I was naturally a pessimist. Full blown and unapologetic. The glass was always half empty for me. The-sky-is -falling, ‘what good can come out of Bethlehem’ sort of person. Why not? Living in Africa in itself a big risk- the 6 killer diseases range freely here, armed robbers and 419ners, civil war , drought, famine, you name it. Every day was a blessing. Seriously.
It also didn’t help that my training made me so pessimistic. NGOs always base their projects on the ubiquitous, pervasive and ever present (3 words meaning the same thing) ‘problem statement’. This very important part of a project proposal is designed to state in very graphic and detailed manner what is wrong with any chosen project, making the case for donors to therefore see the need to put in their money to solve this problem. In a competitive fundraising world, the more detailed, graphic and gross your problem statement, the higher the probability that you will get funding for two, three or five years. During the project period, 50% of your time is spent on writing reports, lessons learnt and attending conferences where you learnt new methods to better identify, state and clarify the problem. This puts you in a better position at end of project to restate the emerging problems and trends for which you require another two, three or five years of funding to address. And the cycle continued
So it came as a surprise to me when my mentor and friend Carlos Lopes saw, and continue to see hope, in the Africa Rising agenda.
‘Really?’ I said, ‘is Africa really rising? From what and to where?’ and how long will it last?
Carlos is the unapologetic optimist about Africa. In Africa, he saw only positive prospects even through the times of the Libyan uprising which saw the death of Muammar Gaddafi…and the loud silence of the African union (they were more interested in planning AU@50, in my opinion), pirates in the Somalian waters, almost civil way in Cote d’Ivoire and even Ebola in Guinean, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Carlos had unrelenting hope in Africa’s youth, promising economic growth, social uprising, technological progress and the resilience of Africa’s women. For Carlos, there was no ‘problem statement’, only ‘the promise of the future’.
Eventually, some of that optimism rubbed off on me. But it took me some time to unlearn the tricks of my trade, which I had perfected over 15 years of writing proposals and to which I had a full tool box of… (Ahem) tools such as problem tree, solution tree, the 5 ‘W’s, fish bone or Ishikawa, log frame, outcome mapping, PEA, PEST, STEP, PESTLE, PRA, RBA etc. I have re-leant that ‘Africa Rising is not a rhetoric. It actually is happening.
So it was not a surprise that the runoff for the Liberian Election was being delayed by a court case. George Oppong Weah and the current VP in a legal stand-off. Of course, incumbency will always work to the advantage of the incumbent. However I still believe in the mantra of ‘power to the people’. Kudos to the people and the institutions of Liberia who have made it possible for an illiterate footballer to rise from the slums to become President.
I am even more intrigued by Oppong Weah himself and his tenacity in all this. So the analysis twelve years ago, when he stood for elections for the first time, was that even with his millions, he did not have a high school certificate, let alone university degree. We heard the conspiracy stories which got him to lose the run off, déjà vu, in favour of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. However, in the twelve years when he was in opposition, he did not just stand on the side-lines of history waiting his turn to be president; he did one thing that I highly commend. He ‘sharpened the saw’.
Stephen Covey, in his widely acclaimed book- the 7 habits of highly effective people, states the seventh habit as ‘sharpening the saw’. This habit is about learning, relearning and feeding back the learning into any skill or trade you have. This is calls ‘learn, commit, do’. Covey postulates, and rightfully so, that it is not enough to move from dependence to independence (the first three habits) to interdependence (the next three habits) but also to continuously improve yourself in both personal and professional spheres of influence… in other words, to ‘sharpen the saw’. Anyone who cooks knows that even the sharpest knife will become blunt with constant use and that once in a while, it is important to sharpen your knives to be able to continue to get the most out of it.
I was privileged to do the entire 7 habits course in one of my previous roles. This training supports leaders to understand and to use practical methods to ensure they continue to be highly effective. One of my course mates did not agree with the underlying philosophy behind Stephen Covey’s work. His philosophy that a person, by his own skills, can become highly effective by himself, this friend believed that the systems and structures, i.e. the environment in which a person lived in, had a lot to contribute to a person’s success in a way that made the 7 habits deeply flawed. I agree with him on that but also note that the extent to which a person can be successful involves both the environment, and how a person understands her surrounding environment enough to utilise the 7 habits to her advantage. But I digress…back to the new President.
During the twelve years Oppong Weah was in opposition, he sharpened his saw. We are told that he went to school, became a senator, run as vice president, etc. in some he was successful, in others he was not, but in all, he learnt lessons and used them to move on the upward spiral of learn, commit, do with every experience giving him a deeper understanding of these habits. In all truth, I think 12 years of sharpening the saw will make Oppong Weah a better president. Sometimes, we have to be grateful for the time spent in the wilderness of life.
Oppong Weah is an important jigsaw in the African Union’s vision of: “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in global arena.” Oppong Weah is my inspiration for 2018. Africa can indeed become prosperous by us and for the benefit of our citizens.
For a self-confessed pessimist now turned Weah-timist (and cautiously optimist), I am blown away by the trend of change on the continent. One victory a year. In 2017, it was Nana Addo Akuffo Addo becoming President of Ghana after 8 years in opposition, in 2018, the story of democratic change is in Liberia. I have hope for Cameroun, Togo, Rwanda and almighty Uganda. The winds of change are blowing, bringing with it hope, positive change, stability and prosperity for all African citizens.
On a wonderful aside, I recently read a book about the meaning of Chinese names and how they are linked to the epoch in which persons were born or to the hopes that their parents had for them, very much in line with African names. One name that resonated with me was Zhen Hua meaning Vibrate the Universe. I look forward to Mr. Oppong Weah vibrating the universe, beyond his boundaries!
Happy New Year, Mr. President! And to you, I give the words of Cabral ‘…tell no lies claim no easy victories, …’.
About the author:
Teiko Sabah is the 2013 Mo Ibrahim African Leaders Fellow with the UNECA. She is interested in Africa and pan Africanism. She writes a monthly blog on pan Africanism on https://teikosabah.blogspot.com