Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Africa's Leadership Conundrum

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Africa's Leadership Conundrum

Article excerpt

When the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced in February 2017 that there was no winner of the Foundation's 2016 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, the news had a familiar ring to it. Since the annual Prize for outstanding leadership by a former African head of government was established in 2006 by the wealthy Sudanese-born businessman Mohammed Ibrahim, it has been awarded only four times.

Despite the mantra of "Africa Rising" that took hold over the past decade to date, there is no denying that African countries, with few exceptions, have been afflicted by a crisis of leadership. That crisis has progressively become more acute after the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 60s when the political struggle to break the yoke ofWestern colonial oppression focused minds and threw up an abundance of leadership talent. Today, a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, and with a vast majority of Africa's countries officially democracies, the continent's elected and unelected leaders have largely proved unable to achieve high standards of governance as an outcome of leadership, and economic transformation as an outcome of effective governance.

And yet, the continent unquestionably abounds with leadership talent. The problem is that, while effective leaders are plenty in the realms of entrepreneurship, the professions, and civil society in Africa, transformational leadership ability has yet to become dominant in the cohort of political leadership, which is the focus of this essay.


Addressing Africa's leadership challenge successfully will require accurate insight into the roots of the conundrum the continent appears to face today-one in which its countries remain relatively poor, economically and technologically, in a globalized world defined by competitiveness in wealth creation rather than the strategic imperatives of world politics of a bygone era such as the Cold War. In that era, these imperatives defined the influence and relevance of several nations beyond their economic wealth. This was the world in which Africa came of age. But the leadership African countries need today is one that can stabilize, develop, and modernize them economically and technologically in order to improve the living standards of their citizens and become more competitive in a global context.

Against this backdrop, the root cause of Africa's leadership conundrum lies in sub-optimal understandings, and thus applications, of the meaning of leadership. A leader leads based on how he/she understands leadership. There are historical, cultural, sociological, and philosophical dimensions of this reality. Leadership, to begin with, must be defined in connection with achievement and results including and going beyond a process of governance. Leadership, therefore, means the ability to set out a vision of a desired state of things, set priorities, take risks, and mobilize society toward achieving such a desired end state.

The Historical Context

The definition and understanding of leadership may be quite different from what African countries today require of their leaders. Thus, although the word "leadership" is now in vogue, many African countries still have "rulers" rather than leaders. It does not matter that many of these countries may be democracies in a formalistic sense. As one practical example, the main priority of heads of state and government in Africa in the 1970s and the 1980s was to obtain political power for its own sake-mainly through coups d'état-and to keep it for as long as possible. Development of strong institutions-an important instrument of effective leadership-was not seen as a priority. We can identify three cultural "understandings" that lie at the root of African leadership styles.

The Cultural Context

"Us versus Them"

This is the problem of ethnic, religious, or other atomistic-identity based factionalism that defines the acquisition or exercise of political power in African countries. …

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