OPINION: The place of culture in civilisation -By Usman Baba


The first time I spent time with the former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy; the first thing I learned about the French people is that they value their culture so much. We were in a room where there were a lot of English speakers and very few French speakers, yet he refused to speak in English, even though all the French people who were with us understood English very well.

France has the world’s best policy on globalization. It spends so much time complaining that foreign invaders are killing off its economy that no one notices how French products are taking over the planet.

Have you checked recently who provides your electricity, who owns your transportation system, who feeds your army, even who built your city’s public toilets? Especially if you live in Europe, there’s a strong chance you’ll find a French multinational, such as EDF, Transdev, Sodexo or JCDecaux. That’s not to mention the countless French brands on every shoping street in the world. For instance; Carrefour, Leroy Merlin as well as TOTAL fuels and lubricants stations as an example in Africa. Carrefour lures West Africa shoppers from markets into malls. Adapting culture is one of the strongest reasons the French and the rest of the developed countries keep dominating. Moreover, the South East Asians also value their culture so much. Especially Japan and the rest. The Middle Easterners also still value culture. How about Africa? Culture is indeed a vital factor to be taken into consideration when discussing or contemplating action in development.

Africa is a vast continent with a huge diversity of cultural norms and practices. There are great variations among it is regions, countries and ethnic groups and this needs to be recognized. Rather than see this as an impediment to development, the continent should take advantage of this rich cultural diversity in its quest for economic development and should change its attitude towards work, interpersonal trust, time, youth and women.

Successes in Botswana (Hanson, 2008), Mauritius (Zafar, 2011) and other countries prove that Africans can be punctual, innovative, entrepreneurial and forward-looking. In addition, much greater use should be made of the creative talents available At the same time, we must accept that the attributes which underpinned the rapid success of countries like Japan and other developed countries will take time to take root in Africa.  To improve its economies, the culture of good governance cannot be seen as a distant luxury to be aspired to but avoided in practice. To boost economic development all important cultural values must be in place and must be governed by transparency, accountability, trustworthiness and empowerment. Like Japan, each individual African country should build its own economy based on its cultural values.

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Furthermore, can we, as development planners, take lessons from the example of Japan? One thing is clear. We cannot take a set of cultural values from one country and hope to implant them in another society. Japan was successful because it built its economy on its own home-grown values. Looking specifically at the development trajectory of Africa, we are forced to conclude that, while there are many aspects of African culture that can be used positively for the development of the continent, some aspects of African culture have delayed progress. In view of this, let’s briefly examine some of the cultural factors that have had a negative impact on the economic development of African countries and thereafter consider some cultural assets and their potential held by the continent.

Do we need trust more than anything in our society? Yes we do. According to the Japanese, interpersonal trust is an important cultural strength, especially in large corporations, and if a person loses this trust, he or she brings shame to the entire family. There have even been occasions where people have been forced to commit suicide. In Africa, as a consequence of colonization, most of the traditional cultural values have been eroded or weakened; in particular, the concept of trust. In many African countries people do not trust their governments because they feel that they are not doing much to reduce unemployment and poverty or to combat corruption. In Japan, if a senior government official is accused of corruption, the official immediately resigns to face the law. In Africa, nobody resigns; if anything, they will fight back and claim that their detractors are on a witch-hunt. In Africa, at the business level, the concept of trust is selective. For example, in fields such as law and medicine, there are some professionals who share facilities but maintain separate and distinct accounts. In family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises, it often happens that family members find it difficult to get along together once the head of the family dies. In some cases, siblings and children start fighting, resulting in protracted legal suits.

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In general, there is much suspicion and mistrust in many African societies, particularly in the area of business, leading business people to keep everything within the family rather than seek productive and forward-looking partnerships, as is the successful model in developed countries.

Developing societies cannot afford the luxury of a social welfare system. As Okafor (1974) acknowledged, in African society everyone is accommodated through the extended family system. Consequently, if a family has one relatively successful member, that fortunate person is expected to provide for the family. While this system has merits – it encourages a charitable disposition and fosters cohesive family loyalties – in some instances, it is exploited and abused by members of the family. In this way, it can even create dependency instead of encouraging family members to try to stand on their own two feet.

Do we still need the concept of time? Yes. It is often remarked, anecdotally, that the concept of time in Africa is somewhat flexible by comparison with that of developed countries. There seems to be some substance to this popular cliché, however. Several African scholars argue that, despite the importance of time-keeping in some traditional customs, Africans are not good at keeping time. In their traditional milieu, however, Africans were compelled by certain routines to strictly respect time. For instance, there were particular times when certain ceremonies had to take place, such as a events. That said, in post-colonial Africa, many things have changed, including the attitude to time-keeping. Those working in the private sector who must reach work on time are placed under particular pressure by this post-colonial lackadaisical attitude. Those working for the public sector do not always observe the same constraints, however. Thus, if a good turnout is needed for planned meetings, constant reminders must be sent and follow-up is essential in all areas of interaction.

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Do we need to forget about job discrimination? Yes we do. Until recently there were some jobs that Africans would not take. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, many Africans in major towns and cities had a tendency to avoid certain jobs because of cultural or gender stereotypes. Men were reluctant to work as cleaners, cooks, janitors or waiters in hotels and, if they did, they would say that they were still looking for a proper job or were doing a temporary job while they looked for a permanent one. They were hoping to be clerks, soldiers, policemen and drivers. Given our weak economies, featuring high unemployment and poverty, all available vacancies or jobs should be highly competitive and should be filled by willing recruits without discrimination as to gender or cultural considerations.

Do we need more cooperation and partnership? Yes we do. For example, during the fight against apartheid in South Africa, freedom fighters sought unity by their songs in the battle against their oppressors. Most of the former political prisoners on Robben Island, such as former President Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu acknowledged that liberation songs were not only a morale booster, but also fueled and united them to continue fighting until they were free.

In this connection, African governments should take advantage of this huge asset and support traditional African moral songs as part of their cultural reforms.

Abubakar. Sent through auabubakar@yahoo.com.


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