Learning the lessons of history for the post-COVID world – STIAS webinar by Emmanuel Akyeampong

18 May 2021

“I don’t want to replicate history, I just don’t want us to ignore it. We must learn the lessons of history so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes,” said Emmanuel Akyeampong, Ellen Gurney Professor of History and of African and African American Studies, and Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Center for African Studies at Harvard University.

STIAS Fellow Emmanuel Akyeampong during his webinar on 13 May 2021

Akyeampong was presenting the second STIAS public webinar for 2021 titled Early Independent Africa’s Abortive Attempt at Industrialisation: The Case of Ghana under Kwame.

“Ghana made an attempt at industrialisation – it didn’t fail but was aborted,” he said. “This remains Africa’s only genuine attempt to decolonise a black African economy in the decades after independence.”

“It’s anticipated that the post-COVID-19 world will see a moderation of the hyper-globalisation that has characterised the last couple of decades and usher in a renewed emphasis on national sovereignty and autonomy in economic decisions,” he continued. “The 1980s served as an important watershed in independent Africa’s political economy, marking the ascendancy of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Africa’s economic policies. Yet, before the late 1970s, only one sub-Saharan African country, Ghana, had been the recipient of an IMF stabilisation programme. This webinar focuses on the early decades of Africa’s independence and Ghana’s aborted attempt at industrialisation. Ghana’s example – with its prioritisation of infrastructural development, import-substitution industrialisation, and regional integration – is particularly instructive as we enter a post-COVID-19 era in which national and regional economic decisions move to the fore and the continent embarks on its Free Trade Agreement.”

Akyeampong’s larger book project of which this is part will examine the first generation of independent African leaders and the making of the African nation state. The 50th anniversary of independence for some of these countries made Akyeampong question what there is to celebrate; what were the post-independence opportunities; what has been achieved; and, why development has remained so elusive in many African countries. He will focus on Ghana, Guinea, Senegal and Tanzania.

A vision of development

Akyeampong pointed out that at independence in 1957 Ghana had relatively high per capita income, good foreign investment, a capable civil service and educated population.

“For most African countries at independence three scourges were highlighted – literacy, poverty and disease,” he said. “Nationalism was seen as the omnibus cure to fix everything. Development meant good schools, healthcare, housing and employment.”

Kwame Nkrumah – Ghana’s first Prime Minister and President (1951 – 1966) – had a vision of economic development that included education, infrastructure development and industrialisation.

“When Ghana became independent in 1957 the economic vision was education, human-capital development, infrastructure and industrial development. Investment in education led to impressive achievements. Nkrumah emphasised the need to produce a scientifically literate population to aid in tackling the environmental causes of low productivity and provide the knowledge base to tap into the country’s economic potential.”

At the time most African countries were dependent on the export of raw primary products.  For Ghana 60% of foreign earnings came from cocoa and only 10% of the economy was industrialised, mostly under foreign ownership.

In the 1950s prices for raw materials fell, in part due to the post-war ascendancy of the USA and the fact that it was not as dependent on tropical countries for its raw material needs. Africa’s share of global trade continued to fall in the coming decades.

Akyeampong detailed the huge infrastructure development that Nkrumah spearheaded in the 1950s and early 60s. This included building the Adomi Bridge linking East and West Ghana; the Tema Harbour – at the time the largest artificial harbour in Africa; the Akosomba Dam – which included the largest manmade lake in the world; as well as townships and a motorway – still the only one in the country.

Following the model in a number of Latin American countries, Nkrumah also pushed the policy of import-substitution industrialisation (ISI) which advocates replacing foreign imports with domestic production to reduce foreign dependency. Protectionism of domestic industries allows the goods produced to compete with imported goods.[a]

“Nkrumah wanted to shift from production of primary products to manufacturing. For many underdeveloped countries the path to development was seen as through manufacturing with ISI as a deliberate policy,” said Akyeampong.

“He also used relationships with Eastern bloc countries to build factories via low or no-interest loans, economic and technical aid, some paid for in raw materials. However, by 1961 Ghana started running out of money and had to approach multinationals for suppliers’ credit on unfavourable terms. By 1965 the country was basically bankrupt and turned to the IMF for assistance.”

Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup in 1966.

Don’t lose the lessons

Akyeampong believes this period holds important lessons.

“We can’t say ISI was a total failure – it lasted a decade. What was needed when the IMF intervened was to direct the products from the new industrialisation efforts to possible markets; not to eliminate these industries and redirect Ghana – and other African countries – to their competitive advantage in agriculture and expatriate-controlled mining.”

“As a historian I’m generally comfortable with long time periods but you can’t write off an economic experiment after a decade or two,” he added.

“We need to be measured in our dismissal of these attempts. Internationally owned initiatives were not significantly more efficient or successful than the state-owned ones.”

“In general, many countries didn’t achieve substantial per capita increases in this period.”

He also pointed to the importance of timing. “By the late 1960s it was clear that ISI was not working in Latin America and these countries began to argue for a new international economic order. But Ghana was by then committed to the ISI bandwagon and it was hard to reverse.”

“Importantly, they took their eyes off agriculture which declined across Africa in this period.”

In discussion Akyeampong addressed the question of socialism versus nationalism.

“I believe they were pushing nationalist policies not socialism,” he said. “But it was more rhetoric than substance although the rhetoric was important. At that time it was not fashionable to be capitalist. I think the ideas of an African developmental state explained the objectives better.”

“African socialism is a bit of a red flag,” he added. “Capitalism versus socialism was not really a question of choice. There was no indigenous capitalist class which meant that even in capitalist states the state remained the most important actor.”

“African governments also became good at saying what international development institutions wanted to hear. From the 1990s Africa lost its global academic voice, became dependent on external consultants and learnt to speak the language of development that the West wanted. The state became disconnected from the citizenry. This can only be corrected by the capacity of citizens to hold the state accountable.”

Free- and intra-African trade

“Going forward, the IMF and World Bank cannot be the knowledge brokers, funders, project managers and assessors – there is a need to break their hold on the African political economy,” he said.

“The continuing challenge is foreign direct investment,” he continued. “We are all attracting the same global capital/multinational corporations. This makes the African free-trade market very important. Global trade is 50 to 55% South/South. We have a huge potential to trade among ourselves and to create an economic dividend through intra-African trade.”

“We also need to think about manufacture that positions us in stronger ways. Technology is very important. We tended to buy what was given – often capital-intensive technologies – and thought the market would grow to match. This didn’t happen.”

“Importantly, agriculture must be part of the vision. 60% of unfarmed, arable land is in Africa. We need to marry technology and agriculture to convince the youth to become farmers. I believe this is a huge part of the solution.  But I’m a historian, not an economist, so I don’t aim to predict the future.”

“It’s important in a post-COVID world that we remind ourselves of the experiments – what happened, why it failed and how we avoid the same mistakes going forward.”

“I believe that post COVID we will be more conscious of national sovereignty and autonomy especially in economic development,” he concluded. “This means we need models for Africa – home-grown models that set the agenda from African perspectives and needs.”

[a]  ISI policies were enacted by countries in the Global South with the intention of furthering development and self-sufficiency. However, ISI was largely abandoned in the 1980s due to its unsustainability. In many African countries this heralded the establishment of structural-adjustment programmes led by the IMF and World Bank.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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