The former South African President, Nelson Mandela, once said:
Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.
This notion of servant leadership is one that continues to tease Africa’s political elite today. Yesterday’s struggle for freedom has largely become a battle of details and varying degrees concerning accountability, transparency, and service delivery. As many countries on the continent work to outstretch the shadows of economic uncertainty and political lethargy with indeterminate strongholds of power, some leaders have difficulty finding their place in the sun.
Each year, the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership aims to highlight a former head of state for exceptional service but also engage citizens in a conversation to change perceptions of African leadership. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation believes that,
without excellent leadership at the top, efforts made by those at all levels of leadership will not reap the rewards deserved
and yet dishearteningly, another year has gone by without a winner. At best it demonstrates the Prize’s unwavering commitment to keep to its mission despite on the one hand the merit of the award being put in question, and on the other hand fielding calls for for the funds to invest in Africa’s youth rather than its ‘geriatric leaders’.
The weight of sacrifice, however, seems to be carried by the common people while others use political and economic access for self-benefit. This quest for power knows its own terms as allegations of manipulation surround presidential stewardship in Burundi and Uganda while citizens in in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya prepare for a horizon filled with contentious elections. To be sure, each of these challenges must be explored with great respect to the many nuances they contain. A fluid interpretation of circumstance and rule of law may allow for compromise and political innovation, but does it come at the expense of stronger institutions? And so, the continent looks to its current leaders for answers.
During this year’s World Economic Forum for Africa, Rwandan President Paul Kagame put things into context when he said: “Sometimes it’s about Africanising democracy, rather than democratising Africa. It’s imperative that we drive our own agenda for the best interests of our nations and progress of the continent.”
At a time when the political governance pendulum is swinging backwards for some countries, Kagame’s statement is a powerful reminder that Africa’s choice on the way forward remains unclear.
As individual countries prioritise their economic approach, the African Development Bank has attempted to track progress on the most pressing issues for the continent in what it calls the High fives to achieve economic prosperity by 2025: power, food security, integration, industrialisation, and improved quality of life. To achieve such progress, political will needs to be coupled with practical steps by African leaders and global ones alike. For instance, losses from illegal capital outflows from creative wealth management such as that seen in the Panama Papers, to blatant corruption rid the continent loses nearly $50 billion each year. These losses undoubtedly hinder nations’ abilities to deliver desperately needed services such as roads, electricity, health, and education. African leaders must play their part in global financial reforms not only to foster development in Africa, but also to curb terrorism and other illicit activities.
As more data becomes available, assessments like the Ibrahim Index of African Governance become valuable tools to explore safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity, and human development. But many questions remain: what will it take for the continent’s leaders to move beyond themselves and their own personal interests? The idea must not only be to sacrifice for one’s country, but also to foster a greater sense of unity within the country. Can each family’s pursuit of a better life be more closely aligned with the community’s development as a whole? Before addressing these complex issues, it is best to find an agreed starting point – how many communities does it take to raise a nation? All of them.
The idea must not only be to sacrifice for one’s country, but also to foster a greater sense of unity within the country.
Although there is no clearly defined minimum standard of leadership, citizens must be sensitised to increase their civic engagement in order to hold today’s leaders accountable and set the foundation for the young leaders of tomorrow. Rather than narrowly focusing on democratic reforms, leadership and governance should also be explored at the ground level with particular focus on the continent’s rapidly growing youth population, which is expected to reach about 400 million by 2025. If the Swahili proverb that wisdom is wealth can be applied to Africa’s governance context, then African countries should be rich with the experience required to overcome these challenges so that future African leaders are recognised as valuable players in global governance, in light of democracy or otherwise.