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September 19, 2018

Tribute to comrade and colleague Prof Samir Amin

I never thought time would come when I would have to do this: Write an obituary to our friend, colleague, mentor and inspirer, Professor Samir Amin, who passed on in Cairo last Sunday, 12 August, 12. But as will eventually happen to all of us, Samir Amin's hour of reckoning with his destiny has come to pass, and by the grace of God, we have to accept it.

 My condolences to his family, close relatives and colleagues in Dakar, Senegal; Port Said, Egypt and Paris, France. I send my heart felt sympathies to his long time colleague and fellow researcher, Bernard Founou-Tchuigoua, with whom he researched and published tirelessly at the Third World Forum since 1970 from their Dakar base.

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) has lost its founding executive secretary and a pillar in the intellectual discourses in our community of African scholars. This loss must be equally felt by Professor Abdala Bujra, who succeeded Samir as executive secretary in 1975 and Thandika Mkandawire, who worked with both Samir and Abdala before rising to the helm of CODESRIA, performing a sterling job to bring our organisation to where it is today. Professor Fawzy Mansour, wherever you are in the world after ours, be ready to welcome Samir with open arms: We dearly miss you. And in doing that, let me remind both you and Samir that the years we spent on and off with you, with Samir as the director of the UN African Institute for Economic Planning and Development (IDEP) in Dakar, will remain my best years in building a solid foundation in critical thinking and research in social sciences.

Two scholars have dominated intellectual discourses on Third World development since the era of decolonisation — economist Samir Amin in Africa and the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso (still alive) in Latin America. In his struggles for the emancipation of the Brazilian people from underdevelopment, Cardoso rose to become the 34th President of Brazil in 1995, holding that office for seven years, while Amin engaged in active progressive politics in Egypt all his life without holding any political office. Amin was particularly critical of the Moslem Brotherhood in Arab politics, criticising their nonchalant attitude towards workers' movements and interests, and holding in disdain the Brotherhoods' tendency of patronising the ordinary citizens with largesse as if that was a viable means of salvaging them from socioeconomic servitude.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso's book, Dependency and Development, first published in 1967, kicked off a series of debates the world over regarding what type of development was possible in the developing world, especially in Africa and Latin America. An avalanche of studies, based on theory and empirical research then followed, some contending that development was not possible as long as imperialism persisted to "under develop" the Third World, hence the theory of "the development of underdevelopment". Perhaps most renown in this genre of studies was Walter Rodney's magnum opus on Africa's history from pre-colonial times to decolonization where he showed, through empirical research, "how Europe underdeveloped Africa" in a book with that title punished in 1973.

Samir Amin's rise to fame came in his two-volume book first published in 1970 by Editions de Minuit in Paris, Accumulation a l'echelle mondial, eventually translated into English and published by the Monthly Review Press in New York as "Accumulation on a World Scale." Essentially, Amin's work was the first major critique of the theory of underdevelopment, arguing that while capitalist development "at the centre" historically prevented and blocked accumulation of capital at the periphery (read "developing countries"), this did not necessarily prevent accumulation of capital on a world scale, including some "enclaves of accumulation" in developing countries. For these developing countries to have truly "auto-centered development" they would have to "delink" from global capitalism.

Samir Amin had done some studies of West African economies to illustrate this point in a book he published in 1971, L'Afrique de l'Ouest bloquee: l'economie politique de la colonization 1880-1970, also published in Paris by Editions de Minuit in Paris, and eventually translated and published the same year by the Monthly Review Press in New York under the title Neo Colonialism in West Africa. In this empirical and historical treatise, Samir contended that whatever economic growth engendered by the mining and agricultural enclaves in the West African economies could not amount to any sustainable economic development or processes of local reproduction of capital on a wide scale. Typical of neo-colonialism, the fortunes of these economies would depend on the vicissitudes of the accumulation of capital on a world scale, leading, no doubt, to frequent crises and political instability. The Ivory Coast, touted in the 1960s and 1970s as "a miracle of capitalist development", fell apart as a house of cards after the death of the founding President in 1993, confirming Samir's predictions.

A whole generation of scholars were inspired by Samir's works, some eventually publishing much more nuanced studies along the lines of the centre-periphery dichotomy, and coming up with theories of the "dependent and underdeveloped" economies that now released political dynamics from "economic over determination." In this genre of scholarship, I would include Archie Mafeje, Claude Ake, Thandika Mkandawire, Mahmood Mamdani and many others.

I remember when, under a research programme financed by the United Nations University and managed by the Third World Forum, Samir requested me to coordinate a research group on "popular pressures for democracy in Africa." I put together a group of African scholars and researchers who did detailed studies in Uganda, Congo, Zaire, South Africa, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya and Swaziland. When this book was eventually published in 1987 by the Zed Press in London under the title "Popular Struggles for Democracy in Africa (Studies in African Political Economy)", it received wide readership, particularly by the university community. A French version under the title "Afrique: la longue march vers la democratie" was published the following year by Edition Publisud in Paris, France.

It must be remembered that in those years of the dominance of structural adjustments dogma in Africa, writing in any scholarly way about struggles for democracy in Africa was regarded as a little bit outlandish by "main stream" scholarship. The CODESRIA journal, Africa Development, the London- based Review of African Political Economy as well as Journal of African Marxists" were perhaps the only outlets for progressive scholars who debated the democratic alternative for Africa's development. In all these intellectual "outlets" one had to find Samir's footprints somewhere. In shaping modern critical intellectual thinking, research and discourse we in Africa and the Third World have lost an outstanding trailblazer.

Much more recently, Samir paid plenty of attention to current world politics and development dynamics, drawing widely from experiences in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Samir was continuously concerned about "the tyranny of neo-liberalism" in intellectual thought as well as in political praxis. Very frightening is the fact that neo-liberalism tends to have very strong persuasive power on the naive and inattentive minds, particularly those not irked by the pains that neo-liberal economics "bestows" on the underprivileged elements in society. True to his word, Samir remained persuaded that the purpose of scholarship is not simply to describe the world in various ways but to change it for the better. It is for this very reason that he became a Marxist as early as his high school days, believing that eventually, all our social problems would be resolved in a society where inequality will be a thing of the past, social justice will prevail and political power will be fully democratised. But liberalism seems to posit itself as "the end of history." For more reading see his 2004 book: The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World," (New York: Monthly Review Press).

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