How to train African leaders

The last two weeks accorded me a rare chance to attend two meetings: a leadership training workshop in Lusaka and an AU retreat in Abidjan on the promotion of peace, security and stability in Africa.

The African Leadership Centre partnered with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa in Lusaka and with the AU’s Peace and Security Department in Abidjan.

November 5th, 2013

The last two weeks accorded me a rare chance to attend two meetings: a leadership training workshop in Lusaka and an AU retreat in Abidjan on the promotion of peace, security and stability in Africa.

The African Leadership Centre partnered with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa in Lusaka and with the AU’s Peace and Security Department in Abidjan.

Over the last few years, Kenyans have grown to mind about leadership and agree that the way we think and practise it in Africa needs to change drastically. The two meetings brought home the contrasts in thinking about leadership.

Participants came to Lusaka expecting to listen, take notes and receive certificates. This routine dominates training on the continent where donors put money into an organisation which proceeds to book a hotel in town, provide lavish catering, go through a routinised programme, pay per diems and spice up everything with a photo moment and participants head home, having learned little or nothing.

In Lusaka, I saw 31 mostly young Africans get transformed from workshop listeners to participants. The lessons were delivered through carefully designed interactive lectures, group work and assignments, personal reflections and mastery and simulation exercises all designed to drive home specific points.

The core message was that leadership is a complex process, that it emerges and is exercised in specific situations and must adapt and be adapted to those situations, that it involves personal responsibilities and choices and is therefore not restricted only to higher levels of politics.

We discussed the question of context in which leadership emerges and is exercised, the need to balance between leadership and followership, the need to be discerning as leaders and to pose the right questions, of knowing when to shift from being a leader to a follower and recognising when to exit and how to manage transitions, how to develop a leadership vision, communicate and plan to realise it. There were confessions galore at the end of the training. A participant who was compelled to attend admitted having been seriously transformed.

The AU retreat was a complete contrast. Many people attended the retreat hoping to be heard but did not get a chance. Worse, much of what the selected speakers said is already common knowledge.

However, some very interesting debates took place. A few speakers argued that African problems deserve African solutions and presented the AU’s unacknowledged mediation successes.

We, however, did not miss the irony of African solutions being funded by European money.

Dr Funmi Olonisakin pointed out the contradictory interests that characterise AU interventions in conflict situations, prodding participants to ask hard questions about conflicting interests in mediation and peace-building partnerships.

A participant spoke on the Thabo Mbeki team’s interventions in Sudan, suggesting its success is largely because it studied the context and derived a home-grown methodology for the task. The team denied external actors undue influence on the process, effectively limiting competing external interests bent on controlling the mediation.

However, the lessons of the Sudan do not seem to be replicated in other mediation processes. Libya, Mali and Egypt remain fiascos of significant magnitude.

The demographic, gender and professional profiles of participants was unbalanced in favour of older, male and mediation practitioners, prompting Senegalese academic Abdoulaye Bathily to appeal to the AU to pay specific attention to research. I hope this is heeded or the AU risks overwhelming genuine technical advice with self-congratulatory narratives of practitioners.

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