“A chief is a chief by the grace of his people” – Chief Mohlomi

The story of post-colonial African political leadership, while varied and complicated, has been, in so many ways, tragic. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, led the first state in Africa to achieve independence from a colonial power. Nkrumah’s inauguration on 1 July 1960 ushered in a period of hope and expectation for both the future of the country and the continent and fed the growing aspirations for freedom across that enshakled region. A relatively prosperous country at that stage in its history, Nkrumah attempted to do a great deal more to make good on the promise of freedom. Nkrumah fought tribalism, extended the education system and made concerted efforts to industrialize and electrify the country. But Nkrumah’s tenure had both failings and an unhappy end. In 1964, Nkrumah won a heavily rigged referendum that made the Convention People’s Party (CPP) the sole legal party, with himself as president for life of both nation and party. Nkrumah put an end to nascent press freedom and left the country heavily indebted amidst his push to industrialize the country. Nkrumah was deposed in a pro-Western coup in February 1966, while on a state visit to North Vietnam. Thereafter Ghana experienced a period of alternating military and civilian governments ending only when a new Constitution of Ghana restoring multi-party system politics was promulgated in the Ghanaian presidential election, 1992. This one example is instructive of some of the many challenges faced by many post-colonial African societies: promising beginnings amidst the triumphal glow of independence followed by long dark periods of rule by dictators, single parties and military junta’s. African leadership in the immediate aftermath of independence was often characterized by dysfunctional authoritarian regimes maintained by an exploitative patronage network ruling over largely underdeveloped societies.

African leaders faced important structural impediments to their ability to develop their societies. For example, Jeffrey Herbst, in his book States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, highlights the importance of geographic features in determining the context of state formation. As a result of Africa’s geography precolonial African states conceived of power differently to European states. Varied and harsh terrain made it difficult for precolonial leaders to continuously exert power from political centers to the hinterlands thus shared sovereignty became the norm in precolonial Africa. The European powers that came to dominate the continent next did not care about state building but rather were concerned with extracting resources from the colony. Hence African countries were integrated into the international system with all the nominal features of a state but without having developed the requisite institutions to be effective states. In so far as institutions were developed they were created to be extractive and exploitative towards local populations. The worst indictment of many African elites is that they often took over, and sometimes extended, the extractive machinery created by the colonial state and used it to their benefit.

Another structural impediment beyond the immediate control of African leaders was the Cold War. The Cold War, for the African continent, was a very hot one with numerous conflicts having engulfed the region as the West (led by the US) and the East (led by the Soviet Union) propped up regimes, funded opposition groups, provided arms and organized coups in their shadow battle for global dominance. It is true that African leaders have faced structural conditions which limited their ability to act to improve the lives of their people. It is also true that in the face of these conditions many African leaders have compounded already difficult circumstances further through the implementation of their various brands of authoritarianism, by involving themselves in great power shadow games and focusing on their own self-enrichment.

African leadership is, at present, a mixed bag. Democracy is slowly becoming an enduring norm on the continent although there are concerning instances of regression. Africa is going to have to deepen its democracy by strengthening its democratic institutions by exhibiting, among other features, an ability to hold free and fair elections, a free media, a strong judicial system and an effective civil service bureaucracy. African leaders must also ensure space for, and support to, Africa’s market economy with a particular emphasis on the thriving of African business which will create jobs and increase economic growth. African leaders must invest in developing the infrastructure of their countries and work towards industrializing their economies. African business people must reject patrimonial capitalism based on proximity to the state and exploitation of their fellow Africans. African business and growth must be based on entrepreneurship and innovation. While recognizing the great importance of business to our future, the role of the African state, and the African leaders who preside over it, will be absolutely critical. African leaders must recognize that education is a necessary condition for the fulfillment of the African dream and must place the greatest emphasis on expanding and improving the quality of education for all our people. Despite the great importance of business to our future, the role of the African state, and the African leaders who preside over it, will be absolutely pivotal. Ultimately we Africans will need an increasingly competent and ethical African leadership if we are to fundamentally improve the socio-economic conditions of our people.