Where we miss it when bashing African leaders

A photo of some of the African Leaders (some of whom are now retired). Before bashing African Leaders, it is good to have a checklist of a number of issues, as discussed below. Photo/ Sebastiane Ebatamehi.
A photo of some of the African Leaders (some of whom are now retired). Before bashing African Leaders, it is good to have a checklist of a number of issues, as discussed below. Photo/ Sebastiane Ebatamehi.


I have frequently come across criticism of the current African leadership, or African political leadership in general.

This criticism comes from all directions, local and foreign alike.

I find this criticism often harsh and unjust.

Defense 1 of 2

I find it often more resembling a complaint than constructive criticism.

I am not defending anyone in particular and if we go into specifics, there are those I would not defend under any circumstances.

However, I feel the political system as a whole needs certain latitude when it comes to criticism.

History does not have ideas, opinions, religious or political agendas, or sides.

History is a chronological narrative of events.

I like to call this definition of history, Academic History.

When reading Academic History, we only see grand events and/or grand persons, or at least events and persons that look grand from the writer’s perspective.

For instance, there has been so much written about “great” generals who have not done anything to improve quality of life for anyone, while people like James King, Hamilton Smith, and Thomas Bradford, the inventors of the washing machine, have gotten much less attention; although the washing machine has changed the lives of untold millions of women around the world to the better, freeing them from the back-breaking toil of washing clothes by hand, often under harsh conditions, and allowed women to enter the labor market.

I never understand how the word ‘great’ can be used to describe a person whose only “quality” is his ability to kill a countless number of his fellow humans.

If we zoom in and take a closer look at these grand events, we start seeing the details, before, during, and after said events, and consequently all the people in and around these events.

The closer we get, the more details we see of people’s lives affected by the events.

I like to call this close-up a Social History.

The French philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot coined the phrase “end of history”, meaning the creation of a political, economic, and social system that would be the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution.

This concept was then taken up by thinkers like Hegel, Heidegger, and recently by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book, End of History and the Last Man.

This concept, of course, is only philosophical since history has no end.

Although we may not be interested in certain events, people, areas, countries, etc., history takes everything into account.

Just as you can rest assured, the tree makes noise when it falls in the forest; even though no one is around, history continues, even though no one is paying attention.

Social History has to be written much later than Academic History, the chronological narrative of grand events.

An example is the deregulation pushed through during the precedency of Regan in the USA.

The events were the signature of regulations, laws, or executive orders, however, the social history of those events culminated in several economic crises, including the one in 2007, and is still unfolding.

It is relatively easy to write Academic History; the narrative follows events as they occur, and usually, witnesses and current documents will confirm the event took place.

It is much harder to write Social History and contemporary social history cannot be written at all until many years later, for the simple reason it is still not history.

The aforementioned deregulations during the Regan administration are a case in point.

Everyone knew the history, and all decisions had been made, but no one foresaw the 2007 financial crisis.

If we look at Africa and African history and economics, we must bear in mind that African democracies are very young, and many are less than 65 years old.

However, independence from a historical narrative perspective is an event signed and completed in one day or taken gradually in a few marked steps; the social history of the event takes decades to unfold.

In that sense, the social history of African independence is still running its course.

These events that took place back in the 1950s to 1970s are still affecting political decisions both internally and externally.

These events directly affect Pan-African cooperation and regional policies as well as the relationship between different countries in Africa and their old colonial masters.

Social engineering, a concept popular in the corporate world during the last quarter of the past century (corporate engineering), rarely works.

The concept directs those using this methodology to redesign the corporation or society from A to Z.

The reason why this method rarely works is the same as so many fails on a diet.

Changing one’s life 180 degrees from one day to another is not something we, humans, are good at doing.

As Karl Popper stated in this monumental book, The Open Society and its Enemies, piecemeal improvements not only work better than social engineering but are easier to implement and have a longer-lasting effect.

In his 1918 book, The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler wrote, “Politically gifted peoples do not exist.

… The English people are just as unthinking, narrow, and unpractical in political matters as any other nation, but they possess – for all their liking for public debate – a tradition of confidence.

The difference is simply that the Englishman is the object of a regimen of very old and successful habits, in which he acquiesces because experience has shown him their advantage.

While African leaders may not have all the resources, the infrastructure, or the political environment, they certainly do not have “very old and successful habits” to immediately take a great leap forward in living standards.

But, in my humble opinion, African leaders have an opportunity on their hands; an opportunity not offered to many others.

They can, in a way, ignore history and put all their attention on the future.

Their first question should be: how do we want to live 20, 50, or 100 years from now?

Then they should set goals to achieve this vision, with a clear action plan behind each goal.

“Ignoring history” and focusing on the future, African leaders can investigate globally where the following areas have been tackled with the most success:

Political and Administrative Institutions.

Infrastructure: rail system, roads, bridges, ports, airports, and others.

Education: a universal education system on all levels.

Agriculture: To become food independent.

Production: Reduce export of raw materials and increase export of finished products.

Looking at these six topics, not only from a local perspective but from a Pan-African one, and developing them successfully, will greatly improve the standard of living on the continent.

Mr. Johann Thorgeirsson. Photo/COURTESY

“Not heavens itself upon the past has power”, wrote the Roman poet Horace almost 2,000 years ago, and by ignoring history, leaders do not have to lose time and effort in debating events they do not have power over anymore.

They can focus their effort on the future, and by explaining clearly their vision and how they intend to achieve it, they can get the population to walk with them.

Focusing on Agriculture, finished goods, and infrastructure, productivity can be greatly improved and, therefore, GDP.

By focusing on the future, not history, stability can be achieved, which will balance population growth.

With better healthcare, infant mortality will be reduced and simultaneously, birth rate will slow.

This pattern has repeated itself all over the world, over and over again.

With increased stability, expenditure on the military complex can be reduced greatly and the money saved can be used for something productive, infrastructure, for instance.

In Defense 2 of 2


A few days ago, I came across a quote from Bertrand Russell, or better said, I found it again.

I had been looking for this quote for a while because I feel it is very true and also, it brings up a few problems I have mentioned here before.

“Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate”-Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays (1928), Essay XIII., Freedom of Society, P.103.

I have shown this quote to some of my capitalist friends and without an exception, it results in lively discussions, to say the least.

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I consider myself a capitalist and still, agree with the quote.

Isn’t that a contradiction?

No, not at all.

Now let’s take a look at the problems brought about by the quotation:

Time: Bertrand Russell wrote this after the great depression, and it was published between the wars.

The cold war had not started and was not even on the agenda, the invention of neoliberalism, and the Chicago boys were to come to light many years later.

We therefore must take the quote in the context of the time.

Definition: What kind of “capitalism” is Russell talking about?

He is referring to unfettered capitalism; capitalism unrestrained by government intervention and legal limitations or what later became known as neoliberalism.

(It is an interesting point that neo-liberalism is advocated by conservatives, not liberals).

This is capitalism in its purest form, the capitalism Adam Smith saw as the invisible hand, the same capitalism Regan and Thatcher wanted to let loose on the economy and succeeded to the extent we saw crisis after crisis, come rolling in like waves on the shore during a storm.

External explanation: When reading this quote, the first reaction is to attack or praise the statement itself.

Then attention is turned to the definition of the two groups in question, the fortunate and the unfortunate.

What is being fortunate or unfortunate? How do you define that, and how or why do you belong to one group or the other?

Can you move from one group to the other?

These questions do not matter; they are outside the statement itself.

How you define fortunate or unfortunate does not matter.

You can do it based on money, power, geographical location, religion, skin color, or in any other way.

It will still be two groups, the fortunate and the unfortunate.

As explained in part 1 of this paper, African leaders should ignore history and focus on the future.

It is more important to improve the future than to debate about the past events that lead to the current situation.

They also should stop defining challenges as a local problem.

There are not many challenges facing a leader in Africa that have not faced some other leaders around the globe at a certain time.

If a challenge is defined as local, the solution will be local and must be invented locally.

However, if a challenge is defined as global, a global solution can be found.

The globe can be scanned for this same challenge and how it has been dealt with most efficiently will become the solution applied.

In the case of economic development, scouting the globe for the most stable economies since WWII, with the highest standard of living, we see that all of them are capitalistic.

But when we look closer, they are not much to the right on the political scale.

They all do well when the quality of life is measured as well as simple traditional GDP as a standard of living.

The northern part of Europe, Canada, and Australia have all enjoyed a high standard of living during those eight decades since WWII, and quality of life, measured as healthcare, education, literacy, low infant mortality, and so forth, has been at the top of the list.

Emulating economic development in different countries may seem unreasonable when so many variables are vastly different.

However, this is not about economic statistics but social design.

One problem immediately faced when discussing GDP growth is population.

In a country with high population growth, aggressive growth in GDP can be wiped out by population growth, and GDP per capita can be reduced.

However, this problem seems to take care of itself.

In every country where economical stability is reached, population growth starts slowing down.

In the first part of this “defense”, I mentioned six topics that, if developed successfully, will lead to a much-improved standard of living.

Let’s take look at each of them.

Political and Administrative Institutions

Infrastructure: rail system, roads, bridges, ports, airports, and alike.

Education: a universal education system on all levels.

Healthcare: Affordable yet quality health care for all.

Agriculture: To become food independent.

Production: Reduce export of raw materials and increase export of finished products.

Building effective and efficient institutions is a long, complicated, and incredibly detailed process.

In addition to the three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, there is a host of other institutions and departments that must be established to successively run a country.

The different ministries within one country must be established with clarity for everyone.

It should be easy to understand the purpose of each ministry, its direction, and its goals. Only in this way the general population can be sure of what to expect from each, and which services they will provide.

It is virtually impossible to bring goods to market without good infrastructure.

However, that’s only one reason for building it.

A strong infrastructure is the building block of the economy in general.

A country with a reliable infrastructure attracts investment.

A good infrastructure reduces the cost of operation of a business, and so on.

But infrastructure is not only roads and bridges, it includes communication, hospitals, energy network, etc.

It is relevant to know that, for example, a ton of maize was costing $250 in July, but transporting it to a port cost $150 per ton or 60% of the product cost.

That is not competitive at all.

The maize had to be trucked, but the cost of rail cargo is only 30-35% of the cost of truck transport.

With agriculture, minerals, and other bulk transport, an efficient rail system is essential not only for each country but for the continent.

Education is like the infrastructure, a backbone of the economy.

The best education systems in the world, Finland, Japan, and Korea to name a few, are public, not private.

There is nothing wrong with private schools, as long as they remain an option, not an obligation.

Healthcare, in the same manner as education, should be public.

The USA is the only developed country with private healthcare.

The results are clear. It’s the most expensive system in the world.

If the cost would be the only thing, maybe it could be argued that it is worth the cost to get good healthcare.

However, the US healthcare system scores below other countries in every category, overall quality; waiting time, preventive measures and operational quality, among other aspects.

What countries include in their healthcare plan can be adjusted over time, as more funds become available.

Agriculture is a big problem for some countries because consumption is much higher than can be produced locally.

Therefore, agricultural products must be imported at a high cost, and with a long delivery time, the quality is being compromised.

Africa could be the bread basket for the world.

Of course, some areas are better suited than others for agriculture production, but Africa, as a continent, could be self-sufficient in most areas.


Exporting raw materials and unprocessed products may be necessary if technology or knowledge is not available, but over time, the focus should be to increase the export of finished and processed goods.

A small country like Iceland started their fish export to Europe on a commercial scale after WWII.

In the beginning, they sold unprocessed fish, but over the decades they increased the percentage of processed goods, and as their expertise increased, they started to export technology related to fishing and then food processing.

You may have noticed that in all areas, the government is involved.

At different levels and magnitudes, but at least the government sets the regulations and guides the conduct of society, including businesses.

Those, who claim unfettered capitalism is the way to go, should be able to point to one country currently among the wealthiest in the world, that became rich because of neoliberal policies. But they cannot.

There is none.

Every country (few principalities exempt where the wealth of one individual exaggeratedly alters the average) on the list of wealthiest countries in the world got there because of their government policies, not because of the free market alone.

However, while the government must be involved, it must be crystal clear, for every business, what they can expect from the government as well as their obligations to the government before they start doing business in the country.

It does not matter if it is a local farmer or an international tech giant, the rules must be clear, otherwise, the cost of doing business outweighs the benefit.

How should governments pay for this?

Well, besides each of the categories increasing the government revenue as they become more effective, the first would be to reduce military spending.

Although military spending in Africa has come down over the last decade, it is still estimated to be about $40 billion per year.

Half of that could pay for a great rail network for the continent in a few years if the cost of new rail track construction is between 1 – 2 million per mile.

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Mr. Thorgeirsson, a Columnist with The scholar Media Africa is based in Puerto Rico, USA. He is a coach in Personal Finance, with an MBA in Finance and Marketing from Inter Americana University, Puerto Rico. His contact: fflpr2019@gmail.com


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