‘Beyond lamentation, what are we to do about African leadership?”
That evocative and pertinent question was asked by the eloquent Thabo Mbeki at a big conference entitled African Unity for Renaissance in Pretoria recently to mark Africa Day, May 25.
It’s aim was to find African solutions to African problems.
Mbeki deserves credit for having tackled the problem of leadership when he was president.
In many ways he was a pioneer; fathering the African Peer Review Mechanism, through which the continent first publicly and officially acknowledged that at the root of its problems lay poor governance. He thus agreed to address that problem formally through leaders meeting and frankly criticising each other’s performances.
And, at the African Unity for Renaissance conference, Mbeki did not pull his punches when it came to the disaster in South Sudan.
He blamed the civil war which has been raging since December 15 squarely on a failure of leadership - by President Salva Kiir and his arch-enemy, Riek Machar, he implied.
In doing so, he differed sharply from the spirit of most of the speakers who preceded him. They beat the familiar drums of colonialism and its offspring, neo-colonialism, as the root causes of all Africa’s ills.
Professor Adebayo Olukushi, for example, even found something sinister in the fashionable “Africa Rising”, narrative which he saw as a deliberate counter-narrative by the international community to Africa’s - and especially Mbeki’s - own African Renaissance, designed to pave the way for Africa’s exploitation.
Mbeki also cited other examples of appalling leadership, including a former African president’s son, who is standing trial for embezzling half a billion euros of state money, which could have boosted the development of his country’s poor people greatly. This was an anonymous reference to former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade’s 45-year-old son, Karim, who was arrested after his father left office.
Then, metaphorically donning his gown and mortar board, Mbeki tasked the Africa intelligentsia gathered for the conference to address themselves to the question of what Africa should do “beyond lamentation” to produce the kind of leadership it needed to develop and prosper.
In many ways, that was an impossible mission: how do you generalise about such a huge question?
To his credit, Mbeki mocked his own question when he asked: “Is there a bakery or something?” which could cook up a batch of perfect leaders.
Yet, ironically, Mbeki himself implicitly and inadvertently answered some of his own questions in his subsequent remarks.
He candidly acknowledged, for one thing, that he and his fellow African leaders, meeting to peer-review each other’s performances, had never asked the really tough questions such as: “We know you stole $100 million.”
And then there was the hoary old question of Zimbabwe, where Mbeki mediated for so long to produce a dysfunctional government of national unity which ended last year in a dodgy election in which President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF returned to sole power, unfettered by the inconvenience of having to pretend to be co-governing with the Movement for Democratic Change.
Mbeki made only one reference to Zimbabwe at the African Unity for Renaissance conference, but it was telling.
He took a swipe at Zimbabwean NGOs, which he said had felt obliged to sustain a sense of crisis in Zimbabwe in order to prevent their funds from Western donors drying up.
So it seems the Zimbabwe crisis was and remains just a figment of the imagination of hostile Western nations and their local dependents. And Mugabe is just the sort of leader the continent needs.
Or is the problem of leadership rather that as soon as the West tackles an African leader, fellow African leaders like Mbeki close ranks with him?
And so, is the answer to Mbeki’s own question that African leaders must hold each other’s feet to the fire, regardless of whether, by doing so, they may also coincidentally be serving Western interests?