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22 October 2014 15:38 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jay Naidoo

Africa’s 'leadership crisis' - we have more agency than we think

  • Jay Naidoo
After the Mo Ibrahim Foundation failed to award its annual leadership prize in London yesterday, it prompted analysts to ask whether this means the African continent is failing. Maybe, but that’s not the whole answer. 

No African head of state who has left office in the last three years and achieved excellence in leadership was deemed worthy of the Mo Ibrahim prize in 2012. Is this a sign that Africa is failing? 

That was a question that was often repeated when the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced another fallow year for its annual leadership prize in London yesterday, but I kept thinking that if such a prize were offered in Europe or the Americas or even Asia there would be no definitive winner either. Would the question that Europe, the US or Asia had failed arise then?

The fact that the prize has been awarded three times in the last six years is an achievement in a world facing a global deficit of leadership. The award is for extraordinary achievement in building social cohesion, delivery of basic rights and services to citizens, and integrity and transparency in office. 

Performance of global leadership in resolving the major crises that humanity faces today is abysmal from the Rio Summit on the climate crisis to the decade-long failed negotiations on the Doha round on development in the WTO. The world blunders on from the financial crisis of 2008 to the precipice of an economic meltdown accompanied by food price spikes that have thrown tens of millions into hunger and poverty. The thread that weaves this tale of woe is one of human greed, the destruction of hope and the breakdown of trust in leadership and global and national institutions.

The "Arab Spring" was our awakening that the people have had enough of living with the burden and hardship of social and economic marginalisation. But in spite of that massive victory against tyranny the lives of ordinary people have not changed. In fact, as Einstein said, "Insanity prevails. We are doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results." That’s what our leaders do.

The root of our governance challenge is the absence of courage to carve a new political narrative and economic trajectory that is socially inclusive, understands the planetary and environmental limits of the current growth model, and is people-centred.  

To achieve this, the Mo Ibrahim Index on Governance identifies 88 indicators, broadly broken into four major categories: Safety and the Rule of Law; Participation and Human Rights; Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Human Development.

Overall, Africa demonstrates progress albeit from a very low base, in particular in the health, education, rural and gender indicators. But what happens when these figures are disaggregated? In SA a detailed look at education will reveal that we are meeting the MDG goal of universal education enrolment. Yet more than half of our children are leaving after 12 years of schooling with few skills, no jobs and little prospect of enjoying the dignity of labour in their lifetime.

Compounding this disaster is the corruption of the Department of Education, as we saw in the Limpopo textbook crisis, which has condemned children to a life without literacy and opportunity. The singular failure of the national minister to take decisive action until compelled by the courts, parents and an NGO, Section 27, shows gross neglect and a serious bout of denialism. 

The Index reveals a more shocking statistic that the powerhouses of Africa Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are showing serious declines in human rights, rule of the law and security. We rank number five overall in Africa, but the signs are there that our crises are mounting as corruption, institutional and human resource constraints, social inequality and political arrogance undermine public and investor confidence. 

What is our challenge of Africa? Everyone questions the relationship of China to Africa. Is there a choice we have to make between the 'Washington Consensus' and the 'China Consensus?' I think this question is irrelevant. Africa needs to exploit the competitive tension between global economic powers over our natural and mineral resources and market potential. We must stop undervaluing our assets. 

The world needs our wealth under the ground, but how many global brands does Africa have? We have substantially remained commodity-exporting economies. Our oil and mineral resources fuel a global economy, while the majority of African people live in poverty. As the climate crisis bites deeply and we see the prolonged droughts in the US and Russia threaten global food supply, are we valuing the fact that 60% of remaining arable land in world is in Africa?

A critical shortcoming in our governance framework is that we continue to act as 54 countries, each striking separate deals in a way that weakens our bargaining power. We see land grabs that displace millions and while addressing food security in rich countries, fail to create livelihoods or agro-industries in our own countries. We see exploitative labour patterns that make African farmers victims rather than entrepreneurs. We see the destruction of biodiversity that increases household food insecurity as mono-cropping and GMO dominates the growing commercial agriculture landscape in Africa. 

If we had a coherent African leadership, policy and incentives, we would see tens of millions of women small-scale farmers lifted out of poverty, connected to the market; and whose incomes and productivity would be vastly increased. We would see an increased drive to regional integration that fosters the free movement of goods and services within Africa. We would streamline customs and improve revenue collection so that investment in infrastructure, communications and banking could improve market access. And we know from empirical research that improving incomes of women will lead to improved nutrition, health and education of their children.

But our greatest challenge or opportunity will come from the demographic profile of our population. Nearly half of the one-billion population in Africa is under 20 today, and that will increase to three quarters by 2050. What is the future we are nurturing for this critical part of our most precious resource? How can we promote an intergenerational dialogue of substance when the average age of our heads of states hovers over 70?

The difference in how we manage participation, human development and creating sustainable economic opportunities will decide whether we push our future generation into the hands of extremists, criminal syndicates or the predatory elites who benefit from the conflicts generated by our resource wars or in making Africa the new global powerhouse of the world.  

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation is a legitimate African institution. Its convening power and its ability through the Index, the Prize on Leadership, its annual event to be held in Dakar, Senegal and the work it does behind the scenes to support business, youth and media networks is invaluable. Ultimately our challenge as citizens is to stop being subjects and to become active participants who demand accountability and transparency from our leaders, whether they are in government, business or civil society.

The fact that no trophy of a leadership award that carries a price tag of $US5 and a lifetime contribution of $200,000 per year is a powerful political statement. It is one I endorse fully. And it should compel us to redouble our efforts to support and elect leaders of substance, and demand that they carry the mantle of values of service, humility and integrity into the positions we give them.

This is why we as the Board in September gave an extraordinary award for selfless service to Archbishop Tutu. He inspires us to be better human beings every day, and to confront power with the truth. DM

Disclaimer: Jay Naidoo has recently joined the Board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

  • Jay Naidoo
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Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former Minister in Mandela Government and Chair of a GAIN a Global Foundation Fighting malnutrition in the World. You can also visit his Facebook Page or www.jaynaidoo.org.

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