The Students and Young Professionals African Liberty Academy 2010: Talking Freedom in East Africa

Thursday, September 02, 2010

If one of our core objectives was  training a new corps of future visionaries and leaders who will carry the torch of liberty and blaze the trail of prosperity in the coming dawn of African renaissance, we needed to sow our seeds across the continent so, we can raise  many champions of freedom, who, otherwise would have been limited by finance to travel outside of their regions.

 “I’ve looked helplessly at life on these streets every morning, where kids don’t go to school and parents don’t go to work. I’ve looked on and thought that there was no hope for these folk, and bowed my head in shame. But after the first week of August 2009 at the Students and Young Professionals African Liberty Academy facilitated by IMANI, I believe in hope for these folk. I believe their hope is me and I am their hope. If only I will stop thinking about the problems and work on the solutions.”

The above observation from a participant in the 2009 Students and Young Professionals African Liberty Academy (SYPALA) posed a huge challenge to the organizing team of the 2010 edition of SYPALA to deliver a programme that will equally meet participants’ expectations of SYPALA being a clearing house for transformative ideas. 

Even more unpredictable was the decision to venture out of West Africa, which had been home to the last three seminars, into East Africa. However, if one of our core objectives was  training a new corps of future visionaries and leaders who will carry the torch of liberty and blaze the trail of prosperity in the coming dawn of African renaissance, we needed to sow our seeds across the continent so, we can raise  many champions of freedom, who, otherwise would have been limited by finance to travel outside of their regions.

And so the lot fell on the University of Dodoma,(UDOM) in Tanzania to be our host for the 2010 edition. The University is located on a 6,000 hectare site near Dodoma, a regional centre about 400 km west of the capital Dar es Salaam. Dodoma is a vast expanse of dry land with isolated rocks and hills and slightly above sea level. Dodoma’s original name is IDOIDOMYA, which means "it has sunk", legendry referring to an Elephant which drowned in the river Kikuyu, when it wanted to drink from it. 

After a warm welcome address by the Vice-Chancellor of UDOM, Prof. Idris Kikula, lingering thoughts of the few logistical hitches we encountered prior to the start of the seminar melted away. Prof. Kikula’s call for a need to embrace knowledge, especially extra-curricula knowledge was not only because UDOM’s motto demanded it, but rather there was a demonstrable commitment to harness the fruits of higher education for Tanzania and for that matter, the continent’s economic development. Evidently, UDOM’s elegant infrastructure, built by the Chinese with Tanzanian tax payer money provided the needed ambience for an immersion of deep academic exchanges that held 65 young promising East African students (Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda and Nigeria) spell-bound after discovering how much they had learnt from the lectures, but more important from each other through intensive group discussions and presentations that followed each lecture.

Lecturers were not spared during question time. Students were encouraged to debate and question views and facts presented to them, albeit, respectfully. This approach had a positive effect on a lecturer’s preparations for subsequent delivery.  Group presentations were equally fascinating. One student remarked of a group’s work; “I think this group spent all their time on drawing images that were not in anyway connected with the theme of the task given and thus spent the last ten minutes wasting our their time and ours. You could have done better”.  The task in question was for them to read Leonard’s Reed’s “I, Pencil” and choose an item, say a car or computer, and identify where each component making up the item, was made from.  The moral of the reading was for them to understand, that just as the Pencil was not made through a conscious coordination of efforts, or makers and carriers of the varied parts that became the single unit, Pencil, were motivated by their actions, borne out of self-interest, the same could be said of the items each group was likely to choose. The invisible hand, driven by incentives was at play. Thus, any coordinated attempt to prevent the free movement of items or goods and the people who unconsciously took part in any production process was a barrier to innovation, exchange, and prosperity.  

Students could immediately connect with the politics of domestic and international trade and why protectionism, though was on the rise, was not the path to reducing global poverty.  Indeed, the lecture on ineffectiveness of aid, and the life-changing impact of trade, convinced almost all the students that globalisation, despite its discontents, had done more to alleviate poverty than tyranny and closed economic systems that were usually fuelled by unaccountable aid. The global ICT revolution offered seamless ways of living fulfilled lives. But the students were not unaware of the impact a reduction in regional trade barriers could have on individual economies of East Africa. 

Students were also surprised to learn of the many good intentions of governments that often resulted in intended consequences, leading to a waste of resources.  Armed with Frederic Bastiat’s text, "what is seen and what is not seen” the discussions and group presentations were replete with examples of short term and long-run effects of individual and economic decisions. Eventually, when the time came for discussions and presentations on what decisions and projects, students would rather leave to their governments, very few were hopeful of practical, accountable and transparent delivery even on the few decisions they’d wanted government involvement- water, health, transportation, communication, energy, schools. In the words of one student “leaving these vital areas of our lives to these vampires, means we can say good bye to even the air we breathe”.  In a sense, students realised two important ingredients of sound policy; that what belongs to individuals tend to be well taken care of, and what belongs to a group, tend to fall into disrepair.  Secondly, no one spends some body’s else money as carefully as he spends his own.

The compromise though, as many students argued, was for private sector involvement in the management of what could be considered public goods. However, many students were unequivocal in their call for a strengthening of the institutions that hold public office holders accountable- the rule of law, decentralised decision making and free speech. The latter, many students argued was in short supply in higher institutions of learning, since an unfree academic environment meant a stifling of innovative thinking that could spin off ideas for development.    

The one most important learning that truly qualified the theme of the weeklong seminar was why some countries were rich and others were poor.  Reading an abridged version of renowned Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto’’s book “The mystery of capital: why capitalism triumphs in the west and fails every where else” backed by a lecture on the history of market economics in Africa, students gained much insights into why of all the institutions that should be in place for effective development, respect for property rights, was the most fundamental.  This view flew in the face of contrary intellectual arguments some students summarised as the basis of capitalism- plunder, theft and greed. Some students had chewed on historical, contorted and conspiratorial attributes of ‘capitalism’, the famous of which was equating slavery to property.  It was explained though that forcing some one into slavish labour was against the person’s will and as such, true believers in freedom know that every individual owned himself. 

De Soto’s definition of property rights is simply, an honest acquisition of property, be it physical or intellectual. More important, he emphasizes the importance of formalising ownership of landed property in the developing world as a first step to initiating and expanding production. And he quantifies the assets of the developing world to be worth US$9.3 trillion, more than the value of all major stock exchanges in the developed world. Unfortunately, all these assets are just "dead capital" in the developing world. So, it was understood that rather than see capitalism as a robber’s paradise or ownership of the means of production by a few at the expense of the ‘masses’, which is not the case, the means for attaining prosperity should not even be negotiated, as that leads to the politics of equalising our individual hopes and aspirations. True liberty makes the difference.

Students eventually understood that property rights, by itself could not deliver economic development. Coupled with free speech unfettered trade and a relatively less intrusive government that was not higher tax-happy, accountable political leadership that did not see ethnocentrism as a route to economic success, the poor of the world, indeed, of Africa were well under way to saying farewell to poverty.  These indices of economic growth were equally amplified by all the lecturers. So, were the students who left their homes in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and even Nigeria happy about their week-long stay at the University of Dodoma? Some obviously were bored with some lectures and got compensated by the group discussions and presentations. Others wished the seminar could be held every other month around Africa.  Many were however, thankful to the sponsors and facilitators for “the only chance young people have to express themselves”, “challenge ourselves to solve the continent’s problems differently”, “an avenue to begin a true liberation of the continent”. So where next will the SYPALA train stop? That rests on sponsorship and a good local team. Let me know if you want to help.

Franklin Cudjoe is executive director of IMANI and editor of