Africa, Strong Institutions versus Strong Men

Africa does not need strong men, they need strong Institutions’. The US President Barack Obama made this profound statement in Accra Ghana. The issue is whether “strong men” operate within deeply embedded democratic, transparent and accountable structures

 which in broad terms the electorate perceive as acceptable.


Obama invoked his African ancestry, the generations of his father and grandfather to tell Africa some uncomfortable truths, half-truths, as well as some untruths.

He said correctly that our destiny is in our own hands and that our continent is full of promise. Thus I have aptly called this new century possibly “the first African century”. I am in accord with his hopes for Africa.

Before getting to that key idea he laid on the table, (about strong men and strong institutions) it is worth pointing out that he did not take enough responsibility for America and the West’s role in Africa’s underdevelopment. Indeed, many of the strong men who took Africa down the path of under-development did so in full partnership with and with strong connivance of the West.

Just think of some of them for a minute—General Mobutu of Zaire, President Eyadema of Togo , President Moi of Kenya, President Banda of Malawi, Emperor Bokassa of Central African Republic, Generals Babangida and  Abacha of Nigeria, President Bongo of Gabon, Ft. Lt. Rawlings of Ghana, President Botha of South Africa  and President Doe of Liberia. America and the West supported all these tyrants in the name of geopolitics during the cold war. Even while they brutally suppressed their people, they made occasionally pilgrimages to Washington, to be hailed by President Obama’s predecessors as wise and visionary leaders.

Given President Obama’s penchant for apologies, an apology to the land of his ancestors would have been in order.

Talking about our promise, the US President said “To realize that promise, we must recognize a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance”.

Elsewhere, the US President, in what has come to characterize his message to Africa, said “Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”

As an aside, in a report that is probably apocryphal, President Rawlings is reported to have turned to his wife when President Obama said this and said “We did not stage coups. We launched revolutions that freed the masses!”

On the surface, it is difficult to disagree with the Presidents statement. On careful reflection, however, it raises a few questions:

How does one build strong institutions? Are all strong institutions good? Can strong institutions be built without strong men?

All over the world, America is hailed for the strength of its institutions and its democracy but little attention is paid to the men who built those institutions.

It took some brave men who risked their lives and fortunes to found America. Men like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

It took Justice Marshall and some bold rulings like “Marbury versus Madison” by the US Supreme Court to set America’s judiciary on its way to the strong and independent judiciary it has become. In “Marbury versus Madison”, the Supreme Court ruled that the judiciary had the power to determine whether an action by the executive branch and by implication the congress was constitutional.

It took the strong Presidency of Andrew Jackson to reign in the banks. It took the strong President Abraham Lincoln to end slavery with the “Emancipation Proclamation” during the civil war.

It took the strong Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt to keep the World free from the threat of Nazism. Thus from America’s own history, strong men have always been indispensable to strong institutions.

As French philosopher Monet put it succinctly “Nothing is possible without men but nothing can be lasting without institutions”.

Here in Africa, apart from the bad strong men who staged coups, had one-party governments and declared presidencies for life, there were other strong men.

Danquah was a strong man who stood up to the dictatorship of Nkrumah and died in prison so that his descendants would live free. Nelson Mandela is a strong man who stood up to apartheid and spent decades in prison so that his country would have racial equality. Odinga Odinga was a strong man who stood up for a Kenya that would be free and just. Moshood Abiola was a strong man who stood for a free and democratic Nigeria and paid with his life.

As Africa moves forward, we need strong men– good strong men who would build the strong institutions that we need. While there have been good strong men throughout history, there have also been bad strong institutions.

When Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death”, he was confronting one of the most powerful institutions on earth, the British Empire. It was not a good institution, to colonies like America and Ghana.

The oppression of the people of Eastern Europe was done with the help of some of the most powerful institutions in history: the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the KGB and communist armies.

Perhaps, the strongest and most enduring institution in the history of modern Mexico was the Revolutionary party, PRI. Until the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, that institution had had a hammer-lock on Mexican politics for six decades.

Even though they are now kinder and gentler, in the last half century, no other institutions have shaped Africa more than the World Bank and the IMF. They have prescribed bitter economic medicine to government after government that has led to suffering and coups. They were and are very powerful institutions. But were they helpful?

The issue is whether “strong men” operate within deeply embedded democratic, transparent and accountable structures which in broad turns the electorate perceive as acceptable. For instance, the political structures in which Abraham Lincoln operated were based entirely on the constitutional “device” of the democratically elected American Congress, with all its murkiness, its lobbies, its cabals and it’s shifting party allegiances.


It was his ability to work with and within, and to finally dominate that “device” that gave strength and success to what in fact were his profoundly divisive anti slavery policies (divisive to the extent that the policy gave rise to Civil War).

However, outcome of the Civil War was embodied in the representative post civil war politics as they were worked out in Congress through the rise of the Republican Party whose base was primarily in the defeated Southern States.

In other words, having lost the civil war the defeated South were able to use the democratic “devices” embodied in the Constitution as expressed in the democratically elected Congress to achieve a voice that was to all intents and purposes integrated within the constitutional structures the United States and it’s representative bodies – including one might add, the Presidency itself.

Much the same mechanisms were to be used in the 60’s as the Civil Rights movement began to push for a more inclusive understanding of what was meant by “the electorate” to achieve a voice for the black constituency, using the constitutional “devices” of the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the elected Congress.

The outcome to put it simply some 40 years later was the election of Obama Barack.  I do not think for one moment that Barack does not believe that politics requires strong men – I would have though that he would hope to regard himself as one.

What matters is whether these “strong men” operate within structures that their electorate of what ever political persuasion finds broadly acceptable and over which a consensus a modus operandi can be achieved.  Their success as politicians enhances those structures as giving hope to their electorate that they are on a road to better times as a broadly united national and cohesive political and social entity.  

The alternative is what we commonly call “dictatorship” either on the part of one “strong man”, a cabal or an oligarch. I do not think that that is what Barack was talking about in Accra.

Obama was talking in a figurative or metaphorical sense; Strongmen, referring mainly to military leaders wielding guns or military turned civilian dictators who abound on our continent.

The types of leaders DR Arthur Kennedy cited such as JB Danquah and Mandela were not the type of strongmen Obama was referring to. JB Danquah and Mandela belong to the class I would say had the courage of their conviction, principled men, men of integrity and not strongmen.


The strong institutions Obama referred to was not in the literal sense of strong institutions like the oppressive communist parties or military regimes. Obama was obviously referring to effective and efficient institutions of law enforcement, good governance and the rule of law.

We must understand that Obama was speaking to a particular audience and did not have the whole media time in the world to do an essay on the role of the west in creating or supporting dictators.

He has in earlier speeches criticised the west and his own country in his speeches in Berlin before his election and in Cairo, after his election, and even apologised in these two places and also had criticised his own country’s policies abroad during the campaign in the US, and continues to do so to the chagrin of some critics who thinks he talks down America too much.

The message Obama carried in Accra this TIME was intended for another audience: the dictators and other Africans, who may be guilty of brutality and bad governance and who he did not want to continue to blame the west for all our woes.

He did not want the youth in Africa to be deceived by the propaganda that whatever happens to us is because of colonialism and slavery and exploitation.

That is why, for example, constitutional reform is needed in Ghana, to give our Parliament more independence from the executive, to elect our DCE’s and MCE’s, and fund political parties.

we need a strong, transparent and independent judiciary that can stand up to our governments and bring justice to our people. We need a strong and independent Parliament that will do real executive oversight.

All across Africa, we need strong institutions of accountability that will call our political leaders to account when they are chopping our money “nyafu-nyafu”. Only strong men can build and maintain these institutions. No insecure or weak President can lead these reforms.

No sycophantic executives in the Serious Fraud Office can ever investigate fraud and follow the leads all the way to the Presidency, if necessary. A Parliament whose membership is filled with sycophantic “yes-men” and women whose only answer to a President’s demand to jump is “how high, sir” will never do effective executive oversight, regardless of what our constitution and our laws say.

We need strong institutions. But we need even more, good, strong men and women, filled with integrity and patriotism, to build these institutions, to nurture our spirits and to stand up for the highest ideals of our country and our continent.

As we move forward, we must be conscious that even the good strong men, being human, do bad things sometimes.

When Fiorella La Guardia, regarded without doubt as the greatest mayor of New York City, wanted to implement a policy that was good through illegal means, one of his friends wrote to him, a letter whose words should be required reading for all leaders.

“Mr. Mayor”, he wrote, “good men in good times must not set bad examples for bad men in bad times”.

Yes, they must not. No amount of institutional safeguards can check the abuse of power without men prepared to assert institutional strictures and higher ideals.

Sometimes, the best ally for a nation is the conscience and sense of propriety of the occupants of its critical offices. As Richard Nixon once said perceptively, “Sometimes, we must save the Presidency from the President”. As far as institutions go, is it good for all our institutions to be strong?

For example, in Ghana, will a stronger Bureau of National Investigation be better for our development? Will stronger Armed Forces be better for our development? Will a BNI that is more powerful be better for the strengthening of the rule of law? I think not.

Finally, strong institutions do not just exist on paper. They are living, breathing institutions, always striving to get better and to be more in tune with our nation’s aspirations.

Let us hope that consistent with the words of President Obama, America and the West will not sacrifice Africa to their interest in the new competition for influence in Africa with China that is underway or in the service of the war on terrorism.

As Henry Kissinger once said, quoting a British Prime Minister, “America does not have permanent friends, it has permanent interests”. I fear that this President or his successors, as the war on terror heats up and the struggle with China heats up, for energy and influence, will abandon the yearnings of African peoples and focus on the permanent interests of the West.

Let us move forward, together, united in the belief that we need many strong institutions but also, many, many strong men and women, to maintain the strength of these institutions.

The essence of Obama’s speech is that it is not the west that killed the judges in Ghana and the soldier or the Yaa Naa Traditional leader in Ghana. It is not the west which beat Morgan Tsvangarai and denied him his electoral victory.

It is not the West who killed the ethnic groups in Kenya after the elections. It is the not the West killing people in Darfur.

In fact there is some eastern African and Arab complicity in the genocide or ethnic cleansing and murder still going on in Darfur. It is fellow Africans inflicting grievous harm and killing their on their kith and kin in all these cases.

That is the essence of Obama’s message: lets look ourselves in the mirror, a message which was timely at time we have resurgence of coups and African states have condemned at their last summit in Libya and which message should not be watered down by an appeal to the arguments used by the self same dictators or African nationalism or populism lest we encourage them to shirk their obligation to respect the rule of law and practice good governance.

Our leaders need to be held accountable for the way they use our resources and not to steal state monies, or fail to do the fundamental things to ensure development, education, honesty etc. The west has no permanent friends applies not just to their relations with Africa but all including their allies. In 1944 US was at war with Germany now they are allies.

The strongmen in Africa were friends perhaps sometime ago but the west did not tell them to steal monies given to them. There are other countries that have gone to the IMF and World Bank and yet used those resources to develop during the cold war, whilst others squandered the same resources given them by the same IMF and WB also during the cold war.

The Bible tells a parable of those who given money and the different result each person used the money they got to achieve.

What Obama said in Parliament was for those guilty of the things he said. In the CAPE Coast Castle he had a different audience, those perpetrated the slave trade and the lessons we should learn from it to say ‘never again’ to injustice.

That was the audience mainly in US but also Africa and Europe and wherever there is racial inequality or prejudice. 

So let’s see the Obama speech at the Parliament in Accra in its proper context, because even the tone of his remarks in the Castle was subtly tailored to another broader audience.

 Arthur Kennedy, Chris Leigh, Daniel Elombah and John Gadi