By Yann Gwet

The tragic events impacting the continent bear witness to a deep-seated leadership crisis. African leaders with the wherewithal to rise to the challenges of our times must step into the arena and enact radical change. On 6 November, Paul Biya celebrated the 38th anniversary of his first election as president of Cameroon. His supporters were decidedly enthusiastic about the event, while his opponents, both in the media and in the general public, openly expressed their anger at an event which for many people marks the start of the country’s downward spiral.

I’m on the side of those who feel the Biya era has been to Cameroon’s detriment. But the Cameroonian President’s political track record wasn’t on my mind on 6 November. Sooner or later, he’ll be replaced and a new era will begin. But will President Biya’s successor, whoever he or she may be, be up to the challenges of our times?

This question applies beyond Cameroon’s borders. The latest news out of Africa is particularly grim, with the continent experiencing everything from an economic crisis to political repression, civil unrest, terrorism, armed conflict, mass killings, etc.

These tragic events bear witness to a deep-seated leadership crisis impacting the entire continent. What’s more, they give us pause to reflect on how we should go about changing our countries and also on what kind of leaders will be able to prioritise Africa’s pressing need for radical change.

Anti-corruption crusaders

Corruption is something I hear other Africans complain about time and time again. It’s pervasive, often accepted and always has disastrous consequences for our economies, the cohesion of our communities and the social contract on which our societies are built. In her book Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous, the Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells the story of her mother’s 2012 kidnapping.

The abductors took the trouble to confirm that their victim was indeed “the mother of the finance minister” before shoving her into their car, and told her son, tasked with the negotiations, that they would free his mother if Okonjo-Iweala publicly announced her resignation as well as her return to the United States, a country she had recently left after accepting a job in Nigeria. When the kidnappers realised that the finance minister had no intention of yielding to their extortion stunt, they demanded a ransom instead.

In the end, they released her mother, who told investigators that she had heard the perpetrators say they had targeted her because her daughter had “refused to pay oil importers” during a campaign to clean up the Nigerian oil sector, a segment of the economy plagued by endemic corruption. The rest of the book recounts a long list of direct threats, attempts at intimidation and pressure directed at a minister “guilty” of leading a war against corruption.

The courage of conviction

The book reveals the exorbitant cost of implementing major reforms in Africa. It also serves as a reminder that courage is the essence of leadership – the courage to act, as illustrated by Okonjo-Iweala’s experience, but also the courage of one’s conviction and vision.

When Singapore won its independence, it would have been easy for its leader, the renowned Lee Kuan Yew, to yield to the demands of the Chinese community. It wanted its language, spoken by 80% of the population at the time, to have a special status. Many of our African leaders would have given in to the siren song of tribalism so as to reap its political dividends, but the same can’t be said for the former leader of Singapore.

Aware of the importance of equality in a multiethnic society and the need to unite diverse communities and preserve his country’s chances of success in a changing world, this descendant of Chinese immigrants asserted – despite pressure from his own community – that all of Singapore’s official languages (Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English) would enjoy an equal status, and he gradually supported English as the lingua franca.

It’s hard to say where these kinds of leaders find their courage. It’s equally hard to know whether the virtue of courage can be taught or cultivated. There is an abundance of theories, but it’s clear that the courage to act, against all odds, comes from having strong convictions.

If an individual is not firmly convinced of both the rightness and the absolute necessity of the cause to which he or she is committed, then it’s impossible to show the necessary courage in the face of inevitable adversity.

Change the world

While the source of courage may be up for debate, things are less hazy for convictions, or what some used to call ideology. Thanks to a certain experience of the world, a relationship to ideas and a particular temperament, some of us develop strong convictions, embrace a vision of the world and demonstrate a willingness to defend it.

Those of our leaders who, in the words of Karl Marx, want to “change” the world rather than just “interpret [it] differently” are those whose courage is underpinned by a politically infused vision of Africa’s future and the certainty that Africans deserve and can do better, and that they must assert their right to better leadership.

Ghana’s former president Jerry Rawlings, who passed away in November, was an exceptional leader in many ways. To be sure, he wasn’t perfect, but on top of being a soldier and a true revolutionary, he was a moralist (like any true revolutionary).

In his view, nothing justified letting evil flourish. It had to be eradicated, even if that meant resorting to violence, which was seen as legitimate so long as it was being carried out in the interest of the greater good. Obviously, this dialectic of good versus evil isn’t well suited for managing our inevitably complex human societies, but it provides the fuel needed to bring down fundamentally corrupt and unjust systems. Ghana’s late former president left us at a time of history-making change. The liberal international order created in the wake of the Second World War is drawing to an end.

In a sense, things are going back to the way they were in the 19th century, in that we’re seeing a gradual return to the bygone era of great empires and great clashes: a world governed by “might makes right”, unilateralism and realpolitik. The world that’s slipping away was generally in our favour, whereas the one that’s on the horizon will be hostile to us. As the French poet Paul Valéry once wrote: “We are entering the future backwards.”

However, very often in history, tragic periods pave the way for great destinies. Hopefully we will witness the rise to power of African leaders who are up to the challenges of our times – times that call for moralists rather than relativists, sophisticated revolutionaries rather than reform-minded technocrats and people with a sense of history rather than people with business acumen.

Yann Gwet, a Cameroonian essayist is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris, he lives and works in Rwanda.

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