With All Due Respect…Grow Up: Open Letter to African Leadership

There’s an old parenting adage that says if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?

As much as my 12-year-old self cringed when I heard it, my now 30-something year-old self has to admit that my mom was right. You don’t need to copy everything your friends or peers do or tell you to do.

African leaders would be wise to take this same advice. Amid this COVID-19 crisis, many new buzzwords abound like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing”. It’s no question that we all need to take actions to reduce if not prevent the peak of the virus’ spread, but quick research will tell you that social distancing (used usually to describe isolating in one’s home indefinitely) is not the one and only method for achieving this.

Evidence from South Korea proves the point. Yet most African nations decided to mimic Europe and the U.S. by mandating citizens to stay at home and close all non-essential businesses to contain the contagious disease. 

Now I’ve never been president of a country, and the extent of my public health service ends at coughing into my elbow. But that’s what makes this more frightening – that a basic person like me can immediately see the problem here. One of the basic qualities missing in African leadership is the instinct to make data-driven decisions. 

We have a habit of watching what the “cool kids” are doing (i.e. the West) and just copying exactly what they do. We pay no attention to context or to designing solutions that work in our best interest. It’s like we’re trying so hard to impress, hoping the West is flattered more by our imitation rather than our efficacy.

I was triggered to write this by an op-ed published recently by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the latest adoptee of the Western powers-that-be who look for a poster child to represent their ideal Africa. I don’t hold any bad feelings towards Ahmed. However, I got uncomfortable reading his piece for a couple of reasons.

The first had to do with tone. Frankly, I’m tired of us playing to this notion of African countries being helpless unless the mightier “developed” countries pity us. Ahmed wrote, “African

countries…lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions” mitigating the consequences of the coronavirus spread, and that “the G20 must provide collective leadership” as one of the most pressing solutions to the crisis.

Meanwhile, the G20 consists majorly of Eurocentric nations (including U.S., UK, and Germany) and just one African country (South Africa), an anomalous representative of the continent for reasons not beneficial in situations like this.

It worries me that prominent leaders or Nobel laureates would make the rookie mistake of discussing Africa as a monolith, rather than 54 independent states with nuanced environments. The way a pandemic hits South Africa will be very different from the damage it does in the Central African Republic.

So if the Prime Minister is suggesting that South Africa be the mouthpiece for the continent at the metaphorical cool kids’ table (i.e the G20), that suggestion is myopic in that the one country cannot comprehensively speak on a strategy that best prepares all of Africa for this type of public health/economic disruption. 

And if he’s suggesting that the G20 as a whole be the global mouthpiece for how to prep for situations like this, he’s jumping off the bridge with friends, just because they say so.

Recommendations like the one from the Prime Minister jump the gun, bypassing the most pressing first ask anyone should really make: what can African leaders do for themselves with what they have NOW?

We can admit that, historically, the Western world is the lead culprit for putting African nations in a vulnerable position financially and politically. TLDR, watch this great documentary on that issue. 

But that does not absolve the faults of African leaders.

By faults, I’m not just referring to that deference African leaders show to the West or African leaders’ inexcusable mistreatment of their citizens. Those aside, logic would suggest that the developed world would see how neglecting public health strategies in African nations would eventually have an impact on them, given the growth of globalized trade and travel.

How many times has the West proven that common sense isn’t so common? We have undeniable evidence in the way the United States (now the epicenter of COVID-19) wasn’t prepared to prevent or manage the stress of a deadly contagion on its healthcare system.

So when the cool kids are busy getting themselves out of trouble, what do we (Africa) do? Twiddle our thumbs, or use our own brains to self-regulate?

It’s fair to continue demanding relief from what essentially equates to predatory loan agreements keeping African countries crippled with debt. But until that utopian moment when the West stops asking us for our lunch money, African heads of state need to examine their own insecurities and, frankly, find the maturity to hold themselves accountable for what they know needs to be done.

For example, South Africa has had an ongoing debate about providing universal healthcare to its 57 million population for 13 years. The biggest concern? Not how much it will cost, or where the funding will come. It’s whether South Africa’s leadership has the self-control to not pocket the funds for themselves as they did with the country’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Here’s another wise quote, taken from India’s assassinated prime minister Indira Gandhi:

“Beware of ministers who can do nothing without money, and those who want to do everything with money.”

I’m not naive to think that Africa doesn’t have a SERIOUS cash problem created by colonialism. But I’m wary of those who keep trying to guilt-trip the West into charity. Especially when they refuse to ask why Africa hasn’t learned how to walk on its own two feet.

What do you think?

I’m thinking of starting a business of my own that solves this problem.

I feel the same way — tired of lower standards that keep Africans at risk economically.

I don’t think you’re seeing the full picture, and I have a different point of view.

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