One of the more frequent topics of lamentation among Africans is the need for better leadership on the continent. Some even declare flatly: “We have no leaders!” Of course, we have leaders. World Bank reports indicate that Africa is getting better on many indices of development. Today, most African leaders have realised the futility of war and armed conflicts as instruments of change. Most of the bush-fire conflicts on the continent now are by free agents of terror, pirates, kidnappers and power-hungry warlords. There are no major wars going on the continent and many of the states, that were once antagonistic to each other, have found other opportunities for positive engagement.
They were soon followed by another generation of strongmen, many of whom came to power by violence: Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria, Samuel Doe of Liberia, Muammar Gadhafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Megistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Mobutu Sese-Seko of the Congo, later Zaire and now Congo DRC.
The original African leaders of the post-colonial era, despite their good appetite for power, were noted for their simple taste and ascetic lifestyle. Nigeria first and only Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, had his official residence at Onikan in front of the Island Club in Lagos. Often, he would abandon his Rolls Royce official car to walk to his office at the old Federal Secretariat on the Race Course accompanied by only two policemen.
Once some foreign journalists visited Nigeria to interview the Prime-Minister and they were told Balewa was on leave. They quickly assumed that he must have gone abroad, possibly Europe, to enjoy his vacation. They were surprised when they were informed that Balewa had gone to Bauchi. They decided to seek him there only to be told in Bauchi that Balewa had gone to his farm in Tafawa Balewa. They met him there driving his farm tractor.
One of the enduring signposts of the Obafemi Awolowo era in the old Western Region is his private residence still standing at Oke-Bola Ibadan. Awolowo was Premier of the West until 1959. During his eight years in power, he used his private residence at Oke-Bola instead of using any official quarters. It was in that house that he also hosted President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana during the latter’s state visit to Nigeria in 1958. That house is not bigger than some of the guest houses use by our contemporary governors. The old Western Region is now divided in Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Edo and Delta.
The current generation of leaders are not the only one who want new residences. After a lot of pressures, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and the Premier of the defunct Northern Region, agreed that a new Premier Lodge should be constructed. It was built to taste. The problem was that the Premier considered it to be too lavish and he declined to move to the new place. He was still in the old lodge when he was killed during the coup of January 15, 1966. Note that the old Northern Region that Bello ruled from Kaduna has now being divided into 18 states: Kwara, Kogi, Niger, Kebbi, Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa, Kaduna, Nassarawa, Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Gombe, Bauchi, Yobe, Borno and the Federal Capital Territory.
African leaders of old, despite their flamboyance do not know how to really enjoy the good life. Forget perverse like Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi-Amin Dada and Bedel Bokassa. The true African leaders were contented with little. After years in power, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania agreed to retire. He had no private residence of his own in Dodoma, his home village, nor in Dares Salam, the capital. He therefore applied to the Tanzanian Housing Corporation for a loan. His application was rejected because the corporation stated that it was against government policy to give loans to pensioners. Nyerere was dumfounded. He realised that he approved the policy!
When the news leaked to the public that the Housing Corporation rejected the President’s loan application, the people were surprised. Volunteers organised a public donation drive towards helping the President to build his retirement home. This was done in record time.
Then Nyerere visited Nigeria on a mission to find out how to treat a retired President and the issue of his pension. Tanzania never had a retired President and he felt Nigeria, independent since, 1960, should have experience in the matter. He met General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria self-proclaimed military president who said we too had no experience on how to treat a retired President.
We have killed some of our past rulers and sent the rest to prison or into exile. Balewa had been killed and so also his successor, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. Ironsi’s successor, General Yakubu Gowon, suffered a period of exile until he was pardoned by former President Shehu Shagari. Gowon’s successor, General Murtala Muhammed, was assassinated on February 13, 1976. Obasanjo succeeded Muhammed and handed over power to Shagari who was also toppled in the coup of December 31, 1983. Both Shagari and his successor, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari were to end up in detention. Only General Olusegun Obasanjo had retired voluntarily in 1979 and he was being treated as a retired general and not as President.
It was after this encounter that Babangida decided to look into the matter of retirement for former leaders. Today, the club is big and powerful. We now have General Yakubu Gowon, Obasanjo, Babangida, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan and Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. There is now a whole department in the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation dealing with the affairs of former rulers. The retired civilian governors are faring better than the Presidents. They vote for themselves generous pensions and those who can, then retire into the Senate to live happily ever after.
On the continental level, Africans leaders are now exploring a wider spectrum of leadership beyond the call of politics. On Tuesday, August 27, leaders of the African Union descended on Ado, the capital of Ekiti State, to honour one of the continent’s most outstanding elder statesmen, Aare Afe Babalola, the founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti. By honouring Babalola, the AU is focusing on other agents of African development beyond the class of presidents, prime ministers and political juggernauts. It is becoming increasingly clear that private initiatives and private efforts may be the key to the future that would save Africans from being the poorest part of humanity living in the richest portion of the earth.
Babalola is one of the few African leaders who are changing the world without holding political offices. President Buhari congratulated him for the honour done Babalola by the General Assembly of the AU which conferred on him the “African Role Model AU Agenda 2063 Ambassadorial Award.” Buhari said Babalola has used his numerous roles as an educationist, lawyer, farmer and philanthropist to change Nigeria positively. Explaining the award, Dr. Tunji Asaolu, the Nigerian representative to the AU said Babalola, in bagging the award, “meets all AU standard and norms.”
Could this award mean a change of focus by the AU? It would mean at least the admission that individuals and non-governmental bodies may hold the key to African transformation. Speaking at the occasion, Babalola said his own story should serve as an inspiration to coming generations. “If I, whose formal education stopped in primary six, can make it, then you too can make it faster and better,” he said.
Then he asked where have all the leaders gone? “It is a tragedy that Africa today is bereft of transformational leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Nelson Mandela and Ahmadu Bello,” he said. “For Africa to move forward, we need transformational leaders.”
For Africa to transform itself, it must find another way for leadership recruitment. This process should not be taken for granted or left at the whims of only politicians. Vince Lombardi, the great American football coach of the 20th Century said good leadership would not come cheap. “Leaders aren’t born. They are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that is the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal,” he said.