East Africa

The myth of Africa’s leadership deficit

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Nshuti Rugerinyange

In attempting to explain the persistent underdevelopment (or poverty, if you will) on the African continent, many analysts, academics, activists, you name it, point accusing fingers at Africa’s leadership (or lack thereof), while leaders (or politicians in this case) point fingers at colonial legacy and/or neo-colonial tendency.

The unproductive finger-pointing overlooks the causes underlying the underdevelopment and fails to localise the issue within individuals and/or their communities.

This perspective frames the problem around the conspiracy theory of them against us, hence the remedies informed by this perspective created to ameliorate persistent underdevelopment often fail meaningfully to address a problem within African society that continue to reoccur over and over.

From an anthropological perspective, I develop a theory of “Leadership deficit” locating the underlying cause of under development within the African culture paradigm. This perspective localises or apportions Africa’s persistent underdevelopment to intrinsic virtues of culture.

This Leadership deficit theory, as grounded in an anthropological perspective, blames the victims for their own victimisation by succumbing to culture-blind assumptions and prescriptions of leadership (styles that befit the colonisers’ culture) rather than the virtues of our culture, and worse, to this day, referring our cultural virtues as vices.

I am not that older or a historian to write about the colonial experience, but being a doctoral researcher I read a lot (not because I love reading) and travelled beyond the borders of African cultural boundary. So, my bona fide position is a cultural anthropologist.

Anthropologically speaking, cultural virtues, as core programme of mind, are not neutral or universal and so much depends on the individual society it embodies.

By definition, culture is ‘the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, behaviour and social practices associated with a particular society and shared by people in a place or time’, Merriam webster.

This definition clearly distinguishes culture from vocational and technical skills, as it is influenced by so many factors such as geography, climate, religion, the economy and evolution in science and technology.

Thus forth, leadership as influenced by culture is not universal as often argued by Universalists. In fact, the differences among cultures are very real, which explains the different leadership styles and the underlying cause of underdevelopment within the African states.

Too often, leadership is likened with democracy and is most pronounced in the west as if to justify why the western world is rich and developed.

Let’s take, for example, one of the ideals of democracy, “human rights”, a term that came into wide use after World War II, replacing the earlier phrase “natural rights”. In African culture, “human rights” is easily fused with ubuntu, a term roughly translating to “human kindness.”

All Africans are afflicted with ubuntu, and more so the sub-Saharan where ubuntu (the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity) has a more fundamental meaning than human rights, but are ranked bottom on the global index for ‘human rights’.

It would, therefore, have been easier for Africa to embrace human rights or democracy brought about by colonialists and more recently globalisation because it wasn’t new; for instance, we already had institutions and an electoral college system that were never fraudulent.

Then, questions, and again: why is Africa underdevelopment fifty or so years after independence? Well, the most obvious answer is African leaders are corrupt. Yes, of course, but developed countries were not built by saints either.

Watch this space, in the next series; I will discuss how the great powers of world as we know them today were built by self-indulgent tycoons who were so corrupt. And, I will attempt to tackle the one billion dollar question of ‘what I think Africa should do’.

The writer is a Doctor of Business Administration and researcher at the prestigious Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland (UK). His research interests fall in the areas of leadership and culture.


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