With many in South Africa and elsewhere asking questions about governance and politicians it is useful to reflect on the state of leadership across our African continent.
In 1986, the year he came to power, the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, published a book titled “What is wrong with Africa?”, in which he said poor and corrupt leadership was the problem, pointedly referring to the misrule of his predecessors — General Idi Amin and Milton Obote — as the cause of many of Uganda’s problems.
Ironically, Museveni, whom many in Uganda now consider to have been in office too long and who is criticised for his autocratic rule, wrote: “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
Twenty-two years later, in 2008, delivering the sixth Nelson Mandela annual lecture in Kliptown, Johannesburg, the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, remarked: “It is our firm conviction that Africa … is not poor, but rather poorly managed. Corruption, exploitation and the misuse of Africa’s resources are central to the inability of African governments to ably and sufficiently respond to the needs of the African people.”
The deficit of leadership in Africa is hardly a new or a ground-breaking observation; it has been well documented. But this doesn’t mean that the issue should not be regularly revisited and interrogated.
The urgent need to confront and address the leadership deficit on the continent is pressing given the complexity of the myriad challenges that confront Africa, including terrorism, climate change, seemingly intractable conflicts such as those in South Sudan and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the mass outbreak of epidemics like Ebola among others.
Protest movements that swept across the continent four years ago and led to the toppling of so-called “strongmen” in countries such as Tunisia (the ousting of longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak overthrown in the same month), Burkina Faso (Blaise Compaoré forced to resign in November 2014) and Libya (the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in September 2011) are a clear sign that citizens across Africa are tired of being governed with impunity. The maturing aspiration of Africa’s citizens for better lives means they have become increasingly intolerant of poor and corrupt leadership.
However, despite the recognition by some African leaders that there has been a failure of leadership on the continent, there is a strong reluctance by many of them to step down to make way for fresh blood or to allow free and fair elections that would see them being replaced.
Burundi was thrown into turmoil earlier this year because President Pierre Nkurunziza, who had been in power since 2005, insisted on running for a third term, despite a constitutional limitation of two terms. In the wake of his announcement that he would seek re-election, there was a short-lived, unsuccessful coup and least 100 people were killed in the protests that erupted. Thousands fled their homes in fear of a civil war and these refugees have been thrust into an uncertain future and a precarious existence. The future of the already fragile country is at stake, its gains reversed, its potential curtailed, and the aspirations of its people bleak.
Recent third-term bids couched in manipulated constitutional reforms, as we have recently seen in Togo, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo are hardly a sign of principled leadership.
It is a travesty that Nkurunziza and other leaders in Africa are unashamedly willing to sacrifice the lives of their country’s citizens for their continued stranglehold on power; that they are content to hold back their countries’ potential and growth due to their limited vision and poor strategic direction; that they appear to see nothing wrong in presiding over crumbling economies and decaying public institutions that offer hopelessly poor services; that they are content to exploit and benefit from the largesse of the state, carelessly exploiting its resources for personal gain without thinking of future generations; that they are, in the main, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of what has gone wrong — and is going wrong — on the continent and choose to defend their poor decisions while vehemently laying the blame for their shortcomings elsewhere.
This is all arguably a sign that, although we have leaders aplenty on our continent, there is little in the exercise of true, solid governance to show for it.
The essence of true leadership lies in improving the lives of the people you rule over, and leaving them better off than they were when you took office. It means governing with a conscience, knowing that it’s not about you as the leader, but about the citizens who are the collective soul and lifeblood of a nation. It means having a strong and compelling vision of the future where you want to take your nation, and ensuring that that vision is a collective one, shared and supported by citizens.
It is not surprising to hear from Africa’s citizens that they have no idea what their governments’ long-term vision is and where exactly their countries are headed. Leadership is about the ability to mobilise the civic energies of people towards solving their common problems. It is about self-sacrifice, and requires true stewardship. To be entrusted with the hopes and aspirations of your people, the lives and well-being of society, is a great responsibility and a great honour — and one that needs to be discharged with integrity.
Leadership requires wisdom, compassion, empathy, and staying in touch with the realities on the ground. Leadership requires the courage to act.
As the citizens of Africa, we need to realise the anticipated dividends that should ideally accrue from a solid leadership. We do not want to have to be compelled to settle for less, nor accept tokens from our leaders as if they are doing us a favour by governing us.
Relying on a heavily flawed notion of leadership that focuses all attention on the leaders while we passively look on has done little to serve us. We need to move beyond this paradigm. We equally have a responsibility outside of protests in ensuring that we get to enjoy those much anticipated leadership dividends.
Rather than abdicating our role and leaving it up to our leaders to “save us”, we need to realize the importance of our collective capacity and agency to self-lead and work together in solving our common problems.