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Bad leadership to blame for failed Western institutions in Africa

By - | January 12th 2013

Receive greetings from Ogaland. I am here, in the land of the eating chiefs and great generals. I spent a great deal of the day, travelling from Lagos to Abeokuta and back. The traffic was terribly slow. However, the motorists seem to be painfully regaining some values that Africa lost long ago. They are wrestling well against impatience, obtuseness and hyenaism.

We moved at snail pace on dusty, potholed roads that have known better days. Still, you must give it to most of the motorists. They try hard to hold on to what they have recovered of common decency and courtesy. Yet, you still come across the crazy sociopath. This gentleman swerves suddenly into the on coming lane.

He then begins reversing speedily in the same direction he was going. You are still going the same way. Only that he is in the reverse gear, in the wrong lane at a great speed! It is anybody’s guess how things will end up. Then there is a myriad of frowzy motorcyclists. They are invariably on the wrong side of the road, all the time. While cyclists are banned from this area, they not only ride on in their dozens, but they must also ride on the wrong side. They do this under the watchful eye of the traffic police.

Such is the rhyme of the rhythm of the music of Africa. When you have caught this rhythm, it is the same in all its elements. This is what the regal lady, Baroness Karen Blixen, told us after her encounter with Kenya as a settler farmer in the early years of the colony. What she learnt from the jungles and animals of Africa was useful in her dealings with the people. For she found out that we were all the same – the plants, beasts, and the people. 

Blixen took far too many liberties with Africa. Surely we cannot operate from the same docket as our plants and beasts, or can we? We are reminded that Madam Blixen was the royal girl who could not tell the difference between her houseboy and her dog. When he offered her boiled maize, she thought he was a ‘decent dog’ that had lived with people, now offering the master a share of its dog feed.

Blixen aside, Nigeria remains the essence of the African spirit. It is an adroit capsule of the continent. You can still buy a cow’s leg for your evening meal from the same dusty open-air market in Otta Ogun. Here, they can also sell you a brand new TV set and a dog’s chain. You can also take home the latest Yves Saint Laurent suit.

This is Africa, my Africa. Rusty roofs and stagnant water-drenched dilapidated roads easily give way to the exclusive suburbia of Nollywood glory. You could be in Kampala, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Ouagadougou, or Brazzaville. The difference is the same. The smell of designer perfume and that of sewage and rapidly cooking food struggle for dominance. 

I was reading, last week, Achebe’s latest book, There Was A County: A Personal Memoir of The Biafra War. I have read every book by this great African. I must confess that I found County a little out of character. It is, so far, his most undisguised apology for the momentary Ibo cessation and attempt to establish the independent Republic of Biafra in 1966 – 1970. It is of course easy for us from the outside to stand on holy ground in the face of ethnic predicaments.  We look at distinguished scholars who have taken up arms to shed blood for their tribes and condemn them. We do the same of the ideologues for what is euphemistically put as their ‘communities.’

It helps to understand, however, that when a people are hunted down like rats and are killed in cold blood or smoked out of the capital city of the country just because they belong to a certain tribe, even the very best among them must begin questioning some of their nobler beliefs. Do we see the gift of prescience in Achebe’s citation of W.B. Yeats’ poem – The Second Coming – in the prelims of Things Fall Apart? Beyond this citation, the rest of the poem tells us that in times of anarchy, even the very best lack all conviction.

In the tribal moment, even the most educated citizen is tempted to take up weapons of violence against another citizen, in defence of the tribe, or at least of the self. I invite you to interact with Country and reach your own conclusions.

Meanwhile my consciousness of the failure of Africa’s experiments with Western institutions continues to be disturbed.  We shall be voting in a few days’ time for diverse tribal horses and sundry political wheelbarrows. The failure of the citizen to appoint leaders on merit rewards the continent with rotting dead dogs on the roadside, next to which dogs are sold cows’ legs for the evening meal, dog chains and colour TV sets.

The continent’s potholed and dusty roads are the global junkyard. They are replete with twenty-year-old tuktuks from India. Thirty-year-old drowsy lorries and limping sleepy trucks huff and puff under overweight cargo in sewage drenched streets. Soon after our independence, the French scholar Rene Dumont shocked us with his book, A False Start In Africa. He questioned the economic and political foundations of the independent African state. Where was it headed? Fifty years on, we have every cause to see how so right he was. The bigger tragedy is that we do not seem to have learnt anything.

Like the mad drivers of Lagos, when we think that we are not getting there, we simply change into the empty on coming lane. We begin reversing into the same direction as we were going. This is regardless of the obvious monumental hazards. We know the right direction. We face that way. But we prefer a dangerous reverse in the wrong direction.

 The whole world knows that the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a matter of bad leadership. But the citizens don’t mind. That is why you can queue behind a red horse, or a wheelbarrow.    

The writer is a publishing editor and special consultant and advisor on public relations and media relations

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