The leadership shortfall in Africa

The United Nations Human Development Index shows African countries occupying the lower rungs of the index when it comes to leadership. There is no denying the reality that Africa is the poorest part of the world. No wonder the continent is still referred to as the ‘dark continent’ renowned mainly for wars, famine, poverty and brutal dictators.

Even the success of the Western-led democratisation drive of the 1990s and 2000s has not changed the fortunes of Africa. While the one-party states and brutal dictators of the 60s and 70s have been replaced by multi-party democracies and elected leaders, the quality of governance hasn’t improved. In fact, going by all credible macroeconomic indicators, much of the region has not only experienced stagnation but evident retrogression in the decades since independence.

In trying to explain this lurid phenomenon of almost universal failure in Africa, scholars have advanced different theories from geography/climatic conditions, colonial antecedents, investments, reforms, and most recently leadership.

…going by all credible macroeconomic indicators, much of the region has not only experienced stagnation but evident retrogression in the decades since independence

Aside scholars who cited geography and climatic conditions for Africa’s poor performances, most African and pan-Africanist scholars devoted decades to showing why colonialism, neo-colonialism and the imbalance in the relations and trade between the metropolis and African states have made it difficult or impossible for African states to make progress.

However, that argument has now run its full course with the rapid successes and growth of East Asian states. Even as African economies were failing in the 60s and 70s, issues of growth and development were still mainly viewed as politically neutral or even above politics. What was required for growth and development, it was thought, was the influx of foreign investment and the implementation of a wide range of public sector reforms.

Consequently, the Bretton Woods institutions prescribed and compelled distressed African states to adopt the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) as the best way of resuscitating their ailing economies and achieving economic growth.

It was only when the SAP failed across board that attention began to shift to the quality of leadership and governance in Africa. The solution to the leadership problem, it was thought, was liberal democracy.

And with the end of the Cold War, the US with its western partners began an aggressive campaign to democratise African countries. That campaign was hugely successful. The third wave of democratisation swept through almost 48 African countries. Subsequently, emphasis was placed on improving the nature of democracies.

And that too was largely successful. In 1990, almost no country in Africa had set a constitutional term limit for leaders. However, by the turn of the century, over 30 have inserted term limits in their constitutions and now hold multi-party elections with a good record of alternation of power among political parties.

It is painful that, in spite of this otherwise good record, governance only marginally improved.

Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese billionaire, was so concerned about the problem of leadership in the continent that he set up the world’s largest leadership prize to reward democratically elected African leaders who respect their constitutions and leave office when their tenure ends and who demonstrate some leadership qualities.

“I’m ashamed. We really need to resolve the problem and the problem, in our view, is bad leadership and bad governance,” Ibrahim said, and we cannot agree more.

It is sad to note that, even with the prize and many attempts to improve the quality of leadership, governance across Africa has yet to improve. Advocates of good governance in Africa have now resorted to moral suasion and training of potential leaders in governance to prepare them for future leadership.

But why has leadership, with very few exceptions, been generally disappointing in Africa and below global levels? This question becomes imperative considering that the East Asian Tigers were not even democracies when they were posting impressive economic growth.

Increasingly, evidence is pointing to one factor – the weakness or failure of institutions and extreme personalisation of power. Nowhere else are state institutions weaker, absent or even ignored altogether in governance more than in Africa.

Read also: It’s not just our leaders; it is our leadership

As political theorists and scholars of African politics have surmised, the state in Africa is just a decoy, a pseudo-Western frontal masking, as it were, deeply personalised political relations, and that whatever formal institutions exist are largely devoid of authority.

African leaders have perfected the art of isomorphic mimicry – the creation of institutions that act in ways to make themselves look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate, but which, in reality, are not. That is why despite the placing of term limits in most constitutions, leaders generally do not respect the term limits and easily get the parliaments to re-write the rules to favour them.

At the root of this proclivity to abolish or bypass institutions and centre governance around themselves is a total dislike for accountability. Once elected into office, African leaders feel they are the embodiment of the will of the people and do not need to render account to anyone or be subjected to the various institutions of restraints that mature democracies erect to prevent abuse of power.

Parliaments are often packed with loyalists and or ignored completely. The judiciary is compromised or intimidated while the press is simply muzzled. There is no order, no predictability and officials behave as they like since there are no institutions to moderate their conduct.

The East Asian countries, even though not democracies, possessed some ‘redeeming features’ of good governance and democracy such as accountability, predictability, the rule of law (according to their own internal disciplines) and competition in designated spheres that helped propel their growth.

These, we believe, are good examples African leaders can emulate.

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