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Africa needs visionary leaders in the mould of Kwame Nkrumah

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

Looking ahead to the future on Africa Day, Africa needs leaders like Kwame Nkrumah – educated, understanding the international dimension, and passionate about using education as a useful instrument for the development of the African people.

One of the things that I miss during the Covid-19 national lockdown are my occasional visits to downtown Johannesburg. It is a vibrant place teeming with people selling clothing and all manner of paraphernalia from the rich African heritage. From beads, the ever-iconic Ndebele outfits and bangles to the opulent dresses of other ethnic groups, the place is the kaleidoscope of everything African. It reminds me of a day like today, 25 May, which is an important day on the calendar of the African people. It is Africa Day. This is the day we commemorate where we come from as Africans, where we are now and where we ought to go.

So, where do we come from? Africa is the cradle of humankind because this is the origin of human beings or more scientifically the origin of Homo sapiens. Africa has been a theatre of foreign invasion for a long time. From the destruction of the Egyptian civilisation by the Greeks and Romans, the scorched earth destruction of Carthage by the Romans, the trans-Atlantic and Arabic slavery, to colonialism, Africa and her people have seen and experienced much.

Why is the continent called Africa? There are many speculations on where the term Africa originated. One such thought is that it originated from the Berber word Ifri. The Berbers are the African people in North African countries such as Algeria. Another speculation from the first-century Jewish scholar Josephus is that it originated from Epher, the grandson of Abraham. Massey in the 19th century speculated that it originated from the Egyptian word Afruika meaning the birthplace. Whatever the origin of the name is, it is now commonly used, and it is part of our identity.

Where are we now? The 54 nations in Africa today are free from colonialism. Of these 54 nations, two, Somalia and the Sahrawi Democratic Republic, are disputed and have no international recognition. Africa is diverse, and its population has a higher genetic variation than the people outside it. It has 1.3 billion people who are predominately young and has the fastest-growing population. Its economy is relatively small: $2.4-trillion nominal amount which is equivalent to $7.1-trillion exchange rate adjusted (also called PPP), but it is increasingly becoming a significant global market.

There are several disadvantages of the current African state of being. One of these is that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 languages, thus making the prospect of African unity challenging to achieve. The continent also has had its fair share of coups d’etat. In this regard, Africa has had more coups than any other continent. In the 1960s Africa had 41 coups, in the 1970s it had 42 coups, in the 1980s, 39 coups, in the 1990s, 39 coups, from 2000 to 2009, 21 coups and in the last decade, 15 coups. Even though the trend is decreasing, it is disturbing that there is still a change of government without the will of the people. Despite its mineral resources, Africa remains the poorest and the least developed continent.

Given all these challenges, what sort of leaders does Africa need? In answering this question, I am reminded of the first prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.

The unity of Africans remains a dream that has been hard to fulfil. Years after Nkrumah proclaimed that “no African must feel like a stranger in Africa”, we still have the flaring up of xenophobia in parts of Africa such as South Africa. Years after this call, we still have countries that want to separate rather than unite. Years after this call, we still divide ourselves into Francophone and Anglophone Africa.

Nkrumah was an internationalist who was educated in the United States and the United Kingdom. Education is the only driver that Africa can use to resolve all the problems that inflict it. The leaders that we need, like Nkrumah, should be educated, understand the international dimension and be passionate about using education as a useful instrument for the development of the African people.

On education, Nkrumah had this to say: “We shall measure our progress by the improvement in the health of our people; by the number of children in school, and by the quality of their education; by the availability of water and electricity in our towns and villages, and by the happiness which our people take in being able to manage their own affairs. The welfare of our people is our chief pride, and it is by this that my government will ask to be judged.”

In this regard, Nkrumah sent many students to study abroad. The new African leader must send students abroad to global centres of excellence to learn and bring back the knowledge to advance the African people.

The new leader should be passionate about African unity. This unity should be through multiple platforms such as pan-African organisations like the African Union, or through mechanisms such as the African Continental Free Trade Area or through common identity initiatives such as the African Union Passport. At the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, on 25 May 1963, Nkrumah said: “We must unite now or perish.”

The unity of Africans remains a dream that has been hard to fulfil. Years after Nkrumah proclaimed that “no African must feel like a stranger in Africa”, we still have the flaring up of xenophobia in parts of Africa such as South Africa. Years after this call, we still have countries that want to separate rather than unite. Years after this call, we still divide ourselves into Francophone and Anglophone Africa.

The new leader must be a person of action. In this regard, Nkrumah had to say: “Think and study hard, work with sustained efforts, to become thinkers of great thoughts and doers of great deeds.” Nkrumah built the Akosombo Dam that supplies electricity up to today despite advice that was contrary to his plans. Nkrumah continues to challenge us to think and think harder to come up with solutions to our problems of inequality, poverty and unemployment. He challenges us to study hard, especially in diverse fields to untangle the issues that confront us as Africans.

The new leader must use science to find African solutions to African problems. In this regard, we should recognise and involve the wealth of African scientific expertise in national and continental decision making. We should set the agenda for science, technology and innovations in Africa. As Nkrumah put it, “We must mobilise our total manpower for the industrial, economic, technological and scientific reconstruction of [Africa], so that we can produce the necessary conditions which shall mean an abundance of every good thing for our people and the greatest welfare of the masses.”

The new leader must be bold in dreams yet realistic in implementation. Such a leader should “tell no lies, and claim no easy victories” in solving the pressing problems that confront our people. The new African leader must be a person of integrity driven by the need to advance the African people and not by personal glory or wealth. The new leader must read and read widely. Those who do not read must not lead because they will lead us into temptation and deliver us to poverty. This new leader must invest in our people and like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere be a teacher of good wisdom. This new leader must understand the significant issues that are confronting our continent such as climate change, artificial intelligence, data and the Internet of Things. DM

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