“There is no good name for a terrible disease” – Urhobo proverb.
“The solution to Africa’s problems lie solely in Africa” – George Ayittey.
Coconut Head Corruption (CHC) is a term derived from the vocabulary of George Ayittey. He is a distinguished U.S. based Ghanaian economist and is used to describe the observed hollow-headedness and thoughtlessness exhibited by corrupt African leaders and their clients. These Big Men Ayittey is critical of have engaged in corruption since the beginning of the post-colonial era. Ayittey consistently and emphatically in his works and on social media uses words like “Coconut Leader”, “Coconut combat” or “Coconut solutions” to address misgovernance and lousy leadership in African.
Coconut-prefixed words as Ayittey uses them is just one aspect of the sincere, blunt and uncompromising zeal with which he is opposed to corruption and deliberate under-development in Africa. Solving Africa’s problems is not a ‘popularity contest’; it is about consistent successful approaches and outcomes; political correctness has not done anything for Africa (Ayittey 1992). If a definition is to be put to it, Coconut Head Corruption would be “the misuse of office by ‘Coconut heads’ for private gain”.
Ayittey is also very much an energetic opponent of the heinous consequences of corruption in Africa (Ayittey 1992, 2002, 2005, 2006), which includes incapacitating burdens of debt (Ayittey 1988, 1992b, 1999, 2002, 2005), the worst experiences of poverty known to mankind (Ayittey 1987, 1992, 2002), a lack of enforceable institutions (Ayittey 1992, 2006, 2006b, 2012). Also poor or non-existent but necessary public services and goods (Ayittey 1992, 2002, 2005, 2012b), the suppression of free speech and freedoms (1992, 2006, 2012c), the lack of sustainable [free] trade (1992, 2002, 2005) a lack of prudent saving of GDP sufficient to foster sustainable economic growth (1992), the suppression of wilful democracy (Ayittey 2005, 2012, 2012c) and more all because Africa’s leaders put the theft of their treasuries incomparably before the interest of bettering their societies they are installed to govern (Ayittey 1992, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2006).
“Coconut Head” is precisely synonymous with the words “unwitting”, “idiot” and “senseless” and their adjectival forms. Symbolically, the coconut is mostly hollow, the very antithesis of a living human head packed ingeniously with complex networked brain cells. Many African intellectuals who he affirms are complicit in the de-civilisation of Africa are offended by Ayittey’s vocabulary; he remains undeterred (Ayittey 1992, 2012). Ayittey makes clear distinctions between “African leaders” and “African peoples”; the former predatory Coconut Heads and the latter a victimised and traumatised people who deserve far much better. How can the powerless be guilty of the crimes of the powerful in governance? (see Nane 2015) The symbolism of the coconut head is quite powerful in demonstrating thoughtlessness or irrationality in persons. “Coconut Head Corruption” is, therefore, that of the idiotic or unwitting kind (see 1992, 2006, 2006b). It necessitates a question that would raise the possibility of the notion of wise corruption. Philp (1997) is justified in rigorously questioning the basis for the notion of corruption-free politics, but it becomes challenging when the notion of foolish or unwise corruption is to be constructed and tested with rigour.
There is evidence that some Asian nations have achieved high economic growth despite simultaneously experiencing high levels of corruption (Rock & Bonnet 2004; Huang 2016). It has been suggested to occur, firstly due to the existence of “value-adding corruption” due to the production of net economic gains (Khan 1996). In Africa, corruption is mainly value-subtracting and the financial losses atrocious (Ayittey 1992). Secondly, it is due to the presence virulent ‘roving bandits’ who have short term access to state resources which has become a path-dependent incentive for politicians and officials to steal as much as they can while in office (Rock & Bonnet 2004; Kangoye 2013).
The existence of decidedly brutal and barbarous Coconut Heads as dictators that are impervious to reason and heavy-handed towards the political opposition and the masses ensures that democracy does work in Africa. Without freedom, how is Africa expected to develop and prosper? He affirms this by stating “It takes an intelligent or smart opposition to make democracy work” (Ayittey 2012c, 4). It implies that the opposition is often Coconut Heads too, operating with weak and vulnerable political strategies the dictators can undermine with relative ease. Ayittey asserts Africa’s indigenous agents and architects of its rapacious continental self-destruction as “Coconut Leaders” with “Coconut Mentalities”; “… a disgusting assortment of military coconut-heads, quack revolutionaries, crocodile liberators, “Swiss bank” socialists, and brief-case bandits. Faithful only to their private bank accounts, kamikaze kleptocrats raided and plundered the treasury with little thought of the ramifications on national development” (Ayittey 2006; 464). Corruption is bliss for such coconut heads and their clients. Ayittey sees most African leaders as black neo-colonialists that replaced white ones (Ayittey 1992).
Ayittey further questions the “wisdom” of reliance of African leaders on foreign goods, services and ideologies while under-developing their own (Ayittey 2006b). A staunch advocate of free trade, Ayittey would love Africa to trade favourably within and with the rest of the world and achieve indigenously determined economic success. However, he observes Africa being rendered unconducive for foreign direct investment and favourable trade arrangements because of “Africa’s environment of chaos, famine, diseases, civil wars, coups, dictatorships, social disorder, corruption and collapsed infrastructure repels foreign investment” (Ayittey 2002; 7). Africa is increasingly recording net outflows of income rather than net inflows of investment. Who wants to invest in corrupt dysfunction nations made so by thieving Coconut Heads?
In his essay, cum lamentation, A Strange Case of Xenophilia (2012b), Ayittey decries how Coconut Head leaders and bureaucrats, [if not Coconut entrepreneurs who feed off patronage] crash every sector of their economies and undermine most of the local capabilities but invest their “national incomes” in safer and stable foreign economies and capabilities. Why do African leaders not build their own safe and stable societies? Coconut Head Corruption and misgovernance. Ayittey emphasises to the world that African nations can only grow if they save at least 25% of their GDP annually (Ayittey 1992). Such a policy would reduce gratuitous capital flight, encourage necessary local investment and reduce the dependence of African nations on pernicious foreign aid. Nevertheless, corrupt African leaders are nothing better than outpost manager for the IMF despite political independence (Ayittey 2006; 464).
A nation like Nigeria spends 80-90% of its annual national income which is predominantly from crude oil sales on foreign goods and services, including the servicing of foreign loans, the rest is for looters. Even at a time when oil price woes have produced severe shocks to the Nigerian economy, her government is comfortable in passing high-spending budgets (Fick 2013). The spending is fuelled by foreign loans, especially from China. Ayittey is highly sceptical of the trade relationship between African Coconut Heads and China which he assesses to border on post-IMF Sino-colonialism in Africa (Ayittey 2011, 2017).
Nigeria is a good example that represents the persistent tragic fortunes of Africa courtesy CHC – abundant natural resources that can only produce governance failures and hell for its citizens and societies. Ayittey, like others, sees it as a problem of leadership and institutional failure (Achebe 1984; Ayittey 1992, 2002, 2006, 2012; Rowley 2000; Ake 2001; Nane 2017). A graphic representation of institutional failure is, “In Nigeria, basically nobody trusts the system. Nobody trusts the companies. Nobody trusts the government. Nobody trusts the regulatory agencies” (Ayittey 2006b). It is no surprise that anti-corruption campaigns in Nigeria produce messianic hopes and spectacular failures. Yet, most Nigerians see each successive Nigerian president as a “messiah”; the “good guy surrounded by bad guys” (Nane 2017) and the leader who is so infallible but his constituents are to blame for his greed and failures (Nane 2015). How about the institutions?
The problems of Africa are like coconuts. The problems are covered or protected by thick insulating fibrous layers. How do Africans get rid of the husk and shell that protect the de-civilisation happening in Africa?
Ayittey critically sees the husk of the coconut as the imitation of non-African practices to be the cause of African problems including corruption coupled with the neglect of indigenous African institutions and negligence of robust indigenous trade mechanisms (Ayittey 2005, 2006). Ayittey advocates “Intelligent Retrogression” originally advocated by Rev S.R.B. Attoh-Ahuma, a turn of the 20th Century Ghanaian philosopher, which is a profound call to return to the way of life that is deeply and customarily embodied by Africans (Ayittey 2006). Ayittey affirms that indigenous institutions will serve Africa best (Ayittey 1995, 2005, 2006). Ayittey goes on to demonstrate that while the “civic” state of Somalia failed but “the indigenous traditional” counterpart succeeds (Ayittey 1994, 2004). Ekeh (1975) supports this notion by claiming that as a legacy of colonialism, members of African societies are loyal and moral towards the “primordial” [indigenous traditional] public but they are amoral towards “civic” [foreign] public [say the government apparatus]. Institutions which are implicated to be lacking in Africa can only be enforceable or complied with if citizens customarily embody them (Hodgson 2006). Nations with the best institutions will have the best performing economies and societies (Olson 1996; Hodgson & Knudsen 2004).
The coconut [head] has no place in Intelligent Retrogression or similar [inclusive of free enterprise, social freedoms, free speech or good governance by consensus]. African ways are like full-packed produce with soft skins, not one with such hard and protective exteriors its fruit can only be accessed by violent breakage. While African societies were not traditionally based on Western-style “grand” ideologies and post-Enlightenment discourse, they were developed by way of genuine necessity, far-reaching consensus, consistent rights of freedom, free speech and the surpluses created by free enterprise (Ayittey 1992, 2002, 2005, 2006). It is post-colonial auto-colonialism by African leaders that has stifled the development of the continent with governments introducing barriers to free enterprise and the expansion of unproductive state apparatus parasitic (Ayittey 2005).
Breaking the coconut is the solution to Africa’s numerous problems, especially corruption. When the coconut is broken urgency to necessity, the power of consensus, unalienable rights, free speech and free enterprise should return to African societies with the will produce their solutions and grow their economies by themselves. A quote from Ayittey 2006; 558) is an allegorical end to an excellent book; “Rykia Selengia, a traditional healer, passed a coconut around and around the head of her kneeling client. The coconut went around the man’s left arm, then the right, then each leg. When she handed the coconut to the client, Mussa Norris, he hurled it onto a stone. It shattered, releasing his problems to the winds (The Washington P9ost, Nov. 12, 2001, A21).”
If one wants to sincerely wants to solve the intractable problem of corruption in Africa, the coconut must be broken along with the power and excesses of the Coconut Head leaders. In Defeating Dictators, Ayittey recommends non-violent solutions rooted in proper democracy to achieve such breakage. Finally, Ayittey asserts that the Cheetah Generation [competent entrepreneurial young Africans] that see any social failing as a business opportunity will achieve this breaking of the coconut by overthrowing the strongholds of the Hippopotamus Generation [parasitic Coconut Heads]. They create endless social failures which they profit from (Ayittey 2014). The days of the Coconut Head leader and his misgovernance are numbered, perhaps only foreign aid and mineral sales keep them power (Ayittey 1999, 2006).
It may be easy to see why the Afro-pessimism is the ‘prevailing reality’ of the continent and Afro-optimism is an abstract wishful reverie with incomparable exceptions like Botswana. The prevailing reality of Africa is so very predictable and repetitively presented with hard evidence that it has acquired a near-scientific fidelity to it. Such pessimism, according to Ayittey, is because it insanity to repeat the same mistakes and expect different results.
Grimot Nane, Green Economics Institute
London, 21st of April 2017
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