Where are the Philosopher Kings? How to Fix Governance and Leadership in Africa

Many countries in Africa suffer from the same kinds of issues: from economic degradation to political strife. Citizens who want to champion positive change will have to take civic duty and good leadership seriously.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius usually comes to mind when one is asked to give an example of a philosopher king. In Meditations, his guide to life rooted in stoic philosophy, Aurelius stressed the importance of freeing oneself from selfish desires that hinder personal development. Today, Aurelius’ style of leadership reads like an emblem of a bygone era when leaders were not just political heroes of their nations, but moral torchbearers as well. The Africa of today is in dire need of good, virtuous leadership that will steer the region’s growth along the right path. As the continent finds itself on the fault lines of a shifting world order, many wonder if this may catalyse the long-anticipated African Renaissance: a period of exponential economic growth, cultural vibrancy, and diplomatic potency. However, the real spanner in the wheel of this great feat is not ability, but volition. With the emergence of new nodes of power, wealth and diplomacy, Africans must now ask themselves whether their societies are well-equipped to produce the kinds of exemplary leaders that will oversee their national advancement. Essentially, it is time for Africans to take national virtues seriously and it starts with demanding greater accountability from themselves, and their leaders.


The Africa of today is a place where varied and, sometimes, contradictory realities exist. Despite Africa’s significant contributions to global processes of development such as the industrial revolution for example, the region has historically been excluded from global conversations; where the continent is either silent, not invited to the table of discussion or is viewed simply as a theatre or empty space where global power competition plays out. Presently, the continent is both home to the world’s youngest population, as well as a large portion of the globe’s poorest. Even the continent’s modernization efforts appear inconsistent: for example, from 2015 to 2020, financial backing received by African tech start-ups grew six times faster than the global average, even as returns on venture capital investments in Africa were almost four times less than returns in regions like the Asia-Pacific and Europe.

The reality on national levels is even more precarious, as the collective experience of perverse democracies and poor institutions characterized by bureaucratic indolence has left many Africans convinced that the continent remains a place people flee. As an observer overlooking the myriad of problems the continent faces, one is left to wonder if there really are foreign puppet masters pulling the strings behind the scenes to ensure these problems never go away. While foreign influence has very little to do with this directly, international and regional pussyfooting of the continent’s dysfunction implies an underlying disdain for African countries and their peoples, a silent assertion that the continent cannot amount to better and so there is no reason to expect better from it. What lies at the root of these aforementioned problems is twofold: the selfishness of leaders who put their individual needs over those of the collective and the civic apathy of the citizens who have the power to change these circumstances.


Much like the struggle for independence from colonial rule, many African countries are still engaged in a desperate fight for their survival. However, rather than colonial powers, the adversaries in this battle are what former US president John F. Kennedy described as the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. Good leadership remains one of the key missing pieces in Africa’s post-colonial development puzzle. Rather than rise up to the challenge, the ruling elite across Africa have made themselves enemies of their countries’ progress. Like buccaneers, establishment politicians have captured the state: robbing their citizens and future generations of their dignity and agency. They have weaponized poverty, lack of education, ethnic rivalries and the people’s perceived helplessness to further their own selfish interests and those of global multinational institutions that profit from a destitute and failing Africa. The worst part is that regular people in some of these countries seem almost defeated by the chaos and have instead resorted to making excuses for these rulers, some even going as far as defending their oppressors.

However, Africa’s culture of impunity is not just reserved for the highest echelons of power, it trickles down to everyday interactions: Policemen harass and sometimes kill citizens with close to no consequences and religious leaders use lies and deceit to control their congregations. People across the continent are beginning to adapt to societies where consequences do not seem to matter, where anything goes and only those with a reasonable amount of political influence can do anything about it. In democracies across the continent, elections have become mere formalities that entrench incumbent rule and circumvent the people’s wishes, while elite capture ensures that only a select few have access to opportunities. A good example lies in the deep flaws of Nigeria’s most recent presidential election, which goes to show that political impunity left unchecked can have disastrous consequences on a country’s social fabric. Citizens across African countries must take responsibility for the kind of leaders they have, as bad leaders are upheld by their countrymen who do not stand up for what is right. The notion that politics is a ‘dirty game’ means that the citizens have left political affairs and by extension governance, to the power-hungry and are yet to choose or encourage virtuous people to lead them. A democracy is defined by its democratic values, and these values are first and foremost defined by citizens. The fish may rot from the head down, but the real enemy thrives in societies that are too apathetic to actively mould their socio-political realities.


For African countries to get it right, they must take their sociocultural norms and assumptions seriously. This requires introspection on an individual, societal, and national level. People across various countries should proactively define what good leadership is, so they know what to expect from their leaders. For example, why do voters look to a ‘strong man’ president to nationally address problems like indiscipline, which ought to be the individual’s responsibility? How can citizens ensure they put the right people in positions of power? What can they do to protect and defend their civil liberties from despots? And how do they ensure that abuse of power does not become a societal norm? It starts with individuals taking responsibility for their country’s progress. Socially responsible citizens who ensure they do their part to make their societies better should gravitate towards good leaders who will then realize the developmental wishes of the people. However, virtues must partner with tangible action to take real effect. As political scientist, Brian Klass, argues in Corruptible, good institutions as well as rigorous checks and balances and can help reduce the number of self-selected leaders who act with impunity.

So what can people do now? True change starts with the people and sometimes national history is a great place to draw lessons from. Citizens must know where they come from before they can better understand the present and even begin to shape the future. National history education is central to achieving this goal. To prevent self-selected leaders from siphoning power to themselves and their cronies, citizens must fiercely guard the institutions that uphold their democratic values. This means that the utmost respect for the rule of law and widespread civil participation are material avenues to ensure that societies do not cede power only to those who are desperate for it. Encouraging examples in Senegal and Malawi show that the citizens are powerful enough to mould political realities in their favour. True leadership should be the people ruling their country through chosen and (hopefully worthy) individuals. The people must get it right for their leaders to do the same; a nation’s trajectory is the responsibility of both rulers and subjects. African citizens must take responsibility for their continent’s future, otherwise, they will be left to blame for the region’s stunted growth

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