East Africa has the leaders it needs, but not in the right places

Tuesday January 3 2017


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

We end 2016 with the leaders of the East African Community, the wonders they have wrought, and the contradictions they have served up.

Tanzania’s John Magufuli, having clocked one year in power the other day, gets a pass. He is still a work in progress, but we shall note his anti-corruption and anti-waste credentials have been quickly established.

However, he has also turned out to be very thin-skinned, touchy about criticism and quick to wield the hammer at the slightest provocation.

We are watching him. And when it comes to being thin-skinned, I think – now that Mwai Kibaki has been out of power for over three years – Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is, without doubt, East Africa’s most thick-skinned leader.

If you don’t poke out the eyes of his family, stick your nose too much into “his” military, or accuse him of rampant theft, you can get away with calling him all sorts of names.

You would think then, that Museveni’s Uganda would be East Africa’s – and even Africa’s – most democratic state. It is not. That is our first contradiction.

The second one comes from Burundi. Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza and his wife Denis are the most Born-Again First Couple in the EAC. Denise is even an ordained church minister.

They hold very long prayer sessions. Pierre and Denise, probably pray more than the rest of the EAC leaders and their wives combined.

You would think then that their Burundi would be the the most compassionate, and the Bujumbura government’s actions the most inspired by Christian love and care. It is not.

The only resemblance it has to the Bible are the hellish conditions that some of the opponents of the regime have endured.

Which brings us to Rwanda. President Paul Kagame is, without doubt, the EAC’s most tech-savvy president.

And from a policy and action point of view, the Rwanda government is kilometres ahead of the rest in investing in and visioning a digital future. However, Rwanda is not, by a long stretch, the most innovative East African country. That crown belongs to Kenya and, in an unlikely second place, Uganda.

There is our third contradiction.

For the fourth, we come to Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta comes from a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist family. He leads East Africa’s most enterprising economy, and unlike some of the other EAC presidents, he never lapses into condemnation of the free market.

However, Kenya is not the easiest place to do business in. That honour, according to a long chain of World Bank and other “Ease of Doing Business” measures, like from the World Economic Forum, belongs to Rwanda.

Finally, South Sudan. No people in the EAC have fought a longer war for freedom, and paid such a high price for liberation, like the good folks of South Sudan.

You would think they would value the freedom they won more than any other East Africans, and go to the greatest length to protect it.

However the bloodbath that has beset the country since December 2013, tells another story. The South Sudan leaders, especially, couldn’t care less about what it cost them to win freedom.

You can see that we have everything to make East Africa great. Moving the leaders around would help, although I can see three of them whom no one else would want.
Happy 2017.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.