There was a time in African history when visionary leaders defeated the unjust hegemony of colonialism. They envisaged a peaceful, developed, united and self-reliant continent that lives in peace with itself and others. Their commitment and quality leadership uplifted the spirit of the continent from the shackles of European colonialism and ushered the dawn of a new era. The central message of these leaders was unity over division, forgiveness over revenge. They stood strong and committed in the face of aggression and domination.
Emperor Hailesellassie of Ethiopia, for example, stood before the League of Nations in Geneva in 1936 challenging the European moral authority to protect the weak and powerless against the barbarism of the so called civilized world. The Emperor, for his part, predicted that if the western leaders fail to act against the aggression of Mussolini, who blatantly invaded a sovereign nation and savagely killed thousands of innocent civilians, that they themselves would be the next victims, if they fail to stop the madness of the fascist regime. The prediction came true after Benito Mussolini joined Adolf Hitler in 1936, and when Hitler and Mussolini aided Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil war, subsequently creating a formal alliance in 1939.
Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana steadfastly challenged the British colonial authorities, which occupied his country since 1844. Upon independence, he illuminated the spirit of Ghanaian’s and the people of Africa still languishing under colonial rule. Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and many more gave their lives for the betterment of their fellow citizens and the continent in general. Africa under their leadership was brimming with hope and optimism. The people of Africa began to see far beyond the euphoria of independence and freedom.
But that all began to change when army officers and thuggish rebel leaders began to take control of the countries, one after the other. Idi Amin, Mengistu Hailemariam, Samuel Doe, Jean- Bedel Bokassa, and many others established military dictatorships that stole the hopes and aspirations of the African people. As if that wasn’t enough, the struggle that was launched to get rid of the military dictatorships gave birth to the coming of unruly, thuggish rebel leaders who do not understand the principles of rule of law. They had no vision apart from their permanent thirst for vengeance, self-aggrandizement and destruction. The sad reality of Africa’s economic and political leadership poverty is at the point now that the people of the continent are being taken hostages.
Chinua Achebe, one of the most respected and celebrated novelists of Africa, wrote in 1983 “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”1 Although Chinua Achebe lamented over the state of Nigeria twenty-six years ago the fact still remains unchanged. In fact, the reader of this article could simple take ‘Nigeria’ out of the above paragraph and replace it with any country in the continent, and there one can see a disturbing trend of leadership crisis across the continent.2
The current global economic recession followed what some analysts have labelled a “global democratic recession.” Africa’s performance has been worse than in recent history, with several coups in the continent since 2005, beginning with the Mauritanian military takeover, the post-election violence in several countries including Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, Kenya’s 2007 elections, and Zimbabwe’s political nightmare. The most recent example of the unconstitutional change of government in Madagascar again demonstrates that democracy in the continent is facing serious setbacks.3 Only one African country, Mauritius, is among the 30 full democracies in the world. About forty five percent of totalitarian regimes in the world are found in Africa. Africa is home to the world’s longest serving heads of states,4 and in 2008, of the 51 authoritarian regimes of the world, 22 are found in the African continent.
On December 7, 2009 legitimate and illegitimate leaders alike will make the thousands of miles journey on their private jets to attend the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Some will present real and practical ideas for tackling the challenges of climate change. Others, like Meles Zenawi and the rest of Africa’s vampires, will extend their begging bowls instead of ideas and solutions. The likes of Meles Zenawi do not have the slightest respect for human dignity and human life, and they tell us that they are concerned about climate change and global warming. As laughable this may sound, this is the state of Africa to day. In a recent interview, Mr. Zenawi said “Africa will ask rich nations for billions of dollars to respond to the climate change caused by industrialized nations.”5 The problem with this approach is that, first of all, the climate challenge we face as a result of global warming could not be dealt by simply pumping money. Particularly, handing money to African despots like Meles Zenawi could in fact end up harming the people and the planet in general. Meles Zenawi, a man who personally ordered the murder of more than 150 peaceful protesters in broad daylight in Addis Ababa in 2005 wants the world to see him as a man who cares about the trees, water, land and sea, and yet he doesn’t even have the bare minimum respect for human life and human dignity.
The argument that these African tyrants have been making is that Africa as a continent did not contribute to the calamity of climate change and full responsibility lies on the side of the developed world. Well, the argument is not entirely true. As far as the average African is concerned yes, there is little to no blame. On the other hand, however, the vampire like leaders of Africa should be held accountable on two levels.
On a personal level, there are the fleets of limousines and luxury cars that they and their families use on daily bases; the private jets used by them and their families to fly to Europe, Asia and North America; and the energy consuming palaces, villas and luxury homes (all purchased with stolen public funds, while the people starve).
On a policy level, the list includes:
- Lack of knowledge of environmental issues and absence of comprehensive environmental policy;
- Lack of environmental impact assessment frameworks;
- Mass sale of land to corporations and foreign governments for food production with a goal of shipping the harvest overseas;
- Marginalization of experts and academics who could help develop sound environmental policy; and
- Implementing land policy that starves small farmers and involves mass deforestation.
For Meles Zenawi and other African tyrants to play a role of protector of the earth is not only an utter lie, it is an insult to the people of the African continent. As if the suffering these tyrants have inflicted on them is not enough; they show up on international stage claiming to represent those that they regularly imprison, torture, maim and kill.
The last time that Africa experienced genuine and inspiring leadership was between 1991-1994 when Nelson Mandela (Madiba) became the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa. He generated hope and optimism, not only to South Africa, but also to the entire continent and the world as a whole. He advocated forgiveness and reconciliation to his nation scarred by the injustice of Apartheid. He brought his country from a brink of war to tolerance and coexistence. He walked out of prison with open arms and with a vision of an inclusive South Africa -- a rainbow nation. Nelson Mandela didn’t govern from the point of anger or vengeance, he instead envisaged South Africa capable of moving beyond its past. That was one of the most hope full times in African history. For the first time in African history he also became the only leader to voluntarily walk away from the helm of power after just 4 years.
The leadership crisis facing most African countries in effect has caused a permanent image of the continent that is ravaged by war, famine, disease and poverty. Policy makers of the donor countries, citizens in those countries and international organizations need to understand Africa’s problem in its entire complexity, highlighting the lack of visionary leaders. In Copenhagen, what we will see is the likes of Meles Zenawi attempting to use the forum as a platform to garner legitimacy, which their own people know that they lack. Finally, those who orchestrate the murder, torture and disappearance of thousands of citizens should not be given a minute on the international stage and should be facing the wrath of international law. The challenges of climate change require leaders who respect human life, and all forms of life. Providing an international platform to Meles Zenawi and the likes is an insult to the intelligence, pride and dignity of the people of Africa and to the continent itself.
1 Chinua Achebe,
2 See Martin Meredith The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence, The Free Press, 2005.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org