Obama Leaders: Africa program – five takeaways from Mo Ibrahim’s conversation with Uzo Iweala, CEO of The Africa Centre
As part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mo Ibrahim kicked off the first plenary session, on 15 July, in conversation with Uzo Iweala on ‘Ethical Leadership in Africa’. During the conversation, Mo Ibrahim offered advice on leadership and spoke about the responsibility of young Africans to create a better future for the continent. Here are five takeaways from the conversation.
1. The young generation of Africans must take ownership of the continent’s development in order to move forward
The African history, from slavery and colonialisation to independence, has often led to a narrative which passes the blame of the continent’s development and governance deficit to ‘those guys across the waters’. However, it is essential we ask the question: what have we done since independence, some 50 years ago?
Mo Ibrahim argues that despite Africa’s riches in terms of its natural and human resources, African leaders have failed to fully harness the continent’s potential since independence. There are over 1.1 billion people in Africa – that’s only just less than the populations of India or China, and of the populations of Europe and the USA combined. Africa is an underpopulated continent yet its citizens are migrating to and risking their lives in the Mediterranean. Good governance and leadership are needed to take the continent forward and create a better future for its citizens. Like President Obama, supporting emerging African leaders is also a priority to Mo Ibrahim.
The Ibrahim Leadership Fellows, the Next Generation Forum participants and the Obama Foundation Leaders are our next generation of leaders. Programmes which help to prepare and equip young Africans should be celebrated and encouraged in order to ensure progress. At the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s inaugural Next Generation Forum, which took place in Kigali (Rwanda) in April, convening emerging African leaders and professionals to debate the state of public service, the group rebranded themselves as the ‘now generation’, reflecting their demands of and role in African society in the present and not only the future. This group – alongside those involved in Obama Foundation Leaders and other programmes – show that these young people are engaged in Africa’s future. They are acting on their desire to move Africa forward and this should be supported by us all.
2. Draw on African culture and traditional approaches to harness ethical leadership skills
Mo Ibrahim is a Nubian, a Sudanese man, who grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. He reflected on the deep sense of culture and values that he was born into and grew up around. The Nubians have a collective culture, where everything is shared. Respect is earned by your commitment to the community and not based on personal wealth. To be an ethical leader, one has to be ready to put oneself on the line. As Mo Ibrahim puts it:
Mo Ibrahim recalled his student days in Alexandria University in the 1950s, a time of great hope and optimism for a united Africa, when the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, and Jomo Kenyatta, Prime Minister and first President of Kenya, were championing Africa’s aspirations. Mo Ibrahim still hopes for an integrated Africa; a United States of Africa where aspiration and culture play a central role in leadership.
3. Leadership means knowing your limitations, realising and understanding the power of team work
Mo Ibrahim drew on his experience of going from an academic to a business man to illustrate some of the key qualities needed for ethical leaders in Africa. This transition required a paradigm shift, where he moved from being a technical person to being a manager of a business. He believes that to know your own limitations and to seek help where needed is a strength.
As ‘a bit of a socialist’, Mo Ibrahim believes that value is created by everybody. As a businessman, every employee in his company was a shareholder. This meant that everyone had a stake in the business and was dedicated to making it a success. These very same principles apply to citizens, as stakeholders in how their countries are governed.
4. Leadership requires for us to bring our heroes out of the shadows
Mo Ibrahim highlighted the need for more African heroes and the significance of these people as symbolic figures. The Foundation awards the Ibrahim Prize which celebrates excellence in African leadership. As Africans, we are interested in the people who come and serve, walk out of the office with clean hands and at the same time move their country forward. More often than not, people don’t know real African heroes, they only know the criminals. As Africans we should not accept the narrative given to us by others. Our job is to bring those heroes out of the shadows and celebrate them as role models.
Nelson Mandela, a great African hero, is one of the Ibrahim Prize laureates. There are many others that have done incredible jobs at moving their countries forward, for instance Pedro Pires, former President of Cabo Verde, who liberalised his country’s economy and introduced a multiparty system, among other achievements. Such names and achievements must be held high to act as a guide and inspiration for future leadership.
5. Accountability is a key component to leadership
Citizens must be part of decision making in their country. Governance is more than just the election moment, citizens should be empowered with information with which they can hold their governments to account. For instance, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), provides a number of parameters that measure how well a government is doing in delivering the expected basket of public goods and services to its citizens. Rule of law, safety of people, a country’s infrastructure, these are all elements of governance citizens should know about. It is essential that citizens use data to hold their governments accountable. In the 21st century, digital communications via social media makes it easier for citizens to get information and rally around a cause. As an informed and empowered collective, young Africans have a huge transformative power.
The views expressed by Mo are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Obama Foundation.