The Crisis of Leadership in Africa: What Awolowo Would Say, By Adeolu Ademoyo

Adeolu Ademoyo

“In the second place, African leaders fail to appreciate the compulsive role which hereditary-and environment play in a man’s unconscious motivations, tendencies and habits, be they physical or mental. (Obafemi Awolowo: The Problems of Africa: The Need For Ideological Reappraisal, Accra, Macmillan, Press, 1977, p. 37) .

Given the phenomenal  heartbreaking social, economic, and technological progress other nations and peoples have made to radically lift their peoples out of abject poverty, and negate the sense of inferiority complex often ascribed to peoples  and nations who fail to solve simple existential problems other nations are solving, and given the failure of most African nations,  especially Nigeria, to solve simple, elementary  and basic social problems, it is obvious that the most important question in the  21st  century  would be whether or  not there is an African leadership capacity that is capable of lifting Africa out of abject poverty which we have sunk into and which has become a badge of inferiority for us  among world peoples.

 In my own solemn and private  belief that  Africa’s problems are best solved by progressive  African working peoples and through the works and thoughts of  progressive African minds, I have quietly gone back to re-read one  of Africa’s finest leaders and realist  thinkers –Obafemi Awolowo.  As a result of the practicality of his work  even when it is a product of deep theoretical engagement with our problems,  I am placing aspects of his works that are relevant to Nigeria and Africa’s search for new leadership in the public domain. Please read, critique, adapt and take your decision.

Here is one man who combines depth of thought with practice, who was no armchair critic, who physically was on the streets, the public domain of politics,  in the mud, thinking,  arguing, struggling, succeeding, making mistakes, looking at Africa’s problems with  empathy brewed with rational and empathetic mind, ceaselessly trying to solve problems,  and figuratively speaking “dirtying his hands” in the process,  and looking at those mistakes with some long rational and dispassionate eye and mind and, never passing the buck to anyone except himself for the buck stops on the table of the leader of inestimable moral and political value, thus openly taking responsibility for his mistakes and actions. Hence, it seems to me that when such a quintessential  mind pronounces on Africa’s problems,  it will be fundamental, and it will be  done  with depth,  the finest of insight and with profound  rational penetration of the problem. Thus, it is obvious that we have something to gain if we listen.

Awolowo becomes pertinent in re-inventing African leadership and locally Nigerian leadership because he goes to the core of the  African leadership crisis. And the core of that crisis is  the historical condition and conditioning of the African elite class from which members of African leadership have been drawn.

The African philosophical fragment which justifies Awolowo’s move can be stated this way: “We inspect the bent load on the head of a subject whose  legs are  crooked and whose crooked legs and structure are unknown to us. We call public attention to the bent load. We ask why the load on the subject’s head  is bent and not erect. The subject replies that by looking at his head, we are inspecting the wrong place. He advises that his crooked legs which are responsible for the bent load on his head are what we should check and not the bent load” In other words look at the foundation before looking at what is erected on the foundation.

Let us take examples of failure of leadership both in political, economic, developmental, programmatic  and cultural spheres in Nigeria. For conscious and metaphorical  reasons I  will take health policies and programs, because the health of a country is an aggregate of the health of its individual citizens.  And the “health” and sanity  of a country’s leadership and how that health is derived also points to the health  of the country.

Recently, Mrs.  Jonathan, -the wife of our President, who has first hand knowledge of the mindset of our President and how the mind of our President works, followed the path of Mrs. Obasanjo, ex-President Yar adua, Senator David Mark to seek so-called medical care abroad. While Mrs. Obasanjo and President Yar’Adua unfortunately did not survive being treated by foreign medical hands, Mrs. Jonathan did and returned to publicly  re-launch her health with millions of  naira contribution from members of the class of people that would pass as the leadership class in Nigeria. Thus, one must wonder where in the civilized and democratic world such act from Mrs. Jonathan would have happened.

But the  more important question which is about leadership, around which Obafemi Awolowo’s thought centers and makes prominent,  is: why would  an African “leader”- a President who is privileged to hold the rein of power  and who is privileged to  use that power to build  first rate hospitals  refuse to do so? Why will such President  and African leaders and members of  their  families go  abroad to be treated by medical doctors who may know next to nothing about tropical medicine and who may have to rely on same African doctors from the same country the African leader(s) come from to treat these same African leaders and members of their families?  In other words why would Mrs. Obasanjo, Mrs. Jonathan, Senator Mark, President Yar adua,  Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke etc abandon building Nigerian hospitals but decide to go abroad to seek medical care each time they fall sick?  I make the health odyssey abroad  of so-called leaders  a conscious choice to map the socio-psychology of African “leaders”.  Their practices and acts in the sphere of health are valid for their practices in other spheres such as education, economy etc.

Obafemi Awolowo offers answers to these strange questions by first identifying  the slave and colonial social  hereditary factors that have brutalized the psyche of African ‘leaders”. Second he makes one of the most radical  but subtle observation  about  the socio-psychology of African “leaders” which ultimately explains their failure. Awolowo’s observation is subtle it can be missed as it has been missed  before by many. He observes that African “leaders” fail to acknowledge and admit   to themselves the brutal nature of slavery and colonialism on their psyche. In other words, it is a problem they do not see and therefore which they can never and will never be able to solve. Another African philosophical fragment helps illustrate what Awolowo means. The fragment says “An insane person is cured the day he recognizes his insanity… but if he does not recognize it, he  will remain insane…” The fragment is a  social truth about human psychology.

This is the way Obafemi Awolowo puts it with respect to African “leaders”: “…So far as one can see, there is nothing in their actions to suggest that they have at any time taken the trouble to analyze and ascertain with objectivity the components of their heredity and true nature of their environment.  On the contrary, there is strong evidence that they feel ashamed of their past and are unreasonably sensitive about any reference to it. … we must bear in mind the peculiar type of inhuman and degrading experiences  to which our ancestors had been subjected for many centuries, and the genetic effects of these experiences on their descendants…It is because of African leaders’ failure in this regard that they are so prone  to a number  of antics ,  rationalizations and projections, and to many public postures  which  are not defensible on objective rational grounds. For instance as a result of suppressed feelings of inferiority, they indulge  in exhibitionism and a nauseating aping of the White man, especially in things that do not matter.”-(my emphasis)(Obafemi Awolowo: The problems of Africa: The Need For Ideological Reappraisal. P.38). Awolowo is talking about “leaders” he has taken time to observe directly on a one on one basis, so we must admit that this is no armchair observation.  The facts show that the deduction  is sound and unimpeachable.

Read the relevant Awolowo’s work here.

The same question also goes for the decadent elite class in the cultural and economic sphere. And the question is: why will these so-called  elites in the sphere of culture and entertainment specialize in importing common Hollywood prostitutes and sluts  who call themselves celebrities and stars and pay them with our own money in order to use their morally  defiled bodies to grace events in Nigeria and  by that act confuse our youths and children?

Awolowo has a simple answer to these questions. He postulates two factors. First, he believes it’s colonial, hereditary and environment. Second is the failure of these elites to acknowledge the impact and effect of these political colonial and slavery hereditary factors on their psyche. Again,  I think Awolowo is best read in his own words. Readers should therefore permit me to render him succinctly. Awolowo argues that: “But whether we like it or not the truth is that Africans of today  are  creatures of unusual hereditary and environment.  For in all the wide world, no continent, no people have been subjected  to brutalization and dehumanization   for so long and for such a terrible scale as Africa  and her people had been. In any effort therefore to identify Africa’s problems  and to devise solutions for them  we must bear in mind the particular type of inhuman  and degrading experiences to which  our ancestors had been subjected  for many centuries and the genetic effects  of these experiences on their descendants.  …”(p38).

 No where is this aptly demonstrated by the way Nigerian  “leaders” ruin the  economy  with insane corruption while carting away proceeds of this insanity and depositing them in foreign banks to develop the economy of  host western countries which technologically and economically are  more advanced and therefore better of and countries we again beg for loan!.   It is a paradox that aptly demonstrates Awolowo’s thesis on African and Nigerian “leaders”.

We no longer need to re-itemize those failure indicators of Nigerian “leaders” and other African “leaders”.  We are looking for  a way out. Hence, the following questions are relevant for all of us  who are committed to helping our dear country. What kind of leader and what kind follower are you? Are you a leader who is  still a victim of what Awolowo correctly calls “ feeling of inferiority   which makes African and Nigerian leaders indulge in exhibitionism…?”(p.38).  Will you prefer to pay $10,000  to foreign economies and to  be treated in so-called foreign hospitals in India, Europe, US etc by doctors   who do not know you rather than build hospitals at home, in Nigeria, in Africa  where we all can go to and be well treated with respect  and dignity while at the same time developing the local economy?  Again the health example is valid for  how these so-called “leaders” and present Nigerian leadership have run other spheres of our lives.  Are you ready to tolerate “leaders”  and “leadership” who do not know their left from their right hand, who had already mortgaged our future, but who are on the way to mortgaging the future of our children – born and  unborn?

For patriots  and nationalists who are charting a new, nationalistic,  open, civilized, more progressive, people oriented, democratic, equitable and just  path for Nigeria and who desire  to re-invent Nigerian leadership and contribute to the resolution of this solvable  leadership crisis for the benefit of our today and our children’s tomorrow, I recommend the embedded excerpts  from one of Africa’s finest leaders who toiled  and struggled to make Nigeria work.  We can solve Africa’s and Nigeria leadership crisis. We only need some introspection by looking within.

As we mark Obafemi Awolowo’s birthday, I say God Bless Nigeria, God bless Nigerian Citizens. May the deep always be able to call to the deep as Obafemi Awolowo would meditate on and say.

Read the excerpts of Awolowo’s article I used in this work here.

Adeolu Ademoyo ( is of Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

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