Building leadership in Africa Strong institutions, but also good leaders

The process of consolidating these institutions depends to a great extent on the will of the men that lead them. And that is why President Obama’s statement must be further qualified.

April 7th, 2015

American President Barack Obama’s statement that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions” is a fundamental truth, nearly impossible to argue. However, the least that can be said in light of the fledgling democratisation experiences underway on the continent is that our institutions are still weak, fragile and easily instrumentalised. 

The process of consolidating these institutions depends to a great extent on the will of the men that lead them. And that is why President Obama’s statement must be further qualified.

At the present stage in its evolution, Africa does not only need strong institutions – which still need to be built – but it also needs good leaders, and perhaps above all else. By “good” leaders we mean those who once in positions of power do not aim most of their efforts at instrumentalising and weakening the existing legal and institutional frameworks, and do not play on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities (e.g. ethnic, regional or religious divisions, etc.) of newly democratic African societies. The continent needs leaders who make choices that help reinforce national cohesion and the consolidation of their countries’ still fragile institutions.

Clearly, the question of knowing how to identify, select and maintain good leaders in young African democracies is fundamental. The lines that follow are intended to provide answers through ideas such as reinforcing eligibility criteria during elections. However, from the outset it is important to note that this issue is not a new one: it has been a concern for all democracies since ancient Greece and ongoing attempts have been made to resolve it globally, including in Africa.

Every democracy has, with varying degrees of success, developed its own mechanisms according to its era and its history, to reduce the risk of choosing the wrong governors/leaders. As early as the fifth and fourth century BC in ancient Greece, numerous measures were taken to reduce the risk of handing over the management of the affairs of the city-state to people who were not worthy. For example, all candidates had to undergo a thorough check known as the Dokimasia before taking up their positions. The Dokimasia helped determine whether these individuals fulfilled certain necessary conditions for holding the position to which they applied. 

Since that time, similar mechanisms have existed in all democratic experiments. For example, in the Florentine Republic (14th century), a complex system known as the squittinio was set in place to eliminate all candidates deemed incapable of holding public office. The squittinio was based on a series of ordinances of 1328 whose preamble stipulated that “those citizens of Florence that the good citizens… consider to be men of value…, in light of their lives and their morals, may rise to the honour [of a public position]”.

So here in Africa, what measures should we take to reduce the risks of choosing the wrong leaders?

The first type of mechanism, and one that is ongoing, consists of identifying young people with leadership potential and preparing them through training programs. Accordingly, institutes, academies and scholarships such as AI (Amani Institute), ALA (African Leadership Academy) and ILF (Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship) have been created with the primary objective of helping identify, prepare and/or network and ensure the advancement of young potential future leaders. 

There are limitations to these types of efforts however. Firstly, leadership training is relatively recent (ten years old at most for the above-mentioned cases) and has therefore not yet produced the critical mass of leaders it intends to - people who can contribute to bringing about desired change. And secondly, these initiatives are more useful in a general sense for young Africans – they are designed to train future leaders across a variety of facets, not only in the realm of politics. This limits the chances of seeing these young trained leaders necessarily getting involved in politics and therefore contributing to the improvement of political morality and practices.

The second type of mechanism used in Africa consists of rewarding leaders in office at the end of their mandates, in appreciation of their performance. Generally these are prizes awarded in recognition of a contribution made in a given area, such as peace-building. The most well-known prize specifically focusing on leadership in Africa, and possibly the only one on the continent, is the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. 

The purpose of this prize, which is in fact the largest annual award of its kind in the world, is to award African leaders who, during their mandates, have contributed to developing their country, to helping their population overcome poverty, and who have themselves behaved as exceptional models for the continent. It is important to stress that this is an a posteriori mechanism to the extent that it does not allow us to choose good leaders in the first place, but rather serves as a strong incentive for those leaders already in office to improve. 

It is also important to note that the relevancy and effectiveness of this prize, which is supposed to incentivize those who govern to behave as ‘model leaders’ during their mandates, could be reinforced if at least two factors were taken into account. 

Firstly, it is absolutely vital to prevent African leaders from easily enriching themselves while in power – a common situation when heads of state are ‘protected’ and enjoying immunity. Indeed, under these circumstances, the financial incentives of the Mo Ibrahima prize pale by comparison with the far more lucrative options that come with assuming “dishonest” behaviour. 

And secondly, we need to find ways of providing a secure retirement for former leaders who have proved meritorious, and ways of preventing abuses of power against them. This point is particularly important because it may be one of the underlying reasons why African leaders are reluctant to leave power. 

In addition to these mechanisms, which are generally informal, there are more formal ones laid down by the Constitution and the electoral code of each country. This third type of mechanism includes all measures – laws, regulations and institutions – taken to guarantee accountability, transparency, good governance, ethics, etc. on the part of our leaders and our young democracies. While these different tools are used to varying extents in the different African democracies with differing degrees of success, there is one that could be better used.

We are referring to the eligibility criteria stipulated by all electoral legislation, which are supposed to effect an initial screening of candidates running for elected positions, especially at the head of the state (Presidency and Parliament). For example, most of the fundamental texts stipulate that no candidate may run for the office of President of the Republic who is “not of good morality and great probity” (Benin Electoral Code, art. 336), who “does not have… good morals…” (Constitution of Niger, art. 47) and who does not submit a complete application file that includes “a tax clearance certificate” (Cote d’Ivoire) etc.

Unfortunately, most of these legal measures are too vague. They include, for instance: “enjoying his civil and political rights” (Burkina, Niger, Guinea), and being “of good morality and great probity” (Benin)… But what is actually meant by being of good morality? Or being of great probity? Beyond the criminal record, which may not reveal anything of the actual morality of the candidate, what criteria are available to the voters and the body in charge of deciding on eligibility in order to judge a candidate’s morality or probity? 

In practice, these measures are very often barely relevant, or not at all – as evidenced by the obligation of producing a “tax clearance certificate”. What use is a tax clearance certificate if it is not accompanied by a declaration of the property of the candidates with, to the extent possible, the ability to check its contents? In most of the legislation in new African democracies, only elected candidates are required to declare their assets, whereas we might discover that we have just elected a potential delinquent, simply in light of the wealth declared, whose origins cannot be justified. 

Ghana has taken things further in this regard. It is stipulated, in Article 94 of its Constitution, that no one may run in legislative elections (and therefore in presidential elections), if, among other stipulations, a board of inquiry has established that said candidate is incompetent, incapable or unworthy of holding public office or has acquired public property by fraudulent means, or has been found guilty of misuse of power, etc. It would be very useful for new African democracies to establish eligibility criteria of this kind, which would help them scrutinise the past of the candidates to obtain a somewhat accurate reading of what sort of leaders they are likely to be when elected.

Such criteria may include, for instance, scrutinising the various positions held by candidates in the past and what they did in them. Thus, candidates whose performance at the head of the public, semi-public or even private organisations they have led cannot be proven, or who have led such organisations to bankruptcy or who have mismanaged funds can hardly claim that they will become model leaders once they are at the head of the state. 

Knowing the assets of the candidates and their professional histories can already provide an indication of the types of leaders they will be once they are in power. To illustrate, when a candidate declares a colossal fortune whereas he was a lifetime civil servant is naturally a warning sign. The stages and the requirements of the electoral campaign process should also be reviewed so that they help increase the information available on the qualities of the candidates – their morality, leadership, abilities, etc. before the vote. 


By way of conclusion, it is vital to highlight the following points:

At the current stage of their evolution, young African democracies need leaders who work to consolidate still weak and fragile institutions, not rulers who devote most of their energies to further weakening their countries. As mentioned earlier, new African democracies are not the only ones to come to grips with the difficulty of selecting quality leaders. Other peoples before have sought to imagine mechanisms to guard against “democraphagous” leadership. 

Africa can do the same through electoral legislation that establishes relevant criteria for selecting good leaders. James Madison (or Alexander Hamilton) wrote that “the main aim of the constitution is to select representatives with the “wisdom to discern” the public good, and sufficient virtue to pursue it …” It is up to us, as Africans, to amend the legal frameworks pertaining to elections (Constitution, electoral codes, etc.) in our countries in order to increase our chances of selecting useful leaders for Africa. 

Naturally, in this regard, there is no certainty that even the existence of the best possible mechanisms will guarantee the emergence of good leaders who remain good while exercising power. However, the existence of such mechanisms can reduce the risks that a rogue or unsavoury character may be elected to the highest office. Compared to the status quo, such filters would already be a great step forward!


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