THE Africa we see today is partly a product of colonialism as it is a consequence of post-colonial choices. The link between freedom and economic change is a causal one.
Out of a population of about 900 million, it is not an understatement to say that the majority of Africans are not free to make choices about who should govern them, let alone what kind of economic system should be in place to produce the desired outcomes.
Can economic change occur without economic freedom? What does economic freedom mean? How much economic freedom exists in Africa?
What we do know is that oppressive societies can hardly spur innovation and encourage human creativity. The colonial state was alienated from the majority and it would not be entirely incorrect to state that the relationship between the post-colonial state and its citizens leaves a lot to be desired.
Only last week, President Obama made his maiden speech at the United Nations as the first African American President of the USA. As we all digested and reflected on what President Obama said, we have no choice but to acknowledge and appreciate the enduring legacy of the idea that informed the creation of the USA.
President Obama's ascendency to power was a consequence of the choice made by the majority of American citizens. Many of the heads of states who spoke after him at the UN cannot claim the same legitimacy. With respect to the economy, the application of freedom to the individual's role and capacities in a market economy is normally referred to as economic freedom. In its proper construction, it refers to the right of man to engage in voluntary economic activities for his/her benefit. It is built upon personal choice, voluntary exchange, the right to keep what you earn and the security of one's property rights with minimum or no interference by the government.
The recent failure of the capitalist system and its surrender to state intervention has naturally led to a rethink about what kind of society people should aspire to have. One in which individuals are left to make their own choices with no regulation, or a society in which the state as "big brother" plays a central role in making the kind of choices that are normally expected from market actors?
Until recently, it was easy for promoters of free markets to cite the presence of economic success in countries that adopt fewer restrictions on market forces. Notwithstanding the recent havoc in financial markets, it would be difficult to argue against the connection between economic freedom and prosperity.
We have seen many Africans educated at a great social and economic cost make decisions to offer their services to developed countries where they are able to attract salaries that appropriately reflect the true worth of the services rendered. The labour market in which African professionals play an active part in has exposed that no amount of nationalistic rhetoric can substitute the hard economic realities that confront individual suppliers.
The "brain drain" and "capital flight" are two phenomenons that have characterised the African post-colonial experience. At the core of the "brain drain" is a genuine attempt by African professionals to demonstrate that their personal goals cannot be subordinated to national choices. The flight of skills cannot be reversed by appeals based on nationalistic sentiments, but by an acknowledgement that human beings do and can respond to favorable economic conditions.
If Africa needs to attract skills that are mobile as history has shown, it must offer the same conditions as are comparable in other markets. A democratic Africa is more likely to retain the skills of its people than an Africa led by people who take for granted the needs of their people. The overall development of the human condition in Africa will always be a function of its ability to understand the human spirit.
It is difficult to imagine that only over a hundred years ago, not a single country on earth offered universal suffrage and even the West was dominated by dictators and monarchies. However, nearly all of those oppressive regimes have fallen but the trend in Africa suggests otherwise.
A hundred years ago, one-third of the world's population was governed by colonial powers and today all of those colonial empires have been dismantled. At the present moment, more than 60% of the world's population lives in some kind of democracy.
Many African critics of capitalism view financial markets as a threat to democracy. Like many African leaders who see the economic hegemony of the West over the global financial system as a threat to global stability, the attitude towards economic actors and their motives in investing in the continent is at best adversarial and at worst characterised by suspicion. The more controlled a society is, the less its ability to advance its economic cause.
Africans who grow richer are generally more educated and thus far more reluctant to have others make decisions on their behalf. Moreover, it is true that when groups who were once excluded from political discourse suddenly gain a voice, the ruling elite find it increasingly more difficult to subjugate their citizens.
It is generally accepted that an economic system that is decentralised tends to create groups that are independent of political power, which then forms the foundations for political pluralism.
As Africa tries to find its feet in a globally competitive environment, it has no choice but to introduce democratic reforms because without such reforms it is unlikely that investment will be attracted let alone reverse the brain drain and capital flight.
Without economic actors who are free to make their own choices in their enlightened self interest, Africa's prospects to lift itself out of poverty are doomed. Generally, if citizens feel that they are getting security and service that are worth the money they pay in taxes, they will not leave a country.
On the other hand, generally if businesses feel that they are getting research, education, and infrastructure worth the money they pay in taxes, they will not leave the country either. Where taxes are generally used inefficiently or on things people do not value, it is normally difficult to inspire human and business confidence.
Any viable state requires a productive and income producing citizenry as part of a progressive social contract. Accordingly, it will be more difficult to maintain taxes that people feel give nothing in return. Many African governments have yet to realise that unless a deliberate attempt is made to relate tax obligations to service delivery, there will be no meaningful progress in meeting the development challenges that confront the continent. Money is normally allergic to unfavorable environments.
The Obama administration has given Africa a unique opportunity to seize the moment to critically examine the interplay between freedom and economic change. Without a free America or at least an America in which for 232 years citizens on a back-to-back basis have been able to change administrations, Obama would just be another African American groping in the darkness about "change" and the "audacity of hope".
If America can produce Obama, it is self evident that Africa's real potential may lie in people who have been systematically excluded by a few "wise" Africans in state power.