African Leaders and Ontological Sagacity

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In his latest book, Ayi Kwei Armah recounts the sad state of Kwame Nkrumah’s inability to define himself from an African perspective as recounted in Nkrumah’s biography. Nkrumah defines himself not as a Nzema whose lineage can be traced back to the Nile Valley of ancient Kemet but as a Christian with Western ideological orientation. In short, Kwame Nkrumah, Africa’s most prominent Pan-Africanist, has an opaque sense of self-identity: he lacks knowledge of who he is. Nkrumah is not alone. In a recent social media post, a Ghanaian muses about the sense in building a cathedral in honour of a foreign religion when the money could be used for more productive activities in education, health, and industry. It seems ridiculous that instead of developing his traditional religion which defines him, the leader seeks to perpetuate the identity capture of Africans by Europeans. These stories reflect knowledge of Africans. In the first piece on strategic followership, I noted that “the first competency is knowledge of the African context, defined as the ability to discern the intricate network of sociocultural, historical, and experiential influences on Africa and the type of influence used by leaders.” In this piece, I elaborate more on this knowledge.

   Specifically, I am concerned about knowledge as wisdom. That knowledge of the African context focuses on the way of thinking and explaining the being of Africans. Thinking about Africa is different from explaining it. Leaders can think well of Africa but explain it poorly or think poorly of Africa but explain it well using common truths or specialized truths. One prominent Africa-centered scholar has suggested that wisdom in Africa is either popular (common or ordinary) or didactic (learned or taught). Popular wisdom refers to how individuals think and explain the world through well-known communal maxims, aphorisms and general common sense truths. Didactic wisdom refers to how individuals think and explain the world by expounding rational thought of some given individuals within a community. These individuals usually are considered experts. In ordinary parlance, an educated person would have didactic wisdom if the person lacks knowledge of the common truths while an illiterate may have popular wisdom if he/she lacks the specialized rational thought system acquired from educational experts. Leaders who have both popular and didactic wisdom related to the being or ontology of Africa have ontological sagacity. It refers to being wise in thinking and explaining the African context.  Leaders think and explain themselves more as French than African lack ontological sagacity.

Competence in or lack of ontological sagacity is illustrated by Kwame Nkrumah’s autobiography. The key Kwame Nkrumah needed for moving forward into the Pan-African future, something he claimed to want, was: “self-knowledge, and accurate knowledge of his environment, leading to truth in self-identification.” Unfortunately, he lacked it. First, he was knowledgeable about the world but not about himself. Second, he was knowledgeable about the rest of the world and the role of Africa in it but not how his origin fit within that world. Third, he was knowledgeable about the past stature of Africa but not how the being of Africa facilitated it. Lastly, he was knowledgeable about the world but not how the unique African systems could influence it. Arguably his limited ontological sagacity constrained his endeavours despite his parrhesiatic potential. He was frank in standing for what he believed; modelled his belief in pan-Africanism as a truth for the world of Africana. He did so at the risk or cost of his presidency and dared to even criticize other Africans on their approach to African unity when they were conceiving the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

Unfortunately, Kwame Nkrumah is not alone in his shortcomings of ontological sagacity. Modern day leaders seem to be having the same problems that Nkrumah experienced. First, they seem to be more knowledgeable about the world but not how their origin fits within that world or how the being of Africa facilitates it or how the unique African systems and values could influence it. That seems to explain why fifty-four leaders of Africa cannot contribute resources to build the headquarters of the AU in Addis Ababa but will allow the leader of one country to build it for them under the gratis pretence. Even if they do not know the intentions or strategic objectives of China in proposing to build them that headquarters, could they not pause for a second to reflect on the implications or consequence of that ‘gift’? How wise is it given the imperial intentions of China? Do they not know that every country, however small, wants to ‘own’ a piece of Africa? Otherwise, why would a tiny nation like Japan be interested in having a colony in Africa? In short, they seem to lack ontological sagacity.

Ontological sagacity involves being wise in thinking and explaining the local (African) context. In his speech, I am an African, Thabo Mbeki illustrates what I mean by knowledge of the African context (i.e., being wise with regard to the being of Africa). He knows who he is; who the African is; the past and current role of Africa in the world; the history of Africa and past glories of Africa. Lastly, he believes in the potential of Africa (i.e., what Africa can become). Ontological sagacity which involves thinking and explaining what it means to be African centres on the being of Africa. It has a contextual, contemporary, historical, institutional, and relational basis. Africa is endowed with so many resources that almost all countries want a piece of it. It would not be a problem if they did not discern that the African seems incapable of managing those resources. That contextual knowledge centres on the potentiation of Africa (what potential Africa has). It is supplemented by knowledge of the contemporary situation of Africa – debt, disease, corruption, etc. Leaders who are knowledgeable of the contemporary situation are likely to do something to transform it. That is why Paul Kagame is trying to change Rwanda. The extent being of Africa has a historical basis as Mbeki indicated in the above-referenced speech. It seems alloyed by Chinese, Indian, and European contacts. Can the leaders bring out the ‘real African ontology’? The institutional knowledge centres on the norms and rules that are established not to liberate or improve the being of Africans but to constrain or complicate it as Armah indicates in this latest book, “wat nt shemsw.” Lastly, the relational basis centres on the relationships African leaders of the past and today establish which influence the being of Africans. In one of my previous pieces, I discussed semelparous relationships, relationships that on the surface appear to be friendly, good, and healthy but are in fact harmful or detrimental. African history is replete with such relationships, the latest being the Sino-African relationships.

If an African leader, in response to the question, “Who am I” has no better response than to say, “I am an Ivorian,” or “I’m a Congolese,” “I am a Senegalese,” “I am a Moroccan” places him/herself firmly inside a structural space within which accurate self-knowledge is permanently thwarted, because  the field he/she indicates as a foundation of his/her being is itself an arbitrary construct, imposed on his/her society when it was too beaten down to resist the imposture. It indicates that the leader lacks ontological sagacity. African citizens as followers no better. They can, therefore, take up the mantle. They can be the champions of Africa’s restoration. As Jacob Carruthers indicates, “African champions must break the chain that links African ideas to European ones and listens to the voice of the ancestors without European interpreters” Those champions are African strategic followers: the individuals who want to improve the being or lives of Africans. They can be wise about what it means to be African by constantly reminding and goading the leaders to be knowledgeable about the unique context, history, institutions, and relationships. In particular, they can urge the leaders to do something NOW! That urge comes from voting for individuals who advance what it means to be African, leaders who are eager about transforming Africa through action and deeds; leaders who are exemplary. They can also enhance the suboptimal outcomes of their leaders. I believe Africans want to be Africans. They just have to champion it by breaking the link of perpetual dependency. I firmly believe they can help Africa save itself by demonstrating ontological sagacity.

About Author:

David Baniyelme Zoogah (Ph.D.) is an Associate Professor of Management at the Williams College of Business, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. His current research focuses on Strategic followership and Management Issues in Africa.  He has published several refereed journal articles, books and book chapters, most of which relate to Africa. He recently published a book titled ‘Theoretical Perspectives of Strategic Followership’. He is currently the President of the Africa Academy of Management.

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