Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is in many ways one of the most important postcolonial works of literature to come out of Africa. Written in Gĩkũyũ and translated into English by the author, this novel has had a great deal of influence on other postcolonial African writers, and it is for this reason alone that one should pay it close attention.
Devil on the Cross is a satire of the economic conditions in Kenya during the 1970s (the novel was published in 1980). An economist who is reading this novel will be able to easily fault the novel with demonstrating no understanding whatsoever of even the most basic economics. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o clearly accepts the labor theory of value (he argues that wealth comes from the blood, sweat, and flesh of the workers), which has been rejected by pretty much every economist in favor of the subjective theory of value (that each person values things according to their own subjective tastes at the moment), and he sees the economy as a zero-sum game (to win, another must lose) rather than as a positive-sum game in which all participants in an economic transaction are better off. However, an economist looking at the work through the lens of economics will be missing what is really being said, what the historical conditions are that would lead someone like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to come to these conclusions.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o represents businessmen (and they are all men) as thieves and robbers. The story involves a competition among Kenyan businessmen — in front of businessmen from the wealthy nations — as to who has robbed and stolen the most, who has the most wealth and women, and who can help the foreign businessmen rob the Kenyan people of even more wealth. This attitude makes sense if we take the point of view of Kenyans under colonialism. Under even the most benevolent colonial governments, the foreign governments and the businesses that worked with them in the colonies did typically exploit the country’s natural resources, agricultural products, and workers (paying the latter very low wages and creating social conditions that reduced trust and kept wages low). There were Kenyans who wanted the complete overthrow of the colonial system, and there were Kenyans who benefited from the system by cooperating with the colonial government and foreign businesses. These latter became the wealthy landowners and politically powerful after the colonial power in question was ejected — and cooperation with that country then continued.
From this perspective, then, we can see why someone like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would consider businessmen to be thieves and robbers, as they certainly tended to act that way both during and after colonialism. More, the colonial powers were telling the people that what they were doing was “capitalism” — though there is nothing whatsoever capitalist about colonialism (it’s rather more akin to mercantilism, with governments working hand-in-hand with businesses for the profit of both). One can imagine, then, why it is that writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would hate capitalism and want to see its overthrow.
In the competition, the closest you find to a sympathetic character is the businessman who calls for the ejection of the foreign businessmen and the “exploitation” of Kenyans by Kenyans only. The least despicable of the despicable is thus a Kenyan nationalist, suggesting Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s sympathies lie in that direction. Of course, his real sympathies lie in what he calls “African socialism,” which is in turn influenced by Marxism. One may find it odd that in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s ejection of Western powers and Western ideas he nevertheless embraces one of the most Western of ideas: Marxism. Free markets can be found emerging naturally everywhere in the world where people aren’t prohibited from doing so, while Marxism has always been imposed from the top-down, and was born in the West at a particular historical period.
Devil on the Cross thus represents not so much an accurate perception of businessmen and market economies in the way we think of them in the West, but rather of the postcolonial situation Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and other Kenyans (and people living in other former colonies) experienced the ongoing involvement of the former colonists and their countrymen who had been and were still cooperating with the (former) colonial powers. If we understand the novel from that perspective, we can make sense of the way businessmen are being portrayed in the novel.
This is a shame, because the political and economic outlook of Kenya and the other African nations (and other countries who threw off the colonial yoke) will only improve insofar as they reject socialism of any flavor and the corrupt governments that necessarily emerge to enforce it. Africans need security in property rights (which many do not have), rule of law, and the ability to freely interact with each other — which includes economic interactions that make both parties better off. Recent efforts at liberalization have in fact lifted a great many Africans out of at least abject poverty, and further liberalization will only lift them even higher out of it.
However, this has to be a bottom-up, root-to-shoot effort — a Kenyan (Congolese, Rwandan, Ghanan, Nigerian, etc.) liberalization; a Kenyan, etc. free market system; one rooted in local cultures, local languages, and local mores. It cannot be imposed from the top, and it cannot be imposed from the outside — not if it is to work, and not if it is to truly raise the average African out of poverty and away from political and economic oppression. Rather than rejecting the economic naivete of someone like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, we should rather try to understand why he came to view businessmen and “capitalism” as he did. He had and has valid points, and we cannot persuade anyone in the former colonies without acknowledging that fact.