The Leadership Question

As I was listening to the one-day debate on the challenges African leaders face in the emerging global geo-political dynamics, I kept on wondering why former leaders can be so perceptive and incisive after they are no longer in state power … that is, after they are liberated from the burden of office? I have been editing a small book on Nyerere and I have recently read (re-read) virtually all his printed works in English. I found that some of his best political and philosophical writings came after he had stepped down from power. Has it something to do with the nature of state power? Has it to do with the aging process of individual leaders? Or is it because when in power they are dominated by the structure of power created by the West? I must admit that I have no clear answer. It could be a combination of all three.

The Uongozi Institute
I was a participant at the Inaugural ‘Africa Leadership Forum’ in July, 2014 in Dar es Salaam organised by the Institute of African Leadership for Sustainable Development – the Uongozi Institute. The meeting was called by the former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa. Among the participants were four former African heads of state, former ministers of state, heads of international organisations, and some representatives from the private sector and the academia.
I was impressed at the candid, and often self-critical, approach of the former rulers of Africa present there. A past Prime Minister of Tanzania told us about the dismal performance of African Ministers of Finance that attended the annual meetings of the World Bank in Washington. They had, he said, ‘no analytical capacity’. They came with ‘no proposals’ even on the financing of their own countries. They simply sat and listened.
A slightly different experience – one that ended with a positive note – was narrated by the former President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. He told us an interesting anecdote on how the idea of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) was born at the Tokyo G7 meeting in 1999. He himself attended the meeting as chairman of G77 and China; President Mbeki of South Africa was there as Chairman of the African Union; and President Kufuor of Ghana came as Chairman of the Commonwealth. ‘So we found ourselves’, he said, ‘at a meeting called by the most powerful G7 countries’. Echoing what the former Tanzanian Prime Minister had said, Obasanjo asked himself what they were doing in Tokyo. I might have told him that they were at the G7 gathering to give it an African blessing – a silent endorsement. The G7 Leaders of the most powerful nations can say ‘Africans were there when we took our decisions, so they cannot now complain’.
At the end of the G7 meeting, Obasanjo said, the three of them – himself and Presidents Mbeki and Kufuor – met. They came up with the idea of ‘Leadership Peer Review’ – one of the more important pillars of NEPAD. Whether the ‘Peer Review’ system has worked or not is another question. I personally have serious misgivings – not because I am cynical but because I’ve seen peer (or political Party) reviewed ‘leadership codes’ fade away with practically no impact – like in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. I’m prepared to be open-minded about NEPAD’s peer-review system. However, my point is somewhat different, and it is this: why did it take three influential heads of state in Africa to be summoned by the G7 in Tokyo for them to think of this idea? Why could they not have done this before – in a deliberate, planned, manner? Why did not the African Union initiate the idea long before the three leaders met in Tokyo in 1999? And yes, the question Obasanjo had asked, why were they in Tokyo anyway?
The Blame Game
At the start of the Uongozi meeting, President Mkapa said that the aim of the meeting was to encourage ‘positive and practical’ ideas, ‘be inspirational’ he said, and let us not engage in a ‘blame game’. At the meeting, however, it was difficult to avoid this other-incriminating finger-pointing ‘game’. What is the point of going into history if you cannot put the blame on somebody – blame Hitler for the Second World War, and Stalin for the cold war? It is one negative aspect of nostalgia. So the Uongozi meeting, despite Mkapa’s advice, was no different. Some speakers criticised the ‘dictatorial’ tendencies of some of the past and current leaders, their corruption, and their leaning towards ethnic or clan bias as the root causes of the present malaise in Africa. Of course, there is some truth to all this, except that these – including corruption – are not a purely African phenomenon. All these malevolent traits are amply in evidence in the so-called ‘developed’ countries too.
Nonetheless the ‘blame game’ has become a habitual part of the litany of discourse that distracts from more in-depth analysis. In my intervention from the floor, I agreed that the question of corruption and quality of leadership are important issues. But there are also ‘structural’ or ‘systemic’ issues, I said. ‘Our leaders in Africa (and for that matter in most of the third world) are not free-wheeling agents. They make policies within the framework of the Capitalist-Imperialist system, which has both political-economic and military-security dimensions’.
I gave the example of Somalia. How did the leadership of the Al-Shabaab arise? (For leadership cannot be confined to only those in state power. There is also a ‘leadership’ that comes from the opposition). I gave a brief account of the ‘developed’ countries’ predatory fishing along the 3,500 coastline of Somalia, and the dumping of toxic waste. These resulted in the almost total destruction of Somali coastal resources and people’s livelihoods. Is it a wonder, then, that a ‘leadership’ would arise that would pirate big country ships? ‘You loot our fish, and we loot your ships’. During 2011-12 there was a period of relative peace in Somalia under the Union of Islamic Courts. Why could not this be sustained? Well, because the Ethiopian troops invaded and removed them. May be Ethiopia had its reasons. And so did the United States. Were they acting in collusion? I suspect they were. Soon afterwards, Uganda and Kenya – encouraged by American arms supplies and an ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign – also sent troops to Somalia. Speaking as an East African, I would say that our leadership never consulted us – the citizens – on this matter. This imposition of ‘order’ on Somalia from outside Somalia is interference in the affairs of Somalia. This is not to condone the Al Shabaab’s subsequent bombing of Nairobi and Kampala. It is to put a question to our political leaders in state power: Whose war are they fighting? And why?
President Mbeki said he agreed with me – that the larger issues of ‘structure’ of global political-economy must be addressed. To my example of Somalia, he added that of Senegal, where, too, the fishing trawlers of the ‘developed’ countries are out-fishing local fisher folk and depriving them of their livelihoods. Yes, leadership is an issue, but so are the larger structural or systemic issues, he said.
Where do we go from here?
Leaders like Nyerere and Mandela are rare – one a former teacher, the other a former boxer. They were chiselled by their times, of course, but they – like Gandhi – had something special ‘inside’ them.
But the rare by definition are atypical. We sadly lack a Gandhi or Nyerere or Mandela kind of persons at the global level. Pope Francis? Perhaps. Obama I once thought had that potential, but it is clear that he is too mired in the traps of the White House seat. (I suspect his wisdom and view on things might emerge after his presidency – we wait and see). Typically, then, ordinary mortals – some with great credentials, but no saints – are called upon to decide the fate of their nations, or their regions, or the world. We create institutions – electoral systems, checks and balances, ‘peer-review’ mechanisms – in the hope that they would produce good, accountable leaders. But for every law or regulation there is a loophole, and that loophole enables a good democrat whom people put in power to become a wile dictator.
This said, I do not the share the pessimism or cynicism of those who argue that all efforts to work with the corrupt leadership of neo-colonies are foredoomed. This is dogmatism at its worst. Pushed to its logical conclusion, this leads to a deterministic cul-de-sac: nothing can be done until there is a fundamental break with capitalism or imperialism, or until we break the neo-colonial structures, or until we get rid of corrupt leaders, or there is a ‘regime change’. Of course, all these are parts of the long movement of history with its ups and downs. In the meantime, what do we do?
For the last three decades I have been working with African and third world leaders, in particular in relation to trade negotiations at various levels – global, regional and bilateral. I can speak with some knowledge and confidence that things do change and can change. As I am writing these words, ‘corrupt’ leaders of Africa have been influenced to stay their course and not to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that the European Union is forcing down their throats through a carrot and stick combination of bribe (called ‘development aid’) and threat of sanctions.
But this is only one example among many. The point is it can be done. There is no pre-determined road to liberation. We are guided by the lessons of history, but we pave the road as we march forward.

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