(The following article will appear in April 2003 as Mr. Reed’s monthly column in Ideas on Liberty, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education – www.fee.org.)
When riots surrounding the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria claimed more than 200 lives last November, a horrified world thought it was observing religious fanaticism run amok. Widespread reports blamed the bloodshed on an article in a local newspaper, in which the author stated that if the prophet Mohammed were around today he might have claimed one of the beauty queens as a wife.
But things may not have been quite as they were reported. Largely ignored by the major world media were comments of a Nigerian Muslim leader, Nabiu Baba Ahmed. He told the South African Press Association that the source of the trouble was not the offensive article but rather, government sponsorship of the pageant itself.
"It is true we have been having pageants in Nigeria for almost 40 years but that has never bothered us as Muslims because they were privately organized," Ahmed explained. "But this time it is systematically funded by the government using taxpayers’ money and its agencies . . . which is unacceptable." He added that the government made matters worse by its involvement in scheduling the pageant during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. This information doesn’t excuse the rioting, and neither did Ahmed, but it does suggest that we shouldn’t accept what’s in the newspapers as the definitive story.
Indeed, if full and accurate reporting from Africa were the norm, we’d be reading about a 33-year-old Nigerian named Thompson Ayodele. I predict that we soon will. A journalist for a major newspaper in Lagos, he is busy planting intellectual seeds in fertile soil — seeds that in time will yield big, positive changes for Africa’s most populous nation. In 2001, he formed the Institute of Public Policy Analysis in Lagos. A private, non-profit think tank, IPPA’s objective as described on its Web site (www.ippanigeria.org) is "to provide market-oriented analysis of current and emerging policy issues, with a view to influencing the public debate and the political decision-making process."
I have met Thompson on several occasions in the past year. He visited my organization in Michigan and attended one of our training seminars for free market leaders. With great confidence, I can say that he has what it takes to bring an idea revolution to his country — vision, passion, eloquence and total commitment. Like his friend James Shikwati in Kenya (see "A Leonard Read for Africa," May 2002 Ideas on Liberty), he is part of a new generation of Africans eager to liberate the continent from the shackles of failed socialist policies.
Thompson’s task is no small one but he is invigorated by the challenge. In the last half-century, Nigeria’s 130 million people suffered under a succession of corrupt, strife-ridden, statist regimes and a military dictatorship until 1999, when a peaceful transition to civilian government took place. The current administration is making some progress toward political stability and a freer economy but in the face of ethnic and religious tensions, it desperately needs thinkers and activists like Thompson Ayodele to educate the public about free markets. "What Nigeria needs," he says, "is the economic freedom that will result if government abolishes its many obnoxious laws that hinder private initiatives and innovations."
Thompson himself is the product of the power of ideas. Several years ago, and with no formal training in economics or philosophy, he was struck by an article in the Times of London by Julian Morris of the International Policy Network. Morris explained how an international ban on the ivory trade would produce new incentives for profits in poaching and that the best way to save the elephants was to "privatize" them through a system of property rights and private ownership. Fascinated by this approach, Thompson contacted Morris, who in turn put him in touch with free market think tank leaders in Britain and the U.S. Ever since, he has immersed himself in reading and learning free market economics and has become an articulate public spokesman in Nigerian media.
Linda Whetstone, chairman of the London-based International Policy Network, lauds Thompson for the network he is building within Nigeria: "He is managing to get the message out, despite enormous difficulties, and to explain that it is only the institutions of the free society that can help Nigerians — limited government, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, property rights, free enterprise, and freedom of speech."
In its first year, IPPA has sponsored two well-attended seminars for policy leaders that caught the attention of leaders in the Nigerian government. Udo Udoma, chairman of the Nigerian Senate’s powerful appropriations committee, offered this glowing endorsement: "What IPPA represents, its core values and ideas, also represents my own long-cherished ideas and values with which Nigeria can be made great and prosperous."
Public opinion suggests that ordinary Nigerians may be ripe for free market ideas. Thompson notes that the public exhibits a nearly total lack of confidence in government promises. Rich and poor in great numbers are opting for private education. People know that government enterprises have been huge and expensive failures. The reception Thompson gets when he speaks to audiences around the country is, he says, "positive and optimistic because Nigerians have seen every type of government failure imaginable and they are willing to try something that they see has worked in other parts of the world." He plans commentaries and conferences in coming months that will explain the wisdom of free trade, deregulation, and the expansion of private property rights.
Considering the history of Africa, the significance of Thompson’s work in Nigeria is enormous. With nary an exception, countries that gained their independence from colonial powers in the 1960s turned immediately to socialist central planning. The intellectual classes were nearly unanimous in their support for socialism and thoughtful opposition was virtually nonexistent. Now, the abysmal poverty and corruption those policies produced are animating a whole new class of activists and intellectuals on behalf of free market alternatives. New think tanks springing up, like IPPA in Nigeria and IREN in Kenya, are almost all committed to thrusting a stake through the heart of the socialist idea.
The liberation of a continent, one nation at a time, may have begun.