Africa had free markets and a thriving entrepreneurial culture and tradition centuries before these became the animating ideas of the United States or Western Europe. Timbuktu, the legendary city in northern Mali, was a famous trading post and marketplace as far back as the twelfth century, as vital to the commerce of North and West Africa as ports on the Mediterranean were to Europe and the Levant. In Africa Unchained, George Ayittey offers myriad examples of industrial activity in precolonial Africa, from the indigo-dye cloth trade of fourteenth-century Kano, Nigeria, to the flourishing glass industry of precolonial Benin to the palm oil businesses of southern Nigeria to the Kente cotton trade of the Asante of Ghana in the 1800s: “Profit was never an alien concept to Africa. Throughout its history there have been numerous entrepreneurs. The aim of traders and numerous brokers or middlemen was profit and wealth.”2 The tragedy is what happened next. These skills and traditions were destroyed, damaged, eroded or forced underground, first during centuries of slave wars and colonialism and, later, through decades of corrupt postindependence rule, usually in service to foreign ideologies of socialism or communism. No postcolonial leader in Africa who fought for independence has ever adequately explained why liberation from colonial rule necessarily meant following the ideas and philosophies of Karl Marx, a gray-bearded nineteenth-century German academic who worked out of the British Library and never set foot in Africa. At the same time, neither should we have ever allowed ourselves to become beholden to paternalistic aid organizations that were sending their representatives to build our wells and plant our food for us. Nor, for that matter, should we have relied on the bureaucrats of the Western world telling us how to be proper capitalists or—as is happening now—to Party officials in Beijing telling us what they want in exchange for this or that project. It was this outside influence—starting with colonialism but later from our own terrible and corrupt policies and leaderships—that the stereotype of the lazy, helpless, unimaginative and dependent African developed. The point is that we Africans have to take charge of our own destiny, and to do this we can call on our own unique culture and traditions of innovation, free enterprise and free trade. We are a continent of entrepreneurs.
Ashish J. Thakkar (The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa's Economic Miracle)