Radio Free Africa

"Freedom of expression and of thought was not invented by the West. It has existed in traditional societies -- even primitive ones -- for centuries. Human progress would not have been possible without it. I'm saying this as a black African from Ghana because today around the world, we have 'educated' barbarians who want to suppress this freedom by arresting and jailing dissidents, writers, journalists and those they disagree with."
-- George Ayittey on the BBC, September 20, 2009.

Ayittey, whose famed "cheetahs vs. hippos" TED speech I've blogged before, is co-founder of an inspired new project called Radio Free Africa. (thanks, Emeka Okafor)



  1. “It has existed in traditional societies — even primitive ones — for centuries.”

    “even primitive ones”? It existed especially in primitive societies — for millenia!

  2. It would be interesting, actually, to try to more precisely quantify the degree of freedom of thought and expression in traditional societies.

    Obviously, at least some of them had at least some, Locke didn’t invent the idea; but it isn’t immediately obvious how much. “Traditional” societies would certainly lack most of the formalized institutions of suppression and control, if only because they lack most formalized institutions; but many of them would have extremely strong structures of social cohesion and informal control.

    As anybody who has been in high school, or a small insular town, knows, your peers don’t have to have formal power over you to exert considerable de-facto control. I’d strongly suspect that most pre-modern societies, while they don’t have a secret police force to drag you away, offer no greater scope of thought and expression, and quite possibly a lesser scope, than all but the most unpleasant modern governments.

    Recreating, in large, high-density populations, the more or less automatic mechanisms of social control you get in small, tightly knit populations is hard. We are only now reaching the level of technology where it is again becoming practical/possible.

  3. “I’d strongly suspect that most pre-modern societies…offer no greater scope of thought and expression, and quite possibly a lesser scope, than all but the most unpleasant modern governments”

    That would assume that ‘authorities’ (elders for the most part) pre-modern societies ascribe the same destabilizing power to dissent that modern societies do, and seek to impose control social/political through establishing homogeneity of thought. Historians and anthropologists suggest this is far from the case, and that the expression of competing viewpoints has traditionally been capitalized on precisely to foster social cohesion; disagreement over how to act has brought individuals together to debate what the society is, and thus bring it effectively into being. The analogy between pre-modern societies and small towns seems to rely on the assumption that the former have the same concerns as the latter; I think Foucault is a better conversation partner on this point than is Locke.

  4. Traditional societies, those hotbeds of social and intellectual development.

    Traditional societies.


    There’s your tool of repression right there.

    Whether it’s slicing off bits of bodies the ancestors didn’t approve of, executing deviants or being forced into a chattel-like servitude to your husband, traditional cultures and their leftover attitudes in modern culture are the biggest sticking block to freedom and rights. It’s not like repression was a new idea that suddenly settled on society when we left the bush, we just found new ways to implement it with greater force.

    What a bunch of utter codswallop.

  5. Radio Free Africa is a great project with a lot of value. As the project website notes, it’s a great way to promote non-extremist views to the public at large.

    In a continent with rampant poverty, radios are more accessible as a cheaper alternative to other communication mediums. And while not everyone is literate, most are willing to listen. When the UN sets up a peacekeeping operation, they will frequently set up a radio station to help spread their message.

    Information is a controlled substance in many places and this will help to level the playing field. This is a worthy project. Thanks for hanging a lantern on it Xeni.

  6. I’m with Ladyfingers – my years living among the Basotho convinced me that even contemporary African tribalism is every bit as repressive as top-down censorship. It has its advantages, of course, but in terms of individual freedom of expression it’s a climate of constant pressure to conform, arguably as suffocatingly binding on men (who aren’t allowed to cry, for example) as on women, although the violent part falls harder on females. Doesn’t the term “non-extremist views” already begin by excluding anything unpopular?

    Human progress, contrary to Ayittey’s assertion, went very slowly for two million years because of tribalistic tendencies to shun and punish innovation along with all other forms of deviance. With the coming of written codes of law, individuals were guaranteed a certain degree of breathing space, and the marketplace actively rewards successful innovation, but throughout much of Africa today written codes still hold little influence and the marketplace is too emaciated to be an effective social force. For all the wonderful creativity I saw in Africa, true originality was always accompanied by a blush of shame and greeted with disapproval, even moreso than in other lands.

  7. “Human progress […] went very slowly for two million years because of tribalistic tendencies to shun and punish innovation…”

    @#6, Two million years? Do you really think there were human tribes two million years ago?

    Scavenging bands ain’t tribes.

  8. I actually just saw Ayittey speak at Loyola University New Orleans. I thought he was a pretty smart man, but he dodged a lot of questions posed by Econ club members.

    I think Radio Free Africa is a great idea, though.

Comments are closed.