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Africa’s leaders must begin thinking ahead

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Added 12th October 2017 09:57 AM

Africa has a lot of its own intellectual power that would inform think tank outlook

Title: Positioning Africa for the 21st Century: The Pivotal Role of Leadership and Think Tanks

Author: James Magara

Publisher: Beeranga Mwesigwa Foundation

Price: Shs 90,000

Reviewer: David Sseppuuya (Available at major bookshops and on Amazon -  paperback and Kindle)

Africans were not invited to attend, nor were they consulted, when imperial powers met in Berlin, 1884-85, to carve up the continent into political and economic entities that still exist today. That was in the 19th Century. A little over one hundred years later, Africans were present, though hardly influential, when the various rounds of the Paris Club of international creditors convened to dole out solutions to the continent’s economic plight in one-size-fits-all prescriptions made by the World Bank and the IMF in Washington, DC. That was in the 1980s and 1990s - the late 20th Century.

In between, Africa had also been at the recipient end of standard prescriptions made in Paris (Paris again!), London, Lisbon and other colonial capitals, and imposed on hapless colonised nations. The countries and their people have since struggled to make economic and social headway, let alone become prosperous, two decades now into the 21st Century.

That Africans make so little input in the direction of their countries and societies, and continue to struggle in just about every area of public endeavor, is down to the absence of think tanks, local input, and servant leadership, writes James Magara. A thinker and leadership trainer, who also happens to be a dental surgeon in Kampala, Magara argues that planning from without – that is, outsourcing our planning – is largely to blame for Africa’s floundering fortunes. Countries that have made real headway have almost all invariably leaned on think tanks to weigh up local challenges and evolve homegrown solutions.

He uses the study cases of Botswana, a rare African success story, and the East Asian upstarts of South Korea and Singapore, peers with Africa a mere 60 years ago but now world powers in their own right on account of garnering homemade solutions.

Insights abound in this comprehensively researched thesis: for instance, in 1989 there were 100,000 donor-funded expatriate advisers working in the public sectors of 40 African countries, costing more than $4billion, or 35% of development assistance. The benefits of this development assistance are rather limited!

And yet Africa has a lot of its own intellectual power that would inform think tank outlook, whose viewpoints are either developed at home or honed overseas in world class establishments. This reviewer has, as have many Ugandans, encountered one standout, Ngonzi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian woman of great intellectual and management stature who has served as Managing Director of the World Bank. How much would she bring to a Nigerian or continental think tank?

And yet, as Magara observes, a lot of Africa’s intellectual capacity is actually lost either to country or to continent (how many Ugandan intellectuals are out there in other African countries, let alone overseas particularly in the US and the UK, whose ability and intellect mainly benefits those other nations?). Former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, has noted elsewhere that Africa has lost 20,000 academics and 10% of its highly skilled information technology and finance professionals

A study of the intellectual history of Africa, right from the indirect rule of British colonialism, from which local chiefs did the master’s bidding after all the thought and policy-formulation had been done in London, through the assimilation and association policy of the French that left Africans to thoughtlessly, so to speak, implement policies fashioned in Europe, shows the foundational challenge Africa finds itself in. There has been little or no independence of thought in the years after Independence. It is a situation compounded, bizarrely, by the persecution of the intellectual class by even such leaders as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, who had initially championed the development of intellectual capacity, including his creation of the powerful state-supported think tank, the National Development Planning Commission.

There has been little or no uptake by leaders of intellectual input in the governance of nations and institutions, the book notes. Leaders tend to shun, if not gag, internal thought that could inform policy and strategy.

Policy-making in post-Independence Africa was dominated by ruling parties, which soon became single parties, further blunting thought and process. In such an environment, independent thought is often slapped down, even today when the scrambled thinking of governments sees leaders confuse alternative or dissenting views for dissidence, or even insurgency.

Yet independence of thought is critical for think tanks to play their critical role in national development.

Leadership, Magara argues, is the major mover alongside other agents, a sextet that he outlies as being the Leader, the Planning Office, the Budget Office, the Statistical Office, the Media, and Think Tanks.

The book is strong on recommending East Asia’s approach, whose leading lights did not lean much on the IMF and the World Bank to shape strategy the way Africa has done. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and the rest that have followed in this flow, owned their planning: “While they learned from others, they did not allow others to plan for them. They envisioned possibilities, drew strategies, and drew contextually relevant programs.”

It is high time African countries started thinking their development challenges through, and making contextually relevant prescriptions and strategies. Functional think tanks will not only mitigate the unproductive outsourcing of analysis and solutions for our development, as well as address the underemployment of our intellectual capacity, but also reduce the debilitating effects of dysfunctional one-man rule that has long saddled governance.

This book is a description of how think tanks can be a game-changer. It outlines the why and the how, and will be a valuable reference point as African leaders and policy makers put on their thinking caps for the continent to plot a way forward to what is a promising, if fraught, century ahead. 

Kampala Launch: 5.30pm, Friday 13 October 2017. Kampala Serena Hotel, Victoria Hall.

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