Tunde Fagbenle: Leaders who ruined Africa… and what to do about them

by Tunde Fagbenle

Not long ago, my son, Olatunde (O-T) drew my attention to a TED show captioned: “The leaders who ruined Africa, and the generation who can fix it.” In sending the link to me, O-T was speaking both to me and to himself — to our generations — he being just as passionate about how to fix Nigeria, nay Africa, as I am doleful about being part of the generation that ruined it.

A little about TED: TED is an intellectual lecture series devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). The talk is presented to a live audience in a theatre setting and offered on its blog: TED.com. The blog carries the banner: “Ideas worth spreading — And maybe even, ahem, acting on.” Based in New York, USA, TED “believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”

In this season of us scrambling to find new leaders for all strata of our democracy who would direct our affairs come 2015, my mind went to the passionate and captivating lecture given by entrepreneur Fred Swaniker in October 2014. Fred is a Ghanaian-African who, before hitting 18, had lived in Ghana, the Gambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. What he learned from a childhood across Africa was that while good leaders can’t make much of a difference in societies with strong institutions, in countries with weak structures, leaders could make or break a country. Here are excerpts from the talk:

“I experienced my first coup d’état at the age of four. Because of the coup d’état, my family had to leave my native home of Ghana and move to the Gambia. As luck would have it, six months after we arrived, they too had a military coup. I vividly remember being woken up in the middle of the night and gathering the few belongings we could and walking for about two hours to a safe house. For a week, we slept under our beds because we were worried that bullets might fly through the window.

“Then, at the age of eight, we moved to Botswana. This time, it was different. There were no coups. Everything worked. Great education. They had such good infrastructure that even at the time they had a fibre-optic telephone system, long before it had reached Western countries.

“The only thing they didn’t have is that they didn’t have their own national television station, and so I remember watching TV from neighbouring South Africa, and watching Nelson Mandela in jail being offered a chance to come out if he would give up the apartheid struggle. But he didn’t. He refused to do that until he actually achieved his objective of freeing South Africa from apartheid. And I remember feeling how just one good leader could make such a big difference in Africa.

“Then at the age of 12, my family sent me to high school in Zimbabwe. Initially, this too was amazing: growing economy, excellent infrastructure, and it seemed like it was a model for economic development in Africa. I graduated from high school in Zimbabwe and I went off to college.

“Six years later, I returned to the country. Everything was different. It had shattered into pieces. Millions of people had emigrated, the economy was in a shambles, and it seemed all of a sudden that 30 years of development had been wiped out. How could a country go so bad so fast? Most people would agree that it’s all because of leadership. One man, President Robert Mugabe, is almost single-handedly responsible for having destroyed this country.

“Now, all these experiences of living in different parts of Africa growing up did two things to me. The first is it made me fall in love with Africa. Everywhere I went, I experienced the wonderful beauty of our continent and saw the resilience and the spirit of our people, and at the time, I realised that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to making this continent great. But I also realised that making Africa great would require addressing this issue of leadership. You see, all these countries I lived in, the coups d’état and the corruption I’d seen in Ghana and the Gambia and in Zimbabwe, contrasted with the wonderful examples I had seen in Botswana and in South Africa of good leadership. It made me realise that Africa would rise or fall because of the quality of our leaders.

“Now, one might think, of course, leadership matters everywhere. But if there’s one thing you take away from my talk today, it is this: In Africa, more than anywhere else in the world, the difference that just one good leader can make is much greater than anywhere else, and here’s why. It’s because in Africa, we have weak institutions, like the judiciary, the constitution, civil society and so forth. So here’s a general rule of thumb that I believe in: When societies have strong institutions, the difference that one good leader can make is limited, but when you have weak institutions, then just one good leader can make or break that country.

“Let me make it a bit more concrete. You become the president of the United States. You think, ‘Wow, I’ve arrived. I’m the most powerful man in the world.’ So you decide, perhaps let me pass a law. All of a sudden, Congress taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you can’t do that.’ You say, ‘Let me try this way.’ The Senate comes and says, ‘Uh-uh, we don’t think you can do that.’ You say, perhaps, ‘Let me print some money. I think the economy needs a stimulus.’ The central bank governor will think you’re crazy. You might get impeached for that. But if you become the president of Zimbabwe, and you say, ‘You know, I really like this job. I think I’d like to stay in it forever.’ (Laughter) Well, you just can. You decide you want to print money. You call the central bank governor and you say, ‘Please double the money supply.’ He’ll say, ‘Okay, yes, sir, is there anything else I can do for you?’ This is the power that African leaders have, and this is why they make the most difference on the continent.

“The good news is that the quality of leadership in Africa has been improving. We’ve had three generations of leaders, in my mind. Generation one, are those who appeared in the ‘50s and ‘60s. These are people like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. The legacy they left is that they brought independence to Africa. They freed us from colonialism, and let’s give them credit for that. They were followed by generation two. These are people that brought nothing but havoc to Africa. Think warfare, corruption, human rights abuses. This is the stereotype of the typical African leader that we typically think of: Mobutu Sese Seko from Zaire, Sani Abacha from Nigeria.

“The good news is that most of these leaders have moved on, and they were replaced by generation three. These are people like the late Nelson Mandela and most of the leaders that we see in Africa today, like Paul Kagame and so forth. Now these leaders are by no means perfect, but the one thing they have done is that they have cleaned up much of the mess of generation two. They’ve stopped the fighting, and I call them the stabiliser generation. They’re much more accountable to their people, they’ve improved macroeconomic policies, and we are seeing for the first time Africa’s growing, and in fact it’s the second fastest growing economic region in the world. So these leaders are by no means perfect, but they are by and large the best leaders we’ve seen in the last 50 years. (TF’s caveat: how I wish leaders in Nigeria, with the exception of a few like Fashola of Lagos, Aregbesola of Osun, Amaechi of Rivers, Oshiomhole of Edo, could be counted amongst.)

“So where to from here? I believe that the next generation to come after this, generation four, has a unique opportunity to transform the continent…” by creating prosperity for a continent whose population is forecast to have by 2030 a larger workforce than China!

Fred’s action plan to raise this desired generation of African leaders is to create homegrown African institutions that will identify and develop these leaders in a systematic, practical way — something Fred’s African Leadership Academy has been doing for the last 10 years.

He ended the lecture on a positive note: “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Every now and then, a generation is called upon to be great. You can be that great generation.’

Nigerians, vote wisely!


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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