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Interrogating Ownership in post-colonial Africa

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By Mutumwa D. Mawere

OWNERSHIP is a key construction concept in the development of an Anglo American socio-economic system that has been copied by post-colonial Africa without much thought on the underlying obligations that an order founded on the respect of property rights imposes on it.

The concept of ownership has existed for thousands of years and is universal. It is defined as the state or fact of exclusive rights and control over property which may be an object, land/real estate, intellectual property or some other kind of property and it is embodied in a right also referred to as title.

Concepts such as money, trade, debt, insolvency, the criminality of theft and private and public property that form a bed rock of ancient and modern societies draw their origins from the ownership concept.

The nature, form and substance of the relationship between man and property and between the state and property are important in predicting the success or failure of nation building business models.

To the extent that citizens can gain, transfer and lose ownership of property in a number of ways, the process and mechanics of ownership are necessarily important in creating a competitive, progressive and dynamic post colonial order.

Property, a key construction concept in building a financially viable and sustainable Africa, can be acquired through the intermediation of money, trading it for other property, receiving it as a gift, stealing it, finding it, making it or homesteading it.

It can also be lost through selling it for money, exchanging it for other property, giving it as a gift, being robbed of it, misplacing it, having it stripped from one’s ownership through legal or extra-legal means such as eviction, foreclosure and seizure.

Ownership of a company for example is self propagating to the extent that any profit produced by it will also be owned by the same owner or his/her successors and/or nominees. It has been accepted in human civilisation that if one finds an object, one can legitimately take ownership of that object as long as no one claims to have previously lost that object.

Throughout history, nations and religions like individuals have owned property. In some societies, only adult men may own property, while in others, property is matrilinear and is passed on from mother to daughter. In the majority of post colonial African states, both men and women can own property with no restrictions.

To own and operate property, any progressive society must create its own institutions and structures to govern how assets are to be used, shared or treated; rules and regulations may be legally imposed or internally adopted or decreed. Some of the many varied types of structured ownership include cooperatives, corporations, trusts, partnerships, housing associations etc.

The interface between Africa and colonialism resulted in the alienation of resources from natives. The colonial business model was founded on the principle that natives had no interest in modernity and could, therefore, not conceivably have any interest in land, mineral and other resources beyond what they needed in eking a subsistent living.

The race factor that underpinned the colonial model had the unintended consequence of distorting the true nature of ownership and how this concept if properly construed can be a powerful instrument in nation building.

In constructing a non-sexist, non-racial and democratic post colonial order, very little attention has regrettably been placed on improving literacy on key foundational concepts like ownership and the kind of responsibility implied in assuming title to property to the property owner.

Unfortunately the ghost of colonialism is still omnipresent in many post colonial African states to the extent that ownership carries with it a black and white stigma. Whether a person is black or white, it is important that the concept of liability that is inherent in ownership be properly understood.

The need to construct a legal and institutional framework, rules and regulations that protect, penalise and reward property owners in a predictable and sustainable manner cannot be overstated.

In its proper construction, a government is a body corporate that is governed by a constitution and is formed solely to serve its members. Its focus should be on providing service in perpetuam and any financial surplus generated should normally be retained to finance growth and development.

The standard Anglo American model of governance is based on an "agency model" in which the goal of political governance is to have state actors act according to the will of citizens. The post colonial African governance model is in practice based on a “principal model” in which the goal of governance is to have state actors act not according to the will of the people but the whims and wishes of the political elites.

The ownership question as it relates to African resources has often been used to mask the leadership bankruptcy in the continent by explaining away the lack of progress in reducing the frontiers of poverty on ills of the colonial ownership legacy.

It cannot be denied that the class relationships that were inherited from the colonial order have been difficult to transform not because blacks are inherently inferior entrepreneurs but due to a faulty understanding of the complex interplay between ownership and performance.

It cannot be correct to argue that transferring title to blacks will necessarily translate into economic performance without investing in an understanding of the key foundational principles required to create a successful economy.
At the core of human civilisation must be the individual who while pursuing his/her personal interests should advance the national cause through a purposeful and constructive interaction with fellow citizens.

If Africa needs sustainable investment from both domestic and foreign sources, it must critically interrogate its understanding of the ownership concept so as to correctly capture the kind of human imagination required to spur development and creativity.

Who should drive the African economic agenda? Should it be the state or the citizen? What should be the proper role of the state in post colonial Africa? Does Africa need intelligent leaders or enlightened and empowered citizens? Who should own Africa’s resources? What kind of Africa do we want to see?

The paradigm that has informed the majority of post colonial African economies has been premised on the state serving three different and conflicting roles i.e. as a shareholder of state institutions in which political actors with no experience in business are expected to transmit informed market signals to the firm as a market actor; as a referee in which it is expected to maintain the institutions of a market system and adjudicating disputes while accepting that the market system in foreign construct to a majority of African political actors; the state as a corrector in which it is expected to intervene in the market to correct some failure such as mispricing of externalities or to provide public goods while accepting that democracy in Africa can produce absurd outcomes in political markets.

The utility of any organisation is ultimately measured by its ability to respond to the needs of the target market. The construction of accounting rules to determine a surplus or profit at the end of each financial year is instructive. At the top of the income statement must be located a sales value to highlight the fact that an enterprise whose output has no market is doomed to failure irrespective of who owns it.

Accordingly, the primary purpose of any enterprise is to serve the customer and is so doing a surplus or profit can be generated. Underpinning this construction is the fact that the residual benefit from any enterprise must belong to the owner who is typically described as a shareholder in limited liability companies. A shareholder is nothing more than a holder of a piece of paper like a passport or birth certificate. Owning the paper does not translate into cash unless goods and services are produced and exchanged for value.

Equally at the top of the income statement of a government’s income statement must, therefore, be contributions by income earning citizens through taxes. Accordingly, no viable government can exist without contributions from citizens in the form of taxes.

It must be accepted that a successful entrepreneur has to be smart enough to know and anticipate what his target market needs. This does not require academic qualifications but different skills. A free society allows the consumer to make choices and it is incumbent in the model that the sole purpose of enterprise is to produce a good or service that someone is prepared to pay for.

Regrettably, Africa’s post colonial leaders are at their best using the colonial language and arrogantly attempting to think for their citizens rather than in serving them.

If Africa’s fortunes are to improve, it is important that a dramatic policy shift takes place in the construction of the development model from a prescription based approach to a user friendly one.

Ownership without performance is a hollow construct that serves no purpose in advancing Africa’s cause.

Mutumwa Mawere's weekly column is published on New every Monday. You can contact him at:

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