Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

Africa’s leadership in a transitional world 20 Jun 2022

Africa faces a renewed leadership crisis at a time that global geopolitics is being recalibrated. A unipolar world, being shaped by the United States since the end of World War II, came into reality with the dissolution of the Soviet Union from 1988 – 1991. But the world is inevitably moving towards multi-polarity, in which China has become a global economic juggernaut and Russia trying to reassert its military power. That this transition would be disruptive is already evident, given the US-China trade war, a drive towards re-armament by the world’s great powers, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

At the same time, Africa has also been experiencing a transition, sadly into instability. Six coups have occurred on the continent within the last two years, including one in Burkina Faso this past January. The Burkinabe military seizure of government, in the Nigerian parlance, was a “counter-coup.” The term came into use with the July 1966 coup in Nigeria, which was executed in response to – or retaliation against – the first coup in the country seven months earlier, and has remained an easy contender for the bloodiest putsch in modern history.

The new wave of military takeovers of governments in Africa indicates a struggle with democratic governance and constitutional power transition through established cycles of elections. In the case of Guinea, President Alpha Conde was trampling on the country’s constitution by illegitimately elongating his presidency until he was kicked out of office by the military last year. The President of Cote d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, is now serving a third term of five years. When he was first elected to replace his beleaguered predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, in 2010, the constitutional term limit for president was two terms. While Ouattara is now perpetuating himself in office, he has had six successive prime ministers. The current one, Patrick Achi, has remained in an “acting” capacity since the death of his predecessor Hammed Bakayoko a year ago.

Africa’s democracies were born during the Cold War era. The global polarisation at the time plunged many young African states into civil strife, wars of succession, political assassinations, starvation and hunger. However, the wars that raged in the 1980s and 1990s began to give way to relative stability and democracy on the continent by the early 2000s. Peace, even if uneasy, was returning to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan, with a prospect of economic rebuilding and improvement in the quality of life of their citizens.

A decade later, unfortunately, things began to change back to how they were in the past. An emerging trend of political instability in Africa, happening simultaneously with – if not caused by – the global economic slowdown after the 2008 – 2009 global financial crisis, Islamist terrorism, and the US war in Libya, began to see Africa’s democratic wave and rising economic profile begin to wane. Countries like Nigeria, which have held on to their token democracies, have stalled or reversed economic progress.

The rising sense of hopelessness in the once branded “hopeless” continent, is driving the youth to the edge. Between 2021 and 2022, there have been no less than five coups staged by mid-level military officers in African countries. In Nigeria, police brutality provided the opportunity for the youth to vent their frustrations through the widespread online and street protests dubbed ‘EndSARS.’ The role of the youth in the unfolding situation may not be unexpected, given that Africa has a huge youth population, with the median age at 18.1 years. But whether a disorderly political intervention by the young people would bring about progress and stability, where the older generations have failed, is anybody’s guess.

At 41 years old, Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018. A year later, he won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts in ending the two-decade-long, post-war territorial stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, the country soon after plunged into its latest civil war in which untold atrocities are being committed in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Chad, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar and Mali are other countries whose heads of government are millennials. Yet, these young leaders have not established a discernible fresh approach to governance.

Heading into the 2023 general election, Nigeria typifies the disaffection with the established, old-guard politicians and caution about younger individuals seeking the highest office of the land. The new versus old is advisedly a dilemma. When Wilhelm II succeeded German statesman and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, he sacked the old order that had established the country, maintained peace after its victory in the Franco-Prussian War, and laid the foundation for Germany’s economic prosperity. The rash decisions and militarism by the inexperienced Wilhelm II plunged the world into a global war just over two decades later.

The prospects of constitutional, political power transition from the old-guard politicians to the younger and more modern leaders in Africa are dim and fraught with tough challenges, one of which is the vested interest of the political establishment. New-breed politicians appear to need political godfathers to be able to realise their leadership aspirations. The electorate has also been manipulated into demanding “experience” from alternative leaders who aspire to top political positions by insisting that such upstart politicians needed to first test their popularity in down-ballot positions and "pay their dues." Years of trying to climb the political ladder to the top may, however, dilute the vision of the potentially transformative leader, if not discouraging.

Where young persons are imposed by their political godfathers, their loyalty rests with their benefactors and not with the electorate. A natural selection of unprincipled youth is, therefore, more suited for this arrangement. Thus, many young African leaders are as disorientated as their much older benefactors.

Also, this leadership selection system creates resentment against the ruling elite. It also discourages the political participation of quality individuals who can make a positive difference in governance. This has, therefore, created an opportunity for populists and demagogues who parade vacuous, anti-establishment tropes to fill the quality vacuum in our politics.

While many African leaders sit tight in office, including by changing their constitutions to legitimise their regime elongation, they nevertheless look for a positive legacy. As a collective, the political establishment also like to self-preserve. But this interest in having a positive record is often at variance with how the leaders govern, raising the ugly spectre of their incompetence.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Africa’s leadership is lack of vision. One admissible exception to this amongst Nigerian leaders is Olusegun Obasanjo, who had the responsibility of stabilising the Nigerian polity after years of military interregna as the first elected president of the country in the Fourth Republic in 1999. His reform of the military leadership and liberalisation of broadcasting and telecommunication has supported openness that makes the previously flourishing enterprise of coup-making impossible. President Obasanjo’s whole-of-government approach to reform and impactful market regulations created opportunities for the early stage of what could have been Nigeria’s economic transformation. Those signposts of economic rise are fast becoming a distant memory, and the stability of the democracy has become increasingly challenged by conflicts, poverty, and political apathy.

Africa’s leadership needs to become fit for purpose to close the gap on the rest of the world. This challenge has become much tougher because of the co-occurring changes in the world, from geopolitics, trade, supply-chain reconfiguration and energy transition. This calls for leaders that are visionary, knowledgeable, contemplative, and that are able to galvanise their citizens for a journey into a future that is different from the past.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.