In the past decade or so, there have been many programmes, centres, institutes, and academies dedicating themselves to one element or another of leadership training. We know there is space for many more similar initiatives in Africa addressing the leadership question and we need to encourage the growth of more centres.
After all, we cannot deny that, as a continent, we have a disproportionate share of challenges, many of which, Yoweri Museveni told us more than a decade ago, are related in some way to poor or bad leadership.
However, in most of these training programmes, the importance of knowledge and the value of being knowledgeable is often frowned upon. As a continent, we have a lukewarm relationship with knowledge and ideas. We hardly invest adequately in knowledge; our higher education institutions on the continent are collapsing because of neglect.
Our intellectual communities are fragmented, dispersed, neglected and ridiculed. The knowledge they produce is often ignored and hardly canonised. It cannot therefore occupy its rightful place in the libraries or in the policy domains where it is urgently and seriously needed.
As a continent, we seem keen to confirm the World Bank injunction hinted at at a meeting of vice-chancellors of African universities in Harare in 1985 that Africa does not need her universities.
The excuse for marginalising knowledge and knowledgeable leadership tends to be that intellectual activity ought to be easily accessible to the masses.
But, it is claimed, our knowledge institutions have failed to provide publicly usable knowledge. There are also those who think knowledge for its own sake is a waste of resources. As a consequence, the impression that goes out is that Africa does not need sufficiently schooled leaders. This assumption was at the heart of a segment of South African thinking sometime after the Polokwane Revolution in 2007.
As a distant observer, I found the argument very confounding: on the one hand educated leadership was despised for being out of touch with the common person; on the other hand it is distrusted because educated leaders can be too clever.
Recently in Kenya we also faced a variant of the same debate when its parliament passed a Miscellaneous Amendments Bill 2012 which, in part, required that aspiring parliamentarians and senators must possess at least an undergraduate degree. Many protested at this discriminatory act. In doing so, they suggested that Kenya does not need highly educated leaders.
The dangers of our leaders having limited or no education are obvious and we should not be having long debates about it. By now Africa should have noted the deadly buffoonery of Idi Amin, the murderous idiosyncrasies of Jean Bédel Bokassa and the laughable but criminal antics of Mobutu Sese Seko, all of whom came through colonial military training and held their nations to ransom for years, diverting state resources into private pockets and presiding over murderous orgies that defy any rational explanation.
Of course there are African leaders who are properly educated but who have miserably failed the test of leadership. But on the occasion of this graduation, I invite you to take the position that it is better to err on the side of some learning than of no learning at all. This is why some serious intellectual engagement is critical for any leadership training programme. The love of books, the desire to know the many-sidedness of our realities, the fascination with ideas, as Ali Mazrui aptly defined an intellectual, should be critical to any leadership training.
But the ultimate aim must not simply be a fascination with ideas, but to develop the capacity of our leaders to handle ideas effectively.
The contemporary global context demands only leaders who can handle ideas effectively. Where they cannot handle ideas, they are often backed up with a battalion of effective thinkers and policy handlers.
The demands of our globe are many and the abilities required for leadership demand that a leader be able to distil core messages and policies from complex realities and make judgements judiciously.
Intellectual activity makes this task less daunting.
The dominant programmes of leadership training not only impart knowledge, they also impart values. This is because knowledge and values are inextricably intertwined.
In some cases, the values are stated explicitly so that when you enrol, you do so with an understanding of what you are signing up for. But in many other cases, the values are implicit and are presented as neutral and universal.
However, values originate from specific contexts; they carry specific meanings derived from those contexts. In recent times, the values of efficiency and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have been thrust upon us. Never mind that the value of thrift, frugality, efficiency and profit were the stuff of Max Weber’s work on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
We must recognise these values in the context of neo-liberalism which mobilises efficiency in service of maximising profits and CSR as a palliative that temporarily minimises the pain without telling you that the pain is caused in the first instance by neo-liberalism.
CSR does not heal the sickness.
We must therefore rescue leadership from neo-liberal afflictions in Africa. We also need to reconceptualise leadership training in Africa and differentiate it from a technocratic notion of management. Leadership must be understood as an all-encompassing act that includes but is not restricted to management.
Management denotes the act of controlling things or people. It is often used in a technocratic sense that refers to particular skills that specific people learn and can use to manage institutions, businesses, etc. Training with such a technocratic vision of leadership of course end up minimising leadership to management. In a neo-liberal context in which the market looms large and the profit motive is religiously celebrated, a management-heavy notion of leadership can be celebrated. But the consequence of this context is that the ideals of corporate management predominate and skills in management training are geared towards achieving efficiency – but it is efficiency in service of the elite seeking to maximise profit.
Emerging leadership programmes must acknowledge the importance of this notion of corporate governance. But they must also challenge its dominance and seek to reach out to society where the majority of African citizens live and where the impact of current leadership is experienced in negative ways as alienating and oppressive.
There is no better example than the recent economic meltdown on Wall Street in which savvy managers with privileged notions of management failed to anticipate and prevent the meltdown.
Corporate notions of management have a cosmetic appreciation of the larger society expressed through meek notions of CSR. These are weak and limited concepts whose value can only be enriched through a socially located understanding of leadership.
We need to bring back into discussion basic values that humanise our conception of leadership and ensure that training in leadership is relevant to the African context.
The key challenge is historiographic; the fact that knowledge about leadership in Africa is so negative and pessimistic as to provide much-needed intellectual inspiration.
Existing literature tends to treat leadership and governance in Africa as an anthropological aberration. Just like one knows of tropical medicine, there seems to exist a field in the western academy called tropical politics. It is made up of literature that has tended to tropicalise leadership and governance in Africa.
The key concepts and theories deployed to analyse leadership and governance in Africa are replete with terms that mark out Africa as a tropical deviation from the normal.
What is funny is that the concepts tend to be less about what Africa actually is and more about what Africa ought to be; they are preachy and prescriptive and some Africanists have even given up in despair and moved to study other places because they could not change Africa and Africans.
The notion of neo-patrimonialism, the view that African politics is driven by a patronage-driven logic comes easily to mind.
In the context of the neo-liberal reform project, the push to sidestep the state and reach out directly to the people was sanctioned.
Like the anti-intellectual mood cited earlier, the overarching assumption in this context was that African leaders are disconnected from the people and are therefore not able to function in the peoples’ interest.
The market was perceived to be more in tune with people than their leaders, some of them legitimately in power. It was assumed there was a market mechanism that could manage the logic of supply and demand and in the process ensure efficient allocation of resources.
Some African leaders also retreated in despair, only being relevant in creating an enabling environment for the efficient operation of the market.
They were reduced, in Thandika Mkandawire’s apt phrasing, to the role of night watchmen, unskilled and untutored people capable only of watching over the market as it performed its miracle.
The aptness of Mkandawire’s phrasing should not be lost since it accurately summarises the extent to which African leadership is perceived as an aberration. The study by Chabal and Daloz crowned it all by describing African politics as peculiar and cautioned that such peculiarity should not confound analysts because that is how Africa works. For them, disorder is in fact the everyday order in Africa. Its leaders see disorder as a political instrument.
All citizens live by this logic and see nothing wrong with it. These authors obviously missed numerous recorded rebuttals against disorder in Africa. To my knowledge, all democratic struggles in Africa have been against the instrumentalisation of disorder. The third pillar refers to the pan-African logic of our realities. I see this logic in two ways; the first is the context of Hegelian legacy of the two Africas and the second is the identity issue that emanates from this legacy.
Let’s call the first the curse of geography and the second the curse of race. The pan-African logic of Africa’s leadership has a long history whose contours are complex for me to do justice to in this write-up.
Briefly, the pan-African logic was built into the nationalist struggle; a struggle that carried the twin objective of independence for African countries and continental unity.
(Kwame) Nkrumah summarised the second objective neatly when he argued that Ghana’s independence was useless if the rest of Africa was not independent.
But soon after independence was attained in much of Africa, the subsequent confirmation of the colonial boundaries as the organising frame of African nation-states frustrated the attainment of continental unity. As we moved more into independence, the enemies of continental unity multiplied. Today, not only is Africa fragmented by its borders, its power is also limited by this fragmentation. Worse is that from a South African perspective, some still perceive Africa through the prism of apartheid education. Africa is not only that contraption South of the Sahara but also that north of Limpopo.
In other words, there is a racial logic at play here in which the existence of a diverse racial population in South Africa defines the country as an exception to the rule in Africa.
Africa is important to segments of the SA economic elite as an investment zone. SA academies look to Europe and see no serious epistemic communities in Africa.
This curse of geography and of race undermines the pan-African consciousness and make it difficult to think of Africa as one continent whose destiny need to be defined by a leadership that knows how much better off Africa will be economically and politically when united.
We need to re-invigorate our pan-African connections as a basis for future development of the continent. Already useful strides have been made through the AU initiatives and by (former) president Thabo Mbeki’s honest work in Zimbabwe, Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire. But we are not doing well on basics like border and immigration policies.
* Murunga is deputy director of the African Leadership Centre in Kenya. This is an edited version of his speech at the graduation ceremony of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute.