Post-colonial Africa: A failure of Leadership

On the morning of August 18th 2020, mutineers from the Malian army began their march from a base in Kati towards Bamako, the capital of Mali. By around midnight Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the President of Mali had resigned, dissolving his government in what was a military coup. Thousands in Bamako took to the streets to express their support for the military while ECOWAS, the regional and political union for 15 nations in West Africa condemned the actions of the military and have called for Keïta’s administration to be reinstated.

The 2020 Malian coup d’état was the country’s second in less than a decade – Africa is no stranger to military intervention. The continent has seen at least 200 attempted or successful coups since the 1960s. But the 2020 Malian coup d’état is emblematic of a series of systemic deficiencies that have plagued the continent since independence: widespread corruption, erroneous economic policies (if any), electoral fraud and a disregard for constitutional arrangements/legal frameworks. 

Despite the complexity and plurality of Africa’s problems, poor leadership often exacerbates or directly causes many of them. Through the brief histories of the reign of three leaders – Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Kamuzu Banda and Julius Nyerere – from the highs of their inaugurations to their respective, eventual deteriorations of their tenures, in one capacity or another,  provide insight into this underlying theme that has and continues to plague the continent; leadership.

King Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah visits the Akosombo Dam under construction in February 1962 – Attribution: L.A. van Es under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

“Kwame Nkrumah’s ambition soared above all others”

Martin Meredith, journalist and historian 

And who could blame him? Academically and intellectually gifted, Nkrumah led Ghana to its independence in 1957, paving the way for scores of other African states to attain theirs. Whilst in university in the US, Nkrumah was heavily influenced by Marxism-Leninism. He rejected what he saw as a Western, imperialistic, capitalist facade and concluded that the execution of socialism similar to the ones tried in the USSR and China, coupled with his unique abilities and policies, would bring prosperity to the African continent. 

Nkrumah believed that under his leadership, he could transform Africa into an economic, political and military giant, comparable with the USA or the USSR. In an effort to emulate Mao and Lenin, he created his own official ideology, Nkrumahism, which although frequently mentioned in public, was never properly defined.

To his credit, Nkrumah made considerable progress in transforming Ghana into an industrial nation. The production of cocoa, Ghana’s main export at the time, doubled and industries such as forestry and fishing grew. Government funds were allocated to village projects where locals built roads and schools, while education and free healthcare were introduced. 

However, whilst this development occurred, Nkrumah took steps to consolidate his power and suppress opposition. In 1958, he passed the Preventative Detention Act, which allowed the imprisonment without trial for up to five years, with only Nkrumah being able to release prisoners early. 12 opposition MPs tried to block the passage of the 1958 Act, and 11 of them were to find themselves imprisoned in the years that followed. In 1961, to ‘show disrespect to the person and dignity of the Head of State’ became a criminal offence. Nkrumah also had full control of all mass media in the country and therefore was able to dictate the narrative of his increasingly dictatorial actions. By 1964, Nkrumah, via a rigged election, turned Ghana into a one-party state.

“Socialism doesn’t mean that if you’ve made a lot of money, you can’t keep it”

Krobo Edusei, Ghanian politician and high-profile member of the Nkrumah administration
Krobo Edusei with David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, 1959. Edusei in later years confessed that he owned fourteen houses, a long lease on a London flat, a beach house, several expensive cars and multiple bank accounts. Presumably, much of that wealth came from his time as a minister in Nkrumah’s cabinet.

Through this consolidation of power and lack of accountability, corruption and inefficiency flourished. During his rule, Nkrumah’s ministers were known for charging 10% commission to push through contracts with foreign companies. Even Nkrumah himself was involved in the business of collecting bribes, setting up a special company, the National Development Corporation, which handled bribes from foreign businessmen and other entities. Very quickly, Nkrumah and those around him became very wealthy men. 

ACCRA, GHANA: Workers demonstrate with placards in 1966 after kwame Nkrumah was overthrown

In the midst of corruption, Kwame Nkrumah, after visits to China, the USSR and other communist nations decided that state-owned enterprises were what Ghana needed to propel it into a state of industrialisation. By 1966 there were over 50 state-owned enterprises, the majority of which were wholly inefficient, bureaucratic and ran at massive losses. For example, in agriculture, despite having a large number of the available low wage labour force, Nkrumah preferred mechanised farming and directed government finances and technical support to help build them up, neglecting the village farmer population in the process. The government-owned farms ran at huge losses and produced yields that were less than a fifth of village farmer agriculture.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s external debt skyrocketed. In 1963, it stood at £184 million; a year later, it rose to £349 million. But even then the exact figure could not be ascertained because some records were not kept in government files. This had the effect of severely limiting Ghana’s public funds for years to come. Ghana went from being one of the most prosperous countries in the tropical world at independence to being essentially bankrupt by 1965. Despite being one of the most promising nations at the time of its independence, Ghana quickly became burdened with huge debts, inefficient industries and falling living standards. 

Nkrumah was eventually overthrown due to his fatal attempts in interfering with the military. The army took over in February 1966, while Nkrumah was on a trip to Hanoi in an attempt to help mediate in the Vietnam War. Thousands took to the streets in Accra to welcome soldiers and celebrated Nkrumah’s removal. Many factors led to Nkrumah’s downfall, such as the dwindling economy, in part caused by a fall in global commodity prices, as well as widespread corruption. Still, one of the fatal flaws of Nkrumah’s reign in Ghana was the acute lack of any form of accountability. His power was unchecked and his policies fostered a culture of subservience and indifference,  all of which set the country up for the turmoil that preceded his overthrow.

The Honourable Hastings

“I go back to break up your bloody federation”

Hastings Banda to Alan Lennox-Boyd, the UK’s colonial secretary

Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first president, took an unorthodox route in leading the then Nyasaland to independence. Having lived outside of Nyasaland for 42 years, residing in London as a doctor and leading a middle-class life, he became involved in the independence movement when the UK announced its approval of Northern Rhodesian politician Sir Roy Welensky’s plans to form a federation between Nysaland, North and South Rhodesia (modern Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively). Banda did not want Nyasaland to be under the control of the racist minority governments of North and South Rhodesia, so he set off to stir up local support for independence. 

Kamuzu Banda in Zomba after being sworn in as Prime Minister, 1963, a year before Malawi’s independence – Attribution: University of Stirling Archives under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

On July 6th, 1964 Malawi attained its independence from Britain. Like Nkrumah, Banda enjoyed overwhelming support from the majority of Malawians, having led them to freedom. But the joys of freedom faded quickly as Banda began his consolidation of power. Within weeks of independence, he dismissed ministers who dared to question his authority and went on to run Malawi with an iron fist. 

“Anything I saw is law. Literally law. It is a fact in this country”

Hastings Kamuzu Banda

Kamuzu Banda controlled even the smallest details of Malawian life. Criticism or dissent was not tolerated and his authority could never be questioned. An Elder of the Church of Scotland, he imposed the strict puritan code he admired so much on all Malawians, forbidding women to wear short skirts or trousers or allowing men to have long hair. He made Malawi a one-party state, in the name of efficiency and stability, arguing that multiparty democracy would stir ethnic tensions and destabilize the country. 

By 1971, he declared himself president-for-life, imprisoned thousands of Malawians who dissented and ruled on the basis of fear and tyranny. In 1981, he abducted Orton Chirwa, a prominent critic and exile and his wife, Vera, charging them with treason and sentenced them to death, only reneging on that decision and commuting the sentences to life imprisonment after international uproar. Utilising his monopoly on government, he set up his own personal business empire that eventually accounted for a third of Malawi’s GDP, employing 10% of the total workforce.

One of the factors that kept President Banda in power for so long was that he had the support (and aid) of Western nations. Fiercely anti-communist, he initially refused to establish diplomatic relations with any Communist regime in Asia or Europe. Banda was one of the few African leaders to support the USA in the Vietnam war, in part due to his opposition to communism. 

Once the Cold War had ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, the West no longer had use for anti-Communist dictatorships. Donors began to pressure the Banda administration to implement reforms and to democratise as a condition for further aid. Opposition from within Malawi also began to grow. Mounting pressure from both within Malawi and external donors forced Banda in 1993 to hold a referendum on whether Malawi should remain a one-party state, which resulted in an overwhelming 64% of the population voting in favour of multiparty democracy. By the time Kamuzu Banda left the office of the presidency, Malawi was one of the poorest countries on Earth, with its per capita national income  $200 in 1990. 

Ujamaa: Benevolently flawed

“The most poised, confident, extrovert and indeed, radiant of all the African leaders I have met”

Margery Perham, British historian and advocate for decolonisation

Hardly anyone could doubt the authenticity of Nyerere’s actions and policies. He was a Pan-Africanist at heart, committed not only to the development and prosperity of the Tanzanian state but the African continent as a whole. His good intentions were met with praise – and aid – from donors worldwide. By the 1970s Tanzania had received more foreign aid per capita than any other nation on the continent. 

A committed socialist, Nyerere became alarmed at the class of elites that began to emerge in Tanzania and what he viewed as the erosion of communal African values. In February 1967, he issued the Arusha Declaration, a political declaration that called for self-reliance and stressed on the need for development to begin at the rural level and emphasised the state’s right to manage all major means of production. Nyerere concluded that for Tanzania to be self-reliant, it had to accept slower growth and focus on developing the peasant agricultural economy. The policies Nyerere would embark upon would be known as Ujamaa, KiSwahili for “familyhood”.

Senior government officials were prohibited from having more than one salary, owning houses for rent or shares in companies. Post-Arusha, Nyerere began a campaign of mass nationalisation, declaring all private banks and insurance companies state-owned, as well as compensating their owners. Import-export firms, mills, cement, beer and shoe companies were either fully or partially nationalised. 

Ujamaa farmers. Source: BBC

Next, Nyerere began the process of creating ujamaa cooperative villages. He hoped by bringing together the scattered rural population into cooperatives, he could raise agricultural productivity, help village farmers gain access to modern farming techniques and tools and make it easier for the government to provide basic services such as education, healthcare and infrastructure. Initially, it was stressed that Tanzanians would be incorporated into cooperatives on a voluntary basis. However eventually, in a bid to increase the number of cooperatives, some villagers were forced to leave their homes to join ujamaa villages. Between 1973-7 11 million people were placed in new villages in what was the largest mass movement of peoples in Africa’s history.

In hindsight, both the nationalisation and ujamaa programmes were largely failed initiatives. Due to a lack of incentive for people to specialise and scale up their individual production of crops since all gains would be shared equally regardless of how hard each individual worked, food production fell. Drought worsened the food shortage and by 1975 the Tanzanian government had to rely on grants, loans and over 200,000 tons of food aid to help alleviate the food crisis the country was suffering. By 1975, despite the fact that 90% of Tanzania’s rural population had been moved into cooperatives, a dismal 5% of agricultural output came from communal plots. In a bid to become self-reliant, Nyerere led Tanzania to rely on aid to survive.

A similar tale held true for the nationalised industries. By 1980 industrial output was reduced to less than a third of capacity, agriculture declined 10% between 1979-82 and national output  declined by a third. Nationalised industries were notoriously inefficient, corrupt and operated at huge losses. Despite this, Nyerere remained steadfast on the idea that socialism was the way, and that his policies at the very least prevented the worst of capitalism from gaining ground in Tanzania. 

Like Hastings Banda and Kwame Nkrumah, Nyerere was not to be challenged. His tenure as President was marked by one-party rule, with him on top and there being very little tolerance of criticism or dissent. He used Tanzania’s own Preventive Act to silence political critics, and Tanzania for years had one of the highest numbers of political prisoners in Africa.

The economic turmoil that ensued in Tanzania does not mean that Nyerere’s presidency was an overriding failure: under his tenure primary school enrolment rose from 25% to 95% and adult literacy from 10% to 75%. Life expectancy rose from 41 years to 51 years. Julius Nyerere left Tanzania in a far better condition than he found it. But even these developments were in part funded via aid from donors. Throughout the 1970s Tanzania received no less than $3 billion in aid, mostly from the West. Without those funds, Tanzania may very well have fallen into crisis.

Post-colonial Africa: A failure?

The above analysis of Nkrumah, Banda and Nyerere should not be seen to be claiming that all three of their leaderships were purely terrible or malignant. Rather, the point is that all three presidencies and countless others on the African continent exhibited key characteristics that increased the likelihood for either political and/or economic failure. All three presidents led administrations and nations that lacked proper accountability structures, formulated constitutions and laws to keep themselves in power and were ideologically inflexible to change.

“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.”

Kwame Nkrumah.

Despite this, they all left long-lasting legacies: Nkrumah’s vision of a united Africa, along with others such as Nyerere, were instrumental to the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union (AU) we know today. In 2008, the AU played a key role in helping broker an agreement between President Mwai Kibaki, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, ending violent political and ethnic violence over a highly contested election in 2007.

Kamuzu Banda’s energy and enthusiasm saved Malawi from the perils of white minority rule that millions in Zambia and Zimbabwe had to endure, and him peacefully stepping down set precedent on the exchange of power in Malawi. In 2020, Malawi became only the second country in the history of the continent to annul an election, and it was also the first one in which the opposition party won the re-run, a triumph for judicial independence and democracy.

Africa as a whole, despite its issues, continues on its upward trajectory: 2 of the 5 fastest growing economies in the world last year were African. Recently, the continent was declared free of wild polio. Infrastructure is being developed, hospitals are being built and major strides are slowly being taken with regard to political reform and democratic accountability. The issue is that these achievements are often in spite of, not because of the governments of the day. Going forward, that must change.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Manjiri Dighe

    Very insightful piece written artistically in a flowing narrative style

    1. Ishmael Liwanda

      Thank you Mrs. Dighe, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      1. Sairuna

        Always proud of you 🙂 referencing your work in my essay! Love Anambewe

  2. paul Fenton

    It’s all so true, even if criticising post-colonial leadership by Africans (instead of heaping all the blame on white colonialism) seems not to be the flavour of the month just now.

  3. Purify


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