As Africa was celebrating Africa Day, the day that the Organization of African Unity was established, I found myself thinking about what this truly means. I’m in Yaoundé, the city of 7 hills, sitting in a conference with fellow African lawyers discussing international arbitration disputes and how to resolve them in Africa by Africans.
As I listen to different speakers present the initiatives their leading, challenges and strategies on moving forward my mind recalled a thought I had as I was leaving Addis: Leadership is both a selfish and selfless journey.
To start something, to forge a new path, to lead an initiative, one has to have a strong ego, has to be selfish enough to put her own visions ahead of others vision for her, be able to silence the doubters and the non-supportive noise. While doing so, she is making herself the Guinea pig, learns through a lot of trials and even more errors. This eventually leads to a certain kind of success, and the feeling of having “earned” it after “paying dues”.
One of the consequences of tracing a new path is that your experiences are lessons that allow others to learn through you. This also means that they will walk that path you forged with more ease, a different set of challenges and reach higher heights. This is when the selfless part comes in, those that traced the path should have the foresight that there will come a time that people who can do the work better will come along and she will have to selflessly support and make way.
I think many African political leaders have excelled at the first part, the selfish part, and consistently fail to anticipate and survive the second one, the selfless part. Granted the journey is not obvious and shuttling back and forth between selfishness and selflessness, egotistic and letting go, is almost schizophrenic. Nonetheless, these are the demands of the journey.
During the panel I was chairing at the conference in Yaoundé, one of the speakers gave a metaphor I think describes the current state of African states. The speaker said, as leader of her organization, she is preparing be an ironman. An ironman is the title given to the winner of triathlons, which are gruesome sets of physical exercises that usually includes running, swimming and cycling. She pointed out that there are four types of participants in triathlons, there are those who finish the race exhausted but still standing, those who crawl to the finish line, the “ironman”s a.k.a. the winners and those who never finish.
Not everyone gets to be an ironman, some people will finish the race exhausted but some never will. In Africa, some countries will earn the status of “ironman”, some will do well but others will be left behind. One of the main deciders of how these countries will finish the race is leadership and governance and the willingness of our heads of state to be selfless and pass the baton.
So, as we were celebrating Africa day, I asked myself what exactly our leaders are preparing for. Because whether they want it or not, they’re in the midst of a triathlon!