By Connor J. Wangler
When one is asked at what point African nations first began achieving their “independence,” many are quick to look to the 1960s and 1970s. Countries broke free of their colonial chains and set out on new self-defined paths. What a wonderful idea, if that was what actually happened. Colonial dependency theory aside, the future of the newly independent nations was anything but wonderful. Years of political strife and ethnic tension slowed development and caused social disparities to skyrocket.
For years, the “Big Man” style of leadership ran rampant throughout African politics. Leaders such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire came to exemplify this type of governing. This was marked by dictatorial rule supported by puppet legislatures and hollow judiciaries. “Big Man” politics also choked economic growth and entrepreneurial spirit by funneling capital into the hands of political elites and their cronies. As Steven Radelet notes in his book Emerging Africa, “The political and economic systems were deeply intertwined.” Accountability and transparency were skipped over in trade for corruption and authoritarianism.
Fortunately, however, Africans were not blind to this robbing of an open society and responsible government, and neither was the international community. In 2006, Nigerians denied their President the right to run for a third term, effectively saying no to the “Big Man” syndrome. Beginning in the mid to late-1990s, a new generation of African leaders has emerged. This so-called “Cheetah” style of leadership is devoted to democracy and economic reform. It focuses on sustaining ethical and representative forms of government. Consistent elections and robust shared powers throughout an open government are hallmarks of this new leadership. Leaders such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia have brought progress to their countries by opening up government and the economy.
This new generation of leaders realizes that the democratization of their countries is not one that will end with them. There are approximately 4 million people under the age of sixteen in Africa, which many see as a primary focus of advancing positive governing; one of who, Fred Swaniker claims, “is the next Nelson Mandela.” Throughout the continent, governments, universities, and private institutions are building dynamic leadership education programs to train youth in ethical leadership practices. One of these is the African Leadership Academy:
This transition in leadership has brought with it a transition in society; democracy means free and fair elections and civil society means opportunity for self-expression and debate. Citizens in each country touched by this change are encouraged to further progress through political and economic participation. This has also encouraged a greater role for NGOs through greater access to government cooperation. A good example of this change is the Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT) created in 1987. Over the past few decades, SANGONeT has built a network of private organizations and governments focused on tackling issues such as poverty reduction and social advancement. Furthermore, this progression to more open civil societies has increased opportunities for women to play a role. A strong case of this is in Rwanda, where 56 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women, the largest proportion in the world. Women have advanced themselves politically, as Presidents, Prime Ministers, and so on, as well as economically, as CEOs, Chairwomen, and more.
This shift in governing and societies should be seen as the “new wave” of African independence. African nations are freeing themselves from the burdens of corrupt and ineffective leaders. They are opening up the social platform upon which the people can express themselves politically and economically. Governments and societies are focusing more on the issues facing the people and not as much on building their own bank accounts. This does not, however, mean that critical assessment of leaders should cease; if anything, it means it should increase.