Quest for excellence in African leadership

For the fifth time since its inception the Mo Ibrahim Foundation which awards the Prize for Achievement in African Leadership has failed to issue the award. A befitting candidate could not be identified.

The prize recognises and celebrates excellence in African leadership and is awarded to a former Executive Head of State or government based on their leadership footprint.

In its decade long history, the Mo Ibrahim Prize has managed to award this prize only four times, the past laureates being past presidents, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique,  Festus Mogae of Botswana, Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires of Cape Verde and Hikifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia. In a continent that is awash with leaders, there should be nothing short of stiff competition for the award. This begs the question, where if anything, are we not getting it right on the continent with regards to our leadership?

Whilst there may be reservations about the nature of the award, this should not detract from the core message being espoused – the issue of excellence in African political leadership. Excellence in African political leadership presents a particularly striking and compelling proposition that stands to confront the past and present conduct of leadership on the continent, whilst at the same time offering a renewed aspirational standard that promises to immensely benefit the continent. With excellence by definition denoting very high standards that surpass just the ordinary, its outcomes are associated with that which is positive. It then follows that where excellence lacks or is in short supply, disastrous consequences can be expected.

Excellence in political leadership should be a non-negotiable in Africa where the need, desire and demand for it is critical. Integrity, high ethical standards, wise policy choices, an ability to deal with complexity and paradox, balancing diversity of interests with a high regard for the dignity of citizens and the ability to uplift the lives and livelihoods of citizens are but a few of the values and actions that can be associated with this excellence in political leadership.

While it is true that throughout our post-colonial history we have experienced pockets of leadership excellence, for the better part of this journey, leadership excellence appears to have eluded us. Replicating and sustaining this leadership excellence across the continent has been a major challenge. The positives realised have sadly been clouded by the negative legacy the continent has had to endure.

Taking a few examples from across the spectrum of challenges in Africa, one can see these deficits in leadership excellence. There is hardly any excellence in leadership when more than half of the continent’s people live in abject poverty, subsisting on less than two dollars a day whilst the continent’s leaders are content to unashamedly live in opulence from the plunder of state resources.

In a country like Gabon for example, the Bongo family which has been in power since the country’s independence is alleged to have skimmed off 25 percent of the oil-rich nation’s gross domestic product over the years. The late Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon for 42 years was said to be one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state. At the time of his death in 2009, he is accused of having built only 5 km of freeway a year, leaving the country with one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates and almost one-third of Gabonese living at or below the poverty line.

Looking into public institutions, excellence in leadership is questionable when a continent’s leaders are content to preside over decaying public institutions that do little to serve the needs of its citizens. The benefits, for example, of health institutions that are not envisioned, structured and supported to respond to the health challenges of its citizens are baffling. When Africans live, on average, 14 years less than the average world citizen and where the leading causes of death and disability in sub-Saharan Africa continue to be communicable, maternal, nutritional, and new-born diseases, the quality of our leadership is debatable.

Leadership excellence on the continent is also highly questionable in the face of issues such as poor infrastructure where opportunities to improve on this through a clear vision and commitment have over the years been wasted. As pointed out through NEPAD, only 38% of the African population has access to electricity, the penetration rate for internet is less than 10% while only a quarter of Africa’s road network is paved.

A World Bank study found that the poor state of infrastructure in many parts of Africa reduced national economic growth by two percentage points every year and cut business productivity by as much as 40%, making Africa – in spite of its enormous mineral and other natural resources – the region with the lowest productivity levels in the world.

The aversion by political leaders in Africa for transparency and accountability shows their lack of regard for that which is for the greater good. Whilst there may be reservations about the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its relation to Africa, the recent initiations to withdraw from the ICC by countries like Burundi, Gambia and South Africa does raise eyebrows of this aversion to accountability, as each of these countries has some issues that stand in contrary to the values of membership to the Court.

The pitting of a nation’s ethnic tribes and religious sects against the other and the fanning of the flames of hatred in society amongst citizens for the self-preservation of governing elites is an affront to leadership excellence. It leaves in its wake a trail of broken and fragmented social infrastructure with communities so devastated that they are unable to pick up the pieces. A case in point is the crisis in South Sudan.

The deep seated patronage systems and the entrenchment of corruption in public service that play havoc with local economies and compromise service delivery are all but a sham to leadership excellence. The Transparency International 2015 Corruption Perception Index, reports that 40 out of 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa show a serious corruption problem with corruption in the region’s powerhouses of Nigeria and South Africa showing no signs of abating.

A high level of disregard by political elites for institutions meant to safeguard the rule of law and the abuse of power including a poor human rights record and the criminalisation of divergent and opposing views are all but travesties to leadership excellence. The 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) states that in 2015, almost two-thirds of African citizens live in a country where safety and rule of law have deteriorated over the last 10 years.

The list of these shortcomings in leadership excellence goes on and on. It would appear that as citizens we have become accustomed to these low leadership standards and have inadvertently reinforced these through our voting behaviour and our passivity towards holding our representatives accountable. Our patience is however wearing thin.

Despite the negative narrative outlined, the continent has experienced leadership excellence through the leaders past and present who have through their vision and legacy shown that the continent is not doomed to fail. Leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, and those who have been Laureates to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Leadership award have shown the way. These leaders are but a few that exemplify the possibility of entrenching a culture of excellence in African leadership.

Leadership excellence in Africa is possible and probable where there is clear commitment and a genuine will towards this. This will and commitment largely emanates from what the reasons of those wanting to occupy power are. As political leaders emanate from within our societies, a culture akin to excellence widens the pool of potential excellent leaders that we can choose from and also helps us to compel for excellence from our leaders.

The power of education and training should thus not be underrated. A re-orientation towards embracing a culture of excellence will enable for excellence to become deeply entrenched in our psyche and in our conduct.  As the great philosopher Aristotle said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation….we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not [necessarily] an act but a habit.”


Patience is a skilled trainer, researcher and material developer and an accredited trainer to the Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) programme, with particular focus on the socio-economic and political development of the African region. Her areas of speciality and interest centre on working with youth, women and political parties in leadership development and democratic governance issues. She has worked in Lesotho, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, where she has been championing the rollout of the Initiative for Leadership and Democracy in Africa (ILEDA).

Her research interests are in gender, conflict, social capital and civic agency. She holds a Masters’ degree in Public and Development Management from the University of Witwatersrand, a Masters degree in Monitoring and Evaluation from Stellenbosch University and an Honours degree in Psychology from the University of Zimbabwe.

To read publications by Patience Zonge on our website please click here.

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