African leaders need to acquire a sense of shame

Saturday June 15 2024

President William Ruto during the Korea-Africa Summit. PHOTO | PCS


Earlier this month, the South Korea – Africa summit was held in Seoul. Forty-eight African countries were represented, with 21 being represented by heads of state and government.

What did these African representatives think when they saw the ultramodern, clean, orderly city that symbolises South Korea’s spectacular rise from a poor Third World country in the 1960s to the rich developed country it is today? I wonder if they felt any shame because, in the ‘60s, African countries such as Kenya were more or less at par, in terms of GDP and per capita income, with South Korea.

Per the same parameters, Nigeria in the 1960s was wealthier than South Korea. Today, however, South Korea’s GDP towers over those of Kenya and Nigeria combined. Its GDP per capita is many times bigger than those of the two African countries. Furthermore, South Korea is years ahead in terms of technological innovation.

The ability to feel shame, Professor Ngotho Kariuki once told me, is important for the growth of individuals as well as nations. The emotion, he said, causes individuals and nations to evaluate their behaviour and take remedial action.

An individual who is not ashamed of his weaknesses is unable to reinvent himself. Likewise, nations that don’t feel ashamed of the indignities of underdevelopment cannot rejuvenate and reinvent themselves.

China, in the early 20th century, felt humiliated by its backwardness. Its obsessive ambition was to catch up with the industrialised West. It was the same sense of shame that drove South Koreans to harness every possible intellectual, financial and natural resource for national development.


The Chinese and Korean leaders did not measure their personal accomplishments or achievements by the acres of land they had, or the mansions they owned or by megalomaniacal projects. Their personal triumph or success was intricately linked to the triumph or success of their countries. Deng Xiao Ping would rate his personal success as moving 400 million Chinese from poverty to the middle class in a decade.

If he had retired from leadership with his country still suffering the indignities of poverty, he would have rated himself as a failure despite having risen to become the top leader of China.

Read: Why South Korea wants a piece of Africa

In Africa, we have presidents who retire as billionaires and leave millions of their citizens wallowing in extreme poverty without feeling an ounce of shame. They rate their personal success by the perks, pomp and ceremony of their positions, and the wealth they accumulate. That is why a Nigerian president can ride in a 50-car motorcade through an impoverished town without shame. He measures his personal achievement by the pomp and ceremony of his position.

That is why African presidents, without shame, will spend billions of their countries’ money to underwrite opulent lifestyles amid so much poverty. That is why those who travelled to South Korea to beg for development aid from their erstwhile economic peer felt no shame. Travelling to the summit in luxury was just another indicator of their personal success.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.