Leadership in Africa: What Role for Intellectuals?

Published on 4th September 2016

The question about the role of intellectuals in shaping leadership in Africa is vital. It fits the idea (with criticism) of how we think development should happen. We have expectations from our governments, political leaders, our children and the village chief who presides over land wrangles between family members, among other people.

Some people have been talking us out of holding our leaders accountable by saying that change is not going to come from our next President or donor but from the local people. This is part of the controversy we are dealing with. As we encourage self-development among people, we should similarly have expectations from our leaders. We need to find a balance on how self-effort and good leadership intersect.

Good leadership or development for that matter is going to happen when some people in fortunate places do something and this includes our intellectuals. Edmund Burke, one of the great philosophers said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Intellectuals are part of the good men.

Who is an intellectual? We have a choice to make. We can opt for the exclusionary definition and keep it a closed circle of a few fortunate who have attended school, speak the English language and other international languages well or sit in the board room. We can expand it to include other people who are not within our circles---that village chief who pacifies husband and wife and that traditional birth attendant. I stand for the latter.

Most of the knowledge and ideas that have had an impact in societies didn’t come from columnists or professors but from lay people with a knack for certain things. We need to engage with each other.

Our role is to fuse useful information where decisions take place. Our society still depends on a few people to deliver the greater good. While we have leaders who we have elected to represent us and technocrats who we have allowed to decide the policies that affect us, it is not automatic that they have the best advice to work with.  Intellectuals can help a lot steer things in the right direction through their well-researched information and suggested alternatives.

Intellectuals have to cast a critical eye to anything that is done in the name of development. Every day, policies and programmes are drawn and laws enacted. Some of these do not work well or do not work at all. Intellectuals should be able to ask the questions and make people think through these decisions to increase the efficacy of policies and programs.

Intellectuals have to buffer our continent against undue control by showing leadership on solutions that work. We are at a risk of prescriptive development from those who perceive our continent to be late on a number of things that have happened elsewhere. Since something worked somewhere, it is presumed it will work here as well. Our intellectuals should be able engage this reality and offer alternatives.

Intellectuals should cause public debate on the challenges of the continent. They have to find ways of bringing these issues at the forefront and make them relevant enough to the masses to discuss them.

We have made some good progress in playing our intellectual roles through think tanks, policy papers, talk shows on television and radio and many more fora. What we don’t seem to do well is getting the masses behind these ideas to create the impetus for radical change. A lot of what we do is inaccessible to an ordinary person and so, there is a divide.  This is an old criticism that has hang on our heads for a very long time and because we have not successfully addressed it, it can be futile to continue churning knowledge which goes so far.

By Lydia Muchodo

The author is Deputy Director, Agency for Transformation (AfT)

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