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Op-Ed: Devastating moments for African leadership

With rampant cases of selfish and visionless leaders, governance in Africa has become a practice in divisions, victimisation, alienation and marginalisation, argues Toyin Falola

MOST of post-independence Africa had been dominated by an unsuccessful struggle to achieve the modest goals of political stability, economic prosperity and development laid out in the liberation manifestos of nationalist leaders and revised by subsequent governments. But the new millennium brought certain developments that gave hope to spectators and stakeholders alike that the continent was approaching a new dawn.

These developments were evident in the appreciation of the per capita figures of certain African economies, an increasing transition from despotic to democratic governments and in the successful resolution of some of Africa’s protracted conflicts. This, though, did not mean the disappearance of underlying factors like poverty, ethnic divisions, climate change and bad governance.

It was taken as an indication that Africa had turned a corner in its development journey, with better prospects for the future. Hence, for a period, especially with the economic revolutions inspired by the proliferation of communications technology on the continent, this vision of a transformed Africa seemed even more viable.

Unfortunately for Africa, the question of good governance has persistently remained an albatross to political and economic advancement and growth sustainability on the continent. For a region endowed with enough human and material resources to emerge as one of, if not the most, prosperous region of the world, Africa has not been so lucky with the crop of leaders who have managed its affairs.

The continent has witnessed a combination of authoritarian dispensations with their characteristic despotic, sit-tight leaders, and other democratic kleptocracies manned by “fantastically corrupt” presidents. As a result, not only has the continent been unable to use its resources to attain its development potential, but the said resources have turned around to become a curse on the African people, also attracting the worst kind of characters to its shores.

‘Unfortunately, Africa has not been so lucky with the crop of leaders who have managed its affairs’

With the rampant cases of selfish and visionless leadership, governance in Africa has become a practice in divisions, victimisation, alienation and marginalisation. To perpetuate themselves in office, power-mongering and kleptomaniacal African leaders have organised and supervised reigns of terror, heavily suppressing dissents and ruling as kings at the expense of mobilising social energies towards combating the ever-present threats of poverty and conflict. These have been further worsened by population explosion and climatic changes.

Starved of critical investments by these larcenous tendencies, the strategic institutions of already fragile, colonially inherited African states have begun to collapse, resulting in limited government coverage and failing states. Thus, Africans, and the rest of the world, have had to watch as what seemed to be a revolution in Africa’s social, economic and political fortunes at the turn of the millennium gradually take a downward turn.

Continuing on an economically fragile and politically precarious state, it was only a matter of time before all the negative actions and failures of government tipped the balance over towards anarchy. This was brought on by a convergence of certain factors, some of which were foreseeable and others that can be summed up as coincidences or acts of providence.

In the foreseeable future, there is the issue of endemic poverty, a growing population of young, unemployed, dissatisfied and restive people, and that of limited government, slowly leading to failing states.

Though there were some warning indications of an impending crisis, such as the growing exodus of young Africans through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean to Europe, as well as other minor cases of xenophobic expressions, particularly in South Africa, things started to come to a head in Africa, perceptibly from 2009. And for deducible reasons, countries both in and bordering the Sahelian regions were worst hit by the crisis.

Stretching from the Red Sea in the East to the Atlantic coast in the West, the Sahelian region, which comprises parts of Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, is known to contain some of the world’s poorest countries, according to the UN Development Index. Niger is at the bottom position, with Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali ranking directly above it.

Outside of the endemic poverty, lack of education, employment opportunities and state presence, which made it easy for armed groups to recruit and thrive in these areas, the ill-fated NATO-backed regime change in Libya, and the attendant uprising in Northern Mali in 2012, worsened the security situation in most of the region.

In Mali, the armed groups that emerged in areas neglected by the state for decades took advantage of available recruits and today have increased their ranks, spreading conflict and violence to the central regions of the country and spilling over to neighbouring Burkina Faso and the Niger Republic. Also, the impact of climate change on the region and livelihoods of about 50 million livestock herders, which has instigated increased farmer-herder clashes, has resulted in scores of people being killed and millions displaced.

In Nigeria in 2002, what began as a clampdown by government security agencies on a “radicalising” Islamic sect led by an obscure Islamic cleric named Mohammed Yusuf, and comprised mainly of “poor Muslim families from across Nigeria and neighbouring countries,” grew into a full-fledged insurgency by 2009. This rebel group, which came to be known as Boko Haram, gained notoriety for its disavowal of the canons of Western civilisation.

This was backed up with a repudiation of the Nigerian state, the sacking of its North-Eastern towns, and the mass slaughter of its inhabitants. Since 2009, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Nigerian citizens and the displacement of millions.

‘The ill-fated NATO-backed regime change in Libya, and the attendant uprising in Northern Mali in 2012, worsened the security situation in the Sahel’


By 2014, the armed conflict in North-East Nigeria between security forces and non-state armed groups, with ties to ISIL and factions like IS West African Province (ISWAP), had spread to neighbouring countries, drawing Cameroon, Niger and Chad into the conflict. The devastating impact of this conflict on the region is perhaps best captured in Cameroon, where the schism in areas bordering Nigeria and Cameroon, coupled with pre-existing unrests between the French-speaking north-western regions and the English-Speaking south-west, has resulted in massive destabilisation in the country. By 2018, the violence in Cameroon had led to the displacement of an estimated 437,000 Cameroonians, with about 30,000 refugees crossing over into Nigeria.

This interconnected conflict between the countries of the Sahel belt has continuously expanded in scale and scope of devastation over the years, especially between 2018 and the present. It has also risen to the status of “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises,” especially owing to the growing difficulty for humanitarian groups to generate the funds to mitigate its impacts. In the meantime, tens of thousands of refugees across the region continue to live in displacement, unable to return home due to the persistent situation of insecurity.

The more recent conflicts in Ethiopia between state security forces and the “rebel” Tigrayan region, as well as the rioting in South Africa over the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma, cannot be separated from the aforementioned underlying factors: poor governance practices, high youth unemployment rates, climatic changes and debilitating poverty.

In Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the front-line unit defending the interests of Tigrayans (the third largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, constituting 67 per cent of the population), was formed in the mid-1970s in reaction to allegations of marginalisation. Additionally, the ongoing war between the TPLF and the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is an outcome of the latter’s ambition to suppress the former by diminishing its power and political influence. As it stands, the conflict has not only claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, while displacing over a million, but is also riddled with allegations of sexual violence and other atrocities.

Another evidence of the tragedy of governance in Africa is the pro-Zuma rioting in South Africa. This is a classic African scenario where the leader of a multi-national state takes advantage of the teeming number of unemployed youths amongst his sub-national group and develops a cult-like following. He allows this group the best benefits of his administration, and in return he gets unquestioned allegiance, even against the general interest of the federation.

Unfortunately, this is not peculiar to South Africa alone. Spread around Africa and a prominent practice in Northern Nigeria, it is considered within African “democratic” circles as a necessary political arsenal for any candidate hoping to run on the platform of any major political party.

Africa in 2021 is a cause for worry for everyone interested in the peace and prosperity of the continent. Almost everywhere one turns, a conflict is happening or waiting to unfold. Daily reports of deaths and numerous forms of human suffering steadily plague the senses of all who call it home.

Indeed, these have become a devastating period for everyone, especially after emerging out of the scourge of a global pandemic that is yet threatening to make a comeback. In today’s Africa, the streets are no longer safe; children live in fear and danger of a bleak future; people’s identities are redefined as they flee from war, roaming the world as unwanted and unwelcomed aliens.

To reflect on how far we have come and how much efforts have been invested to see Africa rise and remain standing, only to watch it all fall apart again before our very eyes, is heart-wrenching – a thing that would break lesser men and women. However, are we lesser men? This is one question that providence seems to want us to answer again, after many occasions. We have come to a point where we must acknowledge that much more is required, notwithstanding the numerous sacrifices we have made. With the fragments of our broken hearts in our hands, we are obliged to rebuild, and we must rebuild because now is the time to build and not to tear down.

The alternative is to sit and watch our beloved and beautiful Africa die – from numerous blows dealt by division, hatred, poverty, war and hunger.

Toyin Falola is University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair at The University of Texas at Austin in the US

 This article is published in the September-October edition of Africa Briefing Magazine

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