To empower Africa, look to ethnic leadership and subsidiarity

Overcoming governance challenges in Africa requires taking into account which institutions the peoples in individual communities value and respect.

Western systems don’t always fit Africa
Africa doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes that the West keeps trying to create for it. © GIS – This cartoon is available for sale in our shop.

Throughout Europe, there is a widespread misconception of Africa – especially sub-Saharan Africa. It is often perceived as corrupt, with greedy autocrats who embezzle development funds. Europeans think it is riddled with hunger, epidemics and civil wars, and view it as a battleground for Chinese and Russian interests. The biggest fear is the threat of mass migration to the secluded “paradise” that is Europe.

While the abovementioned problems do exist, the region’s immense positive aspects often go ignored. At a time when aging populations and demographic decline are prevalent, Africa possesses enormous potential due to its young population. Apart from deserts and the Sahel zone, it is a remarkably fertile continent, with the capacity to sustainably feed billions of people through its agriculture, without depleting existing rainforests. What tends to receive more attention and exploitation are the continent’s oil, gas and mineral resources.

People tend to refer to Africa as a monolithic bloc, but that perception could not be more wrong. There is tremendous variety in its geography, climate, traditions, religions, ethnicities, economies and trade. The regional differences are much larger than those in Europe. It has the potential to become a very rich part of the world.

Arbitrary divisions

So, why do the aforementioned problems threaten Africa? For one, there are significant logistical and infrastructure shortcomings keeping the continent from making the best use of its resources. Educational systems also require improvement, particularly at the primary and professional levels. While Africa boasts numerous highly educated and talented individuals, the quality of foundational education leaves much to be desired.

During the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, European powers established colonies and delineated boundaries based on their perceived interests. They imposed these divisions without regard for the existing political, cultural and economic structures, nor for the lands and boundaries of the indigenous populations.

Some 60 years later, the decolonization process began after World War II. Three main catalysts drove this process: Africans grew more assertive, drawing from their experiences in two global conflicts; the colonial powers, severely weakened by the war, faced immense pressure for decolonization, particularly from the United States; and during the early stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union actively supported subversive movements on the African continent.

In the 1950s and 1960s, countries achieved independence relatively quickly and were encouraged to establish national states with democratic structures within the artificial boundaries left by colonial powers. That democracy does not necessarily equate to good governance was completely disregarded.

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The inherent problems with this process should have been obvious. Many of the newly independent countries were multiethnic, with the various ethnicities dispersed across different states. This situation created fertile ground for the rise of autocratic regimes and allowed the larger ethnic groups to dominate the structures within their respective countries. Additionally, personal affiliations tended to be stronger toward family and tribe rather than toward the state itself.

Instances where certain regions, like Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, sought independence were met with brutal attacks and forcible reintegration against the will of the people. Unimaginable atrocities were committed, and unfortunately, the international community remained largely inactive. In fact, there were even cases where United Nations units became complicit in these acts of brutality, such as in Katanga. Regrettably, similar challenges persist in numerous other countries as well.

The Western world and the UN adopted the naive, shortsighted view that maintaining existing borders would prevent conflicts. But the real blunder – whether stemming from naivety or stubbornness – was the belief that tribalism was the primary obstacle to establishing statehood. This viewpoint reflected a certain arrogance, assuming that specific governance systems should be imposed on people, irrespective of their cultural norms and desires. People should not be forced into arrangements that faraway “experts” in ivory towers regard as superior. Quite the contrary: governance systems should serve the people.

Strength in ethnic leaderships

Given the failure of the statehood system in numerous African countries, there is widespread concern over the lack of democracy and pervasive corruption. Some believe that the African Union could offer solutions. But supranational organizations can only do as much as their member states are willing to allow. With that in mind, one should not expect much change.

Afrobarometer, a notable think tank focused on Africa, conducted a series of polls revealing that in most African countries, the primary source of trust for people lies within their respective ethnic leaderships. The results, below, speak for themselves.


Facts & figures

Trust in traditional and elected leaders

Influence of traditional leaders

Do traditional leaders strengthen or weaken democracy?

Should traditional chiefs have more influence or less?

This represents a significant strength for Africa, as ethnic leaderships can provide stability. In certain countries, like Ghana with the King of the Ashanti and Nigeria with the King of Benin, the people have recognized this advantage, granting these leaders specific powers and their respective regions a degree of autonomy. These factors are not widely understood in Europe.

One interesting case is when Germany returned certain objects to the state of Nigeria. When the artifacts were initially taken from Africa, the state of Nigeria did not exist. Instead, the objects had belonged to the people of Benin, an area that encompassed southwestern Nigeria.

The ethnic kings in Nigeria serve as custodians of the wealth belonging to their respective peoples, and therefore the Nigerian government entrusted these objects to the King of Benin. The transfer did not imply personal ownership on the king’s part. Still, the decision sparked an outcry in Germany, reflecting a significant lack of understanding regarding these matters within Europe.

Reorganizing governance systems

Incorporating traditional ethnic leadership into state governance and promoting greater subsidiarity could significantly strengthen institutional efficiency. It is not the responsibility of the UN, Western countries, or any other external entities to dictate how Africa should reorganize its governance.

If we consider the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is, rightly, harsh condemnation of the atrocities committed by the M23 rebels. While the president of Rwanda may face criticism and suspicion for his alleged support, it is important to note that M23 primarily aimed to protect the Tutsis in eastern Congo from encroachments and assaults by the government in Kinshasa and its troops. While the presence of peacekeeping forces is crucial to maintaining stability, their role should be impartial, focusing on preventing atrocities from all sides rather than aligning with any specific government.

Allowing certain regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to pursue separation after gaining independence from Belgium could have averted numerous problems. Similarly, granting independence to Biafra with the support of Western countries could have prevented tremendous bloodshed and loss of life.

Finally, we should recognize that the various regions of Africa should be empowered to reorganize their systems according to their unique needs and circumstances. Here, the inclusion of traditional ethnic leadership could be very helpful.

It is essential to allocate development aid to well-defined projects, while trade with Africa should undergo more liberalization. To support and encourage foreign investment, governments should foster conducive business environments rather than focus on investment protection measures.

Governance systems should prioritize the people and their long-term well-being. No system, regardless of its efficacy in other contexts, should be dogmatically imposed. When that happens, people become enslaved by the system itself.

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