Africa needs leaders to trace out the continent’s future and rally against breaching from outside or within. With the wave of insurgencies, civil wars and political upheaval in the 1990s, the need for such steadying hands and voices of reason was readily apparent. At the turn of the millennium, there were two such voices. But right now, are there any?
In 1999, the ascension of Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki to the respective presidencies of Nigeria and South Africa one month apart marked the emergence of a new trajectory for Africa. But neither man had wholly impeccable principles. Under Obasanjo there were extrajudicial killings and an unsuccessful attempt to stay in power beyond the end of his two terms. Both men attempted to force out their deputies after their working relationships turned acrimonious. Under their watches, however, Africa’s two largest economies acted as joint watchmen for the greater good of the continent.
Obasanjo and Sussex-trained Mbeki – who The Guardian newspaper described as ‘a masterful diplomat who could always understand his opponent’s viewpoint before he confronted it’ – became friends, helping to resolve crises across West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia) and Southern and Central Africa (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Comoros, Angola and Zimbabwe).
In July 1999, at the 35th summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Algiers, both men spoke against coup d’états, firmly backing the ‘yellow card, red card’ approach – those who came to power on the back of coups would be first urged to return power democratically; if they refused, economic and diplomatic sanctions would be imposed.
Under Mbeki’s tenure as chairman of the OAU, the continental body morphed into the African Union (AU). And that time period was also important economically, as there was a lot of debt cancellation for poorer African countries.
By 2008, Mbeki and Obasanjo were out of power. Their successors, Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan, had a fractious relationship that drew Nigeria and South Africa apart through a diplomatic conflict that is yet to be fully resolved. The ‘African Renaissance’ agenda overseen by their predecessors was halted. It became a situation of every man for himself and his country alone, with no continental leadership.
There have, of course, been pretenders to the throne. There was Muammar Gaddafi and his grand ‘United States of Africa’ coalition. That would have been fun to watch, if he had not been cut down by a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military intervention.
For a fleeting moment, Tanzania’s John Magufuli showed flashes of brilliance before revealing himself as a true authoritarian, authorising crackdowns on opposition. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In Botswana, Ian Khama, who is leaving behind one of Africa’s most vibrant economies, appeared to be the real deal and, in the eyes of many, still is. After United States president Donald Trump’s “shithole” comment, Khama’s government was one of only a few administrations to scold Trump openly. When there was a political stalemate in Zimbabwe late last year, Khama – who has repeatedly intervened in regional politics – urged 92-year old Robert Mugabe to step down for a younger leader. But news of Khama’s government arresting members of the press on sedition charges and the fact that 19% of the diamond-rich country still lives in poverty rarely make international headlines. Those things are proof that some giants have feet of clay.
It is 2018 and we need new names – in a hat-tip to Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo. Who is worthy to step up to the plate? Consider for a second the intimidating Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s authoritarian strongman who recently emerged as chairperson of the AU. A darling of the West, he has been tasked with reforming the AU and pushing collaboration across a continent where travel is cumbersome and business practices remain convoluted.
There is no question about his ability to deliver on that – Rwanda is one of the best-performing economies globally, if the indices are to believed – but I see a man who has shackled most of the opposition in his native land as well as committed many grave sins in the neighbouring DRC too. For that, the responsibility of being Africa’s moral compass is too much for his lanky frame to bear.
Kagame’s multiple flaws
If Mbeki and Obasanjo were imperfect, Kagame’s multiple flaws run deep in his blood. Just ask Diane Rwigara, the 36-year-old politician who is being held without bail on trumped-up charges of forgery and tax evasion, but whose real sin is having the audacity to criticise Saint Paul.
In Accra, Nana Akufo-Addo has the look of a man who can help the continent. One of a select few politicians to have ousted an incumbent president democratically, he still has the goodwill of most of his countrymen. Will he seize the opportunity to guide Africa’s conscience?
It was a pleasure to see Akufo-Addo ‘bully’ France’s President Emmanuel Macron at that press conference in Accra in December 2017 and press home the point about dependence on foreign aid. Akufo-Addo has been frequenting Nigeria, advocating for good governance in his eloquent speeches at well-attended forums and summits, but will he walk the talk? Or will he be like Muhammadu Buhari, running a particularly tone-deaf government just as corrupt, if no more so, than that of his predecessor?
On the other side of the continent is Cyril Ramaphosa, former president Nelson Mandela’s chosen heir. Ramaphosa became president of South Africa in February and has been talking a great deal about land reform and the dismantling of oligopolies. In March, the government suspended Tom Moyane, the controversial taxman allied to former president Zuma – a preview of what could follow in the years to come.
Rampahosa’s roots as a loved trade unionist and shrewd negotiator who helped with the transition from apartheid to democracy could make him a man of the people. But his billionaire status could mean that he falls into the familiar sin of corruption. Will he resist the temptation?
Can Akufo-Addo and Ramaphosa juggle ‘senior brother’ duties on the continent with the role of being dutiful servants to the people who elected them? Can they reignite the fire of African renaissance and step into the big shoes of Nelson Mandela and Thomas Sankara, or the fair-sized ones of Obasanjo and Mbeki? Who will beat errant leaders like Magufuli, Pierre Nkurunziza, Buhari and Joseph Kabila into shape? There are so many questions and not enough answers.
This article first appeared in our May 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine
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