Good African Leaders: Who are they and how do we get them?

By Wafula Okumu

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 18, 2002

For forty years or so, African leaders have played a pivotal role in derailing the economic and political stability of the countries under their stewardships. In half the period of colonial rule, they have indulged in a reckless game of financial profligacy and violated human rights with impunity. It has now been universally acknowledged that bad leadership has a direct correlation to development of a nation. The root cause of Africa’s endemic problems has partly been traced to the continent’s coterie of bad leaders. African leaders are generally known to have created intractable conflicts, misused and abused of power, violated human rights abuse and driven their people further into the bowels of poverty. It is now generally believed that for Africa to reclaim its rightful position in the international system it must do something about its “bad leaders.”

But who exactly is a “good leader” and how do we get one? If use of patterns and trends could provide a useful guide in determining good African leaders we could simply pick Mandela, Nkrumah and Nyerere as the most respected African leaders and then anoint anyone with names starting letters ‘M’ and ‘N’ as good leaders. Unfortunately, this is not possible since these great African leaders also share the first letters of their names with some of Africa’s most despicable dictators: Moi, Mobutu, Mengistu, Mugabe, Nguema, Numeiri, and many others.

A distinguishing characteristic of almost all African countries is that they have been or are still being ruled by thug-like leaders. Their despicable behavior notwithstanding, the present crop of bad African leaders will have to be replaced one day whether they like it or not. When their time comes, the most important task will not be simply replacing these bad leaders but finding the right people to replace them. It is in view of this gigantic task lying ahead that the Congolese, Kenyans, Liberians, Zimbabweans, Malawians and other Africans must now focus their keen attention on picking replacements of the bad leaders who are running down their countries.

Before defining who a “leader” is and is not, we should first establish the fact that politicians usually do not make “good leaders.” As the British scientific journal Nature Today once pointed out in a study on leadership, politicians are uniquely simple personalities. In layman’s terms, that would mean they lack personality. The question then is: if we are to look for leadership qualities or inculcate them, what will they be? We often hear that leaders are born, not made. Although this opinion has been widely accepted for centuries, many experts are now rethinking this assumption. Most experts now believe that the ability to lead is not limited to the few born with exceptional talent. Even though an inborn potential doesn’t hurt, leadership is now viewed as a set of skills that, with proper training, can be learned. But what is leadership?

Leadership is getting other people to follow you towards a common goal. A leader feels that he or she has something to offer or that he or she can make an existing situation better. Initiative and vision are the pillars to leadership. The desire to lead, though essential, is not enough to make a dynamic leader. One has to have a firm grasp on knowledge, a well-horned and appropriate skills, and relevant experience that makes one almost a “philosopher-king.” Having the skills and know-how in a particular field makes one an obvious candidate for leadership. But this is not enough, particularly in the African context. For instance, someone may be a successful guerrilla leader, but a sadistic head of state once in power. Having knowledge is one thing, but putting it to use in the interest of the people is another. One’s knowledge is then only useful if it is used to enhance a common goal.

There are many other qualities of leadership. Inner qualities include fairness, impartiality, character, strength, and ability to recognize one’s limitations. Additionally, a leader is also one who is peace loving, faithful, kind, obedient to God, and serves his or her people. Other qualities include outspokenness, decisiveness, proactive, wisdom, strength, love for the people and the work, and honesty. Today people have also picked their leaders on the basis of their good looks, wealth, popularity, and the willingness to do anything to get on top and stay there.

According to the Book of Proverbs, the qualities of good leadership are hard work, reliable communication, openness to new ideas, capability of listening to both sides of the story, wise planning and common sense, ability to stand under adversity, standing well under praise, knowing the facts before making decisions, and not penalizing people for good behavior or rewarding evil people. In other words, leadership skills can be used for the great good or great evil. Unfortunately, most of our African leaders have chosen the later.

There are many African leaders who possess leadership personality traits but lack the spiritual character. Many of them have ignored the importance of a spiritual character to effective leadership. Moral and spiritual character takes years to build, and it requires continual attention and patient discipline. Many African leaders think that they are spiritual by merely proclaiming their faith or making appearances at places of worship or being in the company of opportunistic religious leaders.

Intemperate events in Africa have provided its leaders with golden opportunities to exercise their leadership skills. Unfortunately, many of them have chosen to use them against their people’s interests. Even those who have recognized their mistakes have been unwilling to admit them. None of them wants to bear the blame when confronted. It is a wonder that even those who claim to read the Bible have never learned from Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, that, it is not wise to wait until our errors force us to admit wrongdoing. And that it is far much better to openly admit our mistakes, shoulder the blame and seek forgiveness. It is a rarity in Africa for leaders to ever own up to their mistakes, leave alone take the blame and seek forgiveness.

Like King David, many African leaders have abused their positions of authority to get what they want. There is rampant abuse of power in Africa. These leaders are verse to exploiting, manipulating and compromising those under their authority. Africa has many Absaloms: these are leaders who use their charisma as a mask to cover craft, deception, and hunger for power. Underneath their style and charm, these leaders have been unable to make good decisions and handle the affairs of their nations wisely.

When it comes to serving the people, many Africa leaders forget that there is plenty of room for everyone. Yet African leaders are unhappy when others show leadership abilities. They eschew other leaders, particularly up and coming ones, and transform themselves into the nation, consequently making a challenge to them as tantamount to challenging national interests. They then create personality cults and become omnipotent. In feats to simplify their country’s maps, they name streets and public facilities such as airports, schools, stadia and hospitals after themselves. Many have not only acquired monarchical tendencies such as printing their images on currencies while they are still alive but they have also turned themselves into deities that must be worshipped and glorified.

While one of the greatest challenges facing a leader is training others to become leaders, one of the best tests for good leadership is its willingness and ability to train another person for the position occupied by the incumbent. Many African leaders not only fail to follow Moses’ example of appointing successors who are capable of delivering the people to the Promised Land but the few who do seem to deliberately appoint those they think will protect their interests and people once Providence has recalled them.

Many could again learn from Moses who commissioned Joshua to replace him and encouraged him in his new role. Good leaders prepare their people to continue the journey to the Promised Land without them by identifying those with leadership potential, providing them with the training they need, and seeking ways to encourage them. After assisting Moses for many years, Joshua was well prepared to take over the leadership of the nation. Smooth leadership transitions are essential for the establishment of new administrations. This does not happen unless new leaders are trained. African leaders should begin preparing others to take their places so that when they leave, although many do not think they will ever do so, their countries can continue functioning normally. Unfortunately, many African leaders prepare others to create chaos instead of taking over political power in the interest of the nation.

Good leaders are not always national leaders. Take the example of Charles Taylor, who might have been a good guerrilla leader but after taking over the reigns of power in Liberia he has proven to be one of the worst leaders in the country’s history. Some ideas by some leaders may prove to be attractive but they must be judged by whether or not they are consistent with the nation’s interests. When some people claim to speak for the nation, we must judge them by asking a series of questions: Are they telling the truth? Is their focus on the nation? Are their words consistent with what is already known to be true? Do they speak the truth while directing the people towards the Promised Land, or do they speak persuasively while directing the people toward themselves?

There are many African leaders who have said the right things but still led their nations in wrong directions. Africa, unlike any other region in the world, has had the most colorful and romanticized ideologies ranging from pan-Africanism to negritude, authenticity, humanism, nyayoism, African socialism and God knows what else. In the end these “political ideologies” have turned out to be bankrupt ideas, or at best empty slogans. With leadership comes responsibility. When a leader makes a mistake, it is the nation that suffers. Many take decision without counsel and input from the people, or after soliciting only for advice that will support their decision. African leaders have surrounded themselves with incompetent subordinates because they feel threatened by competent ones. They also have a penchant for taking highly educated individuals, lobotomizing them, and then turning them into cheerleaders and court jesters. A good leader, as the Book of Proverbs (11:14), needs and uses wise counselors.

Many African leaders usually overlook the fact that they cannot lead the nation single-handedly. Rather than handle larger responsibilities alone, African leaders should look for ways of sharing the loads of the nation so that others may exercise their God-given gifts and abilities. Modern African States have become complex. As their needs have increased so have been conflicts and disagreements. Due to this complex reality, African leaders can no longer make decisions alone. Many seem to be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. This may be due to their arrogance that they know all or asking for advice may imply they are bankrupt of ideas. Those who pretend to ask for advice later overlook it even when honestly given. The ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates once said that the greatest loyalty an adviser could give a leader is by being frank and candid. It is more helpful to the leader, Isocrates averred, to surround him - or her-self with those who disagree with him or her than it is to rely on those who mimic his or her point of view. Isocrates noted that: “frankness is a virtue in a counselor who must risk the ire of the (leader) foolish enough to be offended when contradicted.”

By being receptive to the ideas of others and by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect a leader will help ensure the happiness, and success of the people. African leaders have yet to learn that criticism is always directed at leaders, no matter how good they are. However, what distinguishes a good from a bad leader is the ability to listen and take constructive criticism without spending valuable time and energy worrying about those who may oppose their leadership. A good leader must always focus attention on those who are ready and willing to help. Some criticisms are due to love for the nation and should not be misconstrued as unpatriotic, treasonable or seditious. African leaders always place a premium on blind loyalty, as though they are royal dynasties that value their own preservation and power above all else.

It is this unquenchable thirst for fidelity that has imperiled democracy and botched development in Africa. Instead of cultivating loyalty and trust in democracy, African leaders have demanded that loyalty of public servants and the masses should be expressed to the people who determine whether or not food gets on their plates. In Africa, civil servants serve at the pleasure of the presidents, who appointed them, and not the people, who pay their salaries. To get a key position in the government one has to be the fiercest loyalist rather than most competent and best qualified. In Africa, it is better for a civil servant to be loyal and wrong than correct and disloyal.

There is a fairly simple explanation for this obsession with loyalty: the insecurity of the African leaders. The more secure a leader is - both intellectually and psychologically - the more he or she will value disagreements. The best example of such a leader is Nelson Mandela who was constantly challenged by his colleagues in government and warmly welcomed dissenting opinions. Mandela was able to do this, unlike other African leaders, because he always went out of his way to court opinions, and knew that was how he would get the best advice. This is essentially what made him the most secure leader in the world.

Most African nations have now been transmogrified to reflect the lifestyles of their evil leaders. Occasional wrongdoing has gradually been turned into wrongdoing as a way of life. In my frequent travels around Africa, I have continually noted the deteriorating attitudes, habits and conducts of the people. It seems like every time I revisit an African country I notice that its people have become ruder, meaner and brasher. One time when I left Africa I went on a soul-searching trip to understand why Africans are being turned into spiteful, misogynic and egoistical people.

I now have an answer: African leaders have traumatized their people to the point where they are in desperate states and on self-destruct courses. By using brutal means to rule and senselessly looting the public resources, African leaders have left the people in a state of shock and despair. In view of this reality, it comes as no shock that Africans are now imitating their leaders in various ways - they are abrasive, kleptomaniac, debauched, deceitful and contumacious. The book of Proverbs says that where there is no good leadership people will have only pain, there will also be wickedness, wicked rulers, wicked aides and wicked people.

African leaders have no compassion for those they are supposed to serve. Examples of such leaders are Taylor, who used children to terrorize the Liberian people and acquire power; Moi, who contemplated chopping off fingers of opposition sympathizers; and Mobutu, who looted his country into a basket case. Others are Kabila, who instigated ethnic chauvinism; Amin, who feasted on cadavers of his victims; and Abacha, who almost brought Nigerians down on their knees. These African leaders have treated the African people miserably in order to satisfy their own desires and then insolently claimed later that God had sanctioned their actions.

A real leader has a servant’s heart. Instead of using people leaders should serve them. Sadly, many African leaders prefer to lead through false promises and chaos. African leaders are often selfish and arrogant as they claw themselves to the top and stick there by hook or crook. None of them, except Botswana’s, take the time to consult the people on how they can best be served.

How a leader interacts with the people carries a lot of weight. By getting in tune with people’s emotions, needs, obstacles, and strong points a leader can effectively mobilize the forces towards national goals. For optimum results, the people must understand the national goals and be enlightened to alternative strategies and ways of attaining them. And a good leader is the teacher that inculcates this information! The ability to keep people focused on the national goals and tactfully steer them in the attainment of those goals is what leadership is all about.

Unfortunately, even those African leaders who had suffered tremendously before coming to power have not reached out with sensitivity to their hurting people. Quite a number of them either have been responsible for hurting the people or forgot how pain feels as they inflict it on others to stick to power. Examples of such leaders are Jomo Kenyatta and Robert Mugabe who despite spending years in colonial incarceration used methods worse than those used by the colonizers to silence their critics.

Finally, a good leader does not neglect the self. A solid self-awareness and steady confidence is certainly helpful. Tenacity, pluck, and curiosity are beneficial attributes that will convince others to follow a leader. Also the intelligence to accept feedback and learn from it and the flexibility to alter ineffective habits will ensure one’s s success as a leader. A leader who has inspiration to do good and passion for the nation will quickly discover that his or her ways are contagious and will quickly infect the people.

To be an effective leader is not an easy task as it takes vision, flexibility, knowledge, communication, and hard work. But those who have the desire and the determination to sharpen their wits, hone their skills, and accentuate their virtues can pull away and deftly lead the herd to success. Africans need leaders who will show them where to start and what direction to take in reconstructing their shattered nations. Africans are longing for plain-spoken leaders with charisma and visions to create new, politically and economically vibrant nations that are just and independent.

May those who want to lead Africa please stand up now!

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