Recently, while celebrating the history of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) one of the chief architects of the
African Union (AU) South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki addressed a high level Afrikan leadership
colloquium on the state of leadership in Afrika today. Mbeki was asked to reflect specifically on where the continent is in terms of the so-called African Renaissance with which Mbeki electrified the continent between 1997 and 2008,
when he was the voice of reawakening of the people of African ancestry around the globe. Surrounded by at
least a dozen Afrikan Heads of State and Government, Mbeki was at pains to address the vexing conundrum
of Afrika’s ‘underdeveloped development’ syndrome, by which Afrika moves one step forward and three steps
backwards—all the time. In essence, the question that these leaders were all addressing was: What needs
to change if the continent is to realise its dream of a better Africa where all its residents are at peace and free
of want? Mbeki redirected the conversation by rephrasing the discussion as follows: We have to answer this
question first: What is the Afrika we want? We want an Afrika free of violent conflict and war. Then what
type of leadership do we need to produce to get such a result? We want an Afrika free of poverty. Then what
kind of leadership do we need to put in place to get there? We want an Afrika driven by women’s emancipation.
We want an Afrika free of corruption. Then how do we produce a leadership that is not corrupt? We need to do a critical selfassessment of ourselves as Afrikans to produce a better Afrika. We need to sit down and assess the performance of our leaders, of all of us wherever we are to ascertain whether we are producing the leadership needed
for the new dream. In a typical Mbeki self-critical mode, he concluded by saying that in addition to the
chronic abuse of public resources by political leaders, we Afrikans are afraid to speak frankly to one another
about the wrong things we know we are doing.
At the same seminar, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa joined Mbeki to amplify that Afrikan
leaders suffer from a disease of wanting to be served rather than serving their people and that for some reason Afrikan leaders are extremely selfish. He repeated extremely selfish! This is what the South African Public Protector
describes as a syndrome whereby the leaders eat alone on behalf of the people. Sadly this is true. Afrikan
leaders celebrate their power and glory at the expense of their people whom they claim love them.
This all sounds like old stories we have heard before. It sounds like we are painting all Afrikan leaders with the same brush. But there is truth and a measure of accuracy to this sweeping generalization. In the world of science, something becomes scientific evidence once a phenomenon occurs several times with the same result. Let us examine this a little bit more. It would appear that Afrikans in the main are the best preachers of the values of freedom and democracy while they are being oppressed and/or ruled by others. If we read speeches by Afrikan leaders while they were on the receiving ends of political power, they say the most wonderful things about how
their countries ought to be governed. But the moment they get into the seats of power, they are bad, very
bad, in fact even worse than the bad rulers they replaced.
They even say the right things about how long leaders should serve their people. In 1987, Uganda’s opposition leader Yoweri Museveni spoke publically that no leader should stay in power more than ten years. He overthrew the government of Uganda in 1987 and is still there. He forgot to count the years he has been in power and continues to
say that he needs more time to complete what he came to do as President. Robert Mugabe was the pace setter
of the Afrikan dream government while he was fighting for black majority rule in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia.
He was everyone’s hero. He said absolutely redemptive things about Afrika and what Afrika needed to replace
oppressive white minority administrations and the culture they produced on the continent. Like most Afrikan
leaders, Mugabe started right, said the right things that excited all his countrymen and women specifically
and the black world generally.
The pattern of Afrikan leadership in post-colonial Afrika remains largely the same: Firstly, our leaders are
first victims of colonialism, then then they become the victors at the time of independence, then they become
the vanguards of black revolution, but in the end, invariably, they exit power as villains not only in the eyes
of their people, but in the international community that continues to wait for an Ex Africa semper aliquid novi
(out of Africa comes always something new). This is so because most of our leaders change the systems
they find there to suit themselves and loot the meagre resources of their countries for themselves, their families,
their cronies and loyal sycophants.
Secondly, former Afrikan leaders have very seldom good things to say about the people who replace or succeed
them in power. More often than not, former Afrikan presidents become born again democrats and human
rights activists, even animal rights activists who are too eager to find fault with the new leaderships. This is
perhaps a curse we Afrikans suffer from as we are very eager to remember the good old days we know were not
good in the first place. This sickness renders us unable to have strong(er) visions for the future. This is why
we remain stuck with the same leaders who ran out of time, out of ideas and indeed out of shape. They
keep preaching about how good their days were when everybody wish those days did not come at all!
Thirdly, while other civilizations are eager to move forward by improving on what they know and building
a future with what they have, we Afrikans want to march forward in reverse, often with ideas and resources
we receive from others. We celebrate the often exaggerated triumphalism of the liberation struggle to a fault, so much so that the Afrikan youth are handicapped by the language and logic of liberation as if it was their fault that the
liberation struggle happened when they were not yet born. In Afrika we find the youth guilty of absence for
not having been born to be part of the struggle that has long gone. In this culture we deny the youth to have
their own dreams and find solutions to their own challenges.
Fourthly, there seems to be a debilitating pattern in Afrikan leaders not to improve on the system they found in place, as they are pre-occupied to undo everything and reinvent the wheel as if they are the beginning
and the end. This is what is called the Big Man syndrome whereby the leader wants to be the only reference
– all songs must be about him, and quoting others becomes an offence to the New Big Man. The Big Man often surrounds himself with non-starters who believe that they are relevant by telling the Big Man what he already knows and wants to hear. Hence everything stays the same till it falls apart.
Fifthly, for some reason, Afrikan leaders seem to be more obsessed with pomp and ceremony than their counterparts in the more self-reliant economies. Security consciousness is paramount in the heads of Afrikan leaders as
they fear almost everybody around them so much so that in spite of the security arrangements around the
building where they appear, our leaders still need a uniformed and armed bodyguard to watch their
backs when they speak on the stage. We do not see this in more advanced democracies where they have
more reason to worry about their personal safety. They do not even realise that there is something wrong
with the images here. There is a story of an Afrikan Head of State who was inspecting a ceremonial guard of honour
and began to run away on foot, in fact to his wife on the other end of the parade, when one of the soldiers
succumbed to the heat and fainted. The poor Head of State thought the soldier was attacking him! In this
regard, one has to thank the first cohort of leaders in a free Namibia who did not go the route of older former
British colonies, who retained the practice of legal practitioners wearing white wigs in courts of law to look
more learned and more secure in their profession, but allowing themselves to look utterly ridiculous!
What Mbeki and Moapa are imploring us to do is very important. We need to take a deep breath and think
about what we are doing to ourselves, about ourselves and with ourselves. We had not done enough of this yet.
We are still celebrating independence. Let us look at our Namibian context. If we look at our education system,
our healthcare system, our safety and security establishments, our town planning paradigms, our trade
and industry thinking scenario plannings, even what we consider development as such, very little of that starts
with us as the Alpha. We always start with what will other people say about us, not what is good for us and
our people. For instance, if our starting point was the Namibian child, our thinking about how to plan education
would be totally different.
If our starting point was ourselves, we would have built an education system that is good enough for the children of the top political elites in the country. If the Namibian child and the Namibian pregnant mother were the starting point, we would have fashioned a public healthcare system similar to the Roman Catholic Hospital where most of
the high-ups go when they are sick or die. Instead we have fashioned an education system good enough for the
citizens, but not for those in the top echelons of our government system who do not have confidence in the
education and public health systems they plan and run!
Yet we continue to blame apartheid or colonialism for the mistakes and fallings that are squarely ours. We need to do a critical assessment of the roads we have covered as a people of Afrika and soberly decide what we want so that the
world we leave behind is markedly different from the way we found. The Afrika we have now has the following
• Colonial plunderers
came and excavated the
Afrikan soil for their European
• Revolutionaries came, liberated
their countries and
proceeded to run Afrika to
• Soldiers came, promised
redemption, and hastened to
run Afrika even more into
• Civilians came and keep
coming, better equipped at
running Afrika, again into
• Youthful men came and
with their energy and avarice
left Afrika quenched;
• Religious and prayerful
men came with versions of
the Promised Land, and sent
Afrika to hell!
In his seminal 1958 book, A Man of the People, the acclaimed Afrikan novelist Chinua Achebe warned poignantly: ‘The trouble with our new nation … was that none of us have been indoors long enough … we have all been in the rain together until yesterday. Then a handful of us, the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best …had scrambled
for the one shelter our former rulers had left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves … And
from within they sought to persuade the rest through numerous loudspeakers that the first phase of the struggle
had been won and that the next phase – the extension of our house – was even more important – it required
that all argument should cease and the whole people speak with one voice and that any more dissent and
argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house….’
It sounds scary. It is surrealistic. We have not taken stock of ourselves to (re) discover what we have,
what we need, and where our strengths and weaknesses are. Our troubles are no longer with our colonizers,
or apartheid as such. Our troubles are with ourselves. It is about time that we look beyond our own
self-glorification and cast our eyes wider on the horizon to dream big about the Namibian, yes the Afrikan
child in whatever race they come as long as they are born here or their parents make a choice to make Afrika
their home and play by the rules that conform to international standards of governing a constitutional state.
The fear that Mbeki talked about is a real issue and a serious impediment to our development on the
continent. One could speak here in theological terms about the hermeneutics of fear. This means that there is
an economy of fear, and that there must be someone who benefits from the fear. At one point in the late nineties,
a prominent political leader in good standing opined that in Namibia, you are safer to have fear, even if you do not
know what you are afraid of, because it pays to be afraid.
There are rewards to being afraid in the Land of the Brave!