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Image‘Under the Tree of Talking’ is a newly published collection of essays by eighteen distinguished thinkers and leaders which testify to hope on the horizon for African societies.

Effective leadership holds the key to Africa’s economic and social progress and, in this book, leading writers and social commentators share their insights into leadership in Africa and its capacity to advance or hold back the continent. ReConnect Africa speaks to the author, journalist and film maker Onyekachi Wambu, about the book and the role of leadership in changing Africa’s fortunes.

RCA: Congratulations on such an impressive publication. The contributors to the book include Chinua Achebe, Ali Mazrui, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Chinweizu, William Gumede; Wangui wa Goro, Kimani Ngoju, Martha Chinouya; Eva Dadrian, and Marianna Ofosu. How did you persuade so many writers to participate in this project?

OW: Many of them didn’t need persuading as people felt it was an issue that needed to be addressed. Image Achebe and Mazrui had addressed the issue in the 80’s and Achebe, for example, has been concerned with this issue in the post-Nigerian independence period. It was something that was very high on every one’s agenda so it wasn’t that hard to convince them. The real difficulty was trying to get regional and gender balance and, as a lot of the approaches were based on my own network, while we have a contributor from Rwanda, we haven’t been able to achieve a good balance in terms of Francophone contribution, which is something that we have to remedy. Deciding who to target was really the result of the themes that I wanted to discuss in the book. In the book, we talk about leadership from a number of perspectives. I wanted to start a debate about post-independent leadership from the premise that Africa governed itself before colonialism. For example, I decided to discuss Africa’s most illustrious society and there is an essay on what the ancient Egyptians thought of leadership and good governance. The names of contributors suggested themselves according to the subject I wanted to explore and who could address it. For example, one subject I wanted to explore was that of translation as a leadership issue. With nearly 3000 languages spoken on one continent, how do we talk to each other? By the time we speak across languages, the meaning is distorted. How do you get information from your government about services, how are legal disputes mediated if you don’t understand the language of the courtroom, for example?

“One of the lessons Africa should have learned and must apply is defining its own interests and then defending them. In the past we have tended to rely on other people’s agendas, hoping that they coincided with ours.”

We look at leadership both from the top down and bottom up; how ordinary people become extraordinary. We look at leadership from the present to the future, exploring the issues that young people have around seniority. We look at leadership from the outside looking in i.e. what the African Diaspora brings to the table and then from inside looking out; the external challenges facing Africa e.g. the rise of China and the leadership responses to that. It was also about asking the writers to make suggestions, offer strategies and solutions and provide examples of service through their own experience. As a result, a few of the essays are quite personal.

RCA: In addition to the introduction, you also wrote a chapter on Africa and China. What do you see as the lessons African countries must apply in the face of China’s massive focus on and investment into Africa?

OW: “A must-read for all those who care about the continent’s future. Wambu has assembled a great heavyweight cast to shed light on a matter that probably more than any other has affected Africa’s fortunes these last fifty years: leadership.”

Diran Adebayo, novelist and author of ‘My Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Some Kind of Black’

If you are gong to negotiate with someone, you need to know what they want. And then you need to know what you want. I’ve explored Chinese history; where they are and how they got here, but also what China is after in Africa, which is essentially in pursuit of their expanding economy, i.e. resources and markets. In the chapter, I conduct a SWAT analysis of where Africa is and how we need to negotiate and, I would suggest, we need to negotiate not individually, but as a group like other blocs. Our engagement with China also raises the issue of jobs and how we can put these on the agenda in our negotiations. Simply put, if China is destroying our jobs base, we shouldn’t be encouraging that. If they are putting in infrastructure but also bringing in their own labourers, we shouldn’t be in the business of creating jobs for Chinese people when we have 8 million Africans every year that need jobs.

There are parts of China’s model that we can look at and borrow but the bigger question that I ask is whether it is China we should be focusing on rather than, say India. India is achieving growth within a democratic framework and what I am suggesting is that we have more in common with India and we can be proactive in developing a relationship with that country. We have large Indian communities in Africa – Durban is the biggest Indian city in the world outside India – and share much in common. If we were positive in defining our own agenda, we could build more like-minded partnerships, albeit at a slower pace.

“Africa produced a lot of good liberation leaders ……but the skills that you need to take your people to liberation are not necessarily what you then need to manage democracy properly.”

One of the lessons Africa should have learned and must apply is defining its own interests and then defending them. In the past we have tended to rely on other people’s agendas, hoping that they coincided with ours. The 2 major economies that did not follow the Bretton Woods prescriptions were India and China. In Africa, where we followed the World Bank and IMF, we have been pauperized, our middle classes destroyed and our expertise exported. I believe that it is about having the confidence to preserve our own policy space. I would add that ultimately, in order to be able to have that luxury, you also need to be able to defend yourself and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two nations also have their own nuclear defence.

RCA: In a speech she gave in 2006, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia spoke about the need for a different kind of leader in Africa. After the liberation era when so many leaders relied on charisma and the cult of personality to lead Africa’s newly independent states, what do you believe is needed in the 21st century?

OW: I would refer to Ali Mazrui’s essay on ‘Liberation, Democracy, Development and Leadership in Africa’. The point he makes is that Africa produced a lot of good liberation leaders and even leaders of reconciliation, like Mandela. But what the continent hasn’t been able to do so effectively was to produce leaders of democracy and development.

A collection of remarkable essays by some of Africa’s most notable writers and academics… This book should be a must-read for those who would seek to lead their people, and those who allow themselves to be led.

Henry Bonsu, award-winning broadcaster and journalist

I happen to think that this has to do with skill sets. The skills that you need to take your people to liberation are not necessarily what you then need to manage democracy properly. Mazrui looks at the traditions of African leadership and he identifies eight traditions of the older model that people then built on. It is not simply about blaming our leaders or accusing them of incompetence when perhaps they are only doing what they know and in the framework of what they know. For me, the perfect example of this is Winston Churchill. He was the right leader for a war but thereafter the British people voted in leaders like Attlee who were able to build a post-war democracy for which Churchill was not seen as having either the skills or the inclination.

I think it’s about looking at that in Africa and about understanding who has those skills sets; people who can be managers and yet also ‘charismatize’ people. Is it possible for us now to start looking at the skills sets that leaders need? As far as I’m concerned, it is a management issue and we, as followers, need to create the space to discuss the right skills needed by our leaders i.e. the skills needed to manage, rather than getting caught up in issues of ethnicity and other irrelevant criteria. Can our leaders deal with the challenges of today’s world? With mobilizing our Diaspora? A leader has to be able to do all of that effectively if they are going to deliver results.

“The sad truth is that our organizations in the Diaspora are often riven with the same kind of problems that we see at home…and we do need to talk about these things.”

RCA: What would you say are some of the most provocative views expressed in ‘Under the Tree of Talking’?

OW: I don’t think we get into a slanging match with anyone. Rather than provocative, I would say that some big issues emerged. A number of issues came up again and again, one being the shortcomings of the inherited colonial state and how we might imagine and reconstruct these states. A lot of people talked about pan-Africanism as a response to imagination and reconstruction. Another theme was how we manage the huge diversity within our nations - which I think, is a welcome dialogue. What also emerged was the importance of involving women and young people in leadership. And then, finally, the issue of identifying African solutions to African problems and creating our own policy space where we begin to talk of our countries as the template rather than as abstractions onto which other countries’ systems are to be transplanted.

I write in the book about my village, where the Chief dispenses about 80% of the justice. Why do people there prefer that? Most people don’t want to enter the state’s halls of justice; they don’t understand the language used in court, the culture there is alien to them, justice can be delayed and the price of justice can be very high whereas, with the village, justice can be served speedily and affordably. That is the reality in many African countries but these leaders are not supported by the state and are not trained. Yet, in reality, they are part of the real service delivery in these countries.

By engaging with our traditions, you may find you get a better system of justice and yet when nothing works in the transplanted legal systems that we have adopted, people wonder why. If the traditional is what is working, why not build on that to address our issues today rather than on a tradition that came from elsewhere?

RCA: With so many Africans living in other parts of the world, what role can Africa’s Diaspora play in ensuring effective leadership within the continent?

OW: I think we need to be careful about our assumptions. The sad truth is that our organizations in the Diaspora are often riven with the same kind of problems that we see at home. Think about what we see in some of our organisations; the leaders for life, splinter group break-offs, multiplying organizations for those that won’t submit to the majority and other anti-democratic approaches. And we do need to talk about these things. But I think there are things we can do as part of the Diaspora. We have seen how other societies function and how you can put in place policies around equity and transparency. We implement these on a daily basis and know the benefits that come from them and these are things that we should be trying to convince people at home about.

“This is a timely, wide-ranging book whose resonance will further tease out the central contemporary debate about the location of the modern African, and the African nation state in a globalised world.”

John Githongo, Kenyan journalist and anti-corruption Campaigner

There is no doubt that we can use our economic muscle to hold leaders more accountable. Leaders in Africa are now talking about Diaspora money and Ghana has been ahead of the curve in talking about social remittances and seeing how these remittances can be put to use at home. It seems to me that there are things that we can begin to demand quite rightfully, as other donors do. If we are sending our money home and the government is planning to use it, it holds them accountable to us for how that money is spent and we want transparency.

But I would far rather see this as a partnership that we can work with. Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie’s chapter deals with this issue and talks about the 10 ‘principles’ around which we, in the Diaspora, can work with people on the continent. These include the principle that the benefit of migration must accrue far and wide throughout African society and not just to those who are fortunate enough to travel abroad. Another important principle is commitment to institutional development in Africa. Another is that the right systems and resources are offered to Africa in a way that people on the ground want and require. It has also got to be about mutual gain, that is, a relationship where both Africa and the Diaspora benefit. He talks about building organizational structures that encapsulate diversity; age, gender and ethnicity and also about incrementalism, building up on what already works rather than tearing down everything and starting over each time, and getting away from the idea that the last leader did nothing. It is also about recognizing that the balance of power must stay in Africa and that we should learn from past mistakes about how Diaspora and Africans relate to each other.

‘Under the Tree of Talking’ (ISBN/ISSN: 12453654) is published by Counterpoint. Copies can be purchased online from Amazon or from all good bookshops.

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