African elites or public intellectuals have in the past failed to bring about the required development in Africa, argues Kafui Tsekpo. But in the post-2015 era, he says there is a need for a new generation of these elites with sufficient knowledge and willingness to take on the current development challenges of the continent

THE role of elites in the development of Africa has been widely debated.  This debate has been much covered in the Council for the Development Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) commissioned work on

African intellectuals: Rethinking politics, language, gender and development. More specifically, there has been interest in explaining the role of the African intelligentsia and their adhesion to (under) development. The reason African elites have not fostered transformation on the continent is due to self-imposed wedges between elite groupings, the inability to cultivate organic ideas about development.  

There are constant disagreements between the intelligentsia, and the petit bourgeois; and between the intelligentsia and political elites; and disagreements among the political elites and traditional rulers; and between the entire elite composition and the citizenry. The differences between the political elites is illustrated by the animosity especially between: Kwame Nkrumah and J. B. Danquah in Ghana; Fily-Dabo Sissoko and Mamadou Konate in the French Sudan; Lamine Gueye and Leopold Senghor in Senegal; the Sardauna of Sokoto, Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria; Godwin Lewanika and Harry Nkumbula in Central Africa; and Jomo Kenyatta and Eliud Mathu of Kenya.

Thus, the urgency of our time behoves the African elites to form a symbiotic relationship of embedded autonomy among themselves and with other cleavages in society and with the state as an institution. This urgency requires a homogenising discourse that will fulfil the valuable task of unifying the diverse composition of most African nations, and take full cognizance of the global battle lines of development.


The subjugation of the African academy to its Western counterparts has robbed the former of agency in knowledge productions, as it struggles for identity and autonomy. This is in part due the nature of the post-colonial state in Africa. “With their ears finely tuned to the voices of foreign experts and deaf to local voices, African states simply didn’t care about local debates, except when they threatened state authority,” notes Professor Thandika Mkandawire  of the London School of Economics. Hence many intellectuals allowed themselves to be “yoked to power”, and to accept the injunction: “silence: we are developing”.

“The African state has posed a serious dilemma for African intellectuals, at once seductive and menacing. On the one hand, it’s strengthening has always been deemed necessary both for safeguarding the sovereignty of the new states and for steering the nation-building project; on the other hand”.

After experiencing high economic growth rates through massive industrialisation and expansion in the social sectors of the economy leading to high income levels and a feeling of satisfaction that the independence project was yielding dividends, Africa lost two decades: 1970-1990. Subsequent to the Lost Decade, recovery has been slow with little dividends to show. The primary cause of this catastrophe is that there was never an African idea of development. Little attention both in academia and in the public space was devoted to expounding and reflecting on the critical issues germane to the transformation of the continent. The norm in development planning and practice was the replication of what has worked elsewhere with little recourse to the people for whom it was to serve.  

Whatever was done in the name of development was based on the assumption that the people will like it. And since the ideas that fuelled development planning and practice was ‘alien’, once disaster struck, we had no solutions and thus found ourselves running to our ‘enemies’ whose raison d'etre in African affairs is resource control and domination. In sum, the African elites failed to generate the necessary ideas for development.

Since the beginning of the 1990s Africa has relied heavily on the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) for its development miracle. The BWIs in turn prescribed neo-liberalism as an economic and political ideology suitable for re- engineering the needed development in the Africa through adjustment policies. From the earliest phase, the neo-liberal economic recovery programmes have travelled in phases from democratisation to globalisation, from good governance to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and now Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each phase has been accompanied with a set of free market oriented policy prescriptions and targets to be achieved. The basis upon which development or otherwise is measured.

As such, Africa has become a ‘project in progress’, adjusting through donor imposed project in the name of developing. By this, the mind and soul of the continent has been detached from it. African elites have been a collaborator in this agenda. The centres of learning mandated to originate ideas for transformations have become incubating hubs for Western ‘received wisdom’. African scholars have become appendages to their Western peers in a subordinated role. From the academy, government, economic to social spaces the African intelligentsia have accepted without questioning the assumptions of these BWIs prescriptions channelled through Western academic institutions and organisations. The few that questions these ‘received wisdoms’ are choked out of the system.   

The quest for transformation in Africa, by eradicating the “unholy trinity of poverty, ignorance and disease” of a “bottom billion” is long overdue. This calls for an intense appreciation of the place of Africa in global happenings, requiring a struggle for re-liberation of the identity and dignity of the continent. A struggle synonymous with the various pro-independence liberation struggles, albeit with a different strategy. This struggle squarely lies on the shoulders of the nouveau elites. The recovery from ‘underdevelopment’ demands not political sloganeering, but rather serious minds to explore the problems of development and underdevelopment.

The nouveau elites must challenge Western discourses in the spaces in which they find themselves, especially in the space of global networking. The intellectual elites need to master and fine-tune our own indigenous knowledge and knowledge systems to generate the quintessential ideas need for transformation. The generated knowledge must be packaged and shared with the economic elites in attractive ways to trigger value creation. This must be done with no apologies for the fact that these will necessarily differ from the received wisdom. For this to happen, nouveau elites must foster an embedded network of complementarity, resorting to indigenous knowledge systems with a global outlook. With dedication and strife, the public intellectual will move Africa from the periphery to the centre of global affairs. To do this, the Ghanaian academic, Takyiwaa Manuh, said in a 2002 edition of the CODESRIA Bulletin, the nouveau elites must “interrogate our institutional cultures and practices, [including our] management policies, power relations, resource allocation and division of labour [in the adoption] of equal opportunity policies” .

The state in Africa continues to be tied to the apron strings of the West and China. With the advent of globalisation and its discontent, the state in Africa is in theory independent, with all the furnishings of sovereignty. However, in reality its economic, political and social systems are directed in different forms, externally by the BWIs and are associates.  The nouveau African intellectuals must be at the forefront of the global battle to bring Africa to the centre as responsible citizens. This struggle against the West and China adjusting African economies must not be to alienate western capital from flowing into Africa, but to prevent it from being used in such a ways that will continue to impoverish the ‘bottom billion’.

Kafui Tsekpo is an independent researcher and peace, security and development advocate based in Ghana. The above has been excerpted from a longer paper presented at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi in November 2015.