Tradition and Leadership Failure in Africa

19 December 2005 at 06:53 | 617 views

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong responds to “Time” magazine’s Simon Robinson’s essay “Africa’s Game of Follow the Leader: Why strong institutions matter most when once promising politicians start to fail” (Nov. 26, 2005)

By Kofi Akosa_Sarpong, Ottawa

Simon Robinson, Time magazine’s Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya’s essay, “Africa’s Game of Follow the Leader: Why Strong Institutions matter most when once promising politicians start to fail,” apparently written because of the recent defeat of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki’s proposed new constitution which would have given him more powers, once again brings out the issue of leadership and Africa’s progress and how because of colonialism Africa’s innate values, including her traditional institutions, not only were not factored in when planning Africa’s development process but till today not decisively appropriated in the continent’s development process.

Illustrating extensively from Nigerian thinker and writer Chinua Achebe’s “The Trouble with Nigeria,” written during the 1983 raucous election campaign that indicates an “outpouring of frustration” at Nigeria’s, and by extension Africa’s, leadership problems to buttress Africa’s development woes since independence from colonial rule, Robinson, an African-American, whose knowledge of Africa’s development is heavily grounded in Eurocentric paradigms, failed to note that one of the key reasons for Africa’s leadership despair in the continent’s development process is lack of openly correct appropriation of Africa’s innate traditional institutions in not only her leadership process but also her general development process as other ex-colonies such as Japan, South Korea and Malaysia have done.

The trouble is, despite Africans agreeing and being aware that leadership is a big problem in their progress, they, especially the high-sounding elites, have failed to realize that the first solution to the continent’s leadership troubles first lies within African values and any other second. “Which is why, in the mid-1990s, when a new generation of leaders emerged, Africans dared to hope that things could finally be changing,” writes Robinson, citing leaders like Issaias Afewerki in Eritrea, Laurent Kabila in Democratic Republic of Congo, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia promising “a new style of leadership that focused on building economies and democratic nations instead of shoring up their power by force and ensuring that they and their friends got rich.”

The real fact here in terms of this new generation of leaders rekindling hope in the continent’s progress largely came from the education and global exposure they have had which was a departure from the old generation. Unfortunately, their subsequent hopelessness have come about simply because African elites failed to mix their Western education with Africa’s traditional institutional values in the continent’s progress, as a World Bank study says today, thus making them appear that they could not only intellectualize holistically Africa’s progress but also do not understand Africa well and what drives her development process or do not understand at all what is “development” or “progress.” Even when US President Bill Clinton visited Africa in 1998 and “touted this generation as Africa’s great hope,” as Robinson highlighted, Clinton said this without proper knowledge about what drives Africa’s progress - her innate cultural values and institutions like what obtains in every society’s progress. Clinton, Robinson and other Western elites including the many U.S Under-Secretaries of State for Africa who have roamed through Africa have touted Africa’s new generation of leaders in her development process not only from purely Eurocentric notion but the fact that they are blinded by the fact that Africa is the only region in the world where her development process is dominated by foreign development paradigms, as Ghana’s Dr. Y.K. Amoako has observed.

For lack of realistic grasp of tackling Africa’s development process from within her innate values first and any other second, not is her troubles still dangling around her elites’ noses, but it has made “fixing Africa never as simple as changing its leaders,” as Robinson herself acknowledges. “And that’s why the fall from grace of Museveni and Zenawi,” for their dictatorial predispositions, which is unAfrican, is a reminder to all concerned about Africa’s progress, “especially to Western countries that invested so much in Africa’s new leaders, that strong institutions are far more important than personalities.” What should concern those worried about the shaky state of Africa’s progress, especially the hopelessness of her so-called new generation of leaders and her Western imposed weak national institutions, is that Africa’s innate traditional institutions should be mixed with her colonial legacies openly in a new continental policy development regime. This will need a new generation of African thinkers who have thorough grasp of the continent’s values and history and be able to think from within her innate values first and any other second and have the skill to mix them with her colonial legacies and the enabling aspects of the global culture. It is here that Robinson’s “strong institutions” such as the press, the judiciary and parliament, “that are bigger than any one person and counterbalance the worst excesses,” will be mixed with Africa’s traditional institutions so as to create realistically strong institutions in the continent’s development process.

When the strong institutions needed to drive Africa’s progress are rooted in the enabling aspects, her traditional institutions, it is then that her good leaders would not “stay in office long enough” and Africans will “not get frustrated” since their development values will flow from their own values and the imposed colonial ones, and in the process, development will be rapid, and not any “inevitable slow pace of change.” It is when this state of Africa’s development is reached, with all the enabling aspects of her values calculatedly dancing with her colonial legacies for progress, that there will be no need for "a leader’s no-nonsense reputation,” in the development process, as Robinson quotes Achebe in “The Trouble with Nigeria,” but rather African values will dominate her development institutions.

Photo: President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, from grace to grass?