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Given the interdependent world that has resulted from these interweaving relations, Africa’s developmental challenges are also of global concern.

Maxwell’s adage, “Everything rises and falls on leadership”1, highlights the universal importance of leadership. “Everything” implies just that – everything! The birth and development; the demise and end; or the success and failure of anything depend on leadership. The importance of leadership, therefore, cuts across geographical, cultural, religious, ethnic and ideological lines. An address by Marxist and former member of the ANC NEC and SACP central committee, Ronnie Kasrils, before an audience at Stellenbosch University in 2016 was telling in this regard. Kasrils proclaimed that he would rather live under the leadership of ‘the Mbekis’, ‘the Mbowenis’ and ‘the Manuels’ than under the leadership of the current South African president, Jacob Zuma.

A well-known proverb reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”2 Since people constitute every distinctive human social group, vision – of fundamental importance to leadership – becomes universally indispensable. No one with historical insight and an understanding of contemporary societal realities can deny the fundamental role played by leadership in the human experience. This is particularly true of the African context, where political institutions, for reasons which scholars have already explored, are generally less developed than elsewhere in the world.

Numerous works – books, journal articles and opinion pieces – have been published on leadership, including leadership in Africa. Amongst the many challenges facing the African continent, one of the most important is the continuing leadership deficit. This area needs further and deeper research. The many challenges facing Africa have a negative impact on development and, in turn, on the well-being of its most valuable resource – its people. The following challenges – some of which are related and serve to reinforce one another – face us: climate change; large-scale involuntary migration; energy shortage; poverty and inequality; food insecurity; ill-health; underemployment and unemployment; youth bulge; corruption; violent conflict; ethnicism and racism; poor education or lack of education; and economic volatility that results from, among the challenges already cited, captured capital, low commodity prices, slow economic growth rates and low rates of industrial development.

By no means can it be successfully argued that these challenges are of an exclusively African heritage or nature. Additionally, coming to terms with these challenges will require an inclusive approach – that is, to move beyond ‘African solutions to African problems’. These qualifications are necessary because, ultimately, the challenges cited above are human, rather than African, in nature. They also have origins that stretch beyond the local and they have consequences that impact the global. To the degree that they result from the interweaving of human and state relations that stretch across history and political geographies, they are simultaneously domestic and international in origin. Given the interdependent world that has resulted from these interweaving relations, Africa’s developmental challenges are also of global concern.

Each of the challenges noted above ultimately ‘rose on the shoulders’ of poor leadership, exercised not only from within, but also from without, the continent. As such, only the positive power that resides in, and the beneficial impact that results from, good leadership can positively confront each challenge. But what is leadership and how does one differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership? Maxwell and other authors have defined leadership as influence, “nothing more, and nothing less.”3 If influence is the measure of leadership, then the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership depends on the nature of that which results from the influence. If “everything rises and falls on leadership”, it follows that leadership is assessed on its impact and outcomes. Therefore, Africa’s existing challenges lend support to the claim that the people of Africa have been suffering for some time now from what Makinda refers to as “Leadership Malaise and…Crisis of Governance.”4 Africa’s leadership illness and deficit is not unique to the continent, however. A few recent examples are worth mentioning in support of such an argument. Over the last few years, Brazil has experienced a corruption scandal, “involving millions of dollars in kickbacks and more than 80 politicians and members of the business elite”.5 To Brazil’s north, Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro has stripped his country’s national parliament of power.6 In Myanmar, “(f)ormer loyalists lose faith in…democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi”, who is now seen to be manifesting an authoritarian streak following her taking power.7 Russia’s incumbent, Vladimir Putin, is given the title, “one of the most feared leaders in the world”8 and United States President, Donald Trump, is described as having, “no grasp of what it means to be president.”9 Fear, corruption, power seeking, authoritarianism and incompetence are not traits ordinarily associated with notions of good leadership.

A 2015 survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that 86 percent of respondents “agree that we have a leadership crisis in the world today.”10 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016 reinforces the WEF’s finding: last year’s global average score was 43, “indicating endemic corruption in a country’s public sector.”11 Without relishing the leadership challenges faced elsewhere in the world, Africans may draw hope from what these challenges reveal: the experience of poor leadership is not unique to the African continent. As a whole, these non-African experiences serve as a reminder of the common challenges that confront humanity.

The African Development Bank argues that, “(r) eliable data constitutes the single most convincing way of getting the people involved in what their leaders and institutions are doing.”12 This supports the idea that a correlation exists between the nature or quality of leadership and the lived reality of those living under that leadership. Indeed a number of indicators suggest that, in comparative terms, Africa’s struggle with poor leadership has been and remains more extreme than in other parts of the world. In 2017, an analysis by Global Finance Magazine revealed that, of the world’s thirty poorest countries, twenty-four are African.13 Of the 105 countries that scored below the global average on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, 42 (40%) are African.14 Freedom House (2017) determines that only 12% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population and 18% of the region’s countries are “free”.15 As of June 2017, the United Nations Committee for Development Policy includes 32 African countries in its list of 47 of the world’s least developed countries.16 Finally, and in addition to the rise in violent extremism over recent years, Africa hosts the majority of UN peace missions deployed across the world.17 Leadership in Africa becomes even more questionable when taking into account that the realities reflected above exist alongside Africa’s diverse wealth, both in natural and human resources. “The region is full of promise and untapped riches – from oil and minerals and land to vast amounts of people capital – yet, it has struggled since colonial times to truly realise its potential.”18 In sum, Africa’s developmental woes are a consequence of poor leadership.19 Together, the indicators cited above serve as an indictment of Africa’s political leaders and their lack of will to ‘do the right thing’.

In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma defies the Constitution by repeatedly placing his interests, the interests of his chosen elite within the ruling African National Congress and the interests of foreign entities above the interests of the South African nation. In Zimbabwe, the nightmare that began with the land grabs in 1999 continues unabated, with former President Mugabe recently having called for a renewal of land invasions.20 The Zimbabwean president’s lavish birthday celebrations, hosted in an environment marked by drought, hunger and daily struggle, tell the story of a leader that has lost touch with the reality that his people live with.21 Despite this, Namibian President, Hage Geingob, hails Mugabe as his mentor.22 In Lesotho the experience is, “recurring political instability since 2012, including an alleged coup in 2014, and…three national elections within five years.”23 In Swaziland, King Mswati III presides over a political system that “fails to meet any standard of democracy.”24 After 38 years in power and upon retirement, Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, will receive the title ‘President of the Republic Emeritus Honorary’.25 The title comes with benefits that include “a special legal status to protect him from prosecution for alleged corruption”26 and “a pension equivalent to 90% of his current monthly salary.”27 In Zambia, President Edgar Lungu has suspended 48 members of parliament for exercising their right and freedom to boycott his state of the nation address.28 in 2010, the Zambian leader was barred from practicing law because of professional misconduct. He went on to become the country’s Minister of Justice.29 Despite having taken commendable actions on a number of fronts since his inauguration in 2015, Freedom House warns of the Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s restrictions on media freedoms.30 Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, the ‘Democratic Republic’ of Congo’s Joseph Kabila, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, are three African presidents who have recently either succeeded in or are contesting for amendments to their respective national constitutions. This is to allow presidential terms to extend beyond two.

This is happening in the midst of 13 African heads of state that have already extended term limits.31 Among these is the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni who succeeded in scrapping presidential term limits in2005 and now wants to remove the presidential age limit of 75.32 Uganda holds a prominent position in the sights of Human Rights Watch for all the wrong reasons.33 In Egypt, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi sanctions the use of torture, with impunity, by his security forces.34 This serves only as an abridged list of incumbent African presidents who have acted against the interests or wishes of their people, to one degree or another. I have not yet answered the question as to what constitutes good leadership. If, contrary to the worldview held by Africa’s colonisers, we can agree that human beings of different physical attributes have in common the possession of an inherent value and of common needs, it follows that leaders should respect and treat their fellow humans according to universal leadership principles. Subsequently, a common and universal understanding of good leadership must prevail. Every human being desires to be cared for, valued and appreciated. Only a universal set of leadership attributes can fulfill universal desires and needs.

Therefore, fundamental attributes ought to be contained in a definition of good leadership. In addition to the challenges facing Africa and the brief notes on some of Africa’s political leaders provided above, a reading of the continent’s current affairs and scholarly work on leadership in Africa would suggest a number of fundamental and related leadership attributes are in short supply and in need of cultivation. These include a love for people, honour, self-sacrifice, self-discipline, vision, accountability, humility, responsibility, ethics and knowledge. The necessity of these attributes for the well-being of humankind, irrespective of the society or geographical location in question, does not imply that leadership practice in Africa should follow the same approach taken elsewhere in the world.

Despite similarities between human beings, cultures and their associated geographies will provide contexts that lend themselves to different styles of leadership. The intention of calling for a universally applicable and relevant understanding of good leadership is not to sweep aside the leadership praxes that remain relevant to particular geographical and cultural spaces. The public platform held by presidents, and politicians more generally, and the resources for affecting change that accompany such a platform, underline the significant negative impact that public officials in Africa can and often do have on their fellow citizens. However, it would be unfair to lay the blame for Africa’s current challenges entirely at the feet of political leaders. As much as political leaders have a pivotal role to play, leadership remains an allinclusive concept: it is an effort that every level of society must embody.

Maxwell’s definition of leadership, noted earlier, contradicts the idea that leadership is ‘a gift given to the chosen few’ or an activity reserved for ‘those at the top’. In reference to the fight against colonialism, Salim writes that, “Africa’s leaders were not only those who sat atop governments, but the thousands upon thousands more who stirred conversations in the town halls, in the communal homesteads, in university lecture rooms, in markets, in neighbourhood bazaars, and in taverns. Leadership knows no singular shape or size, colour or creed.”35 For Africans to think differently from the sentiments expressed in the paragraph above is to risk the encouragement of Africa’s existing ‘Big Men’ and the creation of a new generation of ‘Big Men’ to take their place when their respective regimes have finally come to an end. These are individuals who, because ‘little people’ have failed to see the important leadership roles they themselves are required to play, come to be seen as the saviours and redeemers of entire nations. Because no leader is perfectly good or perfectly able, perceptions such as these are naïve at best. At worst, they are detrimental to countries where ‘Big Men’ have taken hold without the accountability that necessarily accompanies good leadership. If Africa is to turn the tide against the challenges with which it is saddled, the general nature of leadership in Africa will have to change – certainly in political and economic circles, at both the national and regional level.

For this to happen the notion of leadership and, more importantly, an understanding of good leadership will have to be adopted and exercised at all levels of society. Such a process must include the space occupied by the family. It is here, under the tutelage of caring fathers and mothers, that Africa’s youth and future leaders have the first opportunity to learn what it means to be loving, honorable, selfsacrificial, visionary, accountable, humble and responsible. It is here that I first received lessons in distinguishing between right and wrong and it is here that my mother taught me the value of understanding history so that I could properly navigate the present and the future. Slavery, colonialism and apartheid each disrupted, challenged and, in many cases, broke the family unit with consequences that have marred Africa – consequences that can be felt for generations to come. Where families are unable to reflect and shape good leadership to its fullest degree, the need for the recognition of leadership as all-encompassing is, once again, impressed upon us. Put differently, Africa’s youth cannot be expected to learn leadership lessons only from their biological fathers, mothers and older siblings. As the African proverb goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ This makes the work of Africa’s civil society organisations that focus on leadership development, and the increasing profusion of residential and online leadership programmes offered by tertiary education institutions – both within and beyond Africa’s borders– encouraging indeed. Africans must support and exploit these endeavours to the benefit of a common good.

This being said, and in the words of Aristotle, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”36 Movements and institutions that emphasise a common humanity, where each individual person carries an inherent value and, therefore, has the right to inherent freedoms, and who do so without negating the need for responsibility and justice, must be given the necessary encouragement and support. For leadership in Africa to adopt a benevolent character, both formal and informal instruction on leadership must emphasise the common and valuable humanity that underpins the need for love, honour and ethics to drive the actions of all Africa’s leaders – no matter their position or status in society.

This article has previously appeared on The Thinker Journal,its has been republished with permission.