Connect with us


Five leadership desiderata for Africa



This makes all of us leaders in our own right. We influence many people in our roles as teachers, parents, uncles, aunties, guardians, elders, writers, etc. Succinctly put, a leader need not have a title or position. After all, the leader  of the massive student’s protest in Hong Kong which lasted for months in 2014 and was subsequently nominated for the Nobel Prize, Joshua Wong, had no title in the student union government or elsewhere.

Leadership desiderata

  The present generation of African people, and not just the ones in government and top leadership positions, has long developed what Frantz Fanon would describe as pseudo consciousness about leadership.           This generation sees leadership in terms of power without responsibility, a concept or expression popularised in recent decades by two British communication scholars, Curran and Seaton (2009), whereas leadership is more than anything about service above self.

  Africans have to develop the right consciousness about leadership right from the lowest unit of organisation in society to the highest. Time was when Africans used to fiercely protect the treasury belonging to their villages, towns and ethnic groups but not that of the nation or national government, as Ekeh (1975) has eloquently demonstrated in his most cited work because government asset was considered a no man’s asset. Times have unfortunately changed for the worse since Ekeh (1975) published the essay on the place of morality in the two public spaces which colonialism created in Africa. People now attack the village or town treasury with the same viciousness as they do the national or government treasury. Many of the fights in village or town or ethnic unions in Nigeria today are over looting of assets.

  There are many concept and practices like transparency which can help create the right leadership consciousness among African leaders and their followers. This paper will identify only five which are not always mentioned in popular discourse; these concepts are selected based on one’s understanding of current thoughts by leading leadership researchers and one’s participation in both the private sector and the public sector over the decades. The concepts are humility, simplicity, the common good, service above self and competitiveness. Frankly, it is sometimes difficult to draw a line between one concept and another. We are separating them in this paper to make our arguments clearer and also to reinforce the message of this paper, that is, the imperative of a paradigm shift in the African mindset as regards leadership, or what Etounga-Manguelle (2000), calls a cultural adjustment programme for Africa. Here is a cursory look at the five leadership desiderata for Africa, so that the region can begin in earnest, the process of regaining its place in history.


  Humility is often considered a personal virtue, but scholars have increasingly come to see it as indispensable for successful leadership in both organisation and the larger society. Servant leadership is possibly only in an environment where the leaders are humble. But leaders in Africa are regularly egged on by aides and supporters not to show restraint in the use of power, in contrast to the situation in Nordic countries where, as Gladwell (2009) describes it, the leaders seem shy to exercise power and advertise their status. The result is that due process, for instance, is breached constantly through show of power.

  Subordinates and followers in many Third World societies, known for Hofstede’s (1980) high power distance index and for strong men rather than strong institutions frequently encourage their leaders to violate due process because of their selfish desires by statements like, “God has made you, and you alone, the chief executive of this place with the power to hire and fire. Use your executive power to authorise this action”. Leaders usually capitulate to such flattery and consequently behave like tin gods.

  When I went to the National Fertilizer Company (NAFCON) at Onne, Rivers State, in 1994, I was shocked to see that when the chief executive was about to leave his office, the very large number of policemen guarding the company stopped all kinds of movement within the very large complex in deference to the big man. A white man who was with me in the visitor’s room tried to find out what was happening, and a policeman pushed him back violently, screaming, “Don’t you have respect for authority? Don’t you now the MD is the head of state here?” Two years later, NAFCON, the biggest fertilizer firm in Africa when it was commissioned in 1987 after some six years of construction for almost 800 million dollars, was barely surviving. It was immersed in cronyism, corruption, peonage, unimaginable scandal, etc.. The company which used to export fertilizer to the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Ivory Coast and Cameroon, was shut down in 1999.

  Egalitarianism, or drastic reduction of hierarchy in the workplace, is today promoted around the globe as the way to go. Organisations in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are cited as the best practitioners of egalitarianism for an understandable reason: the Nordic countries are the most egalitarian cultures in the world. Egalitarianism can obtain only in an organisation or society where the leaders are humble. It is easy to see Nordic prime ministers move about without security or protocol officers. Management by walking about, regarded as the soul of eminently successful firms like Hewlett Packard, requires top executives to quietly go to the front lines from time to time in order to observe firsthand how things are done rather than rely on reports from subordinates, can work in places where the leaders are humble (Adinuba, forthcoming). Leaders who have airs will feel it is infra dig to go to the front lines frequently and “descend” to the level of discussing with subordinates as friends or colleagues how they do their work.

  Effective communication, so much cherished by scholars and management practitioners, can obtain in a place where the leaders are humble. Leaders who are humble tend to be accessible, and approachability or accessibility is vital for effective communication. Leaders are these days expected to do more listening than talking. Most leaders tend to talk – in fact, pontificate – most of the time. One major risk with this practice is that they do not obtain honest information and dispassionate reports from subordinates because once the latter know where leaders stand on a given issue, they often make their views align with those of leaders. Only humble leaders can afford to listen more and talk less.

  One of the most popular refrains in the contemporary social and business literature is Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! And communicate some more Leaders who are not humble cannot communicate effectively. As Gordon (1986) has reported, one of the critical contributors to the dire stress of Chrysler Corporation when Lee Iacocca took over in 1979 was a culture of people working as silos, that is, a lack of communication between the headquarters and the subsidiaries and poor communication among the subsidiaries.

  Performance management, a key branch of human resource management which promotes organisational members working closely with one another for the attainment of organisational goals regardless of the status or background of members, cannot succeed in a place where leaders are not humble. Only humble leaders can work in close collaboration with juniors.


  Successful leaders in both the private and public sectors encourage simplicity. When Steve Jobs and his team at Apple were developing new products, they ensured that they were simple to use as much as possible. As Elliot (2011) has noted, they worked hard to ensure that the products could be used easily without manuals. Each product became a roaming success in the market.

  Just as good products are simple and user friendly, good organisational and societal leaders are seen as simple and friendly to their people. According to Elliot (2011), one of the things which Jobs tried to achieve as Apple chairman was to create a system which would enable any of the 100,00 Apple employees who wanted to see him to just walk into his office. It is much easier today to see a bank manager or any top bank executive in Nigeria than, say, 20 years ago. It is also a part of the evolving culture of simplicity hat organisational members dress down these days. Business executives recognise that when they are seen as regular people rather than as a breed apart, there will be better communication between them and their customers. Good communication avails executives of vital information which they would not ordinarily possess. The information can be converted to intelligence; information is no intelligence until it is used effectively for the benefit of the organisation.

Such successful leader as Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are by no means ostentatious but  simple. One major reason why General Murtala Muhammadu is still revered in Nigeria decades after his assassination is the simplicity of his lifestyle as the military head of state from 1975 to 1976. The same can be said of  ex-Burkinabe President, Thomas Sankara, assassinated in 1987, who is still widely regarded in Africa. Leaders who are simple like the late Tanzanian statesman, Julius Nyerere,  had a lesser tendency to steal because their needs are not outlandish. Stealing is a huge problem in Africa because, among other critical factors, leaders in both private and public sectors usually live far beyond their means. African business and political leaders need to imbibe the value of simplicity. After Zakaria (1994: 119) visited Singapore 25 years ago to interview Lee Kuan Yew, one of the most successful transformational leaders in Third World history, he wrote admirably about this simplicity:

The rulers of former British colonies have been spared the embarrassment of building grandiose monuments to house their offices; they simply occupy the ones the British built. So it is with Singapore. The president, prime minister, and senior minister work out of Istana (palace), the old colonial governor’s house, a gleaming white bungalow surrounded by luxuriant lawns. The interior is modern, light wood paneling and leather sofas. The atmosphere is hushed.

  A simple leader is less likely to engage in attribution than one who is pompous. He or she would accept failure rather than ascribe it to another person, unlike a pompous leader who would take all the credit for success but attributes failure to others. The willingness to admit errors or mistakes is an important leadership attribute. Those who do so are regarded as authentic leaders (Covey, 1992) and they earn the trust of followers and others. Many leaders, however, erroneously think it is a sign of weakness to admit an error, let alone apologise for it. They, therefore, attempt to behave like super heroes, with all the risks.

  It is time to start making leaders appreciate the need to engage in introspection, what theologians often refer to as examination of conscience which leads to mea culpa. They need to humbly, honestly and privately inquire from time to time if there is any way they contribute to problems of an organisation or society and consequently begin to move in a different direction. Awareness of their imperfections make leaders engage less in attribution.

C. Service above Self

  It needs be stressed regularly that leadership is about to an organisation or to the public, and not a popularity contest or delegitimisation of the policies and programmes of predecessors. Nigeria has seen enough policy reversals which always result in grave consequences because of the refusal to accept that government is a continuum. It is indeed, nothing but heartbreaking to see a number of key projects meant to address in a fundamental way the acute infrastructure deficit in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, abandoned for no more profound reason than the fact that their initiator is no longer in offer as governor, as was the case between 2015 and 2019.

  These projects included the Lagos Home Ownership Mortgage Scheme (HOMS) through which hundreds of thousands of people who never had houses in the state would get houses on long-term loans and the building of a light rail to connect densely populated areas of the state as well as the 12-lane Badagry Road which terminates at Nigeria’s border with Benin Republic at Seme designed to ease the enormous traffic on the road which used to be a four-lane highway until 2010 when the Babatunde Fashola administration chose to expand it to a 12-lane highway. The abandonment was in spite of the fact that the governor who initiated them, Fashola, and his successor, Akinwunmi Ambode belong to the same political party and that the former campaigned vigorously for Ambode to win the gubernatorial election.

  Against this backdrop, it is heartwarming that Anambra State provides an example of hope. When Governor Willie Obiano succeeded Peter Obi in 2014, he pledged a policy of continuity. In fact, he enunciated the policy of Four Cs, namely, Continue, Complete, Commission and Commence. Under this policy, the Agulu Lake Hotel located in the hometown of his predecessor, which was at only five percent completion stage when Obiano assumed the state’s leadership, was finished in record time. It was commissioned last year, and it turned out better than was originally planned. The hotel, now known as Golden Tulip, Agulu Hotel, is one of the best kept secrets of the state. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. I recommend you take a trip to the place, preferably spend a night with your spouse and share your experience with other people.

 Unlike in Lagos where the administration tried to chase away contractors working for the state before his administration—including thousands of small waste management firms collecting and disposing waste, and replace them with his preferred firms—the current Anambra State administration has continued with most of the contractors inherited from his predecessors, including Tamad which is constructing the Oluoha Road that ends up in my village of Umuezeawala.

Common Good

  There is perhaps no time in our recent history when attention should be paid to the common good as now. Though there has existed over the millennia massive literature on the common good without the authors agreeing on what it is, the common good is in this paper taken to mean as placing the interest of the community over that of any individual or group. Fukuyama (2014) has made the remarkable point that the fundamental difference between African leaders and their Asian counterparts is the difference in the levels of commitment to the common good. Whether in a democratic government or in a dictatorship, Chinese and many other Asian leaders do very well because they are groomed from the beginning to work for the common good rather than for personal gains, perhaps powered by the fact that their societies have over the millennia been collectivistic rather than individualistic, as Hofstede (1980) has put it. Public interest triumphs over personal desires in Chinese societies.

  Leaders devoted to the public good always are ever in search of greater levels of inclusion and solidarity in society. They do away with the mentality of “we versus them”. Acemoglu and Robinson  (2012) have done a remarkable work of how nations typically fail to develop because they do not include all segments of society in their political, social and economic institutions. Such societies do not experience social harmony.

  Our nation is currently beset by all manner of cleavages, ranging from region to ethnicity to regionalism and to party politics. Discrimination of all kinds must be resisted, and where they exist efforts must be made to reduce them drastically. In other words, our leaders must endeavour to speak and live like statesmen, so as to achieve national unity and cohesion. Vengeance, which Ali Mazrui calls a long memory of hate, is dangerous.

  Once again, Anambra State provides a ray of hope. It is not just the safest, but also the most peaceful, the most united, the most stable and the most socially harmonious in Nigeria. There have, of course, been occasional skirmishes and breaches. But they are nothing compared with what obtains in other parts of the Nigerian federation. Anambra is the only state which has in the last three years organised two major elections with practically no incidents of violence before,  during or after the elections.

  Anambra State scored a bull’s eye when after the November 17 gubernatorial election which the incumbent won in each of the 21 local government areas in the state, none of the candidates of the major political parties wrote a petition against the conduct or the outcome of the vote. They rather wrote letters and issued press releases congratulating the winner. The state scored another bull’s eye when during the second inauguration of the governor on March 18, 2018, leaders of the so-called opposition parties attended the event in flesh and blood. One of the leaders was the candidate of the People’s Progressive Party (PPA) in the election, Godwin Ezeemo.

  The notch of social and political inclusion rose higher when  Anambra State government led the seven-day funeral in January, 2018, of former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, a founding leader of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and whose daughter was the party’s deputy governorship candidate in the election held three days before Ekwueme’s death. No state in Nigeria matches this record of peaceful co-existence, social harmony and solidarity.  The most published African scholar, the late Ali Mazrui, would hold up the Willie Obiano administration in Anambra State as an example of the validity of his theory that Africans have a short memory of hate.

  Interestingly, it has not always been like this. Anambra State was in the first few years of the restoration of democratic rule in 1991 almost a gangster paradise. Members of the ruling party abducted the state governor and announced his voluntary resignation in 2003 over what the media reported to be financial disagreements. The same year, political thugs were recruited to cause mayhem in the state as hundreds of them destroyed in broad daylight the state-owned Anambra Broadcasting Service, the legislature, the state judicial complex and the governor’s office, among others. The situation was such that Chinua Acebe, Africa’s most famous novelist and an indigene of the state, rejected the federal government’s award of a high national honour to him. He wrote:

For some time now, I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly events in my own state of Anambra, where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting of  its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless kingdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency (PM News, 2011, para.6).

Four years later, when the Nigerian government offered the award the second time, Achebe declined it for the same reason. According to PM News (2011, para. 4), Achebe wrote:

The reason for rejecting the offer when it was first made has not been addressed, let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it to me again. I must, therefore, regretfully decline the offer again.

  By declining a high national honour in a culture where people are known for the self-protective leadership style Which House et al (2004) regard as the worst leadership style because of its preoccupation with status and class consciousness, among other vices, Achebe himself could be considered an example of commitment to the common good.


  It would  seem the concept of power is fundamentally flawed as far as many Africans are concerned. Power is not sought to alleviate the condition of the people but for the few privileged elite to help themselves and their relatives and supporters with the public treasury (Bavister-Gould, 2011). Power is, therefore, a manipulation tool. All manner of primordial differences are played upon in the quest for power. Achebe (2003 ) has provided detailed instances with Amin’s Uganda and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, among other places where political leaders manipulate the people’s fears and  sentiments to hold on to power.

   African leaders should rather be competing with one another over development because Africa is experiencing an acute development crisis. Nigeria experienced rapid development from 1954 to 1966 when it had a set of regional leaders competing among themselves for development. When the Eastern Nigerian government established the African Continental Bank, Nigeria’s first indigenous bank, the    Western Nigerian government responded by building the National Bank of Nigeria and the Northern Regional government set up Bank of the North. And when Eastern Nigeria took the initiative to build the country’s first autonomous university, Western Nigeria reacted by setting up the University of Ife and the North built Ahmadu Bello University at Zaria. This kind of competition is healthy. Dubai’s tremendous success has caused emirates like Abu Dhabi and Sharjah to embark on their own trajectories of rapid economic progress.

  Current African leaders appear to compete among themselves in the wrong way. They seem to compete over who will stay longer than others in public office, even when the living standards of their citizens are plummeting, and over who lives off their people’s resources more than the rest. Leaders in the private and public sectors should rather be competing for excellence in development. They should be inspired and challenged by the examples of Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohammed, Jack Welch, Bill Festus Odimegwu who as the chief executive of Nigerian Breweries, the Nigerian operation of Heineken of Holland, made the company the most admired and fastest growing of all the subsidiaries around the world within a short period (personal communication). Charles Chukwuma Soludo, as Nigeria’s Central Bank governor from 2004 to 2009, took the local banks from obscurity to global prominence in less than three years (Echebirir, 2017).

  There is a lot African leaders can learn from leaders of the other regions of the world, especially Asia. Japan’s intimidating success, despite the numerous natural odds against it like frequent earthquakes and small land mass, encouraged Asian leaders to dream big (Lee, 2000). An Singapore’s rapid development encouraged Asian leaders from Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere to seek Lee’s advice on how they can achieve fast economic growth and still maintain political stability. In the words of Zakaria (1999: 1): “he travels often to East Asian capitals from Beijing to Hanoi to Manila dispensing advice on how to achieve high economic growth while retaining political stability and control.”

  Competitiveness should be a way of life if Africa has to be respected in the scheme of things. African business and political leaders should not be satisfied and begin to rest on their laurels once they make some gains. Maktoum (2011) has given an account of how Dubai was looking up to certain world cities in development, and as it was approaching their level, his administration began to plan to surpass them. Today Dubai has beaten them in several areas. It has one of the top innovation research centers, one of the largest man-made Islands in the world, one of the world’s tallest twin towers and one of the world’s busiest airports, among other remarkable achievements.

  African leaders need to recognise the fact that there is nothing stopping them from attaining greater development heights other than themselves. After all, the gap between Africa and the West, for instance, has not always been as huge as it is now. As scholars like Sachs (2005) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) have pointed out, the gap has been increasing widely only from the industrial revolution. To continue to hold colonialism responsible for the region’s underdevelopment is no longer appealing. Hong Kong and Singapore used to be British colonies. South Korea was once under Japan’s rule. They are today highly competitive economies. Africa, too, can become competitive.


  Africa is actually better placed to leapfrog in development terms than many developed countries. It has immense mineral resources. Its climate is generally friendly and conducive for agriculture. It is also generally free of cataclysmic natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. In terms of land mass, it is the second biggest continent. Its huge population of about one billion, the majority of them being men and women under 30 years, can be turned into a great asset if well managed.

For some reason, its leaders have over the years failed to appreciate the true challenge of leadership in the 21st Century. They have false consciousness about leadership in the modern era, displaying the mentality of feudal lords in an era which Fukuyama (2014) describes as witnessing  leaders in both  private and public sectors need to develop the right consciousness. Five of the elements which can guide them in the right direction have been highlighted in this paper. May the 21st Century be the African century.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *