Who advises African leaders?

>Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

MOST of the early literature on African leaders and African governance has been produced by Eurocentric scholars, journalists and other intellectual tourists. As a result, African leaders have been written about in terms of their extreme excesses and spectacular deficiencies.

In Eurocentric thought and literature there is hardly any moderate understanding of Africa, every wrong thing about the continent comes in extremes. Besides the western scholars, journalists and intellectual tourists, the Africans who have written of African leaders and their thought are mainly scholars and journalists that are trained in Eurocentric colleges and Westernised universities in Africa.

For that reason, most of the African literature on African leaders and their thoughts reproduces and mirrors the negative Eurocentric narratives. Since matters of leadership and governance are increasing in their importance in Africa and the world at large, it is important to examine the sources of honest advice and constructive information and knowledge that are available for African leaders.

Typical Eurocentric writers like Anthony Kirk Greene who has lampooned African leaders as seekers after eternity, eccentricity and exemplarity are not honest sources of advice because they spew hatred and prejudice. Bigots like David Lamb can also not be taken on their word because their reportage on African leaders is clearly for the entertainment of racist Western audiences who will believe such stories as the claim that “in Africa people do not get old, they die young, the secret is to be ten years old.”

On their own, some African leaders have sadly built unseemly reputations for taking leadership and governance advice from sangomas and the prophets, or relying on dreams for important national decisions. Besides that, African leaders have also embraced ideologies and schools of thought that have frequently degenerated into what Achille Mbembe has called “Afroradicalism” and “nativism.” For that reason, exactly who advises African leaders  is a question that must assume some importance to all those that are interested in African liberation beyond the decolonisation that is proving to be a cloud that does not bear rain as Africans continue to wallow in misery many decades after political independence from colonialism.

The political party as a school

In all liberation movements of the Global South, political parties or movements tend to become schools and ideological organisations from which leaders can tap information, knowledge and advice. For that reason, a good political party, governing or in opposition, should have within it informed and serious thought leaders.

These thought leaders of the party or the movement should not necessarily be bound by the party ideological line, but must be prepared to tell the leader painful but true and honest advice. The danger of the political party as a school and a source of advice is that very easily the leader gets given bad advice by ambitious cadres who wish to succeed the leader upon his fall. The other danger is that of the toxic people that Niccolo Machiavelli warned princes about – the flatterers and sycophants. A wise leader should openly tell his advisers and even gossipers who volunteer rumours that he or she is open to honest truths not just destructive and false praises. Flatterers and sycophants have brought great organisations and great leaders to dust.

Our friends from abroad

In every country, when colonial administrations fell during decolonisation most colonial administrators left the country or retired to their oblivion. But there remained a few so called experienced experts who volunteered their advice to the new black regimes. These generous remnants of the colonial regime have brought many African governments to naught with their bad advice and spying activities, where they keep western governments informed on what African governments are up to.

There are also Western experts and expatriates that are hired by African governments supposedly for their experience, modern know-how and know-what, these are the Greeks who come carrying gifts. These too have dispensed toxic advice and spied away the future of many an Africa government and leader. The South African reconciliation paradigm opened the road for many apartheid regime scholars, intelligence personalities and other advisors to worm themselves into being advisors and trusted consultants for the black government. The damage that these experienced experts have done to the liberation movement in South Africa is a story that is yet to be told. Many African governments and leaders have allowed themselves to be advised by their enemies.

Unhelpful media extremes

Sadly the privately owned African media that are positioned to critique African political regimes become too hostile for them to be taken as constructive advisers; they tend to be treated by governments as extensions of the political opposition. The state controlled media who are naturally inclined to support the governing political establishments become too supportive and even sycophantic to be taken seriously and to dispense candid advice. The media in Africa are too polarized along the lines of public and private, pro-government and anti-government to the extent that they trade in unhelpful extremes.

There is need for government to give more room for government controlled media to be critical and another need for privately owned media to critique governments in such a way that they are critical but not hostile in order for them to retain a legitimate voice. There is also a need in Africa for the structure and nature of media ownership and control to be revised so that the media have more room to trade in honest truths that have no bias towards profit or political power.

IMF and World Bank

Some countries are led by, not governing but managing leaders and political parties. The real governments are IMF and World Bank, what the president and the ruling party do is simply to manage the country based on instructions from the Bretton Woods regime. The ordinary people of these countries live in worse misery than the one they saw during colonialism. The tyranny of the market forces that IMF and World Bank rule with is hateful of the poor.

Spooks and the spies

Some African leaders rule as kings or queens. The king or the queen makes decisions as an individual relying on information from the intelligence, the spooks and the spies. Intelligence is another name for institutionalised rumours and gossip. Leaders that rule on the basis of intelligence tend to be suspicious and irritable. Their governments do not enjoy stability as ministers are continuously reshuffled and fired, and they live in perpetual fear of the leader.

As a result, powerful intelligence officials end up manipulating the fear and suspicion of the leader, using him or her to run the country. Witch-hunting and rumour-mongering becomes the business of the day in such countries and so much energy is exhausted on leadership squabbles and the commerce on rumours instead of governing and leading.


While in the West countries and leaders rely on think tanks and research institutes for governing ideas, in Africa some leaders listen to their trusted friends or comrades from past battles. There are certain powerful people in Africa who run countries through their friendship with presidents and prime-ministers. Once in a while, these individuals tend to be veterans of the liberation struggle, powerful business people and sometimes prophets or sangomas. The danger of these lucky and powerful individuals to manipulate the leader for personal gain or mislead him or her even if it is not deliberate is always there.

Some African leaders draw advice from other African leaders, current or retired. Most of the times, this advice from retired or present fellow African leaders, is almost always in the form of tricks and strategies for political survival and not solid advice for good leadership.

The question of who exactly advises African leaders, who they listen to and draw governing ideas and knowledge is central to the future of Africa and its liberation from enduring coloniality. Advice from within the party or from our friends from abroad, even if it is really friendly wisdom, will not be enough to sustain African countries and the continent itself in this increasingly difficult world. In the near future, this column will delve into the interesting discussion of the relationship between African governments and decolonial knowledge.

It is fundamental for African leaders to seek and find or build institutions and networks from which they can draw cold and dry, frank and fruitful governing information and ideas that will not alienate them from their people or make them international political tourist attractions, for the wrong reasons.

l Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa

January 2017
« Dec   Feb »