Pan African Debate: Comparative Study of Leadership and Governance by Africa’s Founding Fathers:



By Alagi Yorro Jallow

An Examination of Their Contributions, Policies and Philosophies

As founding fathers, the first generation of nationalist leaders—Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, Jomo Kenyatta and Leopold Senghor—all enjoyed great prestige and high honor. They were seen to personify the states they led and swiftly took advantage of their positions to consolidate their control. From the outset, most sought a monopoly of power, and most established a system of personal rule and encouraged personality cults. They saw themselves as the “elected of God through the people.” Conversely, Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, and Nelson Mandela  led their nations democratically when they could have aggregated personal power.

kwame_nkrumahApart from Mandela, Khama and Ramgoolam, African leaders and elites did not establish political systems that bore any resemblance to indigenous systems. They inherited an authoritarian colonial state at independence, and though they could have dismantled it and returned Africa to its roots, they did not. Instead, these leaders strengthened the unitary colonial state apparatus and expanded its scope–especially the military.

By the end of the 1980s, not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office. Out of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had managed to voluntarily relinquish power. Among these were Senegal’s Leopold Senghor,after twenty years in office,Cameroon’s Ahmadu Ahidjo,after twenty years in office,and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere,after twenty-three years in office. The Gambia’s Sir Dawda Jawara was in power for 30 years and was then booted out by the military. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela served only one term in the presidency, whereas some African leaders clung to power until death and others declared themselves presidents for life.


One of the greatest common characteristics of the founding fathers of Africa is that all of them attended prestigious universities in Africa, America, Europe or the Soviet Union and attained advanced degrees. Some of them became politicians by design because most of them had their professional careers.Moreover, most of them also authored books about their diverse political, economic and social philosophies.

Most African political systems have exhibited various shades of the “Big Man” patrimonial rule. Three distinct types of leadership surfaced in the post-colonial era. The first type was the charismatic leadership style, which was associated with such leaders as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Jawara, Kaunda, Khama and Kenyatta.Their support was based largely on popular appeal of their appeal of their  role in the decolonization struggle . As Chazan et al. (1992) put it, “Charismatic personalities tended to emerge in situations of political uncertainty and social fluidity. The political style fostered is consequently autocratic. Leaders of this sort chose to dominate rather than compromise, to dictate rather than to reconcile. Charismatic leaders in Africa therefore bore the external trappings of omnipotence. In the case of Nkrumah of Ghana, it was exaggerated to the point of endowing the leader with godlike attributes” (162). Africa has its democrats and democracies, its despots and despotisms, a few kings (and no queens), some military rulers, and soldiers who have become born-again democrats (Rotberg, 2007).Mandela

The second type of political leadership was the patriarchal, exemplified in such leaders as Jomo Kenyatta, Nyerere, Kaunda, Khama, Senghor Jawara  and Nkrumah.They acted as the “father of the nation,” and their style was that of adjudicator, conciliator, instigator and peacemaker. As fatherly figures, they expected to be revered. Although they seldom became embroiled in the conspiracies of daily political maneuvering, they could play one group against another to their advantage and even co-opt opposition members. In the initial stages of their rule, they were trusted and accorded a godlike devotion because it was assumed by the general populace that whatever they did was in their country’s best interest.

The third type of leader, revolutionary or populist prophetic also emerged as near-perfect clones of earlier-day charismatic leaders. They were impatient and angry at the appalling social misery, economic mismanagement and flagrant injustices in their countries. Examples of this type of leader are,Nkrumah,Nyerere,Kenyatta,Kaunda, Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia and John Rawlings of Ghana. As Chazan et al. (1992) noted, African dictators chose a method of rule that was domineering and, at times, sultanic. The state was their private domain—the people and resources were at their disposal. There was no distinction between private ambitions and public goods. Anyone who opposed their political stronghold was eliminated; repression and violence replaced entreaties, cajolery, or emotional fervor. These leaders maintained and enjoyed a strongman image—warriorlike, defiant and ultimately invincible (167).Biko

In one country after another, African leaders acted in contempt of constitutional rules and agreements they had sworn to uphold to enhance their own power. Constitutions were either amended or rewritten or simply ignored. Checks and balances were removed. Kwame Nkrumah’s first amendment to the constitution—the abolishing regional assemblies—was introduced only two years after the country had gained independence.

In these African leaders’ quest for greater control, the device they commonly favored was the one-party system. In some cases, one-party systems were achieved by popular vote. In East Africa, Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union won all open seats in parliament in 1960. In other nations, one-party systems were arranged by negotiation, where opposition parties accepted a merger with ruling parties. In Kenya in 1964, Kenyatta persuaded opposition politicians from the Kenya African Democratic Union to cross the floor and take up prominent posts in the government. There were many other examples, however, of instances where one-party systems were imposed simply by suppressing opposition parties, as occurred in Ghana, Tanzania, Gambia and Zambia. When opposing parties did exist, one-party domination was sustained by the incumbent using state resources and various control mechanisms to stay in power—suppressing the opposition, rigging elections and altering the country’s constitution. Institutional failure of stable and genuine multi-party systems to take root presents one of the most serious challenges to democratic politics in Africa. The forces which favor authoritarianism and one-party domination are very strong.

There were many arguments used to justify the one-party system. New states facing so many challenges, it was said, needed strong governments, which were best served by concentrating authority to a single, nationwide party. Multi-party politics, it was argued, usually deteriorated into competition between tribal blocs and alliances. Some African leaders argued that opposition parties were in fact alien to African practice and that a one-party system, if properly managed, provided a democratic outlet just as adequately as did a multi-party system.

Julius Nyerere was one of the most eloquent advocates of a one-party system. He maintained that the two-party system had evolved in the West as a result of competition between socioeconomic classes. But since African society was essentially classless, there was no basis for two parties, and parliamentary systems of the kind bequeathed to Africa by Europe’s departing colonial powers were misplaced. Nyerere was widely regarded as a leader of outstanding ability whose personal integrity and modest lifestyle was in sharp contrast to the extravagance and corruption for which other African presidents had generally become known. He possessed both genuine concern for egalitarianism and intense dislike for all forms of elitism. He dressed simply, took no interest in the spoils of leadership or possession and pursued his objectives with missionary zeal. His intellectual energy was formidable. Articulating his socialist ideals with great clarity, he became the most influential thinker and writer in Africa of his time. Throughout Nyerere’s tenure as president, few in Tanzania questioned the course on which he had embarked. It was held to be a matter of ideological faith. Under Nyerere’s one-party system, parliament remained important, but the press was muzzled. Nyerere himself was by no means averse to using Tanzania’s Preventive Detention Act to silence political critics, and Tanzania for many years remained high on the list of African countries with political prisoners.

Nyerere claimed his socialist ideology was based on African cultural traditions. He castigated capitalism, or the money economy, because he believed it encouraged individual acquisitiveness and economic competition. He insisted that Tanzania be transformed into a nation of small-scale communalists. Nyerere conceived “Ujamaa” as a sort of extension, into the national and even international realm, of the traditional African extended family. Unfortunately, Ujamaa became a failed economic philosophy that brought unparalleled poverty to the people of Tanzania.

In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah’s ambition soared above that of all others. Having successfully challenged the might of British rule in Africa and opened the way to independence for a score of other African countries, he saw himself as a messianic leader destined to play an even greater role. At home he wanted to transform Ghana into an industrial power, a center of learning, a model socialist society which other states would want to emulate. He also dreamed of making Africa a giant—in economic, political and military terms—as united and as powerful as the United States or the Soviet Union, with himself as leader. Believing himself to posses unique ability, capable of achieving for Africa what Marx and Lenin had done for Europe and Mao Tse-tung for China, he created an official ideology, calling it Nkrumahism. Nkrumahism was a complex political and social philosophy to which Nkrumah would add from time to time. After a few years, it was said to be based on “scientific socialism” (Martin,2005).

A proliferation of socialist ideologies emerged in postcolonial Africa in the early 1960s. Doctrinaire socialism, however, was eschewed. Many African leaders spurned becoming a satellite of the Soviet Union or China. Socialism in Africa was to be a distinctive ideology based on the continent’s unique social and cultural traditions. Nkrumah of Ghana is widely regarded as the father of African socialism. Kaunda also espoused his own model of socialism, called “Christian socialism,” and humanism. Dawda Jawara too created his own philosophy, “Tesito,” meaning self-reliant. Leopold Senghor came up with another philosophy, Negritude, or cultural liberation.

In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda’s regime was more benign, but he was equally adamant about the merits of one-party rule and his own leadership, despite a catastrophic record of economic mismanagement over twenty-five years in office. When Kaunda came up for reelection in 1988, a former minister, Sikota Wina, complained: “It is impossible to run against Kaunda. It is a watertight system to produce one candidate. There is no way in which anyone can actually challenge the president” (Martin,2005). An emotional man, Kaunda was prone to weeping in public and habitually carried a white linen handkerchief woven tightly between his fingers of the left hand. His speeches were laced with quotations from the Bible and he constantly referred to his philosophy of Humanism, on which he published two volumes. But while espousing deep Christian principles, he was not averse to detaining dissidents without trial. A U.S. State Department report on human rights in Zambia noted: “There are credible allegations that police and military personnel have resorted to excessive force when interviewing detainees or prisoners. Alleged abuses, include beatings, withholding of food, pain inflicted on various parts of the body, long periods of solitary confinement and threats of executions” (p.381).

Jomo Kenyatta’s career as a political activist had been one of the most adventurous of all nationalist leaders in Africa. Born in about 1896, educated by missionaries at the Church of Scotland headquarters near Nairobi, he had taken sundry jobs before becoming a full-time general secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), a  pressure group of Kikuyu nationalists established to campaign over land grievances. Kenyatta’s forceful personality, his powers of oration and his flamboyant manner soon captivated the crowds who flocked to listen to him. His aim was to develop the KAC into a truly national movement. His leadership had won the favor of the largely Kikuyu tribe. He was another dictator with utmost power; he was ruthless in dealing with any challenge to his authority. Once a Moscow-trained revolutionary himself, he accused Oginga Odinga’s faction of harboring communist allegiances. Kenyatta, like his Pan-African colleagues, portrayed the opposition as subversive and tribalistic. In 1960 Odinga was arrested and his party banned. Once again Kenya became a one-party state. Kenyatta’s regime, like those of Kaunda and Nkrumah, resorted to the killing and elimination of political opponents just to entrench his rule.

Kenyatta’s capitalist strategy aroused fierce dissension within Kenya’s one-party system. A former Mau Mau leader, Bildad Kaggia, attacked the government for allowing land to pass into the hands of individual Africans, some of whom were able to amass considerable landholdings. In spite of his training in Moscow, Kenyatta adhered to capitalist policies, encouraging both indigenous private enterprise and foreign investment. In the fifteen years that he presided over Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta enjoyed immense authority. Even critics of his government accorded him due respect. In his old age he ruled not so much by exercising direct control over the government as by holding court with an inner circle of loyal ministers and officials, predominantly Kikuyu from his home district of Kiambu, whom he entrusted with the administration of the country. He was accused of being a betrayer to those who fought for the liberation of Kenya.  In his book suffering without Bitterness, published in 1968 when he was president, he was even more forthright in denouncing the Mau Mau.

Jomo Kenyatta delighted in displays of dancing, and he spent many evenings watching entertainers dancing. He himself performed expertly as a dancer until he suffered from a heart attack in 1972, six years before his death. In his appreciation for music and dance, he can only be compared to Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and also President Leopold Senghor, who really cherished cultural folk music.

Following in Ghana’s, Zambia’s, and Kenya’s footsteps, Britain’s other territories in West Africa—Nigeria, Sierra Leone and even the tiny sliver of land known as The Gambia, a miniature colony consisting of little more than two river banks—made their way up the independence ladder. For more than a quarter of a century, The Gambia was one of sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-standing multiparty democracies. It was perceived (along with Botswana and Mauritius) as an “exception” on an African continent where authoritarianism and military regimes have been the norm. Apart from the aborted coup of 1981, the Gambia had enjoyed relative peace and stability since it attained independence from Britain in 1965. Unfortunately, the Gambia became a political casualty when a military coup led by 29-year-old Lt. Yahya Jammeh ended the oldest democracy, headed by Dawda Jawara, in 1994.

Dawda Jawara was unlike Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, and Seretse Khama, who had hailed from noble families, sons of tribal chiefs or kings. Jawara, on the other hand, had his origin as a member of a cobbler caste, the lowest caste in the Gambia. Nevertheless, because of his humble beginnings, he was looked upon favorably by some within the party and the electorate who claimed to, or in fact did,come from royal background . Thus, the issue of caste became less important because Jawara was among the few educated Gambians with a university degree at that time. He also originated from the largest Mandinka tribe.

Post-independence politics in the Gambia is inextricably tied into the life and personality of Dawda Jawara, the first president. On assuming leadership of the Gambia, Jawara built up a political system based on a free-market capitalist economy, which was also founded on democratic principles of protection of human rights and freedoms. Jawara also crafted a pro-Western foreign policy which generated a great deal of respect for him within the international community. Moreover, he brought in a substantial amount of much-needed foreign aid. Functioning with a multiparty legislature, the Gambia under Jawara evinced all the characteristics of a formal democracy. There were opposition parties, an independent and free press, an independent judiciary, a parliament with freely and fairly elected representatives, and a large private sector in the economy.

When analyzed, it could be said that the Gambia’s political history under the leadership of Jawara was smooth, but with occasional volcanic eruptions. Despite its democratic reputation and impressive human rights records, the country’s socioeconomic performance under Dawda Jawara was poor; living standards were some of the lowest in the continent (ranking 165 out of 177). Politics in Africa, especially during the 1960s and 1970s and early 1980s, tended to be dominated by one-party dictatorship and repressive military regimes, yet The Gambia under Dawda Jawara always maintained multi-party democracy,respect for rule of law and the protection of human rights and regurarity of elections.Sir Dawda’s liberal oligarchies and bourgeouis democracy,rampant corruption  and over stayed in power dented his record in sharp contrast to Khama and Mandela.

Under the leadership of Sir Seretse Khama, multiparty democracy in Botswana, contrary to the claims by Jomo Kenyatta, Nyerere, Nkrumah and Kaunda, did not degenerate into “tribal politics.” Rather Botswana, unlike many African nations, enjoys political stability. Yet this stability was not engineered by a military dictator or by declaring the country to be a one-party state. Botswana is a parliamentary democracy based upon a multi-party system. The main political parties are the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, the Botswana National Front, and the Botswana People’s Party.

Botswana has pursued strikingly prudent economic policies, allowing pragmatism, rather than emotional rhetoric, to prevail. The Botswana government under Seretse Khama is committed to a mixed economy which has not been directed toward nationalization—no such takeovers have occurred—but rather towards the provision of good infrastructural support. Seretse Khama ‘s legacy was similar to that of Dawda Jawara, but in contrast to that of Neyerere, Kaunda and Nkrumah, it was characterized by openness and a vibrant press, and there was a refreshing absence of corruption (unlike the Gambian government under Dawda Jawara). Botswana has been the bane of many African regimes. It has a lively free press and freedom of expression. The local publications are not subject to censorship, unlike in Zambia, Tanzania and Ghana, where the government controlled the private and public media and the public media is used as a government propaganda tool. Botswana can find solutions to its economic problems because it permits free debate and freedom of expression. By contrast, the rest of Black Africa is mired in an economic quagmire because of the want of ideas and solutions to extricate itself. Intellectual repression prevents those with ideas from coming forward. With the exception of Botswana, Senegal and the Gambia, the remaining African states cannot tolerate freedom of expression and criticism of foolish government policies. Sir Seretse, because of his background as a son of a traditional African chief, ensured that Botswana’s indigenous roots were maintained. Furthermore, in Botswana, chiefs still exercise considerable local authority and influence, which can act as a check on too-precipitate action by the government and can even swing local elections. This is in stark contrast to most African countries, where chiefs saw their powers and authority reduced after post-colonial independence.

Seretse Khama, like Dawda Jawara, and Ramgoolam, preached the gospel of inclusive democracy, and he aptly showed his commitment to democratic principles. Khama had no intention of adopting dictatorial methods of leadership. His brand of democracy was rare in all of Southern Africa. He proved that the claim made by colonial governments that Africans do not understand the importance of democratic practices was false. One of the values of Seretse Khama that is different from those of his colleagues is that he utilized the principles of inclusiveness in the process of designing national policy and implementing national programs. He is also different from those of his colleagues who don’t tolerate divergent views and ideas, as he values diversity of ideas and tolerance of different points of view on national issues.

Dr.Kenneth Kaunda, twice jailed by the British authorities, referred proudly to the fact that independence in Zambia had been achieved without bitterness. Kwame Nkrumah was also jailed by the British because they suspected him of committing subversive activities, and Jomo Kenyatta was jailed for inciting violence during his alleged involvement in the Mau Mau movement. Seretse Khama was not jailed by the British, but he was banished from Buchuanaland because of his marriage to an English woman. When he became president of Botswana, he was deeply attached to the British. Sir Dawda Jawara and Sir Seretse Khama were both knighted by the British in 1966. Kenyatta has one of the most poignant statements about the British, “Our law, our system of government and many other aspects of  our daily lives are founded on British principle and Justice.(Martin,2005).

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the first leader of Mauritius, operated under the same internalized leadership codes as Sir Seretse. Ramgoolam was more explicit in charting his vision, however—much in the manner of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Ramgoolam was able to give Mauritius a robust democratic beginning that has been sustained by a series of wise successors from different backgrounds and parties (Rotberg ,2007). Both Khama and Ramgoolam could have emulated many of their contemporaries in establishing strong, single-man, kleptocratic regimes. They refused to do so, in the process demonstrating that positive leadership does make a difference.

Likewise, without Nelson Mandela’s capable leadership, South Africa after 1994 would have emerged from the cauldron of apartheid more fractured and autocratic. Mandela’s vision dictated vigorous adherence to a comprehensive rule of law, a broadening of the essential services  and a slow shift away from the existing command economy toward one that was market driven (Rothberg, 2007). Nelson Mandela’s era of presidency was a moment of liberation that was felt around the world. Mandela was once asked how different was the man who emerged from prison after twenty-seven years. He replied, with characteristic brevity, “I came out mature” (Martin,2005). Mandela disliked talking about himself and allowed few glimpses into his personal thoughts or emotions. The years of imprisonment had turned him into an intensely private person.

Mandela was determined never to lose sight of the goal of nonracial democracy, believing that whites’ fear of Blacks in government positions could eventually be overcome. The example he set was of profound importance. He emerged from prison and insisted on reconciliation, which undermined the demands of those seeking revenge and retribution. His generosity of spirit also had a profound impact on his white adversaries, earning him measures of trust and confidence that laid the foundations for political stability. His inspired leadership proved critical both in launching a new society atop the ashes of the old and in implanting a culture of good governance and democracy (Rothberg, 2007). It was Mandela’s leadership that many attributed to achieving liberation. The transfer of power was accomplished in an atmosphere of much goodwill and brought with it the closing of an era of three centuries of white rule.

South Africa could not have moved so rapidly to a democracy without Mandela’s instinctive, open gift for harmony over disorder and democracy over authoritarianism (Rothberg 2007). If Mandela had not set South Africa firmly on a path toward good governance, it is possible that Mbeki’s centralizing tendencies would have unraveled the concord between classes and colors that Mandela had forged during his presidency.

Though their styles of leadership were vastly different, these African leaders, riding the crest of popularity, all stepped forward with energy and enthusiasm to tackle the task of development and nation-building. Ambitious plans were launched, and expectations were high. The march of African nationalism seemed invincible. Leadership that emerged after independence was characterized by pretentious, megalomaniacal venality. In other places the leadership dogmatically embraced alien revolutionary ideals, assumed the trappings of foreign cultures, and misperceived the process of development. The irony was that many African leaders came to assume some of the very same characteristics they so loudly denounced in the colonialists, imperialists, and those who were racist. There were only a few men—namely Mandela, Khama and Ramgoolam—who became servants of their people by addressing the needs and aspirations of their people without contempt and putting the needs and wishes of their people above their own desire for power.


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