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In search of true African Leadership
Posted Thu, 03 Mar 2005

Africa has long been burdened by poor leadership, corruption, kleptocracy and dictatorship. Some 90% of sub-Saharan African nations have experienced autocratic governments in the last three decades. But the new crop of African leaders are tired of being associated with all that is dark and ugly on the continent. They want change and they want it now.

By Themba Ximba

As Robert Rotberg, a Director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, wrote recently, “This depressing picture [of African leadership] is brought into sharper relief by the few but striking examples of effective African leadership in recent decades. These leaders stand out because of their strength of character, their adherence to the principles of participatory democracy, and their ability to overcome deep-rooted challenges.

“The best example of good leadership in Africa is Botswana. Long before diamonds were discovered there, this former desert protectorate demonstrated a knack for participatory democracy, integrity, tolerance, entrepreneurship, and the rule of law.” This is why Sir Ketumile Masire, the former president of Botswana, is credited with holding together Botswana in a sea of political turmoil and civil wars in Southern Africa until recently. While the current African political leadership may be laced with individual and isolated blemishes here and there, there is broad consensus that it is the best leadership that this continent has ever had.

Masire does not mince his words about Africa’s past political leadership: “In the past we had people like President Nyerere, we had people like President Kaunda, in fact we could name a few individuals. But by and large, the rest of Africa was under poor or bad leadership.”

The Eskom African Business Leaders Forum (EABLF) sat at Sandton, Johannesburg last month, seeking to ensure that Africa no longer suffers the poor and bad leadership that Masire is lamenting. The conference was part of continuing efforts by Reuel Khoza, the Chairman of power utility Eskom, to engage African intellectuals and decision-makers in a meaningful debate on the challenges that continue to undermine Africa’s ability to prosper, following a challenge by President Thabo Mbeki.

In opening the conference, President Mbeki challenged delegates to build on the impetus created by the African Union. “The revival of the continent, fuelled by Nepad and the new resolve to deal with its problems old and new, should be pursued resolutely”.

Last year, he told a group of church leaders: “Humanity as a whole could not allow a situation where the rest of the world progressed and Africa regressed ... Everybody accepted that something new must happen; what must happen next? Africans themselves must decide what should happen next.”

The forum was not about the quality, or lack thereof, of political leadership. It was about what should happen next, bearing in mind the prophets of doom that had written Africa off in past decades. In 1983, author Paul Kennedy forecast that Africa’s future was extraordinarily gloomy. 14 years later, a cover story in the New Republican screamed, “Africa is Dying.”

Years after these critics had proclaimed the continent dead, African business and political leaders gathered at the EABLF under the banner of “Leadership for Prosperity”. The project is an offspring of a study commissioned by Eskom looking at leadership trends. The findings of that study were not inspiring for the continent.

In reality, Africans have not done much good in terms of providing visionary leadership, as Eskom Chairman Khoza puts it. “We as Africans not only position ourselves as followers, but we efface ourselves. We apologise for our existence when in fact we should be asserting our right and insisting, particularly where Africa is concerned, on taking centre stage.”

This may have a lot to do with colonialism, but in many parts of the continent colonialism ended decades ago. Instead, it was soon replaced by famine, corruption, dictatorships, wars, coups, poverty and now HIV/ AIDS. So the speakers came and lament-ed what was wrong with Africa, and why. Professor Hellicy Ngambi of the University of South Africa said that Africans lacked emotional intelligence, which she said was a leadership imperative today.

But Khoza is very clear about what his organisation is trying to do. Eskom is seeking to create an environment for nurturing leadership through leadership now. “We Africans do not position ourselves. More often than not we’re observers, more often than not we’re victims of history as opposed to makers of history.”

This is incongruous if one were to consider that ancient Africa is where knowledge emanated, on the banks of the river Nile, Mesopotamia and straddling into the Middle East and back into Timbuktu, Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, in South Africa. Today, all this amounts to no more than nostalgia, because the rest of the world has been leading while Africa has been following.

It is clear why African business leadership is important. Businesses have the capacity to change people’s lives for the better. But African businesses and multinationals firms also have a capacity to influence and shape society. The scramble for colonising the continent is over. Now it has been replaced by the scramble for market share.

Last year, the United Nations development agency (UNDP) released a comprehensive report on 18 stock exchanges in Africa in a bid to convince investors on Wall Street to pump their money into the continent. The UNDP is of the view that trading on African stock exchanges will not only benefit the continent, but also yield huge returns for investors. It also said that the future of Africa’s stock markets is the future of the poor in Africa. But Africa’s biggest problem is local flight of capital. Most business tycoons keep the bulk of their money in foreign bank accounts.

Africa yields the highest return on investments in the world, four times more than in the G-7 countries, twice more that in Asia, and two-thirds more than in Latin America, as MTN’s Yvonne Muthien quoted from a 2003 UN report. So many European companies are pushing their investments across the continent, in itself not necessarily a bad thing. It does become a concern when African economies are going to end up being dominated by foreign capital. This makes it mandatory for African companies to not just survive, but to grow and become dominant forces across the continent.

Many speakers wallowed in academia, dwelling on defining what a good leader is. Ndidi Okwonko Nwuneli, the founder of an entrepreneur leadership training programme for the youth in Nigeria, argued that individuals in positions of power and authority are not necessarily leaders. She defined what quali- fies a person as leader, being specific about the character of that person.

Yvonne Fitzpatrick-Moore, MD and Partner at Phambili Strategies and Solutions, disagreed with this view, saying that people like Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire were leaders who just happened to be very bad human beings.

However, the overall thrust of the discussions remained focused on the socio-political systems, as opposed to the leadership. As often the case, business people can be very impatient in most cases. They tend to want their ideas implemented forthwith. Chris Kirubi, a leading Kenyan tycoon, voiced his frustrations about Nepad, saying mainly that it was not getting off the ground fast enough. There was some chorus, although from a minority grouping, in support of Kirubi. However, most participants stated over and over again that Nepad was Africa’s immediate and only hope. At best, these business leaders got a chance to sit in the same room and discuss the challenges that they faced in their environments, and the solutions that they’ve had to employ.

There was no escaping the creeping feeling as the forum drew to a close, that it had been just another talk shop. Eskom chairman Khoza and his CEO Thulani Gcabashe are adamant that the fora are just a process towards the setting up of an African Business Leadership Institution. “We believe that the kind of leadership challenges that we are discussing here actually require a process of building new leaders that actually understand the complexity of the technicalities that need to be managed.”

At best, the conference managed to illustrate that African leaders have revived the power of unity and dialogue. Hopefully, this will open up a door to the careful examination of African problems, by Africans themselves. The solutions will come from within, if the commitment remains not only from the business community, but also from politicians themselves.






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Financing Black Empowerment Partnerships 2006
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Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa
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