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Africa’s Transformational Leadership and the imperative of Culture Review

By Mary A. Alabi

For some years now, I have watched with much admiration the current Minister for Power, works and Housing in Nigeria, for his very strong technocratic tendencies, right from when he was governor of Lagos State. However, I could not help but feel a little ‘disappointed’ in my analysis of his performance in the housing sector in the last three years (sorry, some of us are analytical), and my disappointment stemmed from the fact that with the high degree of housing problems experienced in Nigeria, and the dire need for more units of homes to be made available and affordable to the average Nigerian, the National Housing Scheme (a plausible initiative) seemed not to be achieving its expected purpose as fast as it should, especially in a particular part of the country. I mean, why would they build units of bungalows in some parts of the country, while blocks of flats were being built in the south western part, for instance? How would such bungalow units go round the teeming homeless population we are trying to provide the service for, within the limited available resources?

These were my unanswered questions until I got to watch a recent documentary where the Minister was interviewed, and to my greatest surprise, they had intended to build blocks of flats in the said region but the people had been against it! They said that their culture only allowed building of bungalows; my questions had been answered. So, a leader had to understand the cultural perspectives of the people he or she wants to lead, or else he or she would only end up being frustrated. Little wonder it is usually said that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

This then leads to an interesting discussion; the quest for Africa to take her place in the global scheme of things. With the emergence of the G8, EU-15, BRICS, etc. through the decades, we have seen many of these economies transformed; a lot of them becoming global leaders in different spheres. There is such an expectation on the continent of Africa, with all her God-given resources, to emerge, but this can only be attained through transformational leadership. Now, the type of leadership being referred to here is the one defined by Donald McGannon as an action, not a position (I would say, not just a position). So, in this sense, we refer to every African, especially younger Africans who are endowed with the passion, charisma, talents, knowledge and initiatives to take positive actions in areas of healthcare, science and technology, entrepreneurship, mentoring others, agriculture, politics etc., so that we can change our current narrative. But have we stopped to think about the indispensability of culture in the way we are able to attain this transformation and global visibility? Just as in the story narrated at the beginning of this write-up?

Culture is usually simply defined as the ‘way of life’ of a particular group of people, but I also like the way Taiwo Ojo (Ph.D) puts it: ‘culture is the unique combination of processes and priorities, that is formed through repetition in organizations’. So, even though it’s a way of life, the fact that it is formed through repetition means that it can also be unlearned or even reviewed through repetition. I prefer to use the word ‘culture review’ instead of culture change because I believe that the African culture has both its positive and negative aspects, just like other cultures. We can however review the negative aspects that deter growth and development, and imbibe more positive ones.

For instance, some of the good aspects of our general culture that I have seen include: respect (especially for elders), strong family/communal ties, hardwork, discipline, and belief in laws of repercussions and rewards, while the not-so-helpful ones include: slothfulness (the African time mindset), over-sentimentalism (ethnic, gender and religious sentiments over merits), high power gaps (which makes it extremely difficult or impossible to correct wrongs in the society, and often leads to dictatorships or personality worship), religion without the corresponding virtues, short term thinking, lack of an excellence mindset, low level of initiative (quite worrisome, as someone who displays such is seen as too ambitious, loud, disrespectful and non-conforming). These aspects of our culture need to be reviewed if we will attain global visibility through transformational leadership. We have seen the examples of China, India, Malaysia, Japan (the ‘good thinking, good product‘ slogan readily comes to mind), and some other hitherto ‘third world economies’ with excuses to remain poor, but who have reviewed their cultural values and imbibed positive, development-friendly ones, and have since changed their status in global ratings.

Since culture is usually deeply ingrained in humans, and is difficult to challenge, I believe that it would be easier for younger Africans to take up this daunting task, as action-oriented leaders, to lead the next generation of Africans with the right cultural values to grow our continent. Someone said that only a fool would continue to do things the same way, and expect different results. We cannot continue to fall for the same popular sayings that ‘it’s in us’, ‘it’s the way we are’, ‘we can’t change’, and expect Africa to become great. Of course, we can change our mindsets, our ways, our behaviour, and our priorities; it may be difficult but it is not impossible. We can arrive on time for meetings; we can be innovative and ethical as Africans. Yes, we can! Times have changed and we must step up too, and the good news is, each of us can start from where we are (take actions and not wait for a political position), and another good news is, some Africans have started already.

Finally, someone said in a recent interview, ‘a generation abolished slave trade, a generation wrestled Africa from the hands of colonialists; we must be that generation that turns around the economy of Africa’. I believe that this can only be effectively achieved by reviewing our cultures from past generations, removing the unhealthy ones, and institutionalizing new set of cultural values that make us a truly transformed people.

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