Africa’s leadership challenge

Eric Chinje looks at changes to leadership in Africa, and the challenges still to overcome

The scale and nature of the challenges may seem different but the qualities of good leadership are the same whether you are writing from New York or Nairobi.    A successful leader is someone who can overcome the triple challenge of defining a clear vision, generating buy-in and developing the policies and programmes to turn the vision into results on the ground.

While it might be easy to identify the qualities needed, it’s not so easy to find them, as the continued failure of political leadership in areas such as the global economy and climate change demonstrate. But in Africa, we can also face additional barriers.

Guns and organised religion, for example, have all too often skewed the process by which leaders come into office, the quality of leadership they provide and their room for manoeuvre. Military force has been used to impose leaders in Africa with no vision, programme or even desire to engage citizens.  Hardly any of them have left their countries in a better place with improved living standards, food security or modernised infrastructure.

This may explain recent developments in governance in Africa. Both individual countries and regional bodies have, through constitutional debate and summit conversations, made special efforts to reduce the power of religion and guns in determining leadership outcomes. The ballot box is increasingly replacing military force as a way of choosing leaders and citizens are being brought into these conversations as never before.

There is broad consensus, too, within the continent, on how Africa’s leaders must respond to mobilise its growing human capital and transform its abundant natural resources into real prosperity and a better quality of life for all its people. Investment in educating our young people is of crucial importance and here many African countries can point to significant success.

There is also widespread agreement on the need to provide the right environment for economic growth through infrastructure development and the integration of regional economies.  In too many places, the continent’s transport system with poor links across borders and small independent economies still reflect its colonial past.

Africa desperately needs to see the leadership to overcome these obstacles which are damaging competitiveness and restricting the continent’s role and place in the global economy. Yet it sometimes seems as if regional integration as a concept is little more than a rhetorical device for enriching debates at endless summit meetings on Africa’s development.  I do not know who its real champions are and if the concept forms a part of anyone’s leadership vision.

As well as a focus on policy, we still need to see a change of leadership style in many parts of the continent. Leaders are often defined by the approach they take in guiding followers towards agreed goals. They can be democratic, as increasingly is the case across Africa, or authoritarian. They can, at worst, be narcissistic or toxic.

Over half a century of independence has brought out this full range of leadership styles to the continent and they are all still represented today. But it is easy to focus on the manifest failures at the top and forget that Africa has been home to some of the truly exceptional leaders of modern times.

Any era and any continent would be proud of Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary leadership and achievements. President Chissano brought peace, reconciliation, democracy and economic progress to Mozambique as did President Pires for Cape Verde. But too many leaders still confuse, accidentally or deliberately, their own interests with those of their citizens.

What is also a major concern is the demographic disconnect between the rulers and those they rule.  While the average population age of Africa is below 30, their leaders are likely to be twice that age and, in some cases, far older.

This huge age difference is reflected in the different experiences of government and governed. The world of the former is shaped by technological innovation, rising urbanisation, climate change, consumerism and globalisation. The latter still tend to be defined by colonial experiences and loyalties, a distrust of technology and a fear of globalisation and its consequences.

These two very different worlds co-exist in uncomfortable proximity in Africa, with the one demanding change and the other holding on to values past.  How successfully Africa grabs the immense opportunities in front of the continent may well be determined by how quickly this clash is settled and what leadership ultimately emerges from it. We are seeing the emergence of a new younger generation of leaders but they remain very much in the minority.

Given the importance of leadership, it is very welcome that we have seen the emergence of a range of tools to help African leaders. The World Bank’s African Development Indicators and the African Development Bank African Economic Report, for example, provide invaluable information to enable them to see what works and to share best practice.

At the same time, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s comprehensive Ibrahim Index of African Governance allows leaders and, importantly, citizens to compare progress across a whole range of indicators both over time and between countries. It has made it possible, with some accuracy, to measure leadership performance across Africa. We believe that this information will help African governments improve life for their citizens and give civil society the information to hold their leaders to account. At this time of great challenges and opportunities, Africa, like every other continent, needs good leadership.

Eric Chinje is the Director for Strategic Communications at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Before joining the Foundation he led the Global Media Program at the World Bank Institute (WBI), having previously worked as External Affairs and Communications Manager in the Bank’s Africa region.