The Vice President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Dr. Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh visited Liberia in October 2021, as the guest of the Young Political Leadership School Africa (YPLS Africa), an offshoot of the Naymote Partners for Democratic Development (NAYMOTE). There, he delivered the keynote address at the opening session of the YPLS Africa emerging leaders event on October 25, and facilitated a session on the topic: “The elements of good governance.” This guest essay, written exclusively for Insight, is a distillation of his keynote lecture.
So much is expected of Africa’s next generation of leaders. They require the passion and vision to shape the future, the patience and wisdom to learn from the experiences of past African leaders, as well as the skills to build on the democratic and governance gains achieved in earlier years.
I am a child of the 70s, when Africa was hailed as the promised land, and the principles of great leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, who taught that Africans needed to rediscover the dignity that was lost as a result of slavery and colonialism, encouraged countries to believe in the possibility of a united Africa. The 80s, characterised by dictatorship, one-party rule and civil war, heralded the collapse of this vision. This was an Africa where there was no place for women in governance, where there was a lack of respect for human rights and for the law, where it was easier for our people to find soft drinks than safe drinking water.
By 1991, change was in the air. Nelson Mandela’s freedom had brought new hope and a wave of democratisation. We talked of rebuilding Africa and as a student activist and journalist at the University of Sierra Leone, I worked with other young civil society activists to challenge our government’s record of governance. Periods of study in Nigeria and France followed, after which I was recruited by the United Nations and went on to work in Kosovo, South Africa and Senegal, Guinea Liberia and Guinea Bissau.
I believe my experience from various roles across different political landscapes and issues has enriched my perspective on leadership in Africa, and shaped my understanding of the importance of leadership to good governance. So too has my experience on both sides of the governance spectrum – as someone outside government responsible for holding governments to account, and now as a decision-maker within government, accountable to the general public.
In the process I have learned five essential lessons about the role of authentic leadership in building democratic nations, and it is these that I share here.
When people talk about knowledge, they generally refer to technical skills – the abilities and knowledge needed to perform specific professional tasks. However, for anyone with leadership aspirations, social intelligence is essential and an equally important part of one’s education. Social intelligence acts as a window on the hopes, values and wishes of the people you aspire to represent. These intangible cultural assets are a true reflection of a community’s value system; and to genuinely serve and defend your community – you need to fully understand and whole-heartedly share their value system, and work with them to realise and actualise a shared goal.
Character and courage
A leader is defined by his or her character and his or her willingness to stand by firm beliefs, no matter what the cost. Many years ago, I was given the opportunity to spend two weeks in Burkina Faso, when the country was under the regime of Blaise Compaoré. I met a number of courageous young civil society leaders who told me they would continue to invest their time and energy on the streets, until democracy was restored in Burkina Faso. Most had been offered ministerial positions, in an attempt by the regime to weaken the civil society movement. They had refused them, in order to stand by their beliefs and continue their work on the ground. These were leaders of character and courage.
In 2005, I returned home to work with the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) – a civil society organisation advocating for good governance in Sierra Leone, when the country was under the leadership of the late President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). I am and have always been a true SLPP supporter. Nevertheless, my first major policy report for CGG was critical of the Government’s Education for All policy, which we believed was not being effectively implemented. We published and widely publicised our findings. The Vice President at the time called me and asked me if my actions were those of a real supporter of the party. I explained that whether my party was in power or not, it was my firm belief that the Government’s Education for All policy was flawed, and that my first duty was to stand up for the change I believed in, both for the benefit of the people of Sierra Leone and for benefit of the SLPP.
Tolerance and inclusion
Intolerant societies limit opportunities for personal and professional growth and stunt development. Young people in particular have a vested interest in being advocates for more tolerance; in their homes, their communities, their leaders and their societies. Throughout Africa we continue to see intolerant leaders slowing the development of their communities and societies; with counterproductive consequences for equal access to opportunities in education, employment, politics and society generally.
Empowering women: African countries are still far from achieving women’s equal participation in the political or professional spheres. Progress is being made but it is too little and too slow. Women’s voices, visibility, and full participation in every part of our society remains very low compared to men. In Sierra Leone, we are proud of the progress we have made in the last few years. We overturned the discriminatory ban on pregnant schoolgirls, introduced a tough new sexual offences act and have taken steps to ensure more women in politics and governance through our Gender Empowerment Bill. We recognise though, that we need to do more. Africa’s women and girls are a neglected resource, and we as leaders must take bold steps to ensure they have equal access to education, employment and decision making if our nations are to realise their full potentials.
Political intolerance: Although we have examples of great pan-Africanist leaders like Nkrumah, whose political affiliations were not limited by ethnicity or even nationality, in most African countries today, building inclusive political parties and inclusive governance agenda remains a challenge. Because so many political parties across the continent have an ethno-regional base to the extent that in some countries it is taboo to join a political party from another region, it is often possible to guess an individual’s political affiliation from their surname. If we are to maximise the potentials of our continent, and its people, we need leaders who will create political parties, institutions and organisations that cross those divides. The best political party is one that will stand the test of time by attracting people from all groups.
Religious intolerance: As a Muslim student in Nigeria, I attended Muslim prayers with my fellow Muslims but I also allowed my Christian neighbours to come into my room to pray for me. My fellow Muslims were confused. They wanted to know: “Mohamed how can you allow Christians in your room to pray for you – you are a Muslim?” I explained that I welcome all prayers that come from the heart. I told them that my country Sierra Leone is a country known for its religious tolerance, where Christians and Muslims intermarry and religious violence is rare.
Unfortunately across the African continent, religious tolerance is not the norm. Democracy and good governance cannot exist hand-in-hand with religious intolerance, and young Africa must rise above the limitations and prejudice of religious intolerance and judge people on their competence and the contribution they can make to national development, and not on their religion.
Our future leaders also need to be motivated by a genuine love for their land and their people.
I remember as a student in France, I would join other African students to watch the African Nations Cup tournament. Among the African footballers who played overseas, George Weah stood out for his unfailing commitment to return and play for his country. It was an unmistakable demonstration of his sense of patriotism and the love he had for his country.
In the 90s as the new wave of democratisation spread throughout Africa, civic engagement was high; civil society networks knew each other and collaborated across borders. The Mano River Women’s Peace Network is one such example. Today, the tide is turning and the important governance gains we made during that period, are threatened by a progressive contraction of the civic space. The constitution, governance institutions and civic engagement are the lifeblood of democracy and good governance. Each of those pillars is essential to the freedoms and equality on which progressive societies depend. The vote determines your future, the kind of schools you are going to have, the jobs that will be available to you as well as the peace and security of your society. Civic engagement is central to democracy and guarding it is the role of everyone who aspires to see good democratic governance in their country.
Finally, remember that the society that you advocate for today, will be the one that you will be charged with leading tomorrow. It is a huge responsibility, and an opportunity to build an inclusive, tolerant and productive Africa, where everyone is given the chance to make a contribution and fulfil their potential.
The YPLS is NAYMOTE’s flagship youth leadership development program. The overarching goal of the YPLS Africa is to contribute to forming a new generation of character-driven and socially active young leaders that would be accountable, accessible and responsive to the needs and interests of their citizens and help shape the future of their respective countries positively.