The Tutu Fellowship Programme requires each participant to write an essay on leadership in Africa. Each year, some of the best are selected for publishing by the African Leadership Institute. The quality of submissions is very high as demonstrated by this challenging and thought provoking piece by 2016 Fellow Neema Ndunguru, about the challenges of being a leader in Africa and making a difference to its people. She examines how Africans must guard their freedoms to both think as well as to act to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated again and again.


Is it difficult to help Africa?

It is the late nineteen eighties. There have been mixed results from a flurry of social, political and economic experiments that have been implemented since independence in most African countries. A conversation takes place between two African intellectuals - one from the East and the other from the West of the continent. Following a typical discussion on Africa, her problems, what leaders should be doing better, and who should or should not be in power, the two African intellectuals conclude as follows:
“My friend”, said the West African, “it is very difficult to help Africa”.
After approximately two decades of not interacting, the two African intellectuals meet once again.
“My friend! Long time! Tell me... is it still difficult to help Africa?”.
“No,” replied the West African, “now it is impossible”.

Each one laughed. But this laughter did not hold joy or pride. It was instead, a laughter that concealed disappointment in the state of the continent and her people. It is the laughter that one makes when the other alternative would be to cry.

In Oliorhenuan’s (2009) piece “Don’t Cry for me Africa”, he describes the journey African Leaders have taken in addressing the continent’s challenges. In reading about one summit after another, where a series of declarations on “ending poverty in Africa” have been made, one appreciates that there was, in all these gatherings of minds, a common underlying theme which was based on “helping Africa overcome her problems”. While the focus was on developing plans to tackle issues, there was an apparent weakness in the implementation of these plans. One therefore cannot help but get the sense that our leaders (for the most part) approached these agendas like goldfish rather than like elephants.

The goldfish, it is said, has a relatively short term memory. Recent research has concluded that goldfish have a memory of up to three months. Elephants, on the other hand, never forget.

In remembering our past and the thought processes that have led us to where we are, we are able to better understand our current circumstances. Most importantly, however, remembering should guide us towards not repeating the same mistakes from our past.

In his address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997, Kofi Annan stated: “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are, what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there”.

Knowing all these things requires deliberate individual and collective thought. This calls for leaders who not only invest in building individual understanding of their context, but who also consider the building of others as an obligation, and subsequently lead from this understanding.

Oliorhenuan concludes that ‘the problem is not in us – that we are Africans – but in our leadership, in our intellectual leaders who have forgotten that independent thought is the foundation of development, in our political leaders who fail to recognize that the people are the foundation of African development’.

This paper argues that to positively transform Africa, a critical mass of African leaders need to personify the very thing that they are called to nurture in their people: deep thought followed by systematic prioritized action, underlined by accountability.

Leading in the Dark

In writing about the ideas advocated by Julius Nyerere towards development of mankind, Komba (1995) cites a speech that Nyerere delivered in July 1961 (before Tanganyika’s independence):

“We in Tanganyika do not believe that mankind has yet discovered ultimate truth in any field… We wish to contribute to Man’s development if we can, but we do not claim to have any ‘solution’; our claim is that we intend to grope forward in the dark towards a goal so distant that even the real understanding is beyond us – towards, in other words, the best that Man can become… If we are to make such a contribution to Man’s progress, then the most important thing for us to do now is to guard our freedom to think as well as act. Both can be lost. No one else can stop a man thinking, but he can stop himself and indeed, the temptation to do so is so strong because thinking is hard work and introduces into life, uncertainties which only the strong can face.”

These words were spoken at a time when the majority of African countries were in various stages of seeking independence from their colonial masters. It was therefore clear that the call for freedom to think and act was a plea for Africans to boldly explore context specific solutions, to understand the world order of the time, and to consider alternative possibilities for the newly and soon to be independent states and her people. The assertion made by Nyerere approximately 55 years ago, still holds today. Not only for Tanzania, but for Africa in general.

The range of realities that exist in the vast continent of Africa have been well articulated for decades. The history of African countries prior to, and post, colonization has been recorded in various forms. However, depending on which side of the coin one looks, the term Africa is synonymous with hopelessness, social and political unrest, inequality, despair, and several more negative traits. On the other hand, Africa has increasingly been used together with terms such as “rising”, “potential”, “the last frontier”, and “hope”. The contrast in these descriptions reflect the complexities of the realities we, as young Africans, need to grapple with as we strive towards positive continental transformation.

The circumstances that surround political, economic and social leaders today are unprecedented. By 2050, it is estimated that Africa’s population will double from 1 billion to 2 billion. Increasing population growth in the continent means that as time progresses, consumption of resources – and therefore demand for resources - will increase exponentially. Increasing population growth against a backdrop of depleting resources, coupled with the threat of climate change and an expanding gap between the “haves” and “have nots”, calls for immediate and informed decisive action. The challenges of providing good quality healthcare services, quality education and the necessary basic infrastructure in an equitable manner are well known. What is not well known, however, is “how” these challenges can effectively be addressed. Not knowing the “how” essentially renders many African leaders to “lead in the dark”.

Thinking - Business Unusual

It has repeatedly been stated that addressing Africa’s challenges calls for innovative approaches. Innovation in this case is not only limited to technology. It is about doing things differently (business unusual) in order to find solutions to current problems. While the notion of innovation is attractive, this can only be achieved if preceded by the facilitation of an environment that fosters independent thinking for all. Because thinking is “hard work” (as highlighted by Nyerere above), it can easily be discouraged. It becomes a leader’s responsibility to encourage the creation of this “thinking” environment.

It is expected that a myriad of ideas and thoughts on solving problems will result from this environment. Recognizing the perpetual limitation of resources to address all our challenges simultaneously, prioritization then becomes a critical factor. Backed by reliable data and information, the process of prioritization (another thought-intensive activity) allows leaders to focus on manageable areas that can be tackled within a specified timeframe, with a clear indication of resource requirements and success measures (targets). With a focused agenda in hand, what follows is systematic action which goes beyond eloquently worded declarations and policies. In this stage, actions are guided by a discipline of execution, underlined by a framework of accountability.

If systematic prioritized actions become the focus of leaders and their people, accountability to oneself and to the people one serves is perhaps the next critical duty of Africa’s leaders. During implementation of prioritized areas, and once implementation has completed, it is the duty of the leader to ensure there is full disclosure on actual achievement against the set targets. This requires continuous communication with the people on implementation progress. This inclusive dialogue should seek to not only inform the people, but also provide room for people to engage with the process through challenging the status, suggesting alternatives, and even accepting and providing testimony on the results. Essentially, the dialogue should seek to encourage people to think about their development path, and in the process, own their development agenda. The degree of transparency in the process of thinking, prioritizing and implementing the priorities lends itself to creating greater accountability.

The final call is on the need to assess and reflect. It is in knowing better that one will be able to do better. Honest reflection includes recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in the process and searching for relevant ways in which to address these. Thought is therefore refined through lessons from actions. Similarly, actions are refined and guided by thought.

If a critical mass of African leaders were to approach leadership in this way, an additional feature could be a peer review mechanism that focuses on the selected priorities. The review process has the potential to further enhance accountability as well as open opportunities to leverage on one another’s strengths, learn from one another, and share lessons with one another. It is anticipated that this process will shift the African leaders path from “leading in the dark” to “leading towards understanding”.

Africa needs to innovate in order to transform. However, it is known that with change comes resistance. The final leadership challenge then becomes that of navigating disruption and resistance and connecting with others so that there is a shared vision and understanding that drives execution.

Is it difficult to help Africa?

It is unfortunate that the conversation that took place between two African intellectuals in the late nineteen eighties carried on for over two decades with little hope in the end. Sadly, this conversation continues to date. The decisions of present and future African leaders will determine whether or not this conversation will take a turn for the better in two decades’ time. The key is to promote deep thought followed by systematic prioritized action, underlined by accountability.

In the late twenty thirties, following a series of transformative decisions by bold African leaders, it is hoped that two African intellectuals reflecting on their continent will have the following as the substance of their conversation: Is it difficult to help Africa? Perhaps. Complex? Yes. Impossible? Absolutely not.


  • Annan, K. (1997) Commencement Address Massachusetts Institute of Technology, [Online] [10 Aug 2016].
  • Komba, D. (1995) ‘Contribution to Rural Development: Ujamaa and Villagisation’, in Legum, C. and Mmari, G. (ed.) Mwalimu: The influence of Nyerere, Trenton: Africa World Press.
  • Oliorhenuan, J.F (2009) ‘Don't Cry for Me Africa: preamble of a memo to the African Prince’, Transition An International Review, January 102(1), January, pp. 140-155.
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About AFLI




The African Leadership Institute (AFLI) focuses on building the capacity and capability of visionary and strategic leadership across the continent. Developing exceptional leaders representing all spheres of society, the Institute’s flagship programme is the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship. Offering a multifaceted learning experience and run in partnership with Oxford University, it is awarded annually to 20-25 carefully chosen candidates, nominated from across Africa. Alumni of the African Leadership Institute form a dynamic network of Fellows passionately committed to the continent’s transformation, bridging the divide between nations and ensuring that Africa is set centre-stage in global affairs.