Africa, Leadership Deficit and the Imperative of Institutional Reform, By Tunji Olaopa

The question I will want to address in this intervention is simple but fundamental to the way we see Africa and her possibilities: What does it take to transform the African continent into a space of development possibilities? This is the question that formed the core of my keynote address to the 18th African Conference, organised by The University of Texas at Austin with the distinguished Professor Toyin Falola as convener. The Africa Conference, for eighteen years, has been one of the greatest intellectual gatherings of scholars that has consistently focused attention on what ails Africa and how the continent could be rejuvenated out of its postcolonial troubles. Its thematic focus this year, “Leadership and Institutions in Africa,” tells us two things: (a) that the Africa Conference has consistently been right on target in its choice of the strategic understanding of the critical issues around which scholars could brainstorm and look for solutions; and (b) that the conference is a good place where the bright and the best on the continent, the Diaspora and beyond it can debate and discuss the way forward for Africa. It was therefore a significant privilege for me to have been invited to deliver the 2018 keynote. But beyond the highly charged intellectual atmosphere of the Conference, the question I raised in the keynote also deserves public attention.

Why is my question so significant? It is important and critical because a legitimate and workable answer to that question will determine the future of Africa as a development space where the hopes of millions of Africans can be achieved within the frame of democratic governance. Africa, amongst other continents of the world, is in a critical situation, which is described as ‘pandemic underdevelopment’, marked by misgovernance, infrastructural deficit and leadership failure. These three elements of Africa’s underdevelopment status have created some terrible mix that has transformed Africa into bad statistics for the world to laugh at. Let us take two demographic statistics to give us a sense of the dire strait that Africa has found itself in, which will then be aggravated in the coming years, if the situation remains the same.

First, Africa’s population is expected to increase from the 800 million in 2012 to 1.5 billion within a generation. What is the most immediate implication of this statistics? Simple: It will place enormous pressure on the institutional capacity and resources of Africa’s very fragile states. As things stand, the citizens of these states are already incapacitated by the inability of their states to cater for the socioeconomic and infrastructural needs of the people therein. Thus, we do not need any seer to tell us what will happen if the institutional capacity remains weakened, and the population increases. Consider the second statistics: It has been projected that by 2025, nearly one-quarter of the world’s young people below the age of 25 years will be from Africa. This should have been an otherwise delightful statistic. This is because a large youthful population portends a significantly transformed productivity profile for Africa. What is called the “youth bulge” means that Africa has the potential of transforming her youthful energies into fundamental socioeconomic dividends. Unfortunately, what we have within Africa’s institutional and infrastructural deficiencies is that these statistics will deepen current unemployment and the poverty level, with the attendant increase in frustration. This will, in turn, shape politics and political behaviour into the inflammable dynamics of angry people.

We only need to recall Tunisia and the terrible tragedy of the young man, Bouazzizi who set himself on fire and whose self-immolation led to what we now call the Arab Spring. Scholars who have been interested in the socioeconomic status of Africa have been perplexed at how such a resource rich continent has managed to undermine all the possibilities of its projected future. It only stands to reason that a continent that has so much in terms of resources – human and material – would be leading the world in all spheres. But Africa has now become the number one example that demonstrates the theory of resource curse or the paradox of plenty. The paradox is why a continent that has so much could remain so poor. We only need to add the greedy attitude of the African leadership and sit-tight dictators to arrive at the reason why Africa has become a conflict zone. There is no doubt that in the last few years, the democratic upsurge on the continent has raised positive developments. There are now more democratic states and less authoritarian rulers. There are also less conflict zones to the extent that Africa can be regarded as a post-conflict continent.

But this positive development does not mean that Africa is yet out of the woods. Take Paul Collier’s troubling hypothesis, for instance. According to him, there is a tendency for post-conflict societies to relapse back into conflict within just ten years. One reason for this is simple; many post-conflict societies do not put in place institutional dynamics that will make the incidence of war and other conflicts very difficult. Infrastructural deficit in Africa, and the debilitating unemployment statistics it yields, definitely spells a bad time for African states. If the restive youth in African states remain unemployed, and there is no infrastructural development to transform their boundless energies into productive enterprises and economic dynamics for the states, then what is available to prevent a relapse of conflict? The only way to forestall this possibility is for African states to rebuild and strengthen institutions. This simply means that African states must embark on series of institutional reforms that will strengthen democratic governance and enable infrastructural development. To put it in the rhetoric of scholarship, the institutionalising imperative means that African states must put in place several reform elements that will transform them into developmental states well able to empower their citizens.

This call for institutional reform of the governance frameworks and dynamics of the African states has been the central focus of my administrative research and reform advocacy for many years. And this advocacy has been persistent because there has not been sufficient political will to see institutional reform through to its logical conclusion in a manner that will make African states genuinely democratic and developmental. One obvious reason for this lack of political will is that most Africa leaders benefit from the extractive institutions that are already in place, which enable them to privatise the wealth of the nations. Inclusive democratic institutions do not hold the same promises for bad leaders because it means that they will not be able to satisfy their lust for illicit accumulation at the expense of those who entrusted them with political power to govern. How then can we build significant institutions that will undermine the desires of bad leaders to short-circuit developmental process?
In 2009, while on a state visit to Ghana, the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, delivered a globally acclaimed answer to Africa’s development and institutional problem. According to him, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” This is because, Obama further stated, “In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives….” Obama’s statement about strong institutions and not strong men is at once profoundly incisive and also profoundly off the mark. The reason is that Africa’s institutional and development cannot just be explained away as the need for strong institutions. Why that is positively on target, it fails to see through the complexity involved in establishing and consolidating those strong institutions in the first place. Strong institutions will not just come into existence by themselves. They must be nurtured into existence. And this implies that there is a need for strong men too.

But, if strong leadership is a critical factor in growing strong institutions, we can then ask, where have all the leaders gone, to echo the title of Anthony Iacocca’s brilliant bestseller. The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Excellence in African Leadership demonstrates the poignancy of this question because for six years — 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 — no African leader qualified to receive the award. There are several questions we can raise that will make this leadership failure clearer as the center-point of the transformation of African states: (a) What nature and quality of leadership is transformational, given peculiarities across African countries? (b) What exemplars could be held up as role models within the framework of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) for African leaders, leaders whose leadership style and legacies could be benchmarked for emulation? (c) How effective are western democratic principles and mechanism, as they exist, effective in assessing political leadership and rewarding or sanctioning failures? (d) How complicit is the citizenry in Africa’s crisis of leadership? and (e) What structural changes are needed to create political culture that could throw up leaders based on competence and to support such competence with institutional capacity to deliver?

Whether it is Nigeria or Ethiopia, Morocco or Burundi, South Africa or Madagascar, the developmental challenge is simply one of resolving infrastructural gap in order to open up the African economic space so that business can compete, thus expanding employment and reducing poverty. This is the core of the leadership requirement in Africa. It is the next phase of the African liberation. There is always a transformational virtue in benchmarking good practices of those states that have made a turnaround in terms of development and economic growth. The closest to the African experience is Asia, and the miracle of the Asian Tigers. What was it about, say, Singapore that translated it away from the third world into the first world of stupendous economic stability and buoyancy? How, for instance, did Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and the others break out of the mould of external dependence to grow into manufacturing powerhouses for the world market in automobile, electronic appliances, computer technology, etc.? There are six iconic comparative structural readjustment frameworks that could be adapted as among the first steps in Africa’s attempt to capacitate her states into developmental ones. All six are foregrounded on the urgent need to look inward into local and indigenous dynamics that take foreign models and paradigms with a pinch of salt in a world of capitalist hegemony.

First, there was a rejection of import substitution for a pursuit of a bold and aggressive export-oriented development strategy. The second, and corollary, development framework is the discipline that export strategy imposes on the cultivation of local consumption and local industries in a way that enables steady growth. Third, this cultivation of local consumption is geared towards the improvement of national productivity. This, therefore, makes it necessary to invest aggressively in education and training that inevitably leads to increase in per capita productivity in the national economy. Fourth, a corollary of this investment in training and education, has to do with investments in research and development (R&D). Developmental states are ones that immediately see the significance of industrialisation as the marker of progress. And this requires a dynamical relationship, for instance, between industries and higher education that enables action research to fuel industrial breakthroughs which in turn become research projects. Fifth, developmental states cannot afford to become profligate with national finance. This automatically calls attention to transparency and accountability in the management of the national account. A by-product of this is the setting up of solid anti-corruption strategies and structures that can bark and bite! Lastly, and most significantly, developmental states take their public service institutions seriously in terms of reforming them into becoming world class performance structures operating on meritocracy and competency-based human resource management.

To be able to step into this radical leadership framework demands the emergence of a new generation of African leaders — bold, patriotic, detribalised and globally-minded. These new leaders will have to commence the institutionalising imperative at the point of what someone has called a “cultural adjustment program,” a critical reorientation of the values without which development itself cannot commence. The essence of these values, like solidarity, social interaction, love of neighbours, care for environment, etc. — is to achieve a crucial rehabilitation of Africa’s mental model that enables a radical shift in focus from short-term to long-term policy orientation, from certificated illiteracy defining outputs of educational institutions to reflective practices and skills orientation, from profligacy and rabid consumerism to an investment mentality. This is just one side of the reform equation.

The other side of that equation requires that the mentally transformed leadership with the new development values can then begin to see the need for institutionalising African states into the development model. The most important institution that requires the urgent reform is the African public service which has a potent mandate to transform government’s policies into positive development outcomes for Africans. One institutional rehabilitation strategy is for the new leadership to also achieve a value deconstruction of the public service institution away from its colonial legacy into a truly efficient institution operating with a new understanding of the democratic African state. This will enable the public service in these states to become world-class institutions that have not only transformed from a Weberian to a neo-Weberian model but have also become world class in their flexibility, technology-capability, and administrative efficiency.

It is at these two levels of reforms that African can ever hope to achieve her democratic and development possibilities. Thus, while a great bulk of African and African diaspora scholars and intellectuals are busy crunching significant ideas and paradigms around which African leadership and institutional problems can be calibrated, it behooves the African general public to also be a part of this collective responsibility. Africa is our collective destiny!

About the Author: Tunji Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email:,

This is excerpted from the Keynote Address delivered at the 18th Annual African Conference of the University of Texas at Austin on the 30th of March, 2018.

Source: Premium Times

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