Dr. George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D - President of the Free Africa Foundation based in Washngton, DC.

Catastrophic failure of leadership has been the bane of Africa's development. There have been about 215 African heads of state since 1960 but it is hard to find just 15 good leaders out of the lot. Names like Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere easily come to mind. But beyond ten, the list rapidly evaporates. Even if 20 can arguably be named, it is still a telling commentary on the caliber of leadership: An overwhelming majority - over 90 per cent - were utter failures. So where to find good leaders? From the ranks of the opposition? Distressingly, the record here is no better.

Dr. George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D - President of the Free Africa Foundation based in Washngton, DC.
Dr. George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D - President of the Free Africa Foundation based in Washngton, DC.

Dr. George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D - President of the Free Africa Foundation based in Washngton, DC.

Catastrophic failure of leadership has been the bane of Africa's development. There have been about 215 African heads of state since 1960 but it is hard to find just 15 good leaders out of the lot. Names like Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere easily come to mind. But beyond ten, the list rapidly evaporates. Even if 20 can arguably be named, it is still a telling commentary on the caliber of leadership: An overwhelming majority - over 90 per cent - were utter failures. So where to find good leaders? From the ranks of the opposition? Distressingly, the record here is no better.

Too many have emerged from the opposition ranks only to turn out to be worse. As Africans are wont of saying, "We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach and the next rat comes to do the same thing or worse. Haba! (Darn!)." The most notorious "rat" was Charles Taylor of Liberia. In the late 1980s, he led a rebel insurgency to oust the late murderous and cannibalistic tyrant, General Samuel Doe, out of office. The insurgency degenerated in savage civil war that destroyed much of the country.  A crocodile liberator, Charles Taylor proceeded to establish an even more barbaric reign of terror. He is now languishing in a cell at The Hague, after being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

Then there was the late General Sani Abacha of Nigeria, who staged a bloodless coup and shoved the civilian president, Ernest Shonekan, aside in 1993. Always in dark Ray-Ban goggles, Abacha brooked no dissent and ruled with an iron fist. He was nicknamed the "Butcher of Abuja" until he died mysteriously in 1998.  The cause of death has been subject to much wild speculation.  One claimed he was disposed of by the top military brass because he had become an embarrassment to the military.  (poisoned) Another claimed he was poisoned by his wife, Maryam, for infidelity. Still another claimed he died of exhaustion after a Viagra-fueled sex orgy with Lebanese and Indian prostitutes. (I was the Political Chief at the time Abacha and Abiola died.)

Then there was General Ibrahim Mainassara of Niger, who ousted President Mahamane Ousmane in a Jan 1996 coup. But the General was worse and was assassinated in a military coup in 1999. Another was Laurent Kabila of Congo DR, who ousted General Mobutu Sese Seko after a rebel insurgency in 1997. In 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of this own security aides. Frederick Chiluba of Zambia was another huge disappointment.

He rose to power in 1991 on the crest of widespread disaffection with long-standing autocrat, Kenneth Kaunda. But Chiluba's 10-year tenure was characterized by widespread corruption, incompetence and anemic economic performance. In 2002, Chiluba's ex-wife, Vera, claimed "claimed her husband salted away some $2.5 billion while he was in power" (The Sunday Times, March 31, 2002). Vera Chiluba's revelations, published in the Zambian Post, shocked the country, which has a gross domestic product of little more than $3 billion.

After Chiluba left office in 2001, a Task Force was set up by successor, Levy Mwanawasa, to probe corrupt activities of Chiluba. In May 2008, a High Court in Britain ruled that Chiluba and four of his aides had conspired to rob Zambia of about $40 million. Chiluba was placed on trial at the Magistrates Court in Lusaka on charges of corruption. President Mwanawasa offered to pardon Chiluba if he admitted the allegations and returned 75% of the loot he allegedly stole, but the ex-leader denied the allegations. Eventually, the Zambian government managed to recover money and assets worth nearly $60 million stolen during his tenure.  The assets included bank deposits and an upmarket apartment in Belgium. But in 2009, Chiluba was suddenly and mysteriously acquitted of all charges of corruption, leading many Zambians to suspect dirty politics.

Far more insidious perhaps was the morbid betrayal visited on Ethiopia by Meles Zenawi. He and Isaiah Afwerki of Eritrea led a rebel insurgency to topple the brutal despot, Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Mengistu overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and assumed power. The ailing emperor was suffocated with a wet pillow, and his body was buried in an unmarked grave. Scores of his relatives were murdered or chained to walls in the cellars of the imperial palace. Thousands of suspected counterrevolutionaries were gunned down in the streets. More than 30,000 people were jailed. When a member of his own junta questioned the wisdom of such terror tactics, Mengistu shot him in the head.

Mengistu was chased out of town in 1991 by Meles Zenawi and his rebel Tigrayan fighters but then proceeded to establish another reign of terror. In May 2005, Zenawi fraudulently won re-election. When Ethiopians protested, Zenawi unleashed the full fury of his security forces on the street protesters. Over 250 were gunned down and over 1,000 opposition leaders and supporters were jailed. He "won" another re-election in 2010 with 96 percent of the vote.

Even more distressing is the current state of opposition parties in Africa. In country after country, the opposition is hopelessly fragmented, prone to squabbling and susceptible to bribery or co-optation. In Ethiopia, there are over 90 opposition parties, over 100 in Mali and more than 200 in Cameroon. Many of the opposition leaders lack vision and inspire little confidence in the general populace. Their craving for the presidency trumps all other important considerations, making them unwilling or unable to work with other opposition leaders in an effective electoral alliance. For example, in Cameroon's Oct 9 election, Pa Fru Ndi refused to form an alliance with other opposition parties, claiming it was "his turn" to be president. Needless to say, the opposition fielded 51 presidential candidates, allowing long-term autocrat, Paul Biya, to win easily with 68 percent of the vote. And unable to unite, Gambia's nine opposition parties seek to challenge Yahya Jammeh's, the military despot's grip on power in a Dec 2011 election.

The antics of other opposition party leaders are often downright crass. In Gabon, Andre Mba Obame, former Interior Minister who left the ruling party and the leader of the National Union (NU) party, claimed on Jan 27, 2011 that he won the elections held in 2009, declared himself the legitimate president of Gabon (in contravention of the Constitution) and occupied the United Nations Development Program office in Libreville with 20 of his supporters for a month. Mba Obame set up a chaotic press operation from the UNDP headquarters, forcing the UNDP to move its operations elsewhere.  Imagine. President Ali Bongo Ondimba refused to be provoked into arresting Mba Obame, though his paid supporters that destroyed property and injured a police officer in failed attempts to incite riots are facing charges.  Mba Obame was allowed to leave the country for medical care in South Africa.  On Nov 7, 2011, Congo DR's veteran opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, in hiding in South Africa, declared himself winner of the upcoming election in Dec 2011 and called on his supporters to resort to violence and break free his supporters in jail (The New York Times, Nov 8, 2011)

Where else can good leaders be found? How about the current heads of state? Could new leadership emerge from the lot? Obviously, not from the aging autocrats who have been in power for more than 10 years. Back in 1986, upon assuming power, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda declared that, "No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years." He was wildly cheered across Africa. But, alas, he exempted himself from that rule and still remains president 26 years later. Perhaps, the younger leaders, who succeeded their fathers may offer some hope. In this category, four can be identified: Joseph Kabila of Congo DR, Faure Eyadema of Togo, King Mohammed IV of Morocco and Ali Bongo of Gabon.

Out of this lot, President Ali Bongo clearly stands out. He succeeded his father, Omar Bongo, who passed away in March 2009 after a 41-year reign - the longest in Africa. An election was held and after a short transition period Ali Bongo assumed the presidency. The odds were against him and skepticism abounded. The succession had all the hallmarks of a dynastic rule and his father's legacy was not stellar - a legacy tainted with widespread and entrenched corruption, patronage, nepotism, institutional decay, crumbling infrastructure, and general economic malaise.

After spending the first 18 months consolidating his position, President Ali Bongo launched a series of reforms, not only to clean up his father's legacy but also to transform Gabon into a more productive, more transparent business environment.  He recruited a small cadre of competent, forward-looking technocrats and launched a robust attack on corruption. Vested interests in the ruling party resisted but Bongo Ondimba charged ahead. The task was daunting as he was stymied at every turn by lack of human capacity and widespread suspicion. Even his own siblings fought him tooth and nail at every turn since his reforms threatened their cushy lifestyles and inheritance.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba's drive to improve government efficiency and reduce corruption met with stiff opposition from other quarters as well. The principal opponent is a 41-year old patronage system, carefully crafted by his father that corroded every key state institution, every facet of government and society, while enriching the Bongo family and cronies.  Not only did the opposition come from within his own family but also from former regime officials and "hangers on." Undaunted, he pushed ahead. The size of the cabinet was slashed; government work hours were radically changed to eliminate the three-hour lunch siesta and various ministerial slush funds were consolidated under the Treasury, eliminating government-paid salaries from ruling party functionaries, and launching an audit of all government agencies. He was attempting to sever the party's financial umbilical cord to the Government.

Further, he reduced the number of ministers and advisers of the cabinet, requiring a complete evaluation of their work every three months, reducing salaries of all state-owned company directors, requiring all administration workers to declare their assets, launching a government audit of its human resources, and redefinition of the 2009 budget and re-drafting the 2010 budget.  He also took actions against some corrupt officials, including the former Governor of the Central Bank of Central African States (BEAC), who is Gabonese, and ordered the arrests of Gabonese officials involved in an $82 million financial scandal at BEAC.  Bongo also forced his Chief of Staff Jean Pierre Oyimba, and former BEAC officials, to resign in the wake of corruption allegations.  Bongo's swift action against the corrupt officials sent a clear signal of "zero tolerance." He fired all the officials in the government scholarship program and also at the Ministry of Habitat for corruption. 

Such daring move was unheard of in Gabon and carried huge political and personal risks. Ousted corrupt officials could "snitch," start pointing fingers and "spill the beans." President Bongo's bold leadership in the war against corruption is a remarkable and refreshing departure from the banal anti-corruption measures taken by other African governments. They usually set up various anti-corruption commissions with no teeth - deprived of prosecutorial powers and starved of funds. And then when the anti-corruption czar sniffs too close to the fat cats, they:

"    Issue a White Pater to exonerate the corrupt ministers (Ghana, 1995)
"    Issue death threats against the czar (John Githongo fled Kenya in 2005)
"    Send the czar off to London for "further education" (Nigeria sent off Mallam Nuhu Ribadu in 2006)
"    Shut down the Anti-Corruption Commission: South Africa suspended the czar in 2007 and shut down the Scorpions in 2008; Zambia in 2009.
"    In Tanzania, the anti-corruption czar, Dr Edward Hosea, was himself implicated in a corruption scandal, involving the award of $172.5 million contract to supply 100 megawatts of emergency power to a Texas based company that did not exist.

It would be best if cases of corruption are exposed by a free and independent media, prosecuted by a fearless and aggressive Attorney-General and punished by an independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law. In Kenya, Amos Wacko has been the Attorney-General for the past 21 years. He has not caught and prosecuted a single official bandit. Clearly, President Bongo's effort deserves the highest commendation. He has liberalized the media with over 16 media outlets.

He also announced a bold vision for transforming Gabon into an emerging country through environmentally-sound technology and planning and ecotourism, developing services and human capital, and adding value to Gabon's raw natural resources. Bongo Ondimba wants to enhance the extensive national park system, which covers 11% of Gabon that was created by his father.  Rainforest covers the majority of Gabon (85%) and it is rich in minerals, from manganese to gold to uranium.  Timber exports are Gabon's second largest revenue-earner.  A key challenge is illegal logging.  Bongo Ondimba has two internationally-known conservationists at the head of the National Parks Agency.  The President has formed an armed unit to crack down on poaching and removed the Deputy Minister for Water and Forests in the last cabinet reshuffle in the wake of corruption allegations.  He has embarked on new program to instill greater transparency in extractive industries and is setting up institutions to ensure the revenues are used to benefit the country's economic plan. He also launched a Free Trade Zone and $2.5 billion in direct foreign investment poured in. The economy surged with GDP growth registering a little over 5 percent per annum.

An intellectual, Bongo Ondimba has so far played an impressive role on key international and regional issues, such as climate change and international security.  He used Gabon's two-year term on the United Nations Security Council to push his agenda of preventative diplomacy.   President Bongo Ondimba supported sanctions against Iran and was an active sponsor of U.N. Resolution 1952, which instituted a "No-Fly Zone" against the late Moammar Ghaddafi's Libya to prevent innocent civilians from being slaughtered. He has also introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council, regarding Eritrea - Africa's most repressive state.

President Bongo works in close collaboration with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who consults President Bongo on several issues involving U.N. peacekeeping operations in Congo DR, Central African Republic (CAR), and Chad.  Gabon is working with other countries in the region to protect its border, particularly its maritime boundaries from organized criminal threats, including illegal fishing, smuggling, and trafficking in persons.  Gabon maintains 200 peacekeepers in the U.N. Mission to Stabilize CAR (MICOPAX). 

His clear-eyed vision and active role in international affairs do not sit well with Africa's aging autocrats, who are many years Bongo's senior. As a younger African leader, his seniors, especially francophone heads of state, do not always appreciate his progressive instincts.  His junior position among African presidents poses some limitations on his ability to influence them, but he remains undaunted.  Gabon is punching above its weight in Africa due to its non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).

Two years into his administration is too early to provide a full evaluation of President Bongo's leadership. But so far, his achievements and vision make him stand taller than most of Africa's sclerotic leaders.

The author is a native of Ghana and President of the Free Africa Foundation based in Washington, DC. His new book, Defeating Dictators, has been released by Palgrave/MacMillan.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and does not reflect The African Post editorial policy.


Source George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D. 

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