1998; his hotel room in Nairobi, Kenya, was razed; and he was jailed in Dakar, Senegal, amid other direct attempts at ensuring his critical voice was silenced.

At the core of Dr. Ayittey’s intellectual advocacy is the idea that African societies have always had values and systems that preserve the rights of their people under the rule of law. He faults post-independence African leaders for dismissing this fact and instead borrowing foreign economic and political ideologies in the immediate decades after the 1960s. Dr. Ayttey held that this switch from indigenous values to foreign ideologies is the root cause of the development crisis that hitherto persists in Africa.

Education was a mantra in Dr. Ayittey’s life. He studied at Adisadel College in Ghana until 1966 before pursuing undergraduate studies in economics at the University of Ghana (1966-1969). He earned his doctoral degree in the same discipline from the University of Manitoba (1975-1981). It was in Manitoba where he first encountered hostility toward his ideas on African development. He submitted a dissertation to the school’s economic department in 1981 on an impending economic crisis in Africa that would be primarily triggered by internal factors; chief among them was the failure of leadership. Ayittey proposed that external factors—particularly the so-called “hostile international economic order” spear-headed by the Bretton Woods Institutions—were not the main reasons why Africa would plunge into crisis. His dissertation committee at the University of Manitoba failed to approve the more than 600-page essay for nine months, citing the unorthodox internalist argument, while Ayittey refused several calls to revise the dissertation so that it excluded the internalist argument. It was not until he presented a job offer from Wayne State University in Nebraska to the committee that his dissertation was approved with the eventual removal of the internalist argument.

Dr. Ayittey moved to the United States in 1981 to pursue his desire of amplifying the ideas erased from his dissertation. He continued to write about the internalist perspective while in America, but no academic publisher in the United States was interested. The rejections were based on the same excuse that Ayittey was simply blaming the victim, i.e., Africa, for its own failures. He encountered similar hostility to his ideas at Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania, where he was teaching. He applied for promotion in 1988 only to have his colleagues in the economics department dismiss his works as “useless,” thereby denying him a promotion.

Hoover Institution learned about his situation and offered him a well-deserved national fellowship in residence from 1988 to 1989, which allowed him to publish what was, by 1988, a trove of manuscripts drafted over eight years. At the Hoover Institution, Dr. Ayittey had the opportunity to finally speak and write freely about the solutions to Africa’s development crises and “not [to] waste time, fighting professors about why Africa was failing.” It was around this period that he published Indigenous African Institutions (1991), which was largely extracted from his original dissertation draft. Other notable works that followed include Africa in Chaos (1998), Africa Unchained (2004), and Defeating Dictators (2011). He would eventually teach at the American University in Washington, D.C., from 1990 until 2002 as a visiting scholar.

During his time in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ayittey founded the Free Africa Foundation (1993) to, among other things, “free Africans from intellectual bondage … devise African-based solutions to Africa’s problems ​​… [and] resist the imposition of alien ideologies and systems on Africa.”

Dr. Ayitey’s last publication, Applied Economics for Africa, was supported and published by Atlas Network in 2018. It is an invaluable time-lapse insight into his mind as a scholar. Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Vernon L. Smith called it a “profoundly important” and “special” work that “illustrated [development economics] in the African context.”

Dr. Ayittey is survived by two children, three brothers, four sisters, and a legion of young African advocates of freedom—his beloved “Cheetah Generation.”

Africa has offered scholars of impeccable dignity and intellect to the world for centuries. Dr. George B. N. Ayittey is among the many who wear the double cap of scholar-activists, and through his work he has inspired hundreds of thousands more to raise their voices against the tyrannical regimes that limit human flourishing.

—The majority of quotations and assertions from this memorial are taken from an unpublished oral history interview granted to Ibrahim B. Anoba and Feyisade Adeyemi on May 9, 2020.