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Reflecting on African leaders

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Our intellectuals need to broaden the debate on our failures from individual presidents to our elite class generally

I think I have lost my faith in the wickedness of African leaders. A significant amount of debate on the failure of Africa to develop as rapidly as East Asia has focused on the personalities of individual presidents. Academic research has not been spared this fetish.

I write this article with a lot of humility because I have also been a principle proponent of this idea. Has Africa’s principle reason for poor performance been due to bad leadership at the level of its presidents and a few people around them?


Africa’s intellectuals need more sober reflection on this subject. Blanket condemnations of our leaders tend to obscure rather than illuminate the source of our challenges.

In the process, we miss the inner dynamics that drive our political processes and the risks or opportunities they present for progress. This is also largely because we begin our analysis based our own false/ideal illusions of leaders of successful countries.

The view, for example, that African leaders have been singularly corrupt, nepotistic or self-serving is wrong. All leaders across all nations make self-serving decisions. But these need not blind us to the many they make in the national interest.

Indeed purely self serving decisions by individuals can produce socially optimal outcomes as Adam Smith’s concept of the invisible hand of the market postulates. Anyone following political developments in Asia and Europe would notice that their leaders behave like ours – the differences only being the groups they are seeking to placate.

It seems obvious that all politicians seek to maximise power. The idealised leader whose primary objective is to serve the nation is often a figment of our imagination.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region of about 46 nations. These countries have had many changes of leaders over the last 50 years – in all over 300 presidents have ruled Africa. Basic mathematical probability would tell you that if the personalities of these individual presidents were the main explanation for poor performance, out of these 300 leaders Africa would have had a high chance to produce the hero we have been looking for like a Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore), a Park Chung Hee (South Korea) or a Chiang Kai Shek (Taiwan). Yet even after 14 presidents of Nigeria, 10 of Ghana, eight of Uganda, four of Tanzania and Kenya, five in Zambia etc we have not seen this happen.

Instead, over the last 50 years since independence, Sub Sahara Africa has produced similar politics and developmental outcomes. The dominance of poverty for most people, the continued dominance of peasant agriculture, the poor development of manufacturing, patronage politics etc are features that all these countries share with differences in form but not in substance.

If these realities could be changed by the diktat of an individual leader, at least a few countries would be looking like South Korea. Yet except for Botswana and the island nations, SS Africa shares a common developmental predicament.

With such overwhelming evidence, we possibly need to shift the debate from the individual presidents to the broader social dynamics within our societies. Besides, our leaders don’t come from Asia or Europe. They are products of our societies.

Therefore, even if their venality was the driving force behind our poverty and bad politics, there must be unique fissures within our societies that produce such a disproportionate amount of poor leadership. From there we can debate how these impede the sustenance of progressive politics and how to structure our political institutions and public policies to respond to these specific realities?

Issues of dictatorship, corruption and nepotism begin to disappear when one studies the Asian tigers. We have an idealised view of Asian leaders. Yet the differences between them and our leaders are only in outcomes, not in behavior.

There was as much corruption, dictatorship and nepotism in Indonesia under Suharto as in Nigeria under its various military rulers. Yet the developmental results of the two countries were different. In South Korea two former military rulers were arrested and tried for corruption in the 1990s – Chang Du Hwan and Tae Won Roh and both admitted to accumulating fortunes worth over US$ 600 million while in office.

Claims of morally upright East Asian politicians hiring technically competent bureaucrats to run their economies have been proven false by detailed studies. Policies were made to favour cronies and subsidies and cheap loans by interventionist states were given in exchange for campaign contributions.

The real question is: what then explains the differences in developmental outcomes between East Asia and Africa given many similarities in the conduct of their leaders? It is possible the differences were in the specific endowments – both domestic and external – in these countries so that these nations transformed not just because of but in spite of their leaders’ venality.

This tendency to perpetually condemn our political leaders is actually one way we African elites exonerate ourselves of the blame we must share and allows us to carry a holier-than-thou attitude.

Even if our rulers are venal, how come no one in the private sector has built a Google or Apple or Microsoft or Sum Sung, Hyundai or LG or Honda, Toshiba or Toyota? If a president has failed at the level of politics, surely someone should triumph at the level of the private sector to create a world class company.

Or maybe, if we searched for those achievements of our leaders within the state or the market, we would find a lot from which we can learn and draw inspiration. For now, this condemnation of our political leaders has stripped us of the necessary moral resources that can provide us inspiration and pride.

Because we have little within us to inspire us, we retreat to worshiping leaders of other nations – Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama etc. I do not know of a nation that has been transformed by worshiping foreign heroes.

This is not to say that African political leaders have been angels or hapless victims of external and internal factors. Indeed, to say that would be to deny their individual agency in the fortunes and misfortunes of their countries.

I am merely saying our presidents are a part, indeed a very small part, of the problem. Analysts, scholars, politicians and journalists always oversimplify reality. We hastily select a few variables which we are familiar with to make broad conclusions about social phenomena. Unfortunately, the real world is a complex of multitudinous variables we can neither fully capture nor comprehend completely.

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