Within the spaces I happen to inhabit, the ‘African leader’ label is frequently thrown around with reckless abandon. You hear it in people’s self-introductions, you see it in their social media bios, you shouldn’t be shocked to also come across it dotted around in their résumés. Being called an ‘African leader’ is basically a rite of passage (of sorts) into the pseudo-elite cohorts of some of the ‘brightest’ young people at the [self-acclaimed] top institutions in Africa. But what does it even mean?
The ‘African leader’ tag (in the context I speak of) was initially bestowed on young Africans who were making meritorious strides towards transforming their communities and the lives of those around them. These people were seen to be the future leaders of Africa. But today, it has been used to describe even someone like me who has barely done anything as substantial that can be considered worthy of such a label. How did we get here?
That label, ‘African leader,’ has become a blanket description that truly lacks substance. The question: “What/Who exactly do you lead?” still sits in the room like a 500-pound orangutan. Essentially, the ‘African leader’ label is not only a blanket description. It is also used so recklessly that it has lost the value, reverence, and meaning it once had.
Its original purpose — to recognise the young people who are leading the African revolution through their inspiring work — has also been diluted as a result. I honestly think that’s a good thing; a great thing actually. Its original meaning was incomplete anyway. This incompleteness resulted in its susceptibility to multiple misinterpretations which has led to three key dangers.
The first danger of the ‘African leader’ label is the spirit of complacency that it induces. Being blanketed as an ‘African leader’ doesn’t truly reflect the essence of one’s skill or expertise. However, it provides an implicit testament of one’s prior achievements; especially if they are (or have been) students at one of these institutions which claim to be developing the next generation of African leaders. While their achievements may be truly laudable, for most people, once the ‘African leader’ label is bestowed on them, they begin to rest on their laurels.
These young people who used to be ambitious mavens who consistently sharpened their skills while helping and inspiring others are now reduced to lackadaisical couch potatoes. Their newly-found sense of entitlement leads them to fold their arms and bicker about the problems they are confronted with instead of finding solutions to them.
The second danger is the latent superiority complex that comes with the ‘African leader’ label. This is mostly a case among the students at these leadership institutions I speak of who were “selected out of thousands of applicants from all over the continent and beyond.” The ones who were labelled ‘African leaders’ as a result of the awards they won for their transformative work on the continent are also potential co-proprietors of this latent superiority complex.
This superiority complex is grounded in the belief of these ‘African leaders’ in their role as the ones who are to solve Africa’s greatest challenges. While this may be true or false, the real cankerworm wriggles in the crevices of their approach of solving these problems for the continent rather than with the continent. It reinforces the flawed belief that these ‘African leaders’ are the “best and the brightest” on the continent, hence the most ideal sources of any credible solutions to Africa’s challenges. BS.
The third danger is the ballooning of exclusive circles of these ‘African leaders.’ We already know that rigid circles already exist within the echelons of the various renowned leadership institutions in Africa. However, beyond this, there are more covertly exclusive cliques of people who are doing transformative work on the continent. Some of these institutionalised cliques are even more exclusive for people working within a particular industry or organisation.
While this may not be seen as a bad thing at first, the root of the danger posed by these exclusive circles is two-fold. Firstly, it feeds the latent superiority complex I talked about earlier. Secondly, it elevates these supposed leaders high atop shiny ivory towers where they are detached from the realities of the daily struggles on the continent they claim to be committed to salvaging. How then can they truly solve problems or improve conditions they haven’t lived through or can no longer relate to / empathise with?
But I’d like to think that not all hope is lost.
There are still ways to rethink these dangers posed by this ‘African leader’ label.
Instead of basking in our achievements and blindly brandishing meaningless labels, we can focus on enhancing those skills which best position us to contribute towards the actualisation of the African century. It may be filmmaking, dancing, banking, engineering, painting, or, as Yvonne Orji calls it, jesting. Whatever it is. What we must not do is get comfortable with being called African leaders because that label lacks meaning on its own. We must strive to develop specific skills in order to become leaders in whatever fields we get into, to serve our communities, to transform lives, and to work with others to revolutionise the African continent.
Instead of feeling a sense of superiority as a result of the achievements we have made along the way, we should hold ourselves accountable to the responsibility (not the prestige) that comes with being called ‘African leaders’. We must remain aware of our obligation to serve. We must remain grounded in humility as we become cognisant of the fact that we owe more to our privileges and occasional strokes of luck than to our talent or our hard work.
Let us shatter the walls around these exclusive circles we have built and engage openly with everyone, learn from every interaction, and remain rooted in the reality of the complex problems we are going to have to confront.
This way, the ‘African leader’ label will die not to be buried but to be reborn with a revitalised meaning.