Africa's new class of power players
Every year Africa's best and brightest leave their cities and villages for Harvard or McGill University or the London School of Economics. Some are children of privilege. Some are hand-picked by private foundations or donor nations, casting their nets for the next generation of African leaders. Others are sent by parents who have sacrificed for years to send their offspring abroad.Skip to next paragraph
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Far from home, they sit through ethics classes, study theories of democracy, pore over law books, use state-of-the-art medical equipment, and talk about coming home and making a difference.
Yet on the planet's poorest and most war-torn continent, there remains a leadership deficit. Why?
The Monitor spoke with more than a dozen of Africa's promising young leaders who studied in the West - from the head of Botswana's revolutionary AIDS program to the founder of Africa's biggest Internet company to a possible future president of Kenya - about their choice to return home. We asked them about giving up a life of comfort for a life of contribution, what obstacles they face, and what they are doing to break the continent's cycle of dysfunction.
Early on Christmas morning 2002, Uhuru Kenyatta, his cheery necktie and plastered-on smile failing to make him look any less exhausted, stood sweating under the lights in Nairobi's Serena Hotel ballroom, slowly reading out the most important speech of his young life.
"These elections were a glowing tribute to the great nation of Kenya and freedom of choice," he began. "I accept the choice of the people and now concede that Mwai Kibaki will be the third president of the Republic of Kenya." There was a desire for change afoot, he continued, "but we were not perceived by the people as the change they were looking for."
Not a particularly notable address by Western standards, but practically revolutionary for Africa. The atmosphere in Nairobi that morning was drum-taut with tension. Riot police slapped their batons in anticipation. Newspaper editors had canceled their correspondents' vacations, expecting anger and violent ethnic clashes - that's what had happened after every other election in the country's history.
But Mr. Kenyatta's grace in defeat caught everyone by surprise and helped defuse the situation. The moment was more than just Kenya's first peaceful end to an election cycle. It marked a new maturity in African leadership.
The lanky Kenyatta is the son of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, one of Africa's "big men" - those who wrested power from European overlords. The elder Kenyatta was part of what was supposed to be a new day for the continent - Africa run by Africans.
Yet no sooner had the Europeans left than new overlords took control, this time with African names: Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Idi Amin in Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo, to name a few. For the next four decades, Africa was pockmarked by war, corruption, coups, and countercoups. The continent became a front line in the cold war, with the world's superpowers propping up some of the most despicable men. These big men often confused their own interests with those of the countries they ruled over, handing out favors and hoarding their nation's wealth in offshore bank accounts. The new day had faded to dusk.
In the 1990s, hopes hung on the next generation of leaders - men like Rwanda's Paul Kagame, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi. They were, again, supposed to usher in a new era of African democracy. And while surveys show more political freedom in Africa now than when the decade began, that change often isn't felt on the ground. Mr. Kagame, for example, won reelection in Rwanda last month with 95 percent of the vote in a poll many saw as less than free and fair. Recent elections in Uganda and Ethiopia have gone the same way.
Now Africa watchers are forced to look to yet another generation. While some are pessimistic, others see another dawn approaching in young African leaders like Kenyatta. His self- effacing concession represented a transition of sorts - from those who did anything to gain power to those who want to embrace democracy, sound business practices, and the rule of law.