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Leadership: The Key to Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Following is the text of a speech I delivered at the closing session of the 10th Southern Interdisciplinary Roundtable on African Studies (SIRAS) at Kentucky State University, Frankfort, KY, April 4, 2009.

Africa is a continent of remarkable contrasts.

On the one hand, it has some of the world’s richest deposits and collections of resources such as diamonds, petroleum, gold and other precious minerals. Cash crops include cotton, coffee and timber.

On the other hand, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are home to some of the world’s poorest people and are rife with disease and instability. Of the 15 million HIV/AIDS orphans in the world, 12 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that whole generations of future workers are in danger of extinction.

The high rates of HIV/AIDS infection among soldiers significantly reduces the operational capability of Sub-Saharan military forces, and in countries like South Africa and Nigeria reduces the ability to project force beyond national borders for peace keeping or stability operations.

Diseases such as Ebola, Hemorrhagic Fever, malaria and TB, strain already limited health resources; are a drain on weak economies; and retard economic and social development.

Corruption, ethnic and religious conflicts, and extremely low literacy rates (especially among women and girls) pose not only internal problems for the individual countries, but create regional instability that impacts far beyond their borders.

In the face of such seemingly intractable obstacles, it is perhaps understandable that, when the subject of development in Africa is brought up, the dominant moods are gloom and pessimism. The problem, though, with adopting the doom and gloom viewpoint is that it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The opposite pole of that approach is just as bad for development of the poor countries of the African continent. Adopting too rosy an outlook ignores the fact that development is an evolutionary process requiring patience. Failure to see quick positive results in development projects more often than not also leads to dismay and disappointment. Problems that have been generations in the making do not lend themselves to quick solutions.

This then leads me to my main thesis, a view that has gained increased recognition over the past few decades, but that has still not taken the key role I believe it deserves. My thesis is this: The most important factor in the development of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa – and the rest of the under developed world for that matter – is committed, visionary leadership. This is the factor that is missing in most of the countries that are failing to make positive gains in bringing their people out of poverty and establishing economic and political systems that meet the needs of their populations.

I must make one point absolutely clear: effective leadership alone will not solve Africa’s problems, but without it, the problems also cannot be solved. Without leaders committed to a clear vision of the future, and the courage to pursue that vision against all obstacles, all the foreign aid and outside intervention in the world will be about as effective as using an aspirin to cure a cancer.

I would like first to describe the type of leadership that I believe is essential for development, and then give a real world example of that leadership.

In the decades since gaining independence from their European colonial masters, the countries of Africa have had Transactional leaders at the helm. Transactional Leadership is the kind of leadership that is based upon authority relationships and is characterized by big men wielding power – in some cases for the good of the country, and in some cases in order to enrich themselves and their cronies. Transactional Leadership is a zero-sum game. I have the power, and you don’t. I give the orders, you follow. In almost all cases in Sub-Saharan Africa, this type of leadership had resulted in impoverished economies, squandered resources, and instability.

Transformational Leadership, on the other hand, is leadership based upon a compact between the leaders and followers, with followers having a significant input into the decisions affecting their lives. It is leadership based on followers granting power and authority to those who lead them. Transformational Leadership is grounded in the principle of leader as servant of the people.

In over 40 years of moderately successful leadership of government organizations, large and small, I have concluded that effective Transformational Leadership is based on four basic principles:

The first and most important principle is Caring for people as individuals. The most effective and successful leaders demonstrate genuine concern and care for their subordinates and treat them as unique, valuable individuals. This caring is unconditional and is bestowed without regard to whether people deserve or desire it. Every person in the organization is valued for his or her uniqueness, is accorded respect and dignity, and is given the opportunity to make a contribution – no matter how small.

Principle number two is the Promotion of shared values. Transformational leaders clearly and passionately articulate a vision of shared values, which are reinforced aggressively and consistently by the leader living up to them himself.

The third principle is the Creation of a climate that rewards risk-taking. Transformational leaders are not afraid to take risks, and they encourage the kind of “out of the box” thinking that leads to progress. They are not, and they encourage their followers not to be, limited by historical or cultural baggage. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” and “we’ve never done that before” are not phrases in the transformational leader’s vocabulary.

The fourth principle is Team building. Transformational leaders are constantly building networks and teams, not only to handle the pressing problems of the moment, but to forecast and prepare for the future. Effective team builders construct multi-discipline, cross-cutting teams, and take full advantage of every talent available.

If you have done any reading on leadership, you will no doubt have seen many other traits of effective leadership enumerated. These too are important, but frankly, I believe that all of the other characteristics of effective leadership can be subsumed under one of the above four principles.

I would like now to describe a “transformation in progress,” and how I believe Transformational Leadership contributed to that progress. It happens also to be one that I was fortunate to have had a small role in at the early stages.

Sierra Leone is a small country on the west coast of Africa, and for decades it suffered from inept leadership, poverty and civil war. I first went to Sierra Leone in 1993 as the Deputy Chief of Mission, or number two, in the American Embassy. During that time, along with the death and destruction being visited upon the people by Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, the country had also had a military coup. In 1993, the country was being run by a group of inexperienced junior officers. The economy was in shambles and there were thousands of internally displaced persons, in addition to thousands of refugees from the war in neighboring Liberia.

A country that had once been an exporter of rice, it was now dependent upon aid from the international community to feed its people. It produced 25 percent of the world’s rutile, or titanium dioxide, but little of the revenue benefited the common people. It is rich in alluvial diamonds, but instead of enriching the people, “blood diamonds” financed the war that was killing many of them.

The problems were many, but in my view, one problem overshadowed all the others. There was a lack of committed, enlightened leadership. The leaky ship that was Sierra Leone had no shortage of self-appointed captains, but instead of steering it into calm waters, they were running it aground. Compounding the lack of domestic leadership was the lack of visionary leadership in the international community. Donor countries were so consumed with the immediate problems of feeding and caring for the displaced that no one seemed to have the time to look into the future potential. Or at least, it seemed that way to me when I first arrived.

Then leadership appeared in the least likely places. The first was the living room of my public affairs officer, Kiki Munshi. She had been in the country for some time before me, and had identified a group of local women who wanted desperately change the course of Sierra Leone’s history. She offered them a safe haven where they could meet to discuss ideas and make plans.

One of these women in particular impressed me. A firebrand, Zainab Hawa Bangura was an insurance executive who demonstrated passion and zeal, and firmly believed that poverty and instability did not have to be the norm in her country. Working together, Kiki and I were able to obtain a US Government grant to help her found a civic action group, Women for a Morally Enlightened Nation (W.O.M.E.N). With that one small bit of support, she was off and running. More about her later.

Another unlikely leader was a former UN civil servant who had retired and returned to his homeland. Al Haji Ahmed Tejan Kabba was a Muslim married to a Christian, and had been a UN technocrat with no political background. Because he was considered to be politically neutral, the military junta asked him to head the commission that they had created to guide the country back to civilian rule, a job that he reluctantly accepted.

There were few in the international community who thought the chances of an orderly, peaceful transition to civilian rule was possible under the circumstances that existed in Sierra Leone in the mid 90s, so Kabba’s support, as he tried to broker a deal between the military and civilian political groups, was minimal. After a few conversations with him and others who were pushing for elections, I believed differently, and quietly encouraged his efforts.

It was extremely slow going at first, until the U.S. bureaucracy threw us a soft ball. My ambassador, a career diplomat who, though she sincerely loved the Sierra Leonean people, was one of the people who thought elections were impossible, finished her tour of duty and was transferred back to the United States. There was a several months delay in confirming her successor, so as the number two, I was left in charge of U.S. Government programs in Sierra Leone until his arrival.

As a child, I had been taught to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along. As a former military officer, I had learned that it is sometimes better to ask forgiveness than ask permission. Relying on the fact that Sierra Leone was a very low priority in the U.S. bureaucracy and that as long as I did nothing illegal or unethical, or that strained the budget, it was unlikely that anyone would try to micromanage my activities – or even in fact pay much attention to them, I set about organizing like-minded colleagues in the international community around elections in Sierra Leone.

There was such a pent up demand, it didn’t take much to jump start the process. To everyone’s surprise, Kabba was tapped by one of the major parties as their candidate for president. After several days of serious contemplation, he accepted. I like to think that my encouragement played a small part in his decision, but the truth is that, without the support of many others, the electoral process would have been stillborn. I have already mentioned the pivotal role played by the embassy public affairs officer, Kiki Munshi and the women of Sierra Leone whom she mentored. Then there were our colleagues in the diplomatic community, whose names I unfortunately no longer remember: the British and German ambassadors, and yes, even the Nigerians; as well as officials in the UN agencies, who all agreed that a concerted international approach in support of the fledgling democratization movement was our best chance of success.

By the time John Hirsch, the new U.S. Ambassador, was sworn in and arrived in Freetown, the waves were building. That, by the way, was our second stroke of good fortune. A veteran Africa hand who knew and admired Nelson Mandella, he completely endorsed my actions and even ratcheted things up several notches. He was fully committed to the process, despite continued skepticism in Washington.

The road to democracy in Sierra Leone was not without potholes, even with such strong support from the international community. At one point some in the military had second thoughts and attempted to intimidate voters with roadblocks and movement of army units. Throngs of citizens, often led by members of Zainab Bangura’s group, faced them down at every turn, sending them back to the barracks. Valentine Strasser, the head of the junta, allegedly urged on by his mother, decided to put his name in contention for the presidency. His number two, a young captain by the name of Julius Maada Bio, decided to live up to the promise they had made to me and in a peaceful palace coup, arrested Strasser and exiled him to neighboring Guinea. One of the civilian contenders for president, upset that he was losing the vote, threatened to take the electoral commission to court which would have derailed the process just days before the polling results were to be announced. John Hirsch talked him out of that using the argument that his court challenge for personal reasons was not good for the country as a whole.

In the end, Kabba was elected in the summer of 1996 and took office with the support of the majority of Sierra Leone’s citizens. Even the post election period saw problems. In 1997, a year after I had finished my tour of duty and come back to Washington to attend the National Defense University, disgruntled military officers allied with the rebels and overthrew Kabba. It took aggressive actions by Britain and, believe it or not, Nigeria, to restore him to office.

Sierra Leone has continued to have difficulties, as do many of the poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but I believe it is on the right path. It recently had a peaceful transfer of power to a new president, and has for the past several years been at peace.

I am convinced that what put it on the right path was the emergence of transformational leadership. It has been by no means perfect, but it has the country moving on the right trajectory. And, it was dedicated people applying the four characteristics of transformational leadership that made possible what many believed to be impossible.

Kiki Munshi, and to a small extent I, took enormous risks in supporting the democracy movement as early as we did. Our efforts could very easily have been aborted by the “play it safe and by the books” bureaucracy. John Hirsch, who supported our risk taking, put his career and reputation on the line. Those members of the international community in Freetown who recognized the power of committed coalitions. Former president Kabba who, though he made some political mistakes, was committed to building a Sierra Leone for all Sierra Leoneans. A man of compassion and integrity, he even refused to accept a salary during his first year, or to spend government funds to rehabilitate the presidential residence because he believed it would be inappropriate with so many of his countrymen living in poverty.

Of all the people in Sierra Leone who put themselves at tremendous risk to move the country on the path of democracy though, the head of my list is the firebrand, Zainab Bangura. Working from a makeshift office, equipped only with the meager equipment and supplies Kiki and I were able to provide, she mobilized the women of Sierra Leone. They played a pivotal role in keeping the process on track. She has since gone on to even greater achievements. After a failed run at the presidency after Kabba’s first term in office, she went to work for the UN in neighboring Liberia for a short period. Last year, the newly elected president called her back to be foreign minister. Not bad for a former insurance executive who signed her first grant proposal while strapped to a hospital gurney just prior to going into surgery.

The process of bringing democracy to Sierra Leone, and the role played by transformational leadership, was long and involved. There were many more incidents, and hundreds of participants who I have not named. I’ll spare you the details, but the outcome has been significant. Sierra Leone is now at peace. Economically and socially it still has a long way to go. But, Rome wasn’t built in a day either. If it continues on its present course, and if it continues to nurture leaders like Tejan Kabba and Zainab Bangura, I predict it will weather any storms in its path.

There you have it. My unscientific view of what it takes to pull the poor countries of Africa out of the mire of poverty and instability, and allow them to take their rightful places among the community of nations.

Leadership alone cannot do it all, but without effective, transformational leadership, it will not be done at all.

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Don Jacobson

Wow! This is a great story. It’s amazing what a few dedicated people can do to make a difference when they put the good or the country ahead of personal self-interest. This story is also demonstrates the powerful tole the USG can play as a catalyst for positive change. Thanks for sharing this speech, Charles!



What a great story Charles ! You are absolutely right about the tranformational leadership and its basic four priciples. I have not seen that type of leadership yet…..I wonder what the world would be if we all have the leaders who meeet those basic principles . You have once again impressed me on how thoughtful you are ….I think this country/world could have a lot more people like you ….Thanks .

Celia Mendive

Love it! This story is so inspiring because it shows that a few people with a common purpose can make a difference. I agree with you when you say: “The first and most important principle is Caring for people as individuals. The most effective and successful leaders demonstrate genuine concern and care for their subordinates and treat them as unique, valuable individuals”- that is so true.