Thursday, July 25, 2024
CommentaryAwakening African minds determines our future progress

Awakening African minds determines our future progress

Speakers sharply criticized the unfairness of the global financial system at the Paris conference and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) meeting, raising important questions about who bears responsibility for addressing the imbalance.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) was established on August 4, 1963, with the signing of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Africa comprises 20 percent of the world’s landmass but is home to 17 v of the global population. The continent produces 90 v of the world’s platinum and cobalt, 75 percent of manganese and coltan, 50 percent of gold, 35 percent of uranium, and 9.6 percent of oil. Africa also has 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

However, African leaders often rely on foreign currencies instead of exploring options to facilitate intra-African trade, such as utilizing the continent’s mineral wealth to establish an African gold currency.

This article aims to spur discussion around how Africa’s new generation of leaders can foster innovation to solve multifaceted challenges and remove barriers—even if initially counter to convention. Lasting prosperity will stem from unleashing creative and entrepreneurial African minds. It’s time for new thinking.

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The issues we discussed at the panel in Addis Ababa mirror conversations happening globally. Rapid changes present both opportunities and threats for Africa’s financial systems.

At the sixth East African Financial Summit, I spoke on “Emerging Global Dynamism: Implications and Alternatives for East Africa’s Financial Sector.” A changing world and Africa’s place in it concerned me, spurring me to research how others addressed this issue.

Sixty years ago, world developments also troubled leaders, including Emperor Haile Selassie I. In his 1963 speech to the OAU conference, he warned: “Unless the political liberty for which Africans have for so long struggled is complemented and bolstered by a corresponding economic and social growth, the breath of life which sustains our freedom may flicker out.”

The rapid changes brought by the Internet, SWIFT system, artificial intelligence, and drones make Emperor Haile Selassie’s words from sixty years ago feel prescient. His warning that “the breath of life which sustains our freedom may flicker out” resonates deeply today.

His proposals for maintaining Africa’s independence provide a useful framework as we confront today’s global dynamism. He outlined four policies:

First, he called for creating the African Development Bank, saying this same meeting could initiate further studies to accelerate the expansion of economic relations among us. The AfDB was indeed formed at that conference in 1963.

Second, he proposed “a common African defense policy and force,” i.e. an African NATO. A united African defense strategy, he argued, would strengthen the continent’s security and independence.

Third, he proposed establishing a Pan-African university to educate future leaders and promote unity, free from intellectual colonialism. According to the Emperor, a common African university providing an education to further African solidarity should be seriously considered.

Fourth, he advised overcoming tribal divides to break down trade barriers and build a united Africa like the US and USSR. “We must break all barriers separating us and unite regardless of background, adopting a shared language and outlook,” he said.

Sadly, this vision went unfulfilled for the generation that ousted the OAU’s founding father. The AfDB remains marginal, with the US, Japan, Germany, Canada, France and UK owning 40 percent of votes.

We lack a unified defense force. When crises erupt, we complain the US responds too slowly in East Africa, France in West Africa, and the UK in Commonwealth countries.

Unfortunately, we lack a common pan-African university, and we know more about Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle than Haile Selassie, Kwame Nkrumah, King Shaka Zulu, the Ashanti or ancient Egyptian pharaohs.

Tribal divisions, borders and policies stymie trade even within our continent, though Africa produces 50 percent of the world’s gold and 90 percent of precious metals. We must ask the World Bank for paper dollars to trade among ourselves.

Whose fault is this? How can we demand respect if we haven’t built our own institutions? Our leaders have no time to prioritize the African Development Bank envisioned by our founding fathers, while criticizing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The world is changing rapidly. A multi-polar world is emerging alongside fast-changing technologies in which Africa has no stake. What impact will this have on African banks and businesses if others control the internet, SWIFT, Google, artificial intelligence and fiber optic cables? Will Africa’s progress be snuffed out, just like that?

Technology provides both opportunities and disadvantages, especially for those who lack it. Gunpowder, steam engines and subsequent technologies widened the gap by enabling slavery and colonialism in Africa. Now artificial intelligence risks not just monopolizing thinking, but also shaping what is considered “true” – whoever designs the code can embed their values, truth and moral judgments.

A multipolar world is also emerging. The 20th century saw ideological battles between fascism, communism and liberal democracy that caused 100 million deaths. Fascism was defeated in Ethiopia in 1941 and Berlin in 1945, leaving liberal democracy and communism to battle for supremacy. When communism voluntarily surrendered in 1991, some hoped the world would become unipolar under liberal democracy.

Francis Fukuyama hastily concluded “The End of History,” arguing the Soviet Union’s collapse and liberal democracy’s triumph marked the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” He believed liberal democracy represented the ultimate form of government that all societies would eventually adopt.

However, events in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya show that liberal democracy alone is not benevolent. This has motivated the search for alternatives to SWIFT, the dollar, military alliances and current economic systems.

Africa remains heavily dependent on systems its forefathers warned against – SWIFT, the dollar, rented optical fibers, cloud servers and bank reserves that can be cut off at will. Tragically, many African leaders are unaware of these past warnings.

Instead, African leaders often killed or exiled those who tried to envision the future. Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a 1966 coup three years after his Addis Ababa speech. Ahmed Ben Bella, who led Algeria’s independence struggle and founded the OAU, was overthrown in a 1965 coup two years after signing the OAU charter. Modibo Keïta of Mali was ousted in a 1968 coup five years after signing the OAU charter. Emperor Haile Selassie was eventually deposed in 1974.

Those who overthrew Africa’s visionary leaders lacked their intellectual capacity and wisdom. Leaders like Mengistu, Bokassa, Amin and Taylor followed a politics of action that abolished thought.

Emperor Haile Selassie and Nkrumah’s speeches show Africa had men of vision for a better future. Unfortunately, they were outmaneuvered by the weapons of intellectual colonialism. Ethiopian students programmed to worship Stalin, Mao and Lenin destroyed everything in their path. Self-loathing became the new religion and stupidity the new virtue.

Today, 60 years later, Africa lags economically, politically and socially. Despite abundant resources, the idea of backing a strong pan-African currency did not emerge.

Why did Africa, especially Ethiopia, follow a path of thoughtless action for 50 years? While producing vast gold, platinum and uranium, Africa contributed only one percent of the world’s knowledge. Why? Because thoughtful, original thinking was policed. It was too risky to think, write or express unconventional ideas. Everyone had to parrot the rhetoric of those in power to survive.

The struggle ahead is not about controlling minerals, but nurturing human minds. Trillion dollar companies dominate without mines, farms or factories – they provide cyber services. The new battles involve drones, not soldiers’ bravery.

Emperor Haile Selassie I’s speech sounds prophetic today. I have no answer for how Africa can trade if cut off from SWIFT, the internet, Google and AI.

The only consolation is that solutions may also be simple: we must think. New progress comes not from metal workshops but human minds. For minds to become workshops of ideas, they need freedom of thought.

Ethiopia and Africa must empower youth to think critically and compete for Africa’s future. If not, Africa’s fate will be no different with new technologies. The key to wealth creation today lies in human minds.

Minds need freedom from fear and intimidation to generate new ideas. Those who enable this freedom hold the switch to Africa’s progress.

On the positive side, African youth have access to the same information as their wealthy world counterparts. If given opportunities to think, discuss and experiment with ideas, the best minds will emerge to solve Africa’s problems.

Unless we lift the ban on free thinking, intellectual experimentation and expression, we are doomed.

Post-Italian invasion, Ethiopia produced many brilliant thinkers who competed locally and globally: Haile Selassie I, Akililu Habtewold, Ketema Yiferu, Dr. Minase, Tsegaye Geberemedhin and others. They will be remembered for centuries for establishing the African Union, fighting colonialism, and contributing to African music, art and knowledge.

But when I tried to name thinkers from the revolutionary generation who made similar contributions to humanity and global knowledge, I drew a blank. Despite producing many PhDs, we have failed to produce minds that stand out for advancing human understanding.

This shows the harm done when we police thought. The new generation must be freed from the stifling intellectual environment of the past 60 years. Ethiopia and Africa must lift all barriers that prevent our youth from thinking critically, debating constructively and pursuing innovative solutions to Africa’s challenges.

Only then will we finally realize the pan-African vision of leaders like Haile Selassie and Kwame Nkruma – if the next generation is given the freedom to dream.

Yared Haile-Meskel is the managing director of YHM Consulting Plc and holds an MSc, an MPhil, and an MBA degree.

Contributed by Yared Haile-Meskel


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