Onuoha Frank: Locating African Values in Twenty–First Century Economics

Often you hear it said, “we have lost our values as Africans.” Africans say it and even non-Africans say the same thing. Which suggests that there must be some recognizable virtues or traits that identify an African and which informs her/his values. The world-renowned novelist, Professor Chinua Achebe in his book alludes to this sentiment that the traditional African man is increasingly aware that his daily life in its traditional setting is gradually and consistently “falling apart.” Apart from alluding to a loss of “values”, certain school of thoughts believe that the “African values” have no place in the twenty-first century economic discourse, therefore suggesting that these “values” wherever they exist, are extant, non-relatable and translatable in the economics of the twenty-first century.

Is it true that we have lost our “values” as Africans and can we effectively locate the values in today’s highly competitive global business world? Working on the conviction that an African value system does exist; we should start by delineating what these “values” are essentially.

African values are not values shared by black people alone. There are black people all around the world and not many of them share the African heritage or experience. Hence it will be unfair to foist values that are totally alien to them. There are also non-black people who are Africans and who in one time or the other have had related with the “values”. On that premise, a value connotes something of usefulness, importance or worth. For instance, language as a thing, has worth, therefore it has value. Money is valuable because it is useful and important. African values are unwritten moral codes commonly identified by people living within the geographical sphere of the continent. They refer to moral principles which guide the actions and belief systems of people living within and outside the territory, but are of African descent. The value manifests over a period of time through shared experiences, environment and social interactions.

Notable African values include large family practice, hard work, respect for senior members of the society, extended family system, religion, value for private property, language and many others. The African family is the nucleus of existence, which places premium on children. The more children you have the more important in the society you are considered to be. Large families are considered to be important for cheap labor in the chain of production. Hard work is a trait the average African man loves to pride himself. Laziness is synonymous with a life of poverty. The type of occupation is not as important as the fact that one is engaged in something. One of the distinguishable values of the African child is an embedded sense of higher authority or seniority. Greeting an elder for a child born in an African society is almost non-negotiable. The extended family is an important aspect of the African society. Chukwudum B. Okolo in his book, ‘Urbanization and African Traditional Values’, stresses the usefulness of the extended family thus; “The extended family characterizes the life of the African and somehow shapes his personality and outlook on life. Unlike Western man, for instance, the African sees his nuclear family as broadening out into a larger family unit.” To the African, religion is sine qua non; it is indispensable. In fact, some scholars describe the average African as “incurably religious.” Religion defines his perspective on the world order; there is no ‘being’ without a ‘Supreme Being’. Finally ownership of property is widely respected in Africa. To a large extent, the African exclusively equates property to land ownership. In majority of the societies, land is owned at the family level from where it is distributed to members of the family.

The pre-colonial African society is often considered the ‘Golden Years’ of African values. It was a period where the African was not distracted by foreign visitors with their foreign influences; hence the African was free to practice his traditional values almost exclusively. The coming of the colonial masters has been blamed as the beginning of the gradual erosion in the traditional value system. This ebb, according to some scholars, was facilitated with the introduction of Western education. In his paper, ‘Globalization and its Challenges to National Cultures and Values: A Perspective from Sub-Saharan Africa’ Michael O Maduagwu asserts that “in traditional Africa, education was essentially functional preparation to meet the challenges of the society. The colonial educational system, on the other hand, was designed to alienate the African from his or her culture, to loathe his or her language and manual work.” The new educational system stayed unchanged even after most of the countries in Africa had gained independence.

In the face of onslaught from globalization, technological and scientific discoveries, many scholars are worried that African values face the threat of total annihilation. Today the world is described as a “global village”, the interaction of different cultures and adoption of new ideas has – and will, continue. While it is true that many African societies have had to readjust their world views mostly because of the need to remain marginally or significantly competitive, it is untenable to suggest that most of African values may not survive in the arena of global economics.

Firstly, Africa was not the only continent in the world that was colonized and that is currently experiencing the challenges of coping with colonial and neo-colonial influences. In Asia, countries like China, India (1930), Singapore (1959) were former colonies at some points. Their traditional values have also undergone changes in the process of interaction. Nevertheless, these states have made extra effort to ensure the survival and relevance of their values in the global arena. Chinese culture is globally recognized. The Chinese language is one of the languages used in the United Nations. School of Oriental studies are in various institutions around the world.

Africans, in my opinion, have not “lost” their values. I will like to think it is in limbo, a place of uncertainty. Unfortunately, the more it is this state, the weaker it gets, and the weaker it gets the greater the chances of being supplanted. There is a place for African values in world economic discourse, but the African must wittingly cultivate and nurture these values to be seen to be relevant in the twenty-first century. The colonial period has come and gone, and though the legacies persist and may be overwhelming in the interim, but its effect on the positive values of Africans can be mitigated by constant patronage. For instance, Arabian and Swahili are the most widely spoken languages in many African states. Institutions within the continent can incorporate both languages in their curricular.

African values will become relevant when Africans make it a duty to invest in the continent and proudly display the rich heritage. Only a few African leaders have ever spoken the local African language when on international duty yet we find countries like Cuba, China etc projecting their language in these same functions. Our family values can be harnessed to solve the problem of dwindling manpower and death of businesses. Most of the world’s top businesses are sustained by family investment models. Our value for seniority is a major staple in the business environment. The African religious allegiance should rather than color his reasoning ostentatiously, persuade him away from corruption towards integrity and institutionalizing good and exemplary leadership in business. To be sure, there is much the African values can borrow from the world but there is more the world can borrow from African. It is time we stop blaming the world and playing the victim for the challenges the African faces and start taking the initiative.

Onuoha Frank is an alumni of Imani Centre for Policy and Education. You can connect with him via twitter @iamfrankelean