Claude Ake and The Paradigm of Alternative Development in Africa

30 Sep 2012

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By Tunji Olaopa
I had meant this piece for publication on November 7, which would mark the 16th year that Professor Claude Ake got ‘wasted’ through a tragic death. With Segun Ayobolu’s recent seminar rejoinder to my tribute to Professor Ojetunji Aboyade advanced within the framework of what he called “the alternative narrative of the Nigerian Crisis provided” by the likes of Claude Ake, I thought this contribution is most relevant at this time, so that the valid perspective that Ayobolu presents for policy makers and which is the substance of this article, will not be lost.

Amadou Hampate Ba, the late Malian griot, is reputed for his claim that when an old man dies in Africa, an entire library goes up in flame. Prof. Claude Ake died early, and yet the metaphor of a library engulfed in flame appropriately sums his demise. When he died at 57 in 1996, an entire social science intellectual institution in Nigeria was jeopardized. Prof. Ake constituted one of the pillars of the generation Wole Soyinka considered to be wasted, and possibly one of the exceptions to that broad portrayal. And he is the third in the trio of Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade and Prof. Akin Mabogunje that I have celebrated as intellectuals-heroes who not only confronted the trajectory of the Nigerian Project, but also its contradictions and possibilities. Claude Ake celebrated Aboyade as a hero in my biography of the latter’s life; yet, he is no less worthy of such a heroic celebration and assessment. If Aboyade and Mabogunje made their struggle in the attempt to achieve the synthesis of knowledge, power and responsibility, Claude Ake held on to the power of ideas in the transformation of the Nigerian nation and the African continent. This threesome and some others as well constitute the intellectual capital any nation requires to transcend its predicament and move into possibilities. Yet, the tragedy of our national existence is that our intellectuals have become the scapegoats of our collective failure.

I had two significant contacts with Prof. Ake that contributed to the moulding of my intellectual worldview. The first was as an aspiring student of the social sciences at the University of Ibadan where reading Ake’s work was a must for all students of political science. The second was the review of some of his policy proposals and inputs as policy adviser to the government. This took place under the mentorship of Prof. Aboyade. The latter even once lamented his failure to bring Claude Ake on board the evolving multidisciplinary policy platform that could enlighten the deepening political economy that the Niger Delta struggle was taking in the context of fiscal federalism and the contingent national question.

His death is tragic because it demonstrates, in a gruesome manner, how intellectuals and scholars are equally affected by the vagaries of natural circumstances and situation in the society they toil and sweat to understand and rehabilitate. Claude Ake was one of the 147 passengers that perished in the ADC Airline plane that crashed into the lagoon in Lagos in November 7, 1996. He was returning to Yale University where he held a visiting professorship. He wasn’t the only intellectual to have suffered such fate. On March 22, 1990, Chinua Achebe was involved in a near-fatal accident that broke his spine and left him wheel-chair bound for life. And in Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, the acclaimed writer, was attacked and robbed and his wife brutally raped in 2004 when the couple was returning home after a 22 years self-imposed exile in the United States, just as Ladipo Adamolekun’s wife was gunned down by armed robbers in the daylight at Ibadan while she came home from D.C. to solidify their retirement plans after his sojourn at the World Bank.

However, Claude Ake left behind a huge intellectual corpus that speaks robustly and insistently to the nature of power and its appropriation by the masses for their well-being. “Every intellectual attitude,” according to Thomas Mann, “is latently political.” Claude Ake—political scientist, political economist, development thinker and social activist—is renowned for his overriding concern with the African continent as a site for the contestation of knowledge production and development thinking. Claude Ake is one intellectual whose life reflects his theories and postulations. He evolved in the complex dynamics of the global and local intellectual ferment of the 60s and the 70s. This was the period when the marginalisation of Africa was already a deep issue in global political economy, and theories like liberalism, neo-liberalism, Marxism and neo-Marxism were already vying for intellectual supremacy in the attempt to understand the African predicament. From his original liberal persuasion, Ake later converted to a Marxist orientation on the relevance of socialism as the preferred ideological underpinning for African postcolonial development.

His entire life was therefore dedicated to the outline of a methodological framework for rethinking the development profile of Africa, especially from the perspectives of theory and practice. He began his search for an enabling paradigm for redesigning the future of Africa and Nigeria through the interrogation of the social sciences as the disciplinary template for the imperial domination of knowledge production in Africa. In 1979, his seminal book titled Social Science as Imperialism became the entry point for an acute understanding of the African predicament, a rethinking of the idea of development and globalisation, and the imperative of the decolonial responsibility of the social science in Africa especially with regard to knowledge production. Ake’s argument is a simple one: The origin of the Western paradigm of the social sciences as well as the adaptation of that paradigm by developing societies and academes enables the foisting of an imperialist capitalist ethos and development ideals that serve imperialist and ideological purposes. Our first condition of intellectual and developmental liberation therefore consists in the restructuring of the intellectual framework guiding the social science paradigm in Africa.
The burden of Ake’s intervention borders on the relevance of what Peter Ekeh refers to as the migrated structures in Africa and how these can be significantly deconstructed and rehabilitated to accommodate the dynamics of a genuine Afrocentric and indigenous knowledge that carries the burden of Africa’s historical experiences and can serve as the basis for development and democratisation.

This demands from us, Ake posits, the construction of a new model of the social sciences suitably oriented towards the socialist paradigm of development. However, beyond this theoretical necessity of applying scientific knowledge to the task of development in Africa, Professor Ake was fully aware of the burden of practice especially on a continent where the gap between theory and practice is often part of the continent’s predicament. Thus, in 1991, he founded the Centre for Advanced Social Science (CASS) in Port Harcourt. Similar to Aboyade’s Development Policy Centre, CASS was meant to serve as a think tank for exploring the nexus between development thinking and practice with local imperatives including the mediation of the oil, environmental and ethnic problems represented by volatile Niger Delta region in Nigeria.

CASS equally provided Claude Ake with the requisite opportunity to confront the menace of political corruption in Nigeria and the prospect of a democracy driven by developmental imperative. Being a Nigerian was itself a methodological advantage for Ake. Nigeria constitutes a paradigmatic representation of the paradox of underdevelopment within the context of abundance of mineral and human capital resources. And there was no better place to exemplify this paradox than the oil-producing Niger Delta which had by then become the violated and exhausted proverbial goose laying the golden eggs. What roles should development and democracy therefore play in resuscitating this ailing goose?

In answering this question, Claude Ake interrogated democracy as both a moral imperative and a means to an end. In Development and Democracy in Africa (1996), he argued:

Development can only be related to and driven by social will in the context of democracy. It is only in this context that the people can be the means and the end of development. Without democracy, the advantages of demarginalizing Africans in the development process and giving them control cannot be realized. With minor exceptions, African elites have placed great obstacles in the way of development by their antipathy to democracy.

The logic is simple: The people are the agents of development; hence, they ought also to drive the policies that bring about such development. The strategy therefore is, to use the words of William Gladstone, “All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes”.

It is this people-factor that defines the greatest task of Claude Ake as an intellectual. The people are considered the end of any development paradigm and the means to any democratic progress. And their only hope of achieving this lies in a social revolution that will enthrone social democracy that represents their interests much more than any ideology or paradigm of political development.

This task places Ake in the tradition of most great intellectuals in the world—Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Locke, Negri, and others. For Ake, as for all these intellectuals, Herbert Aptheker, the American historian sums the perspective: “It is what the masses endure, how they resist, how they struggle that forms the body of true history. It is the coming into being, the bringing forth of the new...that is the heart of true history.” Flowing from the uniqueness of an indigenous knowledge system that recognize the necessity of generating an endogenous base for development, Claude Ake logically locates the people at the core of a development framework that catalyses a social reconstruction and national transformation from the grassroots. It is in this deep sense that Claude Ake’s theory of national integration in Nigeria is significant. In other words, the mobilisation of the grassroots for development and democratisation, in Ake’s view, represents Nigeria’s greatest hope for redemption, a perspective that is also a critical plank in Aboyade’s development praxis.

Yet, the masses usually stand alone and against a long history of class rejection. The Duke of Wellington expresses the attitude of most leadership against the people when he warned: “You must build your House of Parliament upon the river: so...that the populace cannot exact their demands by sitting down round you.” W. S. Gilbert, the British playwright, expresses the same thought more poetically:
Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!
This trajectory of the destiny of the people in political perception constitutes the second tragic consequence of the intellectual status of Claude Ake. He had an unabashed optimism about the possibility of the people redeeming their own image and status in the political arena. He believed that the future of a stable and politically committed polity lies with the people rather than with their elites. He also realized that such a possibility for a people-driven democracy stands a chance of triumphing eventually. According to him:

Such a people-driven democratization, however, will continue to be challenged by the elite-driven democratization that reduces democracy to multiparty electoral competition and generally exploits it as a strategy of power. It is by no means clear that the people-driven democracy will prevail. But it has a fair chance.

It’s been 16 years now since Professor Claude Eleme Ake, the democratic intellectual, left this terrestrial realm, and yet the people are still struggling to make a democratic impact. It’s more than a decade now since the wave of democracy engulfed the African continent. And, tragically again, Claude Ake is no longer around to assist us in understanding its dynamics and possibilities.

The death of Claude Ake many years ago constitutes a real tragedy for Nigeria in the midst of many other tragedies. And, as Chinua Achebe prophesied, “real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever.” Our only chance to break the cycle is to return to what he left for us and attempt to discern a worthy future out of them. When the Nigerian Project is brought face to face with the rich intellectual diagnosis inherent in the corpus of development and democratic analysis provided by Ake, we can only hope that it will find in it a therapeutic injection capable of catalyzing national transformation.

• Dr. Olaopa is the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Labour in Abuja. He can be reached at

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