Purposefully, and without fanfare, 11 prominent African leaders spent last weekend at the Kennedy School diagnosing the dilemma of elected political leadership in Africa. Why, asked two former presidents, two former prime ministers, a foreign minister, and a clutch of current and former ministers, did so many promising democrats become autocrats after their first terms in office? Why have so many initially honest leaders become corrupt? Why have so many elected officials preyed on their own peoples as kleptocrats?
These uncomfortable questions, and many others, were the consuming topics of vigorous meetings over three days. The African leaders contrasted their continent’s pattern of rulership with leadership, the former serving only a family or clique, the latter serving a whole people and nation. No one blamed overweening rulership and autocratic tendencies on colonial rule, or on impoverished circumstances and economic impediments. Instead, they sought cultural and deeply ingrained historical explanations for leadership weaknesses and inadequacies. If so, they asked, why have Botswana and Mauritius always produced effective leaders while other countries, such as Zimbabwe and Nigeria, have not?
Remedies were discussed, including the possibility of a Kennedy School training program for future elected leaders. The participants also want to consider preparing a Code of African Leadership. But action on these and other items was deferred until a second meeting of the leaders, to be held on African soil in October.
The Kennedy School conclave was organized by its Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution. The meeting was facilitated by Robert I. Rotberg, who directs the program and is president of the World Peace Foundation, and David R. Gergen, director of the School’s Center for Public Leadership.