Learning from three African presidents

Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Ohio University Press’s short histories of Africa series. I use them to teach my introductory-level African politics students about oppression, resistance, liberation and corruption, and I recommend the books to anyone who asks as an affordable and accessible introduction to a wide range of topics in African studies. Written by a diverse range of smart, expert authors, the volumes in the series provide short, easy-to-understand synopses of everything from the history of organizations like the Women’s League of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) to biographies of leaders from across the continent.

In last summer’s reading series, we featured Roy Doron and Toyin Falola’s biography of Nigerian playwright and protester Ken Saro-Wiwa. That was so much fun that this year, I decided to feature three recent biographies from the series, on Julius Nyerere, Thabo Mbeki and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The stories of these three leaders’ lives give insight not only into the political and economic histories of their countries, but they also shed light on huge questions that have challenged African leaders since independence, from the end of colonization to Cold War-era struggles for liberation in southern Africa to transnational public health epidemics in our own time. In doing so, they show how African leaders have served as transformational actors — sometimes for good and other times for bad — while struggling to bring their populations the benefits of peace, equality and development.

Paul Bjerk’s “Julius Nyerere” offers readers an in-depth look at the ways Tanzania’s visionary first leader shaped his country. Drawing on a wealth of sources and experience in the country, Bjerk paints a compelling picture of Nyerere’s role as a leader in Tanganyika’s independence movement and his efforts to develop the country in the face of pressure from all sides. For Nyerere, building consensus, avoiding divisive politics based on tribal identity and regionalism, and maintaining independence from the Cold War powers were goals of paramount importance. But doing so was a struggle.

Nyerere’s 1964 effort to bring the island territories of Zanzibar into a union with the Tanganyika mainland as the United Republic of Tanzania exemplifies this tension: The deal was hastily completed between Nyerere and his Zanzibari counterpart without a consultative process, much less a referendum of either’s population. But doing so was necessary, as it was evident to all that East Germany, the United States, or both were likely to intervene to stop unrest on the island unless Nyerere could calm the tensions there, which creating Tanzania did, at least for long enough to get the Cold War powers to stand down. Even as he did so, however, Nyerere built a closer relationship with China, which provided some military training to Tanzanian forces.

The contradictions only grew from there. Nyerere established a one-party state and ruled until 1985. His greatest achievements — supporting liberation movements fighting to end white minority rule across South Africa and unifying Tanzania’s people by adopting Kiswahili as the country’s lingua franca — made him enormously popular, both domestically and on the continent. But Nyerere’s creation of a dictatorship and failed attempt at creating an brand of Africanized socialism called “Ujamaa” left a stain on Nyerere’s reputation outside of Tanzania, and arguably made Tanzania’s transition to the post-Cold War political and market overhauls demanded by donors more challenging than it might otherwise have been. Nonetheless, Nyerere is still beloved by Tanzanians nearly two decades after his death, and Tanzanian politicians are still judged by their electorate against his standard.

In “Thabo Mbeki,” Adekeye Adebajo explores the life of another leader who participated in the struggle for liberation in South Africa and the project of building and managing continental cooperation in the form of Pan-Africanism. Mbeki, who served as the second post-apartheid president of South Africa, got his political start in the ANC as an exile from 1971 to 1990. Adebajo argues that Mbeki’s time leading the ANC office in Nigeria, from 1976 to 1978, was particularly significant in developing his vision for African cooperation and the relationships necessary for managing it when his time as president came.

Educated in the United Kingdom, Mbeki sometimes faced ridicule for his intellectualism and lack of military prowess from other ANC members, particularly those in the armed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) wing of the movement. But his smarts and savvy understanding of how international audiences viewed the ANC proved invaluable for their liberation struggle. As Adebajo notes, Mbeki became “a consummate diplomat, the chief spokesman and salesman for the ANC in exile.” He effectively convinced journalists around the world to tell the movement’s story in a way that did not portray the ANC as simple terrorists, culminating with the airing of the CBS documentary hosted by Bill Moyers, “The Battle for South Africa,” in 1978.

Mbeki’s public relations victories were essential in legitimizing the ANC and the anti-apartheid cause. His leadership and negotiation were equally essential in the post-apartheid effort to rebuild the South African state and society into a more just and equitable system with opportunities for all. Leading largely behind the scenes during Nelson Mandela’s presidency and then winning election in his own right to two terms from 1999 to 2008, like Nyerere, Mbeki’s results were mixed. In building what Adebajo calls the “African Renaissance,” Mbeki was a successful pan-Africanist statesman. He rebranded the Organization of African Unity as the African Union (AU) along with his Nigerian counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo and was a leader in the AU’s creation of a continental peacekeeping capacity. Domestically, however, Mbeki failed to bring the levels of development black South Africans expected from democracy and ANC rule. Mbeki’s refusal to acknowledge the realities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and provide antiretroviral drugs to infected South Africans resulted in an estimated 365,000 deaths.

Adebajo concludes by asking whether Mbeki is likely to be remembered as “a great pan-African, but not a great South African.” A similar question guides Pamela Scully’s “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” in which the theme of international and local identities, perceptions and realities arises again and again. Scully grounds the story of the Liberian president’s life in Liberia’s deep history, noting that Sirleaf in some ways bridges the long-standing social divide between the “Americo-Liberian” descendants of the freed enslaved people who settled in Liberia and those who have a tribal affiliation and whose ancestors were in Liberia before the arrival of the settlers. Sirleaf is the granddaughter of a Liberian traditional chief, but her parents were sent to live with wealthy Americo-Liberian families in Monrovia to be educated and have a chance at upward social mobility. As such, Sirleaf grew up visiting her family’s home region and learning some of their language but also had access to the educational and social opportunities life in the capital provided.

Sirleaf married and had children young. Later, she was able to travel to the United States with her husband to attend university, and she eventually earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy. This experience and her subsequent work — for Citibank, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, among others — laid the foundation for Sirleaf’s technocratic approach to government. Over the years, she moved in and out of positions in Liberia’s government, leaving the country when staying was dangerous as two civil wars engulfed the country. At times, Sirleaf worked for or cooperated with unsavory figures like the military dictator Samuel Doe. Scully judges this to be an effect of Sirleaf’s pragmatism, which she notes might well be “the quality that helped her navigate different political terrains so successfully.”

Women played a major role in the peace process that ended Liberia’s second civil war in 2003, and Scully makes it clear that women’s support was essential to Sirleaf’s election as president in 2005. It was then that Johnson’s technocratic experience and approach to governance began to have a major effect on Liberian lifestyles. Writes Scully:

“During Sirleaf’s first term, Liberia became in effect Development Central. Liberia offered a laboratory for international development experts who were struggling to find new ways of partnering. . . . [W]ith a feminist president possessing unusual financial and administrative skills, development experts saw in Liberia an opportunity to do good.”

This meant, however, that Sirleaf had to rely on the goodwill of donors and the activities of outsiders to keep Liberia going. Scully argues that Sirleaf was between a rock and a hard place in this regard: “If she did not use the help of outsiders, she could not run her government, but by relying so much on foreigners, she risked alienating her citizenry.”

No one in Liberia was prepared, however, for the greatest challenge of Sirleaf’s time in office: the 2014-15 ebola outbreak and a technocratic approach to development. Public health was not sufficient to stop it. Sirleaf’s government’s failures, from not effectively containing the virus when it first appeared in Liberia to overly harsh responses to urban protests to the public health response, compounded the epidemic’s tragedy and certainly contributed to the death toll of nearly 5,000 Liberians killed by the disease.

As Scully points out, given that Sirleaf faced the challenge of rebuilding a country whose economy, government and society had been shattered by war, perhaps it was too much to ask of one president to be able to effectively handle it all. As with Nyerere’s post-colonial and Cold War challenges and Mbeki’s problems dealing with building post-apartheid South Africa, Sirleaf had significant successes, including reducing Liberia’s debt, getting its roads rebuilt and providing universal, free primary education. Whatever the issue of the day, building institutions from scratch is hard, and those institutions won’t consolidate for decades, much less during the tenure in office — or even the lifetime — of a single leader. More patience and more realistic expectations of imperfect leaders who are neither saints nor demons would do us all well.

Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict, and development, with a focus on central Africa. She has also written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English. Follow @texasinafrica

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