This op-ed originally appeared in National Review.
Reeling from military coups in Gabon and Niger, Africa is being put to the test. Many African economies, once primed for rapid growth, have encountered major stumbling blocks, putting prosperity on hold for hundreds of millions of people.
African countries remain some of the poorest in the world. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, per capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa peaked in 2014, at just under $2,000, gradually dropping by more than 10 percent to about $1,700 in 2023. Global GDP per capita, on the other hand, has risen nearly 15 percent. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, the IMF warns, could decline “permanently” if geopolitical tensions continue to escalate.
Many of Africa’s poorest countries are also the least free. According to the 2023 Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation, five of the ten least free nations in the world are in Africa, with Algeria, Burundi, Eritrea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe sitting alongside the likes of Cuba and North Korea.
This is a pivotal moment for African policy-makers, especially reformers working for economic prosperity in Burundi, Ghana, and elsewhere across the continent. While progress has been made over the decades, with the African Union recently joining the G20, sweeping market-economy reforms remain elusive.
In their time of need, Africa’s reformers can and should heed the advice of a late Ghanaian economist who is unknown to most Americans: George B. N. Ayittey. Born 78 years ago this week, Ayittey was an African economist par excellence who shared similarities with Milton Friedman as an anti-authoritarian and a champion of individual rights. Contrary to popular belief, Ayittey argued that Africa’s persistent poverty is the result not primarily of colonialism but rather of the autocratic abuse of power.
I had the privilege of knowing Ayittey very well, alongside other African thinkers whom he mentored. When Ayittey passed away last year, Africa lost a son who trusted in entrepreneurship to alleviate his continent’s suffering, and I lost a good friend. Most of all, Ayittey believed in the freedom to innovate, starting new businesses, growing them, and creating local jobs that do not rely on the government. In his words, “Africa is poor because she is not free.”
Alas, too many African policy-makers elevate the state over the individual. In Ayittey’s home country of Ghana, where farming is the primary occupation, the government does not afford property rights to women. Trapped in an unjust system, Ghanaian women, like many millions of women across the continent, cannot obtain land deeds and titles for plots that already belong to them, making it virtually impossible to use the land and harvest crops. Nor can they sell them without government interference, which limits free trade.
In my home country of Nigeria, government interference stifles entrepreneurs, who struggle to innovate because of red tape and rampant corruption. A local hotelier, for instance, may be forced to pay dozens of separate bills for annual fees, taxes, and licenses — from operating a parking lot to simply putting a company logo on a car — without even necessarily knowing why they need to be paid. In some cases, the government can issue a small business four or five different bills simply to cover property taxes.
Then there’s the issue of corruption, whereby local bureaucrats exploit the regulatory process to enrich themselves. Between 2014 and 2018, the economic toll of corruption amounted to over $1 billion, more than Nigeria spent on education and health during that period.
Ten years ago, the Central Bank of Nigeria launched a $1.3 billion fund to offer loans for small businesses. Within two years, 24 state governors ended up with $236 million, with evidence suggesting that most or all of the funds were embezzled. Two years after that, not one of the governors could publicly identify the small businesses that received loans from the fund.
Today, no one knows where hundreds of millions of dollars ended up. But, if history is any indication, the rich — Nigeria’s public-sector elites — just got richer.
The status quo in Ghana, Nigeria, and other African countries would upset Ayittey, who often lamented the economic statism that the continent’s many dictators repurposed from colonial powers. Rejecting the orthodoxy of contemporary advocates of a centrally planned economy, Ayittey implored Africans to rediscover their true heritage — one of free village markets, where chiefs and elders were limited by governing structures built on consensus. He often spoke out against the corruption linked to the government, envisioning an Africa where both men and women hold economic and political power — the power that still eludes millions of his fellow Ghanaians.
Ayittey argued that, long before Europeans landed on the continent, parts of Africa enjoyed their own indigenous concepts of freedom and limited government.
Ayittey would call on Africa’s youngest generation — the “cheetah generation,” as he called it — to build on these principles of the past, rejecting the authoritarian impulses of the old guard (which he called the “hippo generation”).
Ayittey would call on people like me, as he did several times in person, to stand up for freedom where it is most threatened. And I do, working with other “cheetahs” to chart a new course for our continent.
Africa’s prosperity will depend on her cheetahs. If we remain pro-market reformers, Ayittey’s wisdom will not be shared in vain. Hopefully, one day soon, we will all say, “Africa is rich because she is free.”