The problem of leadership in Africa

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Steven Friedman, Power in Action, Book Cover
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Is the biggest problem facing democracy in Africa leadership? And is so, why? In this exclusive blog for Democracy in Africa, Steven Friedman, one of the continent’s most thought provoking and insightful intellectuals, shares the insights of his important new book Power in Action …

IF leadership is African democracy’s problem, what made it a problem?

Perhaps the most oft-repeated explanation for the weaknesses of African democracy is that the continent is saddled with ‘poor leadership’. This diagnosis is common among scholars, journalists and public commentators, both in Western Europe and North America and in Africa itself. It is so widespread that it has come to be seen as an expression of common sense.

In reality, it is anything but common sense. On reflection, it is more than a little odd that it has become so popular an explanation among people who are usually used to trying to explain the world.

The ‘leadership’ explanation begs a surely obvious question. If African leaders are almost uniformly not good for African countries, why is this so? Unless we fall back on bigotry – the false claim that Africans are somehow not endowed with qualities which enable them to run governments – then there must be realities in African societies which produce the type of leadership which people bemoan. But the leadership explanation does not tell us what these are.

In my just-published book Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice I argue that, if we want to understand African democracy’s constraints and possibilities, we need to move beyond the ‘leadership’ explanation and find more plausible reasons why African leaders often seem unwilling or unable to ensure stronger and deeper democracies.

One explanation on offer – ironically proposed by scholars on the left who want to argue against what they see as cultural colonialism – is that African culture rejects the values which underpin democracy.

The core democratic idea is that members of political communities should govern themselves – that, in principle, citizens should decide what is best for their societies. If Africans reject this, it must surely be because they prefer not to decide and would rather that leaders decided for them – which is precisely what these scholars argue. But in some cases even their own evidence points in the opposite direction, showing that their African interviewees value accountable government, free speech and the right to a say in decisions, all of them core democratic values. Other evidence is available to show that Africans value democracy’s values at least as much as citizens of very old democracies do.

A more credible argument, the book proposes, is to explain the type of leadership which is said to blight Africa by examining a factor which virtually never appears in discussions of African democracy – collective action.

The book argues that the key to understanding how democracies emerge and what either enables or prevents their growth is who can act effectively with like-minded people to influence decisions. Following some celebrated studies, it argues that democracy emerges when groups who are excluded from decisions acquire enough of a capacity to act together to force themselves into the decision-making circle. Once a country has formally democratic rules – because better-off people who were excluded act together to force themselves in – the depth and strength of democracy depends on how deeply the ability to act and demand a voice expands into the rest of the society.

This idea can help us explain what really inhibits or strengthens African democracy. To show how it can do this, the book uses a famous distinction between two types of freedom – negative and positive. Negative liberty is freedom from being told what to do – positive liberty is the ability to ensure that what you want becomes a reality.

There are varying degrees of negative liberty in Africa but, on balance, African citizens are, at least formally, freer than they were three decades ago. But positive liberty is much harder to find – and, where it exists, it is restricted to the few – mainly professional groups in the cities. Rarely if ever, the book shows, are citizens able to use democratic rights and freedoms to secure policy changes or to ensure that government accounts to them.
The reason, it suggests, is that most citizens lack the muscle and the resources which would enable them to act in unison to press their claims and to ensure that government serves them. Negative liberty is sometimes won by citizens because they act together, but this is not essential: it might become reality because it is what powerful foreign governments or aid donors require or because it suits elites to concede it for another reason. But positive liberty – government which serves citizens and does what they want it to do – can become real only if the citizenry is organised enough to insist on it. When it is, government is often forced to listen.

This surely means that leadership is a symptom, not a cause. If leaders are interested only in themselves rather than those who they are meant to serve, the reason is that the latter do not have enough voice to ensure a different form of leadership. Democracy’s prospects in Africa depend, then, not on finding better leaders but on the factors which may spread more widely the ability to act collectively to ensure that government responds to the citizenry.

And so the book proposes a way of examining democratic progress in Africa which places these realities at the centre. This approach would examine the spread or contraction of negative liberty because without the right to speak or act freely democratic citizens’ action is impossible.

But it would also devote much more attention to a factor which is largely ignored – examining what is preventing, or making more possible, organised action by African citizens to ensure that the government knows what they want and serves them in the way democratic values say that it should.

Steven Friedman is a South African academic, newspaper columnist, widely quoted public intellectual, activist, former trade unionist and journalist.

For more information about the book, click here

11 COMMENTS

  1. I am hesitant to make a comment before reading your book. However, reading your introduction transported me back to the days when I accidentally stumbled upon the unpublished manuscripts of Lord Lugard and Dr Margery Perham at the Bodleian library, at Oxford, England. They alluded to a certain propensity tending towards corruption among the African people, which they predicted would make building democratic institutions in Africa almost impossible. Now the suggestion is, on the faced of it, racist; as other races are also corrupt, some extremely so. But, if you dig a little deeper, you will find that there is substance to their assertion. This suggestion is well founded considering the overwhelming evidence(s) now available. I have explored this issue in a blogpost, “Desperate times require desperate measures; we need to talk” – you may please look it up by visiting: https://thekamugasachallenge.com/desperate-times/

    • Wow, this very intriguing. Nice exposure. Reading your response to the letter and the table content alone tells that it is a nice piece. I will take time and delve deeper in your article.

  2. Prescriptive Transformative Leadership in African Nation States is lacking, as the Leadership ethos in African Nation States tends to be Transactional Leadership whereby the Leadership Cadre tend to look out and after themselves at the expense of the peoples.
    Africa is in need of a vibrant active, articulate middle class who are fully engaged in civics–in holding Leadership to account in how governance is effected. This lacking in an African peoples tax base is a contributing factor as the governing oligarchy in not being required to collect taxes in tithing the peoples believe their leadership accountability to be marginal.
    This resource curse which ensures direct funding to the Leadership elites perpetuates in allowing Leadership to continue in this full disconnect from civil society.

  3. Prescriptive Transformative Leadership in African Nation States is lacking, as the Leadership ethos in African Nation States tends to be Transactional Leadership whereby the Leadership Cadre tend to look out and after themselves at the expense of the peoples.
    Africa is in need of a vibrant active, articulate middle class who are fully engaged in civics–in holding Leadership to account in how governance is effected. This lacking in an African peoples tax base is a contributing factor as the governing oligarchy in not being required to collect taxes in tithing the peoples believe their leadership accountability to be marginal.
    This resource curse which ensures direct funding to the Leadership elites perpetuates in allowing Leadership to continue in this full disconnect from civil society in being a Leadership not responsible to the fundamental needs of the peoples as in health care, education social civic civil infrastructure.

  4. The need to be at the forefront as Africans in creating our solutions to our own problems. No wonder you highlight that poor leadership is only a symptom not the major cause – this directs us into indepth research on what are the root causes….

  5. Agree with your article to some extent but believe that there are various factors/reasons why poor leadership is in short supply in Africa. It may not be as clear cut as you have projected it to be. First, before we can talk about collective action there must be a mindset shift amongst the masses. History has a part to play for where we are. After many centuries of being under colonial rule, the mindset is still trapped in “master/ servant” mode in that we look to the master (I.e those in influential positions) to make all the decisions on our behalf even if it’s to our detriment. We are too afraid to challenge such decisions as we do not believe we, the people, have the power to make the changes we seek ourselves. Second, we lack self-belief/ self-love; again something that may have resulted from our colonial past. By not loving ourselves we do not love each other. The ordinary man is more fixated on bettering himself and not his community. They trust a foreigner then they do their own people. So the attitude of “each man for themselves” thrives. Third, (and perhaps most controversial point is) a democratic system may not be the ideal system Africa needs for it to develop itself. This again, like colonialism, was imposed on the people. We have to understand who we are and what our collective goals are as people before copy &pasting a system that we may not understand/appreciate how it operates. So yes there are various factors and more I haven’t mentioned – just food for thought.

    • This what the Late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah said about, Neo-colonization.
      I also believe that the concept of Democracy and Culture come to play here. This paradigm shift of our mentality predate prior the Whites. in most of our traditional systems and structures, We look up to our leaders; they tell us what to do. We didn’t have much liberty to express ourselves and even if you express yourself, to take it into consideration was another bone of contention.

  6. This is a beautiful piece and I will certainly get the book for my archives. I research and read a lot concerning AFRICA LEADERSHIP STYLE & CULTURE and this is my first comment ever, courtesy of realizing the shortcomings of “COLLECTIVE ACTION”

    To me all of Africa’s problem is EDUCATION, which has four principles:

    1. Learning to Know
    2. Learning to Do
    3. Learning to Live Together
    4. Learning to Be

    Most Africa Education focuses only on the first principle – Learning to know.
    We are forced to memorize theories and concepts, without action to experiment and take actions on those theories and concepts.
    Harmony and understanding is the key to Live Together. Elders are always right is very profound in Africa culture, which brings about dishonesty, cruelty, envy, greed. In Africa, junior employees (youth) can work for months without salary’s or allowance whilst the seniors employees chill with the National cake. The irony is that, some youth get their fair share – Parents, family and friends in Leadership make sure of that. And when you ask the youth, majority reply with “we will also grow and get there”. The main reason why decades of ruling under different Leaderships, Africa is still as it as.
    We all grow up to continue the corruption and greed, time for Cash out! So gathering of the masses on a collective goal, partnership, collaboration, discussions, forums most always unfruitful.
    Africa culture does not recognize and embrace individual talents, creativity, uniqueness, logical reasoning, imagination and ideation so most people find themselves in careers and jobs where they can hardly perform.
    These makes all the diplomas, bachelors, masters & phds just paper certificates. Hence, the continent is pile with the highest population of EDUCATED ILLITERATES.

    Education is what we learn in everyday life. To quote Hans Selye “The aim of education is to use it.” So if your Educational System is not teaching you the other three principles of Education, how do you use them?

    And I always wonder if things will change because the people we look up to for the change, are the same people who have made the system this way.

    Thank you

  7. For you writing on 5th paragraph:- the main cause of African leadership problem is LEADERSHIPS are empowered fully on BANKS and Tanks without having a limiting system. Leaderships make laws and draw systems, either by amending or re making, that gives them all powers. Once you have Banks and Tanks, there is no reason and means you leave the palace.

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