African Solutions for African Problems – The Real Meaning

By Prof George Ayittey*

Prof AyitteyEver since I coined the expression “African solutions for African problems” in 1993, it has been hijacked and debauched or corrupted. American conservatives misinterpreted that to mean “Africans solving their own problems and therefore do not need any foreign aid or assistance from the US.” The Clinton administration also seized that expression to showcase Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaiah Afewerki of Eritrea, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Laurent Kabila of Congo DR and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as the “new leaders of Africa,” applying their own “African solutions to their African problems.” Then the AU subsequently jumped in.

“African solutions for African problems” does NOT mean just about any solution crafted by African dictators, organizations or a group of Africans. That was not what I meant. Rather an “African solution” is that which is anchored or tooted in African tradition, culture or heritage. There were two reasons why I coined that expression. First, our post colonial development experience can be characterized as “development-by-imitation.” We copied all sorts of foreign and alien ideologies, systems and paraphernalia and transplanted them into Africa. New York has skyscrapers; so too must we and we built them in the middle of nowhere in Africa. Rome has a basilica; so too must we and we built one in Yamassoukrou, Ivory Coast. France once had an emperor; so Bokassa of CAR spent $25 million in 1978 to crown himself one. The US has only two political parties; so Babangida created exactly two for Nigeria in 1992. Get the idea? I can go on and on. The continent is littered with the putrid carcasses of these failed systems. And we are still at it, having built 38 Confucius Institutes in 28 African countries – not “Ubuntu Institutes.” Enough copying! It is time we crafted our own African models and solutions.

Second, I have always believed that Africa’s salvation (or solutions to Africa’s problems) do not lie along the corridors of the World Bank or the US Congress. Nor do they lie in the inner sanctum of the Chinese politburo or the Russian praesidiium. Neither do they lie in the steamy sex antics of cockroaches on Jupiter! They lie in Africa’s own bosom – in her indigenous institutions. If you care to look, you will find that there is a Western way of doing things or solving problems and there is an “African way.” Here are three examples that are relevant.


The traditional Africa system of government is open and inclusive, where strangers, foreigners and even slaves could participate in the decision-making process. The kings and chiefs of Angola and Asante, for example, allowed European merchants to send their representatives to their courts. The Dutch dispatched an embassy to the Asantehene’s court as early as 1701. In Angola, King Alfonso allowed the Portuguese merchants to send their spokesman, Dom Rodrigo, to his court. Europeans could even be selected chiefs. For example, in 1873, Zulu king Cetshwayo made an English hunter/trader, John Dunn, chief of an isifunda, or district. Dunn became fully integrated into the social system, married 48 Zulu women, accumulated a large following of clients, and even rose to the rank of isikhulu. In Ghana today, there are white chiefs

In governance, whereas the West practiced majoritarian, or representative, democracy, Africans have practiced participatory democracy, where decisions are taken by consensus at village meetings. When a crisis erupts in an African village, the chief and the elders would summon a village meeting and put the issue before the people. There the issue is debated by the people until a consensus is reached. During the debate, the chief usually made no effort to manipulate the outcome or sway public opinion. People express their ideas openly and freely without fear of arrest. Once a decision is reached by consensus, it is binding on all, including the chief. These village meetings are variously called asetena kese by the Ashanti, ama-ala by the Igbo, guurti by the Somali, dare by the Shona, ndaba by the Zulu or kgotla by the Tswana. It may be noted that the Nobel Peace Committee and the WTO also take decisions by consensus. More importantly, dictatorship and one-party state systems are incompatible with systems that reach decision by consensus.

By contrast, the type of governance practiced by modern African leaders can only be characterized as “politics of exclusion.” Power is monopolized by some buffoon or a group (military, religious or a political party) and that power is used to enrich that rat or advance the economic interests of that group. All other groups are excluded in an apartheid-like manner. Needless to say, nearly all the civil wars in post colonial Africa were started by politically excluded or marginalized groups. The fact that such as system was crafted and implememnted by an African leader does not make it an “African solution” because it violates the principle of inclusiveness.


Since 1970, more than 40 wars have been fought on the continent. Year after year, one African country after another has imploded with deafening staccato, scattering refugees in all directions: Sudan (1972), Angola (1975), Mozambique (1975), Ethiopia (1985), Liberia (1992), Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Zaire (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Congo DRC (1998), Ethiopia/Eritrea (1998), Guinea (1999), and Ivory Coast (2001, 2005 AND 2010), Libya (2011).

The vast majority of Africa’s conflicts are intra‑state in origin. They are not about driving away colonial infidels, or redrawing colonial boundaries. They are about political power, pure and simple: Power to plunder resources; power to allocate resources to oneself, cronies and kinsmen; power to perpetuate oneself in office; and power to crush one’s enemies. The wars invariably pit an autocratic “government” on one side against a rebel group, representing a politically excluded group, on the other.

Various attempts are made to reach a peace accord without success. More than 30 such peace accords have been brokered in Africa since the 1970s with an abysmal success record. Only Mozambique’s 1991 peace accord has endured, while shaky pacts hold in Angola, Chad, Liberia, and Niger. Elsewhere, peace accords were shredded like confetti even before the ink on them was dry, amid mutual recriminations of cease-fire violations. The most spectacular failures were: Angola (1991 Bicesse Accord, 1994 Lusaka Accord), Burundi (1993 Arusha Accord), DR Congo (July 1999 Lusaka Accord), Rwanda (1993 Arusha Accord), Sierra Leone (1999 Lome Accord), Ivory Coast (2003 Accra Accord).

All collapsed because they adopted the Western approach to conflict resolution. The cornerstone of this approach, often foisted on Africa by well-intentioned Western donors, is direct face-to-face negotiation between warring factions. But Africa’s own indigenous conflict resolution mechanism provides a better approach. It requires four parties: An arbiter, the two combating parties, and civil society or those directly and indirectly affected by the conflict (the victims). For example, in traditional Africa, when two disputants cannot resolve their differences by themselves, the case is taken to a chief’s court for adjudication. The court is open and anyone affected by the dispute can participate. The complainant makes his case, then the defendant. Next, anybody else who has something to say may do so. After all the arguments have been heard, the chief renders a decision. The guilty party may be fined say three goats. In default, his family is held liable.

The injured party receives one goat, the chief another goat for his services, and the remainder slaughtered for a village feast for all to enjoy. The latter social event is derived from the African belief that it takes a village, not only to raise a child, but also to heal frayed social relations. Thus, traditional African jurisprudence lays more emphasis on healing and restoring social harmony and peace than punishing the guilty. Further, the interests of the community supersede those of the disputants. If they adopt intransigent positions, they can be sidelined by the will of the community and fined say two goats each for disturbing social peace. In extreme cases, they can be expelled from the village. Thus, there is a price to be paid for intransigence and for wreaking social mayhem — a price exacted by the victims.

Africans have this proverb: “When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled or hurt.” To resolve the conflict, the Western approach requires direct face-to-face negotiations between the two elephants. The African approach requires the participation of the “grass” as well. Therefore, the African way of resolving the conflicts in CAR and South Sudan requies the involvement of CIVIL SOCIETY (the grass) as well.


In pursuing justice, there is a difference between the Western and African. Whereas Western jurisprudence emphasizes punishing the guilty, traditional African jurisprudence upholds 3Rs: Restitution, reconciliation and restoration of social harmony.  For example, in 2005, the International Criminal Court contemplated issuing an arrest warrant against Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord Resistance Army, which insists Uganda must be governed by the Ten Commandments. The LRA had abducted over 20,000 children, often at night, brainwashing them to kill to carry out this terroristic campaign in northern Uganda. Anyone who stood in their way was brutally slaughtered or maimed. But some victims objected to the arrest warrant, preferring the traditional path to forgiveness, In fact, one chief of the Acholi, the dominant tribe in the war-torn north, even traveled to The Hague to register his objection: “When we talk of arrest warrants it sounds so simple but an arrest warrant doesn’t mean the war will end.”  Lars Erik Skaansar, the top United Nations official in Gulu, has sought peace in as varied places as the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and the Middle East over the last 12 years. “I have never seen such a capacity to forgive,” he said (The New York Times, April 19, 2005; p.A1)

.Among the Acholi, a forgiveness ritual begins when an offender sticks his bare right feet in a freshly cracked egg, which symbolizes innocent life, according to local custom, By dabbing himself in it, a killer is restoring himself to the way he used to be. Next, he brushes himself against the branch of a pobo tree, which symbolically cleanses him. After stepping over a pole, he is welcomed back into the community by the chief. The forgiveness ritual however must be conducted in public with a confession (or admission of gilt), a public request for forgiveness and a promise to make restitution. That ensures that there are not only “witnesses” but also avowed sincerity.

Rwanda also has a similar vehicle known as gacaca. In 2001, it learned that if it were to apply Western jurisprudence to try the over 100,000 suspects in the 1994 genocide, it would take more than a century to bring al of them to justice. So to restore peace, reconciliation, and justice, the government turned to the traditional courts – gacaca in 2001. The gacaca court (pronounced ga-cha-cha) means “on the grass.” It emphasizes reconciliation, not retribution. Throughout Rwanda’s history, neighbors have settled disputes by adjourning to the gacaca to sit, discuss and mediate personal and community problems.

In sum, modern African leaders have been foreign solutions to teir problems much of the post colonial period. The fact that these solutions were or are applied by African leaders does not make them “African solutions for African problems.” The reason why Nelson Mandela stood so tall among them was he applied distinctly African solutions.

Mandela governed South Africa like an African chief. He was a consensus-builder, humble and adopted a style of governance that was inclusive. In addition, he had this unfathomable capacity to forgive – attributes that won him worldwide acclaim. But where did these attributes dome from? Form the indigenous system. Mandela came from a royal family; his father was a chief at Qunu and his grandson a chief at Mzevo. Mandela learned from his father style of governance:

  • The vehicle he chose to dismantle apartheid after his release from prison was CODESA – Convention for a Democratic South Africa. That vehicle was NOT for direct face-to-face negotiation between the National Party and the ANC. Rather, it was inclusive – 248 delegates. Even the right wing Afrikanner parties were invited to participate, though they chose to boycott it. CODESA was modeled after Africa’s own village meeting concept.
  • When he became president, he made F.W. de Klerk his deputy president (inclusiveness)
  • Mandela also set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which is straight out of African jurisprudence.  The wisdom in resorting to this lies in the fact that, if Mandela were to apply Western jurisprudence and punish all those guilty of apartheid crimes, there would no whites left in South Africa.

So next time somebody touts an “African solution for an African problem,” ask him or her what is distinctly African about it or what African tradition is that anchored in.

*Prof. Ayittey is a distinguished Economist and Founder and President of the Free Africa Foundation

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One Comment

  1. The African justice system you proposed is rather a contributory factor to the many conflicts on the continent. For example power-hungry people or selfish people or people with legitimate grievances refuse negotiations, go ahead to cease power putting society in disorder, loss of innocent lives etc. In Sierra Leone, as was expected, Charles Taylor and his rebels or opposition, having this in mind, refused negotiations till they realised their dream of leading the country. Later, Prince Johnson and his cohorts ‘confessed’ and were forgiven. Consequently, they would go on to play important political roles. The situation is similar in other conflict-torn regions. What lessons do people, especially the African youth, learn from these? Africans must evolve and have up-to-date, workable justice system to deal with corrupt leaders and criminals, hard-nut rebels, selfish people etc. Your recommendation of the African justice system as a means of solving conflicts would encourage more conflicts. At best, it may be good in solving petty community problems. (

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