African Leadership in an Era of Turbulence #Realnews5thAnniversaryLecture


By Obiageli Ezekwesili


WHAT is Leadership? Leadership is the activity of leading, inspiring and motivating a group of people to accomplish a common objective or goal. Furthermore, it is the process of social influence, which inspires and guides the followers of a leader to perform specific tasks. It is the capacity of an individual to mobilize group resource for the purpose of accomplishing an agreed vision, purpose, object, goal or target. Leadership can be done by anyone anywhere and anytime. So we actually can all be leaders in any era and at any moment. TO SOLVE ANY PROBLEM OF HUMANKIND takes LEADERSHIP. The spectrum goes from the least to the most complex.

For example, when there is a TRAFFIC CHAOS on the highway in say Nairobi or Lagos and confusion reigns with gridlock there is a problem to be solved. Anyone of you who resides in Lagos would agree that “traffic jam” is indeed a major problem when it occurs. In the chaos of a typical Lagos gridlock no one makes progress while the shouts and blaring of horns and road raging grinds everyone to a halt. In such situation, the leader is that ONE PERSON that counts the cost of “Do Nothing” as higher than the risk of insults that will emanate should they rise to the necessity and challenge of taking and leading the actions that could solve the problem and de-congestion the road for motorists. If such person decided to sacrifice his or her comfort by stepping in to nonetheless attempt to solve the problem, what follows is “practical leadership in action”.

To solve the gridlock problem requires a process of Leadership. It is certain that the person will receive some unmerited insults immediately they step up to the need and make an attempt to first calm down the angry road users caught in the gridlock. As the individual next starts proposing TECHNICAL SOLUTIONS that will persuade each driver to move their car in a certain direction until the logjam is untangled some of the people will question and disobey every instruction he/she gives. Don’t even begin to imagine the extent that the opposition would rise if this “emergent Leader” happens to be a woman! In that case, she would have to be doubly determined than her male counterpart but one thing is gender neutral.

It is that regardless of the gender of the individual, they do have a choice when their attempt to serve a common good is opposed. They may simply give up and re-enter their own car to watch on helplessly defeated by the stress of attempting leadership. Or He/she may be singularly minded, ignore the insults and find a way to dismantle the gridlock by standing at the center of the chaos. If they choose to remain, it would require patient and diligent persuasion of all until they succeed in convincing and mobilizing the people caught in the gridlock to act in certain ways that can help unlock the congestion and solve their COMMON problem.

As this individual persists, suddenly the gridlock is broken and the road is cleared with every driver well on their way happy to have escaped a costly paralysis that costs Lagos and its residents some of their productivity everyday. What do you think happened there? Well, there was a turbulence- that is, a crisis – and A LEADER EMERGED to fix it. The Leader fixes things.

In a turbulent era, the Leader not only fixes things to end the turbulence but goes farther to stabilize the future by building in resilience that prevents a relapse. Is their legitimate reason to consider this era a turbulent one for Africa? WHY DOES AFRICA NEED SOME KIND OF SPECIAL LEADERSHIP AT THIS TIME? Many reasons can be adduced. Although the continent arguably in a spring season of Africa Rising, there are myriad of issues to be fixed. Has Africa not always been in a perpetual cycle of turbulence? Does its poor developmental performance not amount to inherent turbulence for its people?

There is of course factual data evidencing that Africa has performed better in sustaining Growth (rising from negative growth and maximum of 2-3% growth per annum in the 1980s to 90s to average of 4-5% pa since the early 2000s until the global economic recession to now. And it quickly reverted into positive trending up of growth following the various cycles of protracted global economic crisis that has started and has continued since 2008/2009. Regardless of this cheering turning of the corner into economic growth, the continent remains the most daunting development challenge for the world.

It is widely known that the level of social, economic, cultural and political progress we have made as a continent, as individual countries and as a people is nothing to compare with our possibility. Just take our continent’s Gross Domestic Product- GDP. It was about 1.7 trillion dollars in 2016 — the equivalent of the GDP of Brazil. I mean GDP of one country is similarly in size with that of a combined one for 54 Countries of Africa! By economic modeling, we should be more than triple that size were the continent doing the right things in economic leadership.

Chigbo welcoming Ezekwesili
Chigbo welcoming Ezekwesili

Were the whole of Africa being effectively led and governed, its performance would be significantly better than that. An Africa with the right types of leadership to offer our businesses and citizens and people within our territories the opportunity to maximize their potentials would be remarkably more prosperous, safer and stable. The continent has batted extremely below its possibilities. Why? It is because we suffer from a crisis and famine of leadership.


The world has evolved so rapidly that knowledge of how to do anything is widely available and accessible. Today, countries know the framework or pathway to Development. Within the 20th Century to date, countries that were once very poor have used the combination of sound macroeconomic, micro-economic, sectoral and structural policies to kick start their development process. As such countries did and concurrently ensure the emergence of positive “ways of doing things” – that is – evolved strong institutions that are founded on the rule of law setting the rules of the game, they fast tracked their development process.

Next they identified the right mix of investment priorities that they required and did so efficiently and effectively. They embarked on key public investment that provided basic public goods and services for both entire populations — especially the poor — and critical infrastructure/world class talents and skills for the private sector. Hardly any country that went from third world to first sidestepped this framework of the Development process even if the nuances of each specific country reflected their peculiarities.

If that is so, what then stopped our African countries from following this well-known pathway to Development? More than ever before, research is offering better proof of the role of Leadership or the lack of it in the Development process. The evidence of many research into the Development process have shown that it is impossible for any country to develop without Good Governance.


Good governance is about the processes for making and implementing decisions. It’s not only about making ‘correct’ decisions, but about the best possible process for making those decisions. Good decision-making processes, and therefore good governance, share several characteristics. Good governance signifies the way an administration improves the standard of living of the members of its society by creating and making available the basic amenities of life; providing its people security, inspiring them to aspire to build a promising future when it provides on an equal & equitable basis, access to opportunities for personal growth; availing them the space to participate and the capacity to help shape public policy; it includes the architecture of a responsive judicial system which dispenses justice on merits in a fair, unbiased and meaningful manner; and more fundamentally for a government it means the sum total of a Value Infrastructure that ensures transparency, accountability, probity and overriding integrity in each wing or functionary of the Government.

Ezekwesili with Agwai
Ezekwesili with Agwai

The UN Economic Commission states that “Good Governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the view of minorities is taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society”.

Building lasting institutions, structures, systems and processes are prerequisite to the evolution of Good Governance. I have chosen to elaborate more on five of these; namely, participation, the rule of law, transparency, accountability and effectiveness/efficiency especially because the other three are mostly self- explanatory and can be achieved through participation.

Participation advocates for the broad inclusion of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems beyond the basic premise that Democracy offers the citizens the opportunity to be in power by determining who governs them. Participatory democracy tends to advocate more involved forms of citizen participation than the basics. Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to decision making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities.

A governance culture that nourishes and encourages the voice of citizens in public debate of policies, priorities and legislation while being accommodating of dissension goes a long way in ensuring continuous increase in the scale of participation. Governments that encourage participation usually respect citizens’ right to associate freely and to express themselves without fear of repression.

Rule of law is defined by the UN as “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.”

Good governance requires fair legal frameworks that are enforced impartially. It also requires full protection of human rights, particularly those of minorities. It is generally established that for any modern democracy to earn its credentials “the Rule of Law” must be indispensable within its territory. It advocates and guarantees equal accountability of all before the law irrespective of their high or low status and such impartial enforcement of laws requires an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force and we shall come to this more substantively later.

Transparency is, operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are taken by those who govern and the institutions they lead such that decisions taken and their enforcement are done in a manner that follows rules and regulations or simply put acting in accordance with known rules of the game. Transparency suggests that government, its agencies and agents conduct affairs in a way that everyone who desires to follow the actions being taken can have access to the totality of relevant information. It therefore means that information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement. It also means that enough information is provided and that it is provided in easily understandable forms and media.

Accountability, simply put, is the concept that lays down an expectation that in governance those who exercise authority on the basis of public trust must be answerable, blameworthy, liable, and such other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving according to Dykstra Clarence Addison who wrote “The Quest for Responsibility” as far back as 1939. In general an organization or an institution is accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions.

Ezekwesili, Kuru and Chigbo
Ezekwesili, Ahmed Kuru, MD, Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, AMCON, and Maureen Chigbo, Publisher/Editor, Realnews

Accountability is the currency of leadership in that it is a duty that a leader owes those that have granted him or her legitimacy to exercise authority on their behalf. True leadership must come with the readiness of the leader to acknowledge their responsibility for actions, decisions, and policies in governance, and implementation specific to the expectations of their office as well as the fulfillment of their obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences. So you cannot be one of those who like to lead but have no interest in accepting the public Accountability that goes with it as you cannot have one without the other without compromising the integrity of governance.

But what does accountability look like? It means that an institution, sector, arm of government or individual accepts responsibility for the outcomes expected of them —both good and bad. For example, at this time that Nigerian citizens are eager to see conclusive arraignment, prosecution and sanctioning of the corrupt, the EFCC, ICPC, Police and other investigative arms, the Ministry of Justice, lawyers and above all, the Judiciary are under intense public scrutiny. The public has expectations that cases of corruption will be thoroughly investigated and speedily prosecuted and concluded and that the guilty will in reality be jailed.

Accountability would therefore instruct all the law enforcement bodies, the Bar and the Bench to fully align with public agitation, demand and expectation for corruption to be well investigated, successfully and conclusively prosecuted. Already, the Nigerian public has begun to cast suspicious glances at the enforcement and sanctions groups for the worrying signals that “they have often dropped the ball as the weakest link” even when there is strong political commitment to punish bad behavior in the country. The Judiciary in particular must thus rise to the expectation of citizens to see crime properly sanctioned consistently and compliant with due process. To do so, is to be accountable to the citizens and in a Democracy, all arms of government – executive, legislature and judiciary are subject to the Nigerian people.

Effectiveness and efficiency: Good governance means that processes and institutions produce results from well formulated and executed policies and priorities that meet the needs of society while making the best use of resources at their disposal in a value for money targeted manner. The concept of efficiency in the context of good governance also covers the sustainable use of natural resources and the protection of the environment. Strategy wise, having effective and efficient governance that is subjected public scrutiny and accountability.

The second part relates to the performance of the public sector on the connection between policy and implementation. Whether looked at structurally or institutionally, a sound public financial management system operated by competent and capable public servants is a fundamental anchor for effectiveness and efficiency with the ultimate goal being results for citizens in the delivery of basic services and other responsibilities of government.


Good Governance as a process is result oriented and never an end in itself. Good Governance seeks to deliver results that improve the standard of living of citizens. Good Governance comes from leaders who are enlightened, transparent, have a clear political philosophy and solid development vision and strategies, and are able to communicate all these to their constituents as they execute them.

Waheed Olagunju, Akpan Ekpo, Ezekwesili, Ahmed Kuru, Chigbo and Siky Aliyu
Waheed Olagunju, Akpan Ekpo, Ezekwesili, Ahmed Kuru, Chigbo and Siky Aliyu

Countries like Singapore which have emerged within five decades as models of Good Governance demonstrate this through their socio- economic progress. Their progress is best exemplified by the high income per capita of $65,000 greater than some more advanced countries that were ahead of Singapore in the 1960s. Today, the citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries of the results produced by Leadership that led for an era that was no easier in uncertainty and crises than what the world faces today. To the extent that Good Governance is a process that is human led to that extent is Leadership INTEGRAL to the Development.

We can make an inference from the features of Good Governance what Poor Governance looks like and produces. It is accurate to surmise that Poor/Bad Governance is the opposite of all the attributes of Good Governance. Poor Governance has severe consequences on the society, the polity, the economy and worst of all, the citizens- especially on the poor and the most vulnerable.

Environments of poor governance are most susceptible to corruption as the incentive and reward system become perverted. By the failure of leadership to set the pattern of reward for good conduct and punishment of criminality, the rest of society adapt to the distortion. Since humans are mostly rational beings, in societies, it is what gets rewarded that gets supplied.

Research validates this and shows that in whatever society the act of corruption is profitable and carries low cost, there will be incentive for more corruption. So corruption proliferates in such society and opens the door for more opportunity to engage in newer types of corrupt behaviour. Where there is little or no consequences for corrupt conduct, it attains an attractive and hugely rewarding option, thereby proliferating as more people join the low-cost and non-risky route to riches. And society begins to degenerate because incentives and values become distorted with the right conducts of honesty and hard work no longer considered to be rewarding.

Circling back to the Sound Policies, Strong Institutions and Effective/Efficient Investments in public goods and services loop again, it is easy to conclude that even in the turbulent 21st Century, the absence of Good Governance will remain an obstacle to Development. Leadership is at the center and common to all the three variables in the framework. For our continent, it is more evident that the absence of Good Governance is as result of a crisis of leadership which expresses itself in all forms of deficit and variability of improvement at every level of government. Such Leadership deficit has rendered African counties not capable of fully galvanizing the right policy, institutional and investment mix required for its own Development process. Leadership is at the center and common to all the three variables in the framework.

In policy making and execution, you need leaders. You need people who can share and help set clear vision that inspires most of their people. Such people who can assemble those who are competently trained and thus capable of thinking through complex sectoral and thematic issues, identify key and associated constraints, threats and problems as well as strengths and opportunities. Such people that can propose options of tested and data validated solutions and who have the capacity and willingness to choose the best possible solution option without compromise of the common good. In Policy Leadership you need people who can mobilize the range of human, technical and financial resources necessary for successful execution and therefore can lead the execution process until results are generated. Policy making requires People who even when the result of a policy is failure; are willing to swiftly learn from it by reviewing and reformatting their approach. Policy leadership requires people who welcome feedback from all segments and stakeholders in society and feel obliged to be accountable to them.

For building strong institutions, you also need leadership. You need people who take charge of starting off the institutions building process and can sustain effort until they evolve as a practice. It a false dichotomy to debate a zero sum game relationship between the role of institutions and individuals in nation building and development processes. They are not mutually exclusive at all.

We need individuals as much as we need institutions. It will take “good”, “strong” individuals to lay down the foundation for the emergence of durable and predictable systems, processes, procedures, structures. But it will also require “good” and “strong” individuals to sustain the established practices through adherence to the rules and submission to inbuilt checks and balances.

Mr. Paul Ejime, International Communications Consultant congratulating Ezekwesili

The institutional process cannot be merely legislated. That is why codification can be regarded as progress but must not be seen as an end in itself in the process of institutions. It is also why establishing an agency with responsibility for an aspect of governance is progress but must not be conflated as an institution. In societies still in infancy in the institution building process, we first need a few good men and women to lead our law and enforcement processes, our judiciaries, our customs, immigration, audit offices, accountant general’s offices, our PAC, our parliaments, and such other agencies of democratic societies. What Legislation can offer a society are the letters of the law and an agency. It will however take years of arduous work for their acceptance and entrenchment as a body of practice to happen.

Institutions start evolving as these “good and strong people” lead effectively and according to their statutory mandates and while doing so, concurrently engage citizens in ensuring adherence by entrenching probity, accountability and transparency. Over time, these “few good and strong people” would have set a standard of performance in their interpretation and execution of laws, policies, systems, processes and procedures. Such standard setting goes on to exemplify how the agencies or arms of government should work for the wellbeing of the society and improvement of quality of life of citizens.

As the internal leadership of such agencies set the path of progress, it will reach a threshold of time, when citizens will come to expect those predictable standards. What follows next is they will begin to insist that those “things” – that is “rules” – must work predictably and progressively regardless of who runs them. It is when a society attains this level that countries begin to boast of having Institutions! It is at this stage in the institutions evolutionary process that people in society begin to learn what, why, how and when to expect “certain things” and how to respond appropriately when what happens falls short of their expectation.

Therefore, all African countries urgently need agencies or departments of government to be run by the right people. We need people who have the training and the attitude necessary to deliver good governance outcomes that will make their society prosper and become stable. It will take the right individuals to lay down the foundation for lasting systems, processes, procedures, structures and also good individuals within (leaders and subordinates) and without (citizens and other bodies exercising their Checks and Balances roles) to sustain it. The institutional process cannot be legislated into existence. All that legislation does is help to codify and commence the evolutionary process in institutions building.

For effective and efficient investments we also need leaders. We need leaders who understand that resources are so scarce (for example, Ghana’s total public budget for solving a myriad of needs is less than one tenth of New York City budget) and therefore they are committed to ensuring that every cedi spent generates the highest value in results i.e. more children attaining good learning outcomes from our school system for the education budget, less women and children needlessly dying from diseases and lack of maternal and children’s health services, value for money in road construction and availability of electricity, etc.

The leaders that give their countries effective and efficient investments in public goods never consider government spending as their own pathway to personal riches. They eschew such ignoble and contemptible schemes that can undermine the high order objective of ensuring that public goods are delivered to individual and business use. They do not reduce the opportunity to serve their people to an opportunity for transactions by awarding contracts to themselves and their cronies. They invest effectively and efficiently in the range of projects that will produce highest impact on development by reducing the cost of doing business which is what still makes the continent a little less attractive than other parts of the world and hence limits the volume of private investment that should complement Government’s.

According to World Bank estimates, Africa requires more than $93 Billion annually to bridge the infrastructure gap which currently makes it a high transaction cost and therefore not competitive destination for local and foreign investments. So, leaders responsible for public investment must arise to ensure that we can first, do much more with the little we have– increase our value for money ratios significantly. Then second, as signals and data show impressive value for money in the governance of our public resources, more private capital will find our continent attractive to flow into and help solve other problems in those sectors that most need them.

From all I have said so far, we can now see that we are paying direly for the absence of the right quality of leadership in our governments and even businesses and wider society. What does “right leadership” look like? What are the attributes of “right leadership”? I usually say that anyone person who can lead must have Character, Competence and Capacity all rolled together in them. We do not need people who have one or two of them but not another.

L-R Martin Oloja, former editor of Guardian Newspaper, Sola Adebawo of Chevron Nigeria, Soji Akinrinade, Chigbo and Yakubu Mohammed at the lecture in Lagos
L-R Martin Oloja, former editor of Guardian Newspaper, Sola Adebawo of Chevron Nigeria, Soji Akinrinade, Chigbo and Yakubu Mohammed at the lecture in Lagos

None can act as a substitute for the other in the leadership process. I do however say that based on what we now realize to be a better definition of the art of leadership, we know that the key obstacle to Africa solving all its problems is not the lack of technical solutions, meaning that competence and capacity are not the greatest weakness that our continent and individual countries have. As a matter of fact, take Ghanaians. For over sixty years, this country has consistently produced some of the world class global experts that the continent can boast of in economy, politics, development, agriculture, education, etc. For all the times we say that Africa lacks capacity to solve her problems, we must be nuanced. The continent can if it organized itself well, mobilize a strong team of technocrats who have voted with their feet to other countries where their skills are valued.

The failure of politics and governance made Africa and its many countries hostile to talents and thus unattractive to their own people who found an incentive to go elsewhere to offer their capacity and competence. Fixing Africa’s Politics — process, System, Institutions and incentives – that permit a lowly quality of people to dominate its democracies is fundamental to heralding and entrenching a new era of Leadership in our countries. It will take a certain threshold of values, competency and capacity attributes of a new political elite class on the continent to change the pattern of prebendalist culture that elected officials have entrenched in the continent reducing their role to private accumulation at the expense of the governed. It is after all through the political process that those who govern are determined. The quality of governance outcomes cannot be higher than the quality of those who lead it.

By the evident proof that the endemic corruption of policies, institutions building and public investment results from the human failings, we must scrutinize the matter of Character of African leaders deeper. Research evidence has shown that corruption– the most obvious symptom of poor governance- is the major obstacle to the development process of the continent. Corruption accounts for the perversion of all that is necessary for the continent to grow and develop. When the continent does not grow as rapidly (at least a minimum of 7% annually) and sustainably as it should, while its population continues growing at more than 3% annually, it ends up growing the number of poor people in our midst and worsening inequality which is already higher at more than .4 out of a possible 1 in the Gini- Coefficient index. For us to tackle poverty which even at a time of rapid technology and knowledge for accelerating solutions to all known problems of human kind still stands at almost 50% of our one billion population (of the fifty percent, women make up more than 60% of the poor- feminization of poverty) we must have leaders that break forth from existing order.

L-R Ray Ekpu, Maureen Chigbo, Mike Awoyinfa and Yakubu Mohammed


You will observe that I did not yet say much about the character of those with expertise that can solve the problems of development on our continent. It was deliberate. You see, there are two types of problems that leaders solve – technical and adaptive problems. For technical problems, it is easy to buy the skills wherever you can find them even if your own people do not care to come home. The real problem lies with the adaptive challenges.

When a leader has competence and capacity but no character, they constitute a locust to their society. They eat away whatever is handed to them– they eat away the tangibles and the intangibles of their society. Under their “leadership” everything that was good can become redefined by the speed with which they turn bad. The bad news is that most of Africa’s problems – Nigeria’s, Ghana’s, South Africa’s, Kenya’s, Uganda’s and name whichever else countries you wish– are more in the realm of adaptive challenges than technical ones. The adaptive challenges are the reason that the technical problems are not being solved!

So what is an adaptive problem? According to Ron Heifetz, in his book- Leadership without Easy Answers, “leaders are confronted with two types of problems: technical problems and “adaptive” problems. Technical problems can be solved by expertise and good management. However, “adaptive” problems are those ones such as poverty, drug abuse, corruption, lawlessness and ethnic tensions for example; which require innovation and learning. While the distinction is a crucial one, he says, leadership theory has only begun to address the latter.

Traditional management strategies are useful in dealing with technical problems, but in situations where beliefs and values come into play, technical “fixes” tend to exacerbate the problem. By definition, adaptive challenges involve a disparity between values and circumstances. The task of the leader is to close the gap. This may involve marshaling energy, resources, and ingenuity to change the circumstances. But just as often it requires that people change their values.

Leadership therefore consists “not of answers or assured visions, but of taking action to clarify values.” You could say that to solve adaptive problems, the leader “forces” through the power of influence, #MindsetChange of his people and society. Well, that is where the attribute of Character comes in. Character based Leadership is what our continent has largely lacked. Character based leadership is one that can break Africans out of the existing order in which the right things for group interest and collective benefits are subverted for the wrong reasons in order to generate private, personal and exclusive benefits for a few. Character based leadership is what must be deliberately nurtured to emerge and sprout in all regions of our continent. Is the worst manifestation of paucity of character based Leaders not in the endemic corruption that has ravaged the continent for decades since the independence of most of our countries at the same time as countries like Singapore and South Korea?

All over Africa, we must produce leaders with the right character and vision and who being driven by a fierce sense of urgency subordinate their personal interest to that of the rest of our societies. They then mobilize and persuade everyone to define a compelling vision that confronts our Values Gaps which have hitherto constrained us from assembling our obvious Development solutions. When Dr. Ron Heifetz explored what he calls “leadership without authority”, he discovered that Character made up for a lack of “formal authority”.

Ezekwesili exchanging pleasantary with Barry Esimone (middle) CEO, Crusteam Group and Group Capt I.O. Adewumi
Ezekwesili exchanging pleasantary with Barry Esimone (middle) CEO, Crusteam Group and Group Capt I.O. Adewumi

Imagine then what would happen where African leaders became those among us who not only possess formal authority but also have the requisite Character to compel our societies to confront gaps in our Values? Where are those Africans that are willing to pay the price and change the course of the existing unacceptable order of things in our countries? Where are those among us who are ready to be sacrificial in service for the common good and lead a Values and Ideas Revolution that sets Africa out on a virtuous cycle of building more leaders at every level and segment of society?

Of all the drivers of global turbulence that include economic, geopolitical, security, climatic, cultural, social and other such factors, at no time has the challenge of leadership been more dominant. This is even more so for Africa as we can already conclude and it is not merely that but a deep deficit in Leadership Character Quotient that must be addressed in the present and future era whether in stability or turbulence, now is the next best time to begin. Leaders of Character are often people who by virtue of a pattern and habit of living true to their values rise to a place of influence where their moral authority exceeds and makes of no consequence, their lack of formal authority.

The more deliberate our society becomes in growing such skills among our population the higher the probability that those who emerge into formal authority will possess adaptive capacity. What Africa must do is reform its political systems, structures, processes, institutions and incentives in order to allow the emergence and entry of such leaders into its democratic processes. Reform of Africa’s Politics is therefore a first order priority if we are to have a lasting change of the poor leadership quality on the continent. Democracy gives the African people the power to redefine the Character of the people that lead them. There is no power greater than the power of the Citizens to vote in and vote out the people to whom they delegate their authority. In effect the #OfficeOfTheCitizen is in fact the greatest Office in our countries and not that of any elected officials including the topmost one of the Presidency and lawmakers. If Citizens understood this profound maxim well enough, they can change the Content of the Character of African Leadership.

Where and how do we start the process of the people understanding their all-important responsibility? While we usually focus attention at the head of the table, leadership may more often emerge from the foot of the table. For example, many women who have been denied formal authority roles in society have developed strategies for leading without authority. The same is true for other traditionally disempowered groups. Leaders without authority “push us to clarify our values, face hard realities, and seize new possibilities, however frightening they may be.” Gandhi is perhaps the most celebrated example of this type of adaptive leadership. He it was who tried to force attention to a set of problems in India which the British colonial government refused to acknowledge. He identified many adaptive challenges and used various methods of creative defiance to get people to face them.

Other examples of adaptive leadership include Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Margaret Sanger. While each of them gained considerable informal authority —widespread popular confidence and support — it was their very lack of formal authority that allowed them address deep-seated adaptive problems in society. ” We need to start producing many more of Africa’s version of such leaders to mobilize our societies to activate each #OfficeOfTheCitizen. As that happens, the political space will start reflecting the Values and Vision of prosperous and stable Africa that the people want. The acceleration of Africa’s development is what can produce that outcome. It however cannot happen without those with formal authority being able to lead adaptively.


To lead adaptively in the era of turbulence will be to have the innovative ideas that can tackle the twin problems of corruption and poverty and jumpstart the continent out of the entrapment of its several decades of underperformance. Such leadership are those with the skills to mobilize the people of the continent in all three sectors of society into a collaborative partnership mode required to solve its myriad of challenges. The capacity of such leaders to prioritize the challenges and determine the most immediate that can trigger solutions for all others is key. If such leadership is possessing of the knowledge requisite for this era, it would identify the most immediate priority as Quality and Relevant Education to build world class citizens with competitive skills. Such leaders would define Education as the New Economics for Africa and not oil, not copper, not platinum, not diamonds, not gold, not bauxite, not iron ore, not even agriculture. EDUCATION is what will translate Africa’s population to a billion-sized Human Capital.

Such leadership would be motivated and guided by the range of troubling indicators on Education generated by the Africa Economic Transformation Program:

  • Africa has made good progress toward achieving universal primary education. More needs to be done to improve primary completion rates, the quality of education, and secondary and tertiary enrollments.
  • 30 million children are out of school.
  • 35% of the youth have no access to secondary education or technical skills development.
  • Half of all children reach adolescence without achieving literacy or numeracy.
  • Urgent action is needed to improve the quality of education in Africa.
  • For many young people, six years of school is insufficient to build literacy skills.
  • Population growth, higher demand for education and attrition of resources to hire and train teachers are driving demand in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Public spending in education currently averages around 5% of Africa’s GDP from just over 1% in Central African Republic to 12% in Lesotho and even at that the budget for education is largely wasted on the wrong priorities. So the resources dedicated to the sector can merely be regarded as funding and not really investments with productive results of improved learning outcomes for African students.

Africa must begin to provide comprehensive and quality education in order to break the poverty chain. By placing the Education of Africans at the center of Governance priorities, the Leadership of the turbulent era would be in fact staking a claim for the 21st Century. No Century before now has presented the world with the kind of access to knowledge that solves complex problems faster and cheaper than now. Africa did not have the fortune of being part of at least two other revolutionary eras of knowledge that changed society- the agriculture and industrial revolution.

Africa has been very actively involved as mostly consumers of the Information and Communications Technology revolution in the 21st Century and it has factually had a net benefit on its growth and development process.


The same era of turbulence coincides with the outset of a new revolutionary era in the history of human society now popularly known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Second Machine Age. It is the age of Disruptive Technologies beyond anything ever before known. AFRICA NEEDS THE KIND OF LEADERSHIP THAT CAN STAKE A CLAIM TO THE 21st CENTURY of Disruption in the current economic state of the world. Leadership that is adaptive and disruptive is what Africa needs in order to claim the 21st Century.

Standing ovation for Ezekwesili after her lecture
Standing ovation for Ezekwesili after her lecture

Disruption takes a left turn by literally uprooting and changing how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day. Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative. It would take Disruption as a revolutionary concept and process to rearrange the dissatisfactory gradual order that has left too many Africans behind the curve of global human progress.

The triggers that such adaptive and disruption- leading Leadership can pull in order to midwife a gargantuan and yet orderly and positive leap of progress for the continent are the following:

  1. Maximize the Potentials and Productivity of the African Youths. According to the US Census Bureau (International Data Base), there were approximately 241 million people aged 15 to 29 living in Africa in 2010, representing approximately 28% of the overall population of the continent. In 2010, 63% of Africa’s overall population was below the age of 25. African Youths are increasingly restive and will renege against poor governance all over the continent. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 3 in 5 of the total unemployed are youth (ILO 2006) and on average 72% of the youth population live with less than $2 a day. The continent is a youthful population with more than 50% of our people and their dissatisfaction with failure means they shall at some point seize the middle ground and redirect our continent’s journey. Their creative dissatisfaction will lead to a demand for a new Social Contract and a complete toppling of the existing order which is pathetically comfortable with Africa’s average being celebrated as Excellent. I love the young Africans who refuse to agree with the rest of the world that Average is excellent whenever Africa is involved. Reforming the political space to remove obstacles that has given monopoly of the political space to a certain kind of elite in Africa to lead us will be compelled on our society by the young. It would be better to be deliberate in Disrupting Africa’s Politics for the emergence of such youthful leadership than to leave it to a chaotic rupture.
  2. Disrupt Governance: Grow the Demand Side of Governance and place the power of the citizens to demand for probity, transparency, honest governance and accountability from those that lead them. The #OfficeOfTheCitizen must be at the Centre of Governance as that is the fastest way to build and safeguard Institutions. Africa needs an ACTIVE Demand Side of the Governance process. It is because the Supply Side of Governance has been mostly active without critical pressure on it by the Demand Side that has caused the former to act like a Monopoly. As we know, a monopoly is the worst form in any Market spectrum with no-no incentive for offering consumers (Citizens) Quality goods and services at an effective and efficient Price.
  3. Disrupt Gender Inequality and move the African Women to the Center of Decision Making on the Continent. Disruptive Leadership will strategically and intentionally move the African Woman from the fringes to the center of society. In doing so, our society can according to several studies unleash significantly improved governance of resources and hence increase its current low levels of productivity. It is not all a cliché that “Empowering the African women” is Smart Economics. Adaptive and Disruptive leaders know that.
  4. Disrupt our Under-Delivering Economic Development Strategy. Africa needs a new Economic philosophy that confronts our lazy approach to Development and replaces it with a new one that is anchored on the twin concepts of Productivity and Competitiveness underlined by Sustainability and Resilience. To achieve that, Disruptive Leaders will topple the continent’s obsession and tragic history with endowments of natural resources. In its place, will emerge a new and radical emphasis on Human Capital anchored on human dignity. Leadership that dignifies The Second machine age of power of accelerated and prolific knowledge leading to dimensions of efficiency and productivity the world has never known is an advantage to Africa.
Ezekwesili in a hand shake with Berkhout while Gen. Agwai and Hope Obioma Okpara looks on
Ezekwesili in a hand shake with Berkhout while Gen. Agwai and Hope Obioma Okpara looks on

Acceleration effect of 4th Industrial Revolution. The era of AI, the Robotics, Internet of Things, simulation science, big data and blockchain technology is one that our Continent has the advantage of full participation. We can use this to stake our Claim of the 21st Century as a new type of African private sector based on human productivity begins to emerge. For this to happen we must disrupt Education. The education that will make the African child capable of growing into an Elon Musk or a Steve Jobs and even greater is what the entire continent direly needs in this era.

  1. SIZE AND SCALE MATTERS SO DISRUPT THE RIGID BOUNDARIES and use policies and institutions to connect the continent’s people and ideas. The current 13% of intra Africa regional trade compares badly with 35% in Latin America, 45% in Asia, 55% in North America and 70% in Europe. Disrupt the often misguided “national sovereignty” that holds citizens down in poverty in small countries especially when the whole of Africa can in fact be their oyster.
  2. Kickstart a Values/New Ideas Revolution: How did the thieving elite emerge unchallenged among us and redefine our continent as the one which predictably comes out as the worst region of the world on every transparency, accountability and probity ranking? Disrupt the African mindset by finding the first few leaders of Values who can become the triggers and anchors of the restoration of Values that will kickstart our institutions building process.

    Ezekwesili leaving the venue accompanied by Nkechi Ali-Balogun, CEO NECCI


One considers these six drivers of Disruption as capable of radically changing Governance outcomes in our continent when put to effect by the type of leaders of Character, Competence and Capacity that we have explored. Circling back to that Leader who solved the Lagos traffic jam, remember how there were many people that could have stepped up to the challenge but chose not to because of the cost and sacrifice required? Remember how difficult it initially was for that one person to calm down everyone else and earn the legitimacy, trust and cooperation necessary to disentangle the traffic logjam? Remember how it was that solving the problem benefitted everyone whose productivity was paralyzed in those minutes or hours they were all held to a standstill in the logjam? Well, the Leadership needed for the era of turbulence will be of the kind which inspires all the people of the continent to not only believe that the 21st Century can be ours but would empower us to collectively work our Dream of the New Africa into reality. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “the Future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. I now add to that quote by saying that the Present and the Future belong to those Africans who are willing to stake and work our claim to the Twenty First Century.

Thank your for listening!

*Being a paper delivered by Dr. (Mrs) Oby Ezekwesili, senior economic adviser, African Economic Development Policy Initiative (AEDPI) and former Nigerian Minister of Education at the Realnews Fifth Anniversary Lecture on Thursday, November 16, 2017, at Sheraton Hotel, Lagos

– Nov 21, 2017 @ 13:10 GMT |

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