Leadership in Africa’s proverbial wisdom


As political beings humans always need leaders. So do all social animals. Who leads and how, is the perennial question all cultures continue to debate. While Western-type ideas dominate, what does African wisdom say about leadership — through the proverb?

‘Without a leader ants are confused’, one proverb says, associating leadership with the creation of order, direction and confidence. Another is even more declarative, ‘a people without a leader ruin the town’ making leaders lead stewards.

In the African view leadership should create prosperity. ‘A community without elders does not prosper’ as it lacks direction. Underlying this proposition is that leaders must wise people who have objective interest in the progress for the people.


Uniquely, numbers and unity are central to Africa’s view of leadership. For example it is said ‘where there are many nothing goes wrong’ and that ‘a single bracelet cannot jingle nor can a single stick burn, it can only smoke’. Leadership entails pulling together, creating collective energy.

The African view of a leader underlines the paramouncy of character. ‘Madness does not govern a country, discussion does’. In communicating ‘leaders must choose their words’ and should never antagonise nor visit people with indignity; even ordinary ‘cheekiness towards people is not good leadership’

In the same manner ‘much talking does not make a leader’ but leaders must instead be dignified and set good examples for ‘a wrong step by a leader is a warning to the followers’. Leaders should listen to people and advisors because ‘a leader who does not take advice is not a leader’.


If leaders have to listen, it is ‘not to rumours’ but to facts, otherwise ‘if leaders close their eyes to facts they will learn through accidents’ with all the dangers and risks of trial and error.

It is the solemn responsibility of leaders to keep peace and to protect people. ‘A shepherd does not strike his own sheep’. To lead ‘is not to run roughshod over people’ and ‘threats and insults never rule a country’.

Not dissimilar from democracy ‘he who dictates only separates himself’ from the people. Instead leaders should love. And ‘if a leader loves you they will make sure you build your house on rock’. Put differently, leaders must not only guide they should also wish the best for citizens.

And African wisdom clearly guides citizens what type of leader to support, entreating them to ‘prefer leaders who come to you’ who in other words are humble well known people immersed within the society.

They are leaders those who ‘exercise good habits and truths’. Leaders must be wise people who also understand the reality of their own contexts for ‘knowledge or skills alone without wisdom is like water without sand’. They do not take anyone anywhere!

In order to grow in wisdom leaders must be humble for ‘if one is filled with pride one will have no room for wisdom’. It is the nature of good leaders not only to be wise but to do the right thing at the right time. ‘In moments of crisis the wise build bridges, the foolish build dams’.

The best leaders are first and foremost human for ‘even the fiercest leader in the world is overcome by sleep’ says a Malawian proverb. Leaders must make sacrifices in serving their subjects. On this the wise conclude ‘if you can’t serve you can’t rule; if you can’t obey you can’t command’.

But leaders need not wage war to become leaders and being wise should realise that leadership is but a brief privilege. ‘He who is destined for power does not have to fight for it’. In the same manner ‘being a leader is like a borrowed garment’, it is only for a time soon to be turned over to the next without strife.

Leaders must be strong, brave and authoritative. It is said in this regard that ‘an army of sheep led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a sheep’. Weak leaders make nations weak, but ‘the voice of a strong man is obeyed immediately’.

As a leader one should face enemies with courage which is why it is said ‘the nearest to the enemy is the leader’ because it is the leader who must face everything coming. Cowards after all die many times!

Clearly leadership in the African sense is as much about bringing about good and peace for people to thrive as it is about the exercise of legitimate authority. In this respect ‘the bag of a leader must never be completely empty’ in terms of supplies, wise counsel and ideas that prospers the people.

It is authority tempered with balanced justice and understanding that makes good leaders. There is no room for use of force in leadership ‘for a man who uses force is afraid of reason’. In arguments it is weak to raise one’s voice, and wise to simply improve one’s argument.

Leaders are associated with a serene countenance, never with violence. Indeed ‘there can be no peace without understanding; if people can’t solve their problems in peace, they can’t solve the same problems by war’.

As we close, it has to be said that it’s is very hard to find good leaders, whether such leaders are identified through popular vote or by ascription. A Chinese proverb using a military illustration says ‘it is easier to find an army of one thousand than to find one general to lead it’. Similarly an Afghan proverb declares: the largest army is nothing without a good general.

Yes, the best citizenry can be spoilt by its own leaders. Good societies have been pulled down by unwise leaders. Numerous people of great destinies have been destroyed by eccentric leaders, who believe not in the energy of their subjects, but their power.

What is unfortunate in the final analysis is that leaders are basically the same. ‘They are like hills. When darkness falls they all speak alike’.

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