What are great leaders made of?

Nyerere was a quintessential leader and will always be remembered for his saying, 'Please reason, don't shout'

In Summary

• Leaders hold dearly to their convictions for a better life for humanity and are prepared to reason rather than impose dogma on a vulnerable society.

• Great leaders are remembered from one generation for thinking big about their societies and for performing great beneficial task.

Anti-Apartheid Icon Nelson Mandela
Anti-Apartheid Icon Nelson Mandela
Image: FILE

Let it be said with some amount of conviction that Nelson Mandela was a great leader in Africa and the world in a league of his own. Let it also be said that while Mandela was confined to Robben Island on the eve of the independence of most African countries, other great leaders emerged in Africa.

The following were in this league: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote, John Garang, Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe.

Closer at home, we had Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, T.J. Mboya, Bildad Kaggia, Pio da Gama Pinto and J.M. Kariuki.


Why were these people such great leaders, remembered from one generation to the other? They were people who dared to think big about their societies and they performed great tasks to ensure they achieved great things which brought positive changes to their people.

At times they had to pay with their lives when they stood up against the powers that be in order to free their people from the shackles of colonial or post-colonial oppression.

Lumumba, Cabral, Pinto, Mboya and JM were assassinated due to their struggle for democracy against political oppression.

The case of leaders like Olusegun Obasanjo is different. Such leaders emerged way after independence and tackled major problems facing their societies with courage and great social imagination.

It was definitely not a simple achievement for Obasanjo to be president twice in Nigeria. First, after the Nigerian civil war in the '60s, he led a military regime from 1976 to 1979 which successfully restored civilian democratic governance in Nigeria. And second, as a civilian leader of a political movement which brought back democratic governance to Nigeria in 1999 after several years of military authoritarianism.


Obasanjo successfully institutionalised democratic electoral politics in a political terrain which still remains difficult to tame. In his second coming as Nigeria's president from 1999 to 2007, Obasanjo brought Nigeria fully into the African political scene, championing the need to establish standards of democratic governance and socio-economic progress through the African Peer Review Mechanism.

This initiative involved three other African presidents, but Chief Olusegun Mathew Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa were outstandingly the leading lights.


I hold this truth to be self-evident: that APRM was a useful and original innovative idea which has helped and will continue to help build national democratic and developmental states in Africa. One example will suffice. In 2006, the late Prof Adebayo Adedeji led an APRM mission to South Africa.

We spent about a month talking to people from various sectors of society, government included, on the status of governance and socio-economic dynamics in the RSA, following the APRM instruments very carefully. I remember one evening we spent long hours holding a town hall meeting with residents of Soweto discussing a myriad of issues.

One most contested issue was that of emerging unemployment in South Africa, particularly among the youth. A good number of Sowetans blamed "African foreigners" for taking their jobs. Some of them narrated sad stories of conflict in their neighbourhoods between them and the "intruding Africans".

Led by Adedeji, we came out very strongly to state that these other Africans, be they masons, plumbers or tailors were hired by capital since such cadres were not developed among South African blacks during apartheid. What the government needed to do after apartheid was to train black people to acquire the skills needed in the market to compete fairly with the other Africans coming in with those skills. This was the only way to avoid the emerging xenophobia in South Africa.

When we put this in our final report and urged the South African government to begin stemming the tide against the rise of xenophobia, the government was not happy and denied there was such thing in South Africa. But Adedeji, with Obasanjo's support, stood his ground as our chairman.

To Obasanjo, "the APRM was not meant to flatter leaders; it was meant to tell us we are naked even when we insist we are wearing suits!"

It did not take long before lynching "African foreigners" started in Johannesburg and Pretoria while Mbeki was still in power. More than a decade since then today, xenophobia has invaded South Africa like hurricane Catrina!


Leaders are people who hold principles in high regard and are willing to sacrifice material well-being to advance such principles for the good of society.

When Kaggia resigned from the Kenyatta government because he disagreed with Kanu's land policy as implemented by Kenyatta, the rising African bourgeoisie laughed at him as someone who did not know what being in government was all about: self-aggrandizement. 

Today most Kenyans will swear that Kaggia should have been paid attention. Our land policy has become an albatross around our neck. Speculation on land and its irrational hoarding by a few elites adversely affect efficiency and productivity in both agriculture, industrialisation and social/physical infrastructure development.

Kaggia was a man of principle who saw far; so was his colleague Jaramogi Oginga Odinga of the "Not Yet Uhuru" fame.

Finally, leaders are men and women of great ideas which can envision the future more than ordinary mortals and pursue such visions with extraordinary passion.

In the religious sector, the late Bishop John Henry Okullu was such a person. In the thickness of repressive politics during the Moi era, Okullu persistently gave prophetic sermons that gave Kenyans hope that a democratic Kenya was a possibility in our lifetime.

Many a time his life was threatened, but he never shut up. Like the prophet Amos, he always assured himself that "the Lord has spoken: who can but prophesy!"

Leaders must be people who hold dearly to their convictions for a better life for humanity and are prepared to reason rather than impose dogma on a vulnerable society.

Nyerere was a quintessential leader in this respect and will always be remembered by his famous saying, "Please reason, don't shout."