Americans don’t need a complex index, or algorithm, in order to decide that George Bush is a poor leader. And ordinary Africans don’t need to be told by Harvard University who counts as a great African leader. Leadership ought to reveal itself, making sense in its own context.
I shouldn’t pick on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which is the sponsor of the latest index to judge African leadership. Ibrahim, who made a fortune building an African mobile phone company, is after all is only doing what other foundations — and international agencies like the World Bank — have done for years. Unwilling to criticize actual African leaders, these global actors promote safe, sanitary “benchmarks” for leadership. These benchmarks, always debateable and grounded in mushy statistics, are psuedo-scientific, misleading and ultimately corrosive. Defenders say these indices are better than nothing. Yet metrics for leadership can only grow out of the societies in which leaders themselves grow. No index can suggest how a Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s charismatic leader, is created. Neither can any index predict or prevent the rise of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who may go down as the worst African leader of the 21st century.
I’d feel more comfortable with even a flawed index on African leadership if the index itself was created and applied by Africans. The new Ibrahim index is a creature of Harvard University, a great American institution but one far removed from the existential realities of African life. I wonder whether the real beneficiaries of the index are not the Harvard professors who administer it. Having just spent a month in a Uganda of pit latrines and floods, of enterprising farmers and hustling “boda” drivers, of Muslim community activists and fervent Christian believers, I know well that the backbone of African societies — out of which great leaders will spring — don’t need lofty professors from Harvard to help them choose good leaders from bad. They can do so themselves.
The trouble with leadership in Africa is not a lack of great leaders or an ignorance about what constitutes great leadership. I meet great leaders all the time in Africa. They lack power, not a moral compass. Their honesty and integrity are a handicap. They are smothered, pressured, and sometimes even extinguished by rivalrous bad leaders who in an endless display of Gresham’s Law prove time again that “bad (leaders) drive out good.”
The academic indices for African leadership don’t calculate the one ultimate source of leadership: people power. Nelson Mandela’s “secret sauce” — why he is the greatest African leader of recent times — is that he embodied the people in the streets, the ordinary South Africans whose dreams and frustrations he knew so well. More power to ordinary Africans will inevitably spawn more great leaders.