Photograph — The Africa CEO Forum

Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,” former U.S. President Barack Obama famously declared to Ghana’s parliament in 2009. And after saying last month in Lagos that strong institutions alone are not enough to save Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has once again said he doesn’t agree with Obama’s statement. In Abidjan yesterday, Obasanjo said that strong institutions alone cannot be the answers to the problems of African countries, they also need strong leadership.

He said this while speaking at the Presidential panel discussion at the African CEO Forum yesterday in Cote D’Ivoire, bringing a close to the two-day annual event for African CEOs and power-brokers. The panel discussion also had Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa as one of the speakers and was anchored by Patrick Smith, editor of the Africa Report.

“If you have a strong institution, and you have a weak leader, the institution that you have will be made weak by the leadership”, Obasanjo said. “For us in Africa, we need to take care of institutions, make them independent and it doesn’t matter which leader comes in, it will serve the purpose of the nation. The leadership must also be effective, performing, and have an understanding not only of its own country, region, or continent but of the world it lives in.”

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo speaking at the African CEO Forum yesterday.

In the same vein, Zimbabwe’s president Mnangagwa believes the problem of leadership in Africa is the absence of vision. For Zimbabwe, its armed struggle against colonialism before its independence in 1980 is well documented. The Southern African nation received aid in money and ammunition from many African countries including Nigeria. It was this assistance that Mnangagwa referenced yesterday, highlighting the vision of President Obasanjo, who was Nigeria’s military president during that period, to send ammunition and money for Zimbabwe’s independence struggle.

“It is not the institutions in Nigeria [that sent help to Zimbabwe], it is the vision”, he said. “I am not aware of where institutions themselves create visions; visions are created by strong leadership, and then institutions work with that vision. Africa needs leaders that have visions for the future.”

The panel discussion also addressed the importance of agriculture to African economies, and how it can help increase economic growth by reducing food exports. The two speakers also said Africa needs more gender and youth representation, using Rwanda as an example.

Zimbabwe and Nigeria have some historical similarities. Zimbabwe is looking to emulate Nigeria’s template for navigating its economy after decades of authoritarian rule ended in 1999. Zimbabwe’s authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe stepped down in 2017 after 30 years in power and was replaced immediately by Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa will be faced with the same challenges Obasanjo faced in 1999 when he became Nigeria’s first democratic president in the fourth republic, which is keeping democratic institutions free from the manipulation of the government. The Africa CEO Forum created the space for such dialogue and discussion for its two-day duration this week.

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