The emergence and development of socialism in Africa came as a result of finding a new rallying point to foster economic growth in Africa. African nationalism had already united people together for the independence cause and African socialism stood as the new ideology for economic prosperity. It was a middle ground between Western capitalism and Soviet communism (the latter which adopted socialism for the administration of the whole Soviet Union). But as time progressed, the inefficiencies and loopholes of socialism in Africa got apparent and it was clear that the intended purposes of the ideology had failed to usher in comprehensive economic success for the continent.
As several African countries got their independence in the 1950s and 60s, the rejection of capitalism grew in popularity. Colonialism had brought capitalism and its evils to the continent. The rejection of capitalism at that time was a natural reaction by African leaders and a way to garner wide public support. It was lauded as a viable alternative regarding the economic prosperity of the continent. Between 1950 and the mid-1980s, 35 countries in Africa had adopted socialism in various forms. The wave of independence that swept across the continent at that time was supposed to empower the continent with true economic liberation, but this was not to be the case as the leaders dismally failed at executing their noble ideas.
The main inspiration for African socialism obviously came from the Union of the Soviet Socialists Republic (USSR, later Russia) and with how rapid industrialization was taking place in the USSR, there was a proven track record that socialism premised on the pre-colonial African society would work. The socialist running of the USSR also served as an inspiration for African countries because it was a departure from the capitalist machinations of the West. The way that the USSR was catching up with the United States of America and other European economic powerhouses compelled African leaders to think that they could also rival these Western superpowers.
It was also imperative for African countries to rapidly industrialize and modernize their infrastructure. State control of every aspect of the economy became the new gospel. But what was not understood was that the model from the USSR was fundamentally flawed because of egregious corruption and state force. The commanding nature of doing things was disastrous. In as much as the African countries claimed that their socialism was based on the precolonial traditions, the commanding nature of doing this made the implementation of the ideas futile.
Some of the main proponents of the socialist principle in Africa included Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, among others. For these leaders, African socialism promoted the ideals of togetherness as one community, as opposed to the individualistic nature of capitalism. African societies place emphasis on the role of the community, and as such, socialism was deemed a natural alignment with this. On the other hand, socialism provided an excuse for these leaders to trample on any dissenting opinions, effectively muzzling the opposition. The liberal ideals of democracy, which were an offshoot of capitalism were eschewed.
In the countries that chose socialism, the State emerged as the owner of the means of production. The economy had to be controlled by the State. Kwame Nkrumah introduced the Seven-Year Development Plan in 1964 which was heavily influenced by socialism. Private businesses were taken over by the State, leading to the birth of numerous state enterprises. Private capital was essentially abolished. Price controls were instituted such that by 1970, there were nearly 6,000 price controls relating to more than 700 product groups. Tanzania’s 1967 Arusha Declaration was the basis for a socialist state (Ujamaa). Workers and peasants were intended to own and control the means of production. Private capital was nationalized, and this included banks, insurance companies, and foreign trading companies.
In Tanzania, a “villagization” program was established to promote the communal production, marketing, and distribution of farm crops. Emphasis was placed on the community values that existed in precolonial African societies. Peasants were moved to new co-operative villages under resettlement programs which commenced in 1973. These new government villages were the idealized socialist way of running the whole agricultural process – from production to distribution. All crops were to be bought and distributed by the government as it was illegal for peasants to sell their own yield.
Ethiopia also did the same thing as there were forced resettlements on government farms. The idea was to harness the power of the community through collectivized agriculture. Mozambique also sought to establish a socialist state with collectivized agriculture, crop growing schemes, and village political committees. The concept of villagization as adopted in various countries was intended to increase food and cash crop production. Everyone was supposed to be included in the economic processes of the country. Common facilities for farming were intended to be availed to everyone capable of producing agricultural yield. The universal provision of social services such as education and health was supposed to be the hallmark point of African socialism.
In countries that embraced socialism, it meant that the state was at the helm of the economy. All the power was vested with the state. Governments became increasingly authoritarian because of such accumulated and consolidated power. All unoccupied land was appropriated by the governments. Marketing boards were tightened to ensure that they ripped off the producers, especially the farmers. Price controls peaked excessively.
This was the situation in Guinea under Sekou Toure as reported by The New York Times: “Unauthorized trading became a crime. Police roadblocks were set up around the country to control internal trade. The state set up a monopoly on foreign trade and smuggling became punishable by death. Currency trafficking was punishable by 15 to 20 years in prison. Many farms were collectivized. Food prices were fixed at low levels. Private farmers were forced to deliver annual harvest quotas to ‘Local Revolutionary Powers.’ State Companies monopolized industrial production.”
Despite the good ideals propounded by African socialism, that the whole society must own and control the means of production, the concept was an abysmal failure and led to widespread poverty. State controls led to artificial shortages and black markets became rampant. State-owned enterprises simply could not deliver. Most of these were inefficiently operated and were massively unprofitable. When Nkrumah was toppled from power, about 4 of the 64 enterprises were profitable. The bureaucracy of these enterprises resulted in appalling levels of corruption. This was detrimental to the interests of the whole economy at large. When people attempted to challenge these failures, they were met with brute force from the state. Many were sent to imprison, and some were executed. Force and terror were the means of communication that these African governments understood.
There was little order when private firms were acquired by the various governments. The result was utter mismanagement as there was no defined methodology to run these enterprises. For example, the “Ghana government-owned sugar factory at Komenda, after completion, stood idle for more than a year because it lacked a water supply system.” There was little incentive for proper management of these enterprises. Another example is the Ajaokuta Steel Mill in Nigeria. The Nigerian government purchased a steel-making furnace in 1975 manufactured by the Russians but it was built on a site distant from iron and coal mines such that it was rendered useless. Up to now, despite many capital injections, the factory is still useless yet over 100,000 people were on the payroll drawing pension.
The shortages which came as a result of state controls promoted rent-seeking activities. People wanted to increase their wealth without creating any new wealth. Illegal enrichment became the order of the day. Import and exchange controls became the most profitable activities. Ministers would demand a commission before issuing out import licenses. Some governments would deny import licenses to import newsprint to newspapers that were critical of them. People would buy scarce commodities at government-controlled prices so that they could resell those commodities on the black market for an enormous profit. The leaders who were at the forefront of socialism were the same ones who raided their countries’ treasuries and deposited such monies into private accounts in foreign banks.
African socialism failed to outlive the USSR. The fall of the USSR in 1991 killed any form of socialism that had existed as an official government policy in African countries. The force of democracy pushed by the West tore into the USSR, and that same force found its way in Africa too. Multi-party elections became the norm in several African countries. The death of the USSR was also the final death of socialism in Africa. The USSR had been run on communist ideology, although the State was administered in a purported socialist manner. The USSR was focusing on heavily militarizing the state such that collective farming had declined sharply. The same behavior was also manifested in African countries that adopted socialism.
Socialism in Africa failed because the leaders wanted to rapidly industrialize without paying attention to the peculiarities of their own countries. It failed because in trying to achieve mass ownership of the means of production and eradicate classes and class struggle, the leaders were selfish, corrupt, and used terror to enforce their ideas. There was no regard to the economic realities of the day. Everything was done haphazardly to garner mass support. It would however be prudent in this day to incorporate some of these ideas and mix them with the neo-liberal capitalist principles that dominate African economies today in order to reduce income inequalities among the citizens.