Leadership in Africa: The Missing Link


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In its recent report entitled Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the business and economics research arm of McKinsey & Company just published a thoughtful article indicating that Africa is the world’s second-fastest-growing region, (see figure above) where poverty is falling, and around 90 million of its households have joined the world’s consuming classes.

After reading MGI’s report, I hurriedly and innocently shared it on my Facebook profile. Why shouldn’t we be elated for once with good news about Africa’s development? Then the comments I received from my followers called to mind the argument between supporters of economic development and advocates of human development. Yes, Africa is the world’s second fastest growing region but they argued that there is a fundamental difference between economic and human development, and that African nations require human development most desperately. For them the economic improvements are largely irrelevant as the realities of everyday life in Douala, Lagos or Bamako are not reflecting the results of MGI.

The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) indicated in its African Economic Outlook 2011 that Africa´s economies have rebounded from the slump which had been caused by the global recession. According to UNECA, Africa´s average rate of growth amounted to 4.9% in 2010, wich is an improvement from 3.1% in 2009. It is true that various research studies showed that measures of real consumption based upon the ownership of durable goods, the quality of housing, the health and mortality of children, the education of youth and the allocation of female time in the household indicate that Africa’s living standards have, for the past two decades, been growing in excess of 3% per annum.

The reality is that the result is continued poverty for millions of men, women and children. In Cameroon, 7 million people out of a population of 16 million live below the poverty line of $1 a day of which 8.5 million reside in rural areas and around 1 million living with HIV. In South Africa, 11 million people live below the poverty line, and almost 6 million have HIV. In Nigeria, 110 million out of a population of 158 million live with less than $1 a day. In his book entitled Complex Systems Theory and Development Practice, Samir Rihani concluded that this is a false dichotomy: there can be no effective economic development without progress and human development.

There are millions of untapped opportunities in Africa to turn economic development to human development. MGI advised a five-part strategy, which are (1) identify one or more labor-intensive subsectors in which an African country has a global competitive advantage or could fill strong domestic demand; (2) improve access to finance in target sectors; (3) build a suitable infrastructure; (4) cut unnecessary regulations; and (5) develop skills in target sectors.  These strategies are to accelerate the pace of job creation in Africa that could add as many as 72 million new wage-paying jobs over the next decade, raising the wage-earning share of the labor force to 36 percent!

However, with the application of these strategies, Africa will still face huge hurdles. Why? Hernando de Soto (the author of The Mystery of Capital) and Rihani and believed that development is a complex adaptive process and not a linear Newtonian process as mistakenly presumed by various theoreticians and reformers!

Linearity is associated with order, predictability, linked causes and effects, and knowable universal laws that allow desirable results to be obtained by application of the requisite inputs to a system. Linear paradigms (set of rules and assumptions) originated from ideas advanced by scholars such as Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, and Newton but Africa is too complex and unpredictable that linearity cannot just work for us! In Africa, trivial events could be magnified into major upheavals. A given cause might lead to more than one outcome, and if the process were repeated the results could be, and often are, different.

So what can help Africa? The former President of Ghana, John Agyekum Kufuor, advised that “what Africa needs is leadership. Good leadership. Not just any kind of leadership but leadership that has been well nurtured; to direct socio-economic development, has vision and is imbued with a missionary zeal to tackle the myriad of problems that face the continent in prioritized order.

There is a crisis of leadership to handle the complex adaptive development process in Africa. The causes of this crisis are numerous: Africans’ colonial mindset, bad governance and corruption, total disregard for the common interest and well-being of the African people by the ruling class, repeated conflicts, inability of Africans to implement worthy initiatives, absence of regional integration, cultural behaviors, etc., etc.

The kind of leadership Africa needs

Traditional or hierarchical views of leadership are less useful given the complexities of Africa. Traditional leadership has been interpreted in various ways. It always calls forth images of vision, courage, commitment, and forthright action. The leaders are usually considered as individuals who possess a clear vision of what need to be done and are capable of transforming their visions to substantial achievements. Leadership is a vehicle for personal transformation as well as an agent for positive change and a particular way (attitude or behavior) of approaching life, one of being committed to a lifelong process of growing toward human fulfillment.

Leadership is an art of transforming the self and others. There is an urgent need in Africa for a new categories of leadership (not ruling class or power elite! ) with the courage and skills to reinvent and build the continent in these times of complex, dynamic and unpredictable economic, social, political, technological, and national change. Any promotion and support of initiatives and programs aiming at empowering this new leadership that understands the complexity of our continent is welcome.

I have been reviewing the existing institutions aiming at developing leadership skills and capabilities of our future leaders:  ALI in Namibia, AfLI of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and TMALI of President Mbeki in South Africa, to name a few. The primary focus of all these institutions is to build the capacity and capability for visionary and strategic leadership across Africa. They are excellent initiatives in the same lineage as the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service, which are sometimes with similar educational offers.

What then is a visionary and strategic leadership for a complex adaptive continent like Africa?

A new mindset is beginning to emerge which recognizes that development issues in Africa are too complex and muddled to be handled by traditional leadership. Endemic corruption, floods, fires, poor delivery of basic social services including water and electricity, or the growth of motorcycle taxis in some cities like Kampala, Douala, or Lagos are few examples that highlight this complexity. The externalities generated by urban transport, e.g., congestion, road accidents, pollution emissions, crime within the confines of an urban area, are a visible manifestation of the chaotic system in place.

Although chaotic systems and complex systems are different, as complex ones are less mechanical and more stable and predictable, chaos theory does inform complexity theory, as both concern non-linearity. The development of Africa should advance within nonlinear paradigm where economic development is not frequently seen as a move through a series of stages of development derived essentially from the history of the West or linear thinking of Bretton Woods institutions. A new type of leadership is needed during these chaotic and complex times in Africa.

African challenging situations and Complexity Theory have supported a re-examination of leadership in the continent, as much of the leadership lexicon developed under General Systems Theory. The results published by MGI are encouraging but they must be analyzed taking into account the challenges of human development and the complex and – for many places – chaotic situation of the African continent. I suggest to address these challenges by developing a model of leadership (as proposed by President Kufuor), the type grounded not in bureaucracy but in complexity.

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