Problem of Tyranny and Overreach of Executive Authority in Africa and Search for local Solutions

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan asserted:

While a number of African leaders stand out as champions of development, they are still a minority, and their achievements [are] overshadowed by stories of other leaders’ personal enrichment and authoritarian behavior.2

A common assumption both in scholarly literature3 and in the popular mind4 has been that African leaders are despotic, tyrannical and corrupt. Closer examination reveals abundant factual evidence for this assumption, including the depressing inability of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to find an exemplary African leader to honour with its governance prize for four of the last five years.5 A pessimistic and prejudiced analysis might blame cultural deficits or hereditary factors.6 Similarly, Pitcher, Moran and Johnson reported: “ analysts and perpetrators of various abuses of power tell us that such practices are simply reassertions in new settings of historic, distinctively African forms of power and leadership”;7 but such explanations are no longer acceptable, nor do they adequately explain Africa’s leadership crisis or offer any solutions.

By contrast, African scholars such as Ayittey8 and Turner9 have suggested that the failure of their leaders is because traditional checks and balances are no longer present to restrain executive power and ambition. Littrell expounded a call:

... to develop a body of indigenous knowledge about African leadership, a body of knowledge that can become the basis for the development ofa new generation of leaders whose purpose is to transform Africa not into something different from its heritage but building upon heritage.10

This emergent case study responds to that call by adding to the body of knowledge on African elders and their potential to address the problem of unchecked tyranny and despotism in African leadership. According to Ayittey, traditional African modes of governance have demonstrated workable solutions.11 Though it hardly seems realistic to revert to a traditional tribal government structure in the age of nations, it is suggested that a re-examination of traditional governance, specifically elder councils, may reveal modalities indigenous to the culture that already create accountability and balance of power. The viability of these modalities is based on a social identity perspective of leadership that views leaders as people of influence precisely because they embody prototypical group ideals.12 Barentsen defined leadership from this perspective as a process of social influence through which an individual, perceived to be more prototypical and influential than other group members in a particular social context, empowers and mobilizes other group members to solve collective problems or to attain collective goals.13

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