"Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions," proclaimed President Barack Obama, in his speech to the Ghanaian parliament in 2009. He then went on to extol the gains of internalizing democracy, transfers of power, and anticorruption strategies, asserting that these would inevitably result in good governance on the continent. President Obama also recounted the violent history of Africa, insinuating that most of that history resulted from failures of institutions, and that solutions required Africa having the right structures. Six years later, the argument on the need for more or better institutions, finds generous advocates in Africa.
Without dismissing the merits of institutionalization, I think it naïve to dismiss the role of strong leadership in resolving Africa's misfortunes. Africa's history, checkered as it is with periods of violence and authoritarianism, is not a summary failure of leadership as a prerequisite for African progress. Moreover, there is more logic in applying homemade solutions to African problems if we are not to end up controverting ourselves with arguments on neo-colonialism, sovereignty, and pan African idealisms. Let me explain.
The critique of ineffective African leaders rests on historical experiences, and I do not seek here to ignore nor dismiss these as inconsequential. Post-independence Africa brought with it the confusion of peoples and cultures united by an abhorrence of the colonialist, seldom anything more. When new governance took root, there was hardly any leadership model but that of the overthrown despot. Strong handed governments emerged to breed the same modes of coercion and patronage in their attempt to maintain a façade of competence. Because of the imperialized history and methods of governance, African leadership was bound to assume certain truths that trounced the judgment that founded these new states. Cries of betrayal emerged and leaders moved to consolidate cronyism and personal rule networks in their conspiracies to stay in power.
Consequently, the unity, optimism, and anticipation that created independent Africa gave way to cynicism and collapse of the political trajectory for African peoples. Granted, some of Africa's new leaders had sincere concern for developing unified states, there was no consistent end to justify their means. Dissent became treason to the founding ideals of African states and the leader became the law. The unity of purpose that brought together cultures previously divided to sustain colonial rule, and the harmony that fermented independence struggles, gave way to favoritism, which in turn, bred inequality. Inequality gave way to coup, coup to counter-coup. Where there were no coups, emerged ethnic violence, and if not, there were civil conflicts. Africans emerged from this history with distrust, and distaste toward their leaders.
Nonetheless, while the critiques leveled against African post-independence leadership hold, they are incomplete. The piecemeal scrutiny amid the rush for institutionalization as argued against African leadership is the problem; it mixes Africa's unfortunate history with its future, while arbitrarily lumping its leadership into labels of "dictator" and "authoritarian" before indiscriminately labeling "failure" on anything that even remotely resembles Africa's past. This argument also overlooks the complicity of institutions in creating the same problems for which we now prescribe even more institutions.
Let us employ my own country, Kenya, as an example. Kenya got her independence in 1963 and became a republic a year later. From 1982, Kenya (as was the tendency in most of Africa) became a de jure single party state. The government of the day curtailed civil liberties and made a sham of democratic elections, choked independent institutions, crafted a "rubberstamp" parliament, entrenched nepotism and planted the roots for ethnic hatred through selective economic development policies. After 24 years of Daniel Moi's rule, Kenyans elected Mwai Kibaki and a coalition government that citizens hoped would rectify the post-independence disparities crated during the KANU party regime.
Sadly, the wave of optimism met the reality of the day. The same democratically elected government, which came into office through a smooth transfer of power, saw the worst levels of corruption known in Kenyan history despite being the first to have such institutions as an anti-corruption commission. That government, democratic by all measures would bring to Kenyans the post election violence of 2007 which killed over a thousand people and displaced half a million. This same government induced public institutions to do its bidding; the police, courts, and the electoral system all complicity took part in the worst atrocity in Kenya's recent history. The logical conjecture from the NARK years was that Kenyans would not have had a post-election violence if only such institutions as the judiciary and the police had been strong enough.
Well, after 2007, Kenya heeded the call for those stronger institutions. The 2010 constitution, touted as reformist, led Kenyans once more to heightened expectations for a new dawn. Establishments such as the Supreme Court, a new electoral commission, a bicameral parliament, a revamped anti-corruption commission, remuneration commission, commission for implementation of the constitution, even a cohesion and integration commission, you name it, Kenya has it. Kenya was a hot bed of new institutions with colossal budgets to go with them. Laws followed these officialdoms amid public fanfare, and to an onlooker, Kenya was institutionalizing! Fast-forward five years, and corruption, ethnic rifts, and incompetence almost completely match -if not surpass- the Kibaki days. One would almost think the revamping of Kenyan institutions worked to justify the systemic catastrophes while doing little about the executive overreaches and patronage Kenyans so desperately hoped to change. While it might sound like a simplification, the truth is that tribal calculus and personal whims of Kenya's leaders today, outflank any institutional technocratic approach envisioned in the 2010 constitution.
In most of Africa, while institutions have a veneer of political expediency and public will, they have not led to African progress without strong leadership. Africa needs strongmen, and the idea that institutions can replace the character of leadership is lazy politics at best and disingenuous at worst. Strongmen led Africa into independence, and she will be led into prosperity by the same caliber of leaders, not more laws that are flaunted with impunity, or agreements that will not self-implement. We must roll up our sleeves in Africa and keenly look into the character of our leaders, beyond the texts of our laws or the titles of our commissions. A Rwanda led by Paul Kagame, and a Tanzania under John Magufuli will keep proving that terms such as "institutions", "democracy", and "constitutionalism" are mere verbiage, and that real progress for African people needs mettle if it is to be achieved.