Africa: Rebuilding Africa's Leadership Cadre

opinion

As with Mr. Magufuli, the current cohort is not just fit for purpose. They are decidedly a threat to the continent's near-term prospects.

... while all of these may be sufficient for the continent's re-engagement with a rapidly-changing world, a necessary condition is that it conducts a root-and-branch review of its leaders. As with Mr. Magufuli, the current cohort is not just fit for purpose. They are decidedly a threat to the continent's near-term prospects.

Tanzania's John Pombe Magufuli, in office since 2015 as president of the east African country, is a new breed of African leader. Not as murderous, uncouth, and incompetent as the cohort that succeeded those who fought for the independence of their respective countries, this new tribe of the continent's helmsmen poses far bigger threats to the continent's long-term outlook. This is not because, as in The Bulldozer's (Mr. Magufuli's moniker) case, his denial of the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused far more deaths of his countrymen than was necessary if he had counselled protective behaviour. Or because, leveraging his evangelical Christian credentials, his claim that Tanzania had defeated the virus through prayers was a blatant untruth told against the Holy Spirit. Nor, because having possibly succumbed to the virus recently, he has involved his country's bureaucracy in a cover up. If nothing else, Donald John Trump violated the United States in worse fashion - including surreptitiously taking his vaccine, even as he encouraged Americans to endanger their lives. As has Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.

Africa, unfortunately, cannot afford this new distraction. Half-a-century ago, the Cold War was the biggest variable in the continent's leaders' power equation. It helped that one of the lead proponents in that bi-polar reality, despite bristling with nuclear arms, had, according to former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, all the political heft of Upper Volta. Bizarre, though certain aspects of the Cold War were. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was, essentially therefore, post-1970, throttling global growth.

Within this context, Africa's leaders were not called upon to do much. Beyond, that is, situating their respective administrations within their choice spheres of influence. What patronage from the metropoles failed to accomplish, strong commodity prices did. And in the few instances when these stars failed to align, the options were between more jackboots on their citizens necks or (what was the same outcome with different players) another in a series of putsches.

The global economy boomed. Leaders elsewhere struggled to democratise the gains from this globalisation, even as the continent laboured trying to define its rights and duties as citizens of this new world. In this ferment, Africa's current leadership was born - more circus-type than men of ideas.

That the continent did not come off that era in fine fettle is no surprise. Just as it has, expectedly, had to change its modus operandi with the collapse of the bipolar world. Africa's leaders were not just victims of the end of the Cold War, as the "Walking Bank Account in a Leopard-skin hat", put it. They subsequently came unstuck from the successes around them. Even China's pivot in the late 1970s was in part the result of being denied the incompetence of the Soviet Union's example. Ever since, countries on the continent have raced away from the bottom.

Their challenge? To renew themselves without the old examples from abroad. Accordingly, in the last two decades, they have become less opaque without becoming more open. They have held more elections to choose their leaders without becoming democracies. And their leaders became less murderous, even as they found more subtle means to sate their bloodlust. All around them, the world changed. Searching for greater trade opportunities, some economies (especially in south-east Asia) restructured their domestic markets - becoming more open to new investments.

The global economy boomed. Leaders elsewhere struggled to democratise the gains from this globalisation, even as the continent laboured trying to define its rights and duties as citizens of this new world. In this ferment, Africa's current leadership was born - more circus-type than men of ideas. Yet, if the popular rebellion against globalisation across the world makes any demand on leadership, it is that it be capable of compassing today's challenges and devising sustainable solutions to them. For Africa, the big challenge is how to square our crying need for development with greenery. How to preserve our forest cover - our easiest contribution to carbon capture - without starving our people?

Thankfully, the resources are there. Vast, sun-baked plains and feisty offshore winds should support renewables, as our rivers have supported hydroelectric power over the years. We need not reinvent photovoltaic arrays. Nor wind turbines. However, people will matter most.

The capacity to contribute to the development of new technologies will matter. As will the simple ability to domesticate changes in technologies elsewhere: Ongoing gains in genome research hold out the possibility of another "green revolution" on the continent (using far less resources to generate more than Asia managed in the first revolution); as will simply being able to upgrade our electricity generation capacity and grids to support both the charging of electric vehicles and lighting up rural homes.

Thankfully, the resources are there. Vast, sun-baked plains and feisty offshore winds should support renewables, as our rivers have supported hydroelectric power over the years. We need not reinvent photovoltaic arrays. Nor wind turbines. However, people will matter most. Not the numbers that we have, and we tend to bruit about. But in the quality of education and healthcare that the continent can offer them.

However, while all of these may be sufficient for the continent's re-engagement with a rapidly-changing world, a necessary condition is that it conducts a root-and-branch review of its leaders. As with Mr. Magufuli, the current cohort is not just fit for purpose. They are decidedly a threat to the continent's near-term prospects.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant

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