The Perils of African Leadership — The Case of Liberia

Liberia's President George Weah attends ECOWAS summit to discuss transitional roadmap for Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, in Accra, Ghana, July 3, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko/File Photo

....  “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion”—Alexander the Great. “An army of sheep led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a sheep"—an African proverb.

Lamini A. Waritay

The chronic underdevelopment of much of the continent of Africa has been attributed to many and varied causes. These run the gamut from the effects of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation, poor management and corruption, to high levels of illiteracy, poverty and toxic ethnicity. 

Faced with such humongous complexities is there any way out of the continent’s arrested development?  The eternally cynical would say there is no hope of cracking open the continent’s enduring development conundrum--given the continuing parlous state of Africa’s socio-economic landscape.

The optimists, for their part, would argue that Africa can course-correct its abysmal development trajectory, if only its governance system is finally characterized by what prominent talk show host and political commentator, Henry Costa, often refers to as the “Right Leadership”.

Those who subscribe to this conditional leadership concept (including yours truly) strongly believe that indeed it only takes one selfless, vibrant, patriotic and visionary leader in each of the African countries to change the developmental narrative on the continent, and by so doing mitigate the extremely impoverished conditions subsisting in most of these countries where life, in the words of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, remains “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

That being the case, the challenge then becomes how citizens go about getting or cultivating such a qualitative leadership and or good leader in their respective countries. Would it be by way of merely hoping against hope, or wishful thinking; or through prayers or luck; or by deliberate planning and purposeful recruitment from a leadership academy or within political parties; or, more dramatically, through the barrel of the gun?

In the case of Liberia, except for the leadership academy and a fluke of luck, the citizens have in the past tried all the above measures but none of these have thus far given them a selfless and capable leader who can maneuver the country onto a pathway that is progressively distinct from the ‘same old, same old’ leadership style anchored in mediocrity and self-aggrandizement.

To be sure, if violence and wars could guarantee good leadership, Liberia, as a case in point, would have by now had the best leadership, given the bloody coup of 1980 and the subsequent medieval blood-letting that characterized the country’s civil conflicts—none of which, sadly seem to have taught Liberian politicians and their followers any lessons in regard to virtuous leadership and efficient governance. 

The Ghanaians, for their part, were both ‘lucky’ and moderately violent enough to have a revolutionary Jerry Rawlings who, despite executing three former heads of state, selflessly, determinedly, and ultimately succeeded in putting Ghana on a development track that is today the envy of many of its neighbors. 

In contrast, despite Liberia’s own bloody upheavals, which were far worse than what Ghana had gone through, with hundreds of thousands of lives they claimed in their wake, the first independent Africa republic has subsequently only retrogressed and slipped down the development ladder.  

Many thoughtful observers of these contrasting political fortunes, opine that the essential difference between the Ghanaian leadership experiment and that of Liberia, lies in the emergence of one dynamic and effective Ghanaian, who, by dint of his/her strategic vision, incorruptibility, self-discipline, sense of patriotism and strength of character, substantially and substantively set the tone and establish the contours for development-focused leadership in his/her country. 

They cite other exemplary leadership demonstrated by the likes of Sereste Khama of Botswana, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso (never mind the brevity of his rule), Paul Kagame of Rwanda (minus the constraints imposed on free speech there) and, far afield, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, as proof positive that one charismatic, selfless and capable leader could fundamentally change for the better the direction of a given society.

True, but still, how can citizen voters predict with any degree of certainty that a particular aspirant they may be hooting for in the lead-up to elections will in fact turn out to be the ‘Moses’ they are searching for? After all, was it not Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who once observed that “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”?

The situation becomes even more complicated when virtually all presidential aspirants often present themselves to their gullible supporters as good leadership materials, with good intentions and plans to turn around the fortunes of their countries. But of course, the enlightened voter is all too aware that good intentions alone cannot cut it. In fact, as the familiar aphorism indicates, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The leadership selection dilemma is further compounded by the fact that more often than not, power, and the perquisites that come with it, could become quite intoxicating for some African leaders once they get elected to their exalted positions. Little wonder many African leaders soon transmogrify into little Caesars and tin gods who are above reproach, and therefore can choose to ride roughshod over their subjects by not only arrogantly disregarding their wellbeing, but callously eliminating those of their own citizens these murderous leaders consider threats to their hold on power. 

Even those who had very humble beginnings long before attaining power, soon balloon into Colossuses and make life a living hell for the people on whose heads they stepped to get to the top in the first place

And so, yes, it remains quite a challenge for many well-intentioned voters (including even educated ones) to determine with precision which individual or aspirant, before that person gains power, will ultimately become a truly good and progressive leader who will take them to the elusive ‘promised land’.

 Harkening back to what the brilliant English poet, playwright and pre-eminent dramatist, William Shakespeare, once noted in one of his masterpiece works (Macbeth), that “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” (meaning there is no way you can tell what someone is thinking just by looking at him/her), and in the absence of a magic wand to identify the “right leader”, voters, the media, and other influencers in a country like Liberia need to take a step back and soberly reflect on the history as well as the ongoing activities of particularly those who are aspiring to the almighty Presidency. 

In their valuation of the capabilities or otherwise of each presidential candidate, the media in particular should, for the sake of the country, resist the enticement of ‘Karto”, and help to fairly and honestly illuminate the leadership stakes in the upcoming general and presidential elections. They should critique, from an informed perspective, the agendas of those apparently serious aspirants who have made these available to the public, and assess their vision going forward, their freshness of thought, their potential for incorruptibility or lack thereof, and their willpower to operationalize their development manifestos in an environment of accountability, equal application of justice and rule of law. 

That way, hopefully, the usually less informed and unsuspecting voters would be encouraged to eschew sentiments of any sort (such as ethnicity, regionalism, friendship and narrow partisanship) in their voting decision making. That way, the Liberian people will take stock of their present situation and selflessly envisage where they’d like to see their country six to twelve years after the next inauguration, and vote accordingly for the leader who they are sincerely and patriotically convinced have what it takes to take the country from point A to point B on the development spectrum.

Africans are beyond frustrated and sick and tired with greedy, selfish, clueless, irredeemably corrupt and visionless leaders whose only raison d’etre of becoming leaders of their respective countries is to commandeer the national treasury as their inheritance. They are up to their neck with impatience and disappointment over leaders who consider their elevated positions not as a privilege and call to duty, but rather as an invitation from the voters to enrich themselves, their families, friends and a few partisans—leaving the mass of their people mired in barefoot poverty and hardship.

Africans, including Liberians, deserve purposeful leaders who understand and appreciate the gravity of being leaders for all of their peoples. The continent is yearning for leaders whose sincerity of purpose, clear-mindedness and magnetic appeal attract the right persons around them, rather than hangers-on, gossipers, incompetent opportunists, rascals and sycophants who only tell their leaders what they want to hear.

Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, once observed, that “If you want to be a leader who attracts quality people, the key is to become a person of quality yourself.” Thus, a presidential aspirant’s inability to surround himself/herself with selfless and productive persons who can bring something to the table is emblematic of that leader’s limited capability and judgement once in office. That should serve as one clue to a would-be leader’s suitability or otherwise for the highest office.

With the help of patriotic media and other related opinion leaders, voters in Africa must now endeavor to shift the tectonic plates of their electoral and political fault lines if they are ever going to be relieved of obscene poverty, misery, and ignorance imposed on them by leaders whose tunnel vision limits them from putting the larger interests of their respective countries and citizens over and above their parochial interests, including greed for power and wealth.

Although elections in many African countries have increasingly become perfunctory and prone to shameless and daylight rigging, voters never mind must now wake up to the reality that they have the power in their hands to alter for the better the sad state of governance in their various countries by liberating themselves from the selfish, greedy, narcissistic, unsophisticated and suffocating leadership architecture they continue to groan under. 

By exercising some measure of due diligence and applying honest and sincere assessment of each and every presidential candidate, devoid of any self-interest, and guided only by love of country, voters could very well hit the leadership ‘jackpot’ by electing a transformational and vibrant leader whose fierce love of country, courage, integrity, visionary ideas, and planning capabilities to implement people-centered policies will irreversibly propel the country forward. Leaders who will be more interested in leaving meaningful and enduring legacies than in the establishment of so-called foundations after they have left power. 

African voters deserve serious-minded, capable, unflagging and progressive leaders who are inspiring enough to enthuse and galvanize even the most sheepish and docile segments of their populations into marching lockstep with them in moving the country forward. By making sure they elect such leaders against all odds, voters could very well reverse, or minimally stem the tide of the lingering unprogressive and backwater level their countries have sunk to in respect of impactful development. 

Remember: “An army of sheep led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a sheep”.

About the Author: Lamini Waritay is former Minister of information (IGNU), former President of the Press Union of Liberia, and former Chairperson of Mass Comm dept. at UL.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Daily Observer.)