Introduction

This article is largely derived from the theory of squanderation developed in my recent book, The Failure and Feasibility of Capitalism in Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), which won the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa Book Award of the Year 2022. In this anthology, I argued that capitalism is largely dysfunctional in contemporary Africa. The driving motive behind dysfunctional capitalism in Africa is the personal enrichment of dominant elites through the direct or indirect appropriation and use of state power. In dysfunctional capitalist systems, politics is hardly oriented towards production and service delivery, but “eating” or “squanderation.” By far, politics remains the biggest business in town, and political entrepreneurs far outplay business entrepreneurs in the local economy, which is an aberration for any capitalist economy.

Africa remains the weakest regional link of the global economy. The effects of poor economic performance in the continent are horrendous – widespread poverty, misgovernance, appalling infrastructures and public service delivery, high level of youth unemployment and restiveness, vulnerability of too many young people, including women to extremist violence and armed insurgencies, as well as high level of internal displacement and forced migration to destinations within and outside the continent.

The “Eating” Metaphor

The logic behind dysfunctional capitalism can be extrapolated mutatis mutandis from the 2009 epic rendition of the renowned British journalist and a former Africa correspondent for Reuters and The Financial Times Michela Wrong, who centred her story on the business of politics in Kenya, in It’s Our Turn to Eat. Michela Wrong captured this dominant culture of politics as a culture of using state power “to eat.” It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenya Whistle Blower explores the typically Kenyan and African euphemism for using political power to embezzle public funds, and the fate that befell the first head of the state anti-corruption bureau who was forced to flee the country after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government.

The reasoning behind the political economy of “eating” can be metaphorically coalesced in this way: ‘We have been hungry and starved for so long. Now, we have the power, and we don’t know for how long. Things can be unpredictable over here, and too many desperately want to get their hands on the pie. It is our turn to “eat,” and we must make the most of it. Anybody that wants to help us eat — “a useful idiot”1 — wherever they may come from, could get their own share. Let the masses eat the crumbs and any leftovers.’

Undeniably, the logic in a nutshell frames the political economy of “eating” or squanderation around ruling elites that have seized control of state power! Even in corrupt dictatorships that have the benefit of longevity (e.g., the regimes of Obiang Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Mswati III in Eswatini, Denis Sassou Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, among others), the logic is the same, because most ruthless dictatorships end abruptly, especially when prebendal corruption and impoverishment of the people are added vices.

In It’s Our Turn to Eat, Michela Wrong investigated the multi-faceted Anglo Leasing corruption scandals in Kenya. The Anglo Leasing scandal involved many top Kenyan officials and tycoons, the “big eaters,” who connived with the proprietors of Anglo Leasing, a British registered company, to siphon millions of dollars from the government treasury through multiple contract scams. The UK company had 18 contracts with the Kenyan government for the supply of everything, from a forensic laboratory to a navy frigate and jeeps: 16% of the government’s expenditure in 2003–2004 went to Anglo Leasing.2 There is no scarcity of “useful idiots”, expatriate and local, in the political economy of “eating.” John Githongo, the respected Kenyan journalist and President Mwai Kibaki government’s short-lived anti-corruption Tzar, investigated and exposed the scandal at enormous personal risk.

The pervading mentality and orientation of politics in most African states is one of cutting and eating the national cake as opposed to contributing towards producing or baking it. The process of accessing, getting a share, or gaining control of the cake can be brutal. The African metaphor of “eating” is what I have derived from this book to frame a political economy for the theory of squanderation. In some countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and DRC, among others, the predatory “eaters” too often encroach on the crumbs and leftovers meant for the masses. For example, pension funds for retirees, benefits for the government officials that died on active service, funds for taking care of “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), agricultural subsidies for rural farmers, as well as disaster and emergency relief supplies/funds, are “eaten” by privileged state officials in charge of the funds. In Nigeria, the wages of civil servants, schoolteachers and ordinary workers can be delayed for months while the elected executive office holders, and their many political appointees, plunder state resources.3 In the aftermath of the May 2023 swearing in of newly elected government officials, no fewer than 34 outgoing, returning, and sitting governors in Nigeria had a huge burden of unpaid gratuities, while 27 of them were being choked by unpaid pension arrears running into millions of dollars.4

The Dysfunctionality of the State and Squanderisation as a Resultant Political Culture

Dysfunctional capitalism is essentially a product of the dysfunctionality of the state and statist elites. The greatest problem with dysfunctional capitalism is that it makes total nonsense of the economics of policy planning, reforms, resource allocation, and inclusive development. Furthermore, the political culture of squanderisation subverts public institutions, including the institutions meant to regulate the conduct of public office holders and all other actors in the political space. This political cultures also affects the larger society because many who cannot competitively enter the political space to “eat” (even at the lowest possible levels) inadvertently turn their micro-organizational spaces and agencies into platforms and devices for squanderisation, such as schools, universities, hospitals, civil societies, banks; they all become “eating” devices for those in charge, with the result being a proliferation of “intermediate” and “petite” “eaters” across the state and society. This societal dimension, often intrinsic to the dominant political culture, features in the systemic “eating” infrastructures of the state and its political structures and processes. The culture of “eating” fundamentally threatens the cohesion and institutionality of the state, further corroding its capacity to effectively re-engineer capitalism along productive lines, and regulate the economy for the good of all.

The Historical Context of Dysfunctional Capitalism in Africa

There is a historical context to dysfunctional capitalism in Africa. Africa inherited a disadvantageous colonial brand of capitalism when achieving independence, known as “frontier capitalism.” Frontier capitalism of the colonial order was dominated by Western extractive and accumulation interests. This status quo was not completely acceptable to the post-colonial elites that had control of political power in post-independence Africa. Bereft of any significant material foundations, the post-colonial governing elites needed to get their hands on the economic ladder. Therefore, they took advantage of having control of state power to devise coercive and extractive mechanisms for advancing their interests in capturing inherited colonial economies. They did this largely as “gatekeepers,” without overriding the interests of the ex-colonizers and other Western stakeholders who were allowed to continue to dominate the neocolonial post-independence economies. In the process of tinkering with the inherited frontier capitalism to mainstream their own accumulation interests, the governing African postcolonial elites have succeeded, in collaboration with global elites, in proliferating diverse contraptions of “unproductive” capitalism, which have largely impeded growth and development on the continent. Among the aberrant versions of capitalism that have developed in post-colonial Africa are oligarchic capitalism, crony capitalism, hostage capitalism, predatory capitalism, rentier capitalism, mafia capitalism, and the likes. The seemingly viable and productive forms of capitalism – mixed-economy capitalism, developmental state capitalism, and entrepreneurial capitalism – are essentially relegated. Entrepreneurial capitalism, which has the greatest potential to generate growth, employment, and development, is practically suffocated by the seemingly more dominant dysfunctional forms of capitalism in most countries on the continent.

Governance Dimensions of Dysfunctionality and the Exceptions to the “Eating” Metaphor

There are corresponding governance dimensions of dysfunctional capitalism in Africa, which are mostly expressed in the different ways governing elites capture the state, the state’s governance, and regulatory apparatuses to further their capital accumulation tendencies. Liberal democracy in all its institutional and operational forms, which has been embraced by most African states due partly to Western pressure, has not only been heavily compromised in several states, but captured by powerful factions of the political elites intent on the pursuit of narrow non-productive interests.

Despite the pervasiveness of the political economy of squanderation in Africa, one cannot generalize that all capitalist economies in Africa are essentially dysfunctional, or that the dysfunctionality of capitalism is an irredeemable phenomenon. Africa comprises 54 sovereign states, implying that there are 54 capitalist economies in Africa. Likewise, the political economy of “eating” does not affect all African states equally. There are some capitalist economies in post-colonial Africa that have never had any significant problem with the “eating” phenomenon, the principal agency for dysfunctionality. In countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana, Morocco and Namibia, the political culture of “eating” has not been a serious problem.  There are a few other capitalist economies that were previously on the dysfunctional trajectory but have managed to turn it around (e.g. Rwanda). Other countries, like post-colonial Tanzania and Egypt, started off relatively well without the “eating” culture, but things gradually derailed. Presently, they seem to be getting back on track, away from the debilitating syndrome of “eating.”

Most of the African countries that are either on track, or returning to the track, are all small economies. High levels of extreme poverty are still a big problem for many of them. At the pace in which they are growing, and with effective and purposeful leadership, policy planning, resource allocation, and effective management, most of them may be able to effectively deal with the challenges of extreme poverty in the long-term. Evidently, however, Africa needs far more prosperity than what the small economies can deliver at their current pace of growth and development. Moreover, if a handful of small economies are getting on track while many of the relatively large countries, economies, and potential giants (e.g. Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, DRC, Sudan, and post-war Ethiopia) are failing to realize their full potential; the latter countries could become a nuisance to the former countries, especially as the quest for a continent-wide African economic community—the market integration project with its free movement protocol—gains momentum.

Looking Beyond Squanderation to Fix Dysfunctional Versions of Capitalism in Africa

Beyond theorising the political economy of squanderation, I have also examined the structure of Africa’s relations with the West, which includes the peculiar circumstances and parlous underdevelopment of Francophone Africa in the book. In making a case for accelerated capitalist development in Africa, it is pertinent to adopt policy options that go beyond the orthodox neoliberal capitalist framework, which include promoting strategic private sector-led stakeholder partnerships for the injection of microfinance, and to stimulate expansion and growth of small and micro-enterprises. Most fundamentally, there is the need to have a change in the mindset of Africa’s governing elites to reflect visionary transformative leadership, which includes developmental state-guided and people-centered development and democratic governance. The challenge of moving beyond squanderation to productivity and equitable redistribution lies at the heart of developmental capitalism in Africa.

Endnotes

  1. Borrowed from the title of John Sweeney’s book, The Useful Idiot (2020), but used in a different context to describe unscrupulous businesses, fronts and racketeers that connive with the African governing elites in the political economy of “eating” for the purpose of getting their own share. There is no scarcity of useful idiots at home and abroad—contractors, business tycoons, middlemen, fronts, bankers, etc. See: John Sweeney, 2020. The Useful Idiot. Kidderminster: Silvertail Books.
  2. Raymond Bonner (2009) “The Stink of Corruption”, The Guardian 21 April 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/14/ politics. Read also: Michela Wrong (2009) It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. New York: Harper Perennial Publishers.
  3. For detailed classification and analysis corruption in Nigeria, see: Matthew T. Page (2018) “A New Taxonomy for Corruption in Nigeria.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/ 07/17/new-taxonomy-for-corruption-in-nigeria-pub-76811.
  4. Vanguard (8/06/2023) “Nigeria: Unpaid Gratuities, Pensions, Salaries Choke States.” Nigerian national newspaper, https://allafrica.com/stories/202306080308.html
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