African Leaders and Semelparous Relationships

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Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bruno Tshibala Nzenze, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Great Hall of People in Beijing, China September 6, 2018. Lintao Zhang/Pool via REUTERS

Africa has one renown victory over Europe: it is the Battle of Adwa where Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia defeated Italy in March 1896. Prior to the battle, Menelik II was warned by Emperor Yohannes IV about the relations he was having with Italy. Specifically, he cautioned him that the Italians who were in the surrounding areas of Ethiopia were not people to form a friendship. Yohannes IV who believed the Italians had other motives – courting Menelik II to eventually subdue him – was warning Menelik II against his semelparous relationship with Italy.

What is a semelparous relationship? It is a relationship that is intended to be exciting and prosperous, but rather leads to harm or demise of the initiator or subordinate. It is characterized by intentionality, asymmetric power, and destruction or harm. African leaders of the past seem to be prone to such relationships. Fortunately, Menelik II discerned the wisdom of Yohannes not long after he assumed power when he realized that Italy was advancing on Addis Ababa. It seems unfortunate that modern African leaders are not awakening to the Italy of today: China. This time, it is not Emperor Yohannes IV advising Menelik II but Africans, present and future, imploring their leaders to beware of the relationship with China in particular and semelparous relationship in general. I hope Zambia discerns the wisdom of Yohannes IV from its relationship with China. China definitely knows that it wants to colonize Zambia. Of course, Zambia is the first but certainly not the last. Otherwise, China would not be wasting its time in Africa, pouring billions of dollars in those economies.

China is not establishing semelparous relationships with only Africa. It has designs for Europe, America, and others. The Economist reported that “for everyone’s sake, it matters that Europeans gauge their welcome to China wisely.” The difference is that Europe and America are aware of the intentions of China, have leverage in strong institutions, economic mechanisms, and political devices that would put a check or halt on the advance of the dragon. Africa can do the same if only it could act with a unified voice. Unfortunately, that has never been the strength of Africa. The porousness of African societies which manifests through the ‘greediness’ of some of its members, contributed to not only colonialism, the slave trade, and the failure of Kwame Nkrumah’s vision for a united Africa but also continues to undermine the unity of Africa. Zambia and African leaders, in general, cannot say they did not know. What do you think the Africa Union building in Addis Ababa is for? It is bugged so that they can hear your plans, schemes, and discussions! The China-Africa summit in Beijing that you attend frequently. What is it for? The visits by the “leader of China” to your countries. Why? The influx of Chinese in your streets and the attendant insults meted out as recently observed in Kenya? The low-quality products and services bestrewn in your kiosks? The blind support for your deeds? All these are designed to colonize or subjugate you.

And, Africans do not have to blame China. China has the right to colonize as many countries as it wants if those countries are not wise enough to recognize its intentions. China’s plans are “just what you would expect of a rising economy.” Besides, China is just prototypic of semelparous relationships; it is not the only one engaged in that. In fact, semelparous relationships have been part of mankind. It led to the rise and fall of empires and imperials in the past. History is replete with examples where Africans established relationships with foreigners which resulted in harm or death. The current state of Africa is due to the semelparous relations it established with foreigners, the major one being Europe. Mansa Musa, the best known magnificent kings of Africa, established relationships with Arabs and Europeans that eventually led to the pillage of Africa.

If African leaders want to develop their countries, they should also develop similar foresight and strategy to lift their countries out of the penurious situations. They probably should begin with concrete, substantive plans on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Symbolic or worthless papers and studies such as in the past do no good. Above all, they should be selflessly asking themselves whether they want to be known for doing something meaningful or something meaningless. I do not believe that Nkrumah and his cadre are no longer in Africa today. I do not believe that no one is concerned about the indignity of colonialism and slavery of the past or the degradation of Africa today. I do not believe that Africa cannot save itself. I do not believe that Africans, not their leaders, cannot do something about the situation.

If semelparous relationships of the past contributed to the current state of Africa, future leaders have to guard against such relationships. First, future leaders need competence in the form of situational awareness, confidence, and strategy. The situational awareness I am talking about is the precarity of the semelparous relationships. I know the current African leaders know what they are doing; they are signing the documents that effectuate the relationships. They are also aware of the daily calls against relationships of the kind that bedevilled Zambia. For future leaders, I am talking of introjected situational awareness, the kind that links the identity of the leaders with their actions and posterity. Second, future leaders must develop confidence. Many will disagree that the current cadre of African leaders have no confidence. They also lack the sense of self-determination, the parrhesiastic potential. Third, future leaders must develop purposeful strategies – those that are intended to transform their countries. Strategies that help increase the zone of being of their people. Strategies that return Africa to its better self, the self that made it attractive to China, India, and Europe to come for learning. So, if African leaders are failing Africa now, then Africans must save it by being strategic followers. Africans can begin to discern the past semelparous relationships of Africa and then develop strategic responses.  As Wangari Mathai indicated, each African has the potential to rise as a transformative agent.

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 is currently the President of the Africa Academy of Management.