By Angie Tyler, Graduate Student at SAIS at Johns Hopkins
Kah Walla, entrepreneur, activist and former presidential candidate from Cameroon gave a short presentation on Thursday at Georgetown MSFS titled, “Africa is Rising. Are Africans?” and then spent most of the time on Q&A. She said that she chose her theme based on her recent trip to Ghana where she found that despite impressive statistics on economic growth her conversations with Ghanaian citizens revealed a different reality. Apart from a few exceptions, she argued, most African countries have not been able to translate their vast economic potential into health and wealth for their citizens, which led her to ask, “Why is there such a disparity between the potential and the reality?” In a word…GOVERNANCE. She says Africa is not poor, but poorly run and lacks visionary leaders and strong democratic institutions.
To rewind a bit and give a quick recap of her presentation, nothing would be surprising to those who follow the buzz around “emerging Africa.” She pointed to the continent’s vast resource potential including energy, oil, minerals, land, the largely untapped telecom market, a growing middle class, etc. noting that although she is glad to see the rhetoric on Africa shifting from “the hopeless continent” to enormous economic potential, she remains concerned that this shift is driven by corporate interests and that many Africans still face challenges in gaining access to basic needs in education, health, and job security.
She also briefly discussed the importance of advancing women’s leadership in Africa, pointing to female presidents in Liberia and Malawi and gender parity laws adopted in several African countries. When pushed further on this topic during Q&A, Kah Walla explained that she supports quotas as a way to first get women to the decision-making table followed by training, mentoring and supportive networks to prepare them to be effective leaders – though she pointed out that this kind of capacity building is needed for both men and women. She also mentioned that despite common perception, Africa is rich with traditions of women’s leadership and participatory government so it is not something they would need to import from the West.
On the governance issue, she said that in Ghana, there is a strong belief in the democratic process that Ghanaians feel they have a right to know what’s going on. They feel as if their vote can actually make a difference and hold politicians accountable. She contrasts this with her home country, Cameroon, where she considers it great progress that even just by running for president, although she didn’t win the election, introducing political competition gave Cameroonians a chance to imagine what it would be like to have an entirely different leader from the current 80-year-old president who has been in power for over 30 years.
When asked what Western-based NGO or government actors can do to support governance in Africa, Walla says that unfortunately, the US and other foreign governments do more to maintain the status quo and take little to no risks on young visionaries such as herself. She says that “dictatorship kills peoples spirits” and it takes time to rehabilitate affected communities to regain possession of their country. She praised NGOs like Vital Voices and the Women’s Democracy Network who work with local partners and local trainers to educate and inform citizens and support leaders at the grassroots level – though she conceded that democracy can be a messy process and at some point, you need to give people time to decide to change for themselves.
She also urges educated, progressive Africans (and Americans) to embrace politics rather than turning away from it, because in her opinion, that’s the only way to create lasting change. However, in countries where voicing your opposition to the government might not be so well-received and is potentially life-threatening, this is much easier said than done…
Her enthusiasm is infectious and determined desire for change is inspiring – Kah Walla is definitely a woman on the move. Future Cameroonian President? Future leader of the African Union? Who knows what’s in store for Kah Walla, but one thing’s for sure, the world could use more passionate leaders like her.