Why good leadership matters so much in Africa

BY: Colin Essamuah
When Africa’s leaders had esteem: From left: Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Abdel Nasser (Egypt); Sukarno (Indonesia) and, Josip Tito (Yugoslavia)
When Africa’s leaders had esteem: From left: Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Abdel Nasser (Egypt); Sukarno (Indonesia) and, Josip Tito (Yugoslavia)

It’s been said that “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant sees the farther of the two.” But when some leaders themselves are dwarfed in their core, even the perkiest and most talented citizens don’t stand the ghost of a chance.

That, in a nutshell, is the impasse choking the prospects of Africa in the comity of nations. As Fred Swaniker of African Leadership University (ALU) tweeted, “A leader makes a difference in every society. But I believe that in Africa more than anywhere else in the world, just one person, one good leader, can have more impact on Africa than anywhere in the world.” Amen!

The Arab Spring

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On December 17, 2010 in Tunisia, about a week before Christmas that year, a 23- year old fruit seller, frustrated by relentless poverty – protested. Right in front of a government building, he poured fuel on his body and set himself on fire. In the hospital - as the street vendor lay dying - guess who comes to visit, the Tunisian President, coiffured and immaculately attired in a glamorous suit. The hypocrisy of it all was to spark what has been etched in history as the Arab Spring.

The president, who had ruled for 23 stiff years, was to flee the country during the 2011 revolution. In a report titled, “Revealing Tunisia’s corruption under Ben Ali”, ( March 27, 2014), Al Jazeera showed that the president, his wife and family members owned about 220 companies, and controlled 21 per cent of the net private sector profits.

Ambassadors in the role of arrogant beggars

In his book, “Voice from Afar”, K.B. Asante shared a story by the Sunday Times of London about the arrival of a bulky African president at the rich Swiss resort, the Palace Hotel, Gstaad. The paper mocked, “accompanied by five enormous bodyguards [he] is here for medical treatment. His knees cannot support his weight.”

Mr Asante continued, “As many of his people starve, the Head of State is overburdened with excessive weight through gluttony. He goes to an expensive, exclusive place for medical treatment while hospitals in his country are starved of equipment, essential drugs and doctors.” Mr Asante grieved that in Brussels, the “African ambassadors were cast in the role of arrogant beggars”, and was distressed when a dignitary inferred that “if the top men in Africa stopped looting state coffers and amassing wealth in Europe, Africa will not need hand-outs”.

Of Adam and corruption

An African leader once affirmed that “Corruption is as old as Adam”; and how so true a statement! There’s corruption in South Korea, Japan, Europe, the United States, and so on; but those countries are quite built up with excellent institutions, housing, electricity and clean water, good schools, state-of-the-art hospitals, excellent roads and highways, parks and gardens, and people live long. But in Africa – starved of such high standards and the youth begging to leave the continent in hordes – corruption is a clear and present killer.

When Africa’s school children sit in dust without water and toilets – when mothers and new-born babies slumber on the bare dusty floors of hospitals and clinics – when opportunistic diseases reign rampant – when people die by heart – when roads are clogged with tortuous potholes – then, of course, not only does corruption matter, it matters a great deal: It’s a matter of life and death!

I recall once, in my university days in the mid-1970s, driving nearly 3,000 miles coast to coast, across eleven states – from California via Route 66, and all the way to New York - and not a pothole to disturb the trip. In most African countries, one small rain and the shoddy roads are awash with gaping holes, and you ask whether corruption matters? Please!

President Barack Obama’s address to Ghanaian Parliament (Accra, July 11, 2009) was important. I was there to hear him. Without doubt, he had thought twice in the initial writing of the speech and doubly so pending its delivery. It will not be easy for any young leader to fly to another country – with his wife and two small children – to tell the people there what to think, what not to think, what to do, what not to do, and why. But Obama owed it to Ghana and the continent to be brutally truthful about corruption in Africa’s leadership and bureaucratic systems. Grit and honesty need to be applauded.

Kenya’s Prof. P.L.O. Lumumba

The Kenyan law professor pulls no punches. The following is a transcript from a video: “I said – to the anger of my audience – at one time [that] the problem with Africa is that those who have ideas have no power and those with power have no ideas; and that, in many ways, still informs [and] yet somehow [when] the electorate is given the choice between you with ideas and the one without ideas, Africans’ affinity to people without ideas is amazing!” The Kenyan lawyer was to reiterate, on another platform, that since African heads do not have the head for creating prosperity, they loot to alleviate their own poverty. One tough broker!

Kofi Annan

Happy 80th birthday to Africa’s classic leader Kofi Annan. It was refreshing to hear him on BBC’s Hardtalk with Zeinab Badawi when he said, “Leadership is not about the individual.... when you have macho leaders who believe they have to shine, and it all has to be about them, forgetting that what is required is the welfare of society and the people they serve.”

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