Whose brand and on whose terms?

OPINION – As the Global Smart Partnership dialogue held in Uganda ended last week, what is remarkable is that it has generated more debate in Zimbabwe on the remarks made by DPM, Arthur Mutambara as part of his contribution to what was meant to be an open dialogue on the future of Zimbabwe.

He made the point that not only Zimbabwe but also Africa in general need rebranding and in doing so it must be appreciated that it would be wrong for anyone, for instance, to be a judge unto his/her own cause.

By raising the questions, "What is Mugabe’s brand, what is Museveni’s brand, what is Kikwete’ brand?" he obviously underestimated the risks inherent in using this kind of language to make a point in any debate in Africa.

He made his argument even more controversial by making the case that Africa cannot endorse her own brand and equally, for example, President Mugabe whose role in post-colonial Zimbabwe is a subject that has dominated heated conversations not only in Zimbabwe but globally, cannot endorse his own brand as Presidents Museveni, Kikwete who were also participants should leave it to others to comment on how good they are than engage in self congratulatory exercises when the condition of Africa is open for all to see.

He then pushed himself into a lion’s den by suggesting that Africa’s brand needs the endorsement of institutions like CNN, BBC, Sky News and more importantly of the West. The response was swift as expected and what is significant is that there is an attempt to denigrate the messenger and in doing so dismiss the important message about what kind of Africa we want to see.

I have no doubt that by Professor Mutambara making this point; he was naïve to assume that he would not be rebuked. However, a point needs to be made that the future of Africa belongs to builders and after 53 years of independence, there is no better time to pause to reflect on what kind of values, beliefs, principles should inform our choices.

It is and should not be sufficient to point a finger at people who seek to open a conversation about the brand positioning of the continent’s leaders. It would be naïve to dismiss the perceptions that have been created rightly or wrongly about African leaders and the role of the media is perpetuating such negative perceptions.

If the perception did not matter and was irrelevant to Africa’s economic, political and social change, then there would be no need to engage in any conversation on rebranding Africa’s leaders. The need for branding and rebranding Africa cannot be overstated.

Like any pyramid what one sees first from afar is the apex. Leaders are generally expected to see far than the followers. Leaders do have an obligation to protect the followers who should after all be in the same pyramid of human organization and the strength of the pyramid should ideally measured by its weakest link. The decisions any progressive leader makes must be evaluated in terms of their overall impact on the value chain of economic change.

Smart leaders inspire people to rise up to the challenge. In fact, success shows when it is evident and enemies normally are good examiners of one’s actions. Ideally, confident people should not be afraid of enemies and should bring them closer.

Africa is part of a global system and, therefore, cannot abdicate from its obligations to the global family of nations. If Africa is good to its people, the results will show and no disability will be suffered if the continent’s brand custodians, its leaders, are prepared to be misunderstood in the interests of getting the world to better appreciate what the challenges and opportunities are.

The questions that Professor Mutambara raised will remain unanswered until we accept that there is nothing toxic about raising the inconvenient questions in a debate among smart partners. What values, beliefs and principles inform the choices that Africa’s leaders make?

Why would we seek to raise the independence flag and yet our actions show that we want the very people we despise to finance our development charge? If we stand for an independent Africa, then we should work towards that objective than spending valuable time discussing what our supposedly enemies are planning for us.

Africa’s leaders have to respond to the brand challenge particularly when it cannot be denied that Africa’s brain trust is now resident in the same jurisdictions that are despised by our leaders. Why is it that when given a choice, Africans in their majority would rather be educated in the West and more importantly would prefer to sell their time in the West than in the continent of their birth?

I have often remarked that Jesus Christ left disciples with no real estate or money and yet it cannot be denied that he left powerful teachings that allowed his followers to use as a guide to create not only the largest portfolio of real assets in the name of the Lord. Although physically absent; he left a legacy that has provided meaning to generation after generation. We are all better for it.

Jesus’ followers had no choice but to think hard about what kind of organization they needed to create. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, the need for a Vatican as a wholesaler of faith was evident from the outset. The church had to stand for something and had to position itself among competing faiths. The choice of a Pope had to be carefully considered. If the Pope’s brand were contaminated then the consequences would have been obvious from the beginning as it should be now.

What makes a church grow like any human organization is and must be its relevance to its target market? You cannot force people to subscribe to any ideology. We all may have different views about the West but what is undeniable is that many of Africa’s potential leaders are more comfortable in London, for instance, than in Lagos.

Even when entry barriers are raised, we see many of our compatriots busy trying to meet the requirements to exit Africa and if this trend is not a cause of concern to our leaders then what should be. Professor Mutambara chose to join the trenches and yet finds himself on the defensive after expressing the views that are generally held by many in the diaspora about Africa’s leaders.

In attempting to dismiss Professor Mutambara’s remarks, ideological issues have been brought into the argument. Jesus, for example, left words and memories of what he had done and this was sufficient to galvanize followers into action. If he were a bad leader, the consequences would have been predictable.

He was not afraid of being judged by his enemies rather he encouraged it. What do we loose if we are doing the right thing by, for example, CNN, BBC being allowed into our countries? What are we afraid of?

What is tragic is that our post-colonial development strategy seems to be enchored on the benevolence of what we classify as enemies. We have the resources and yet we want the West to remove sanctions? If our values, beliefs and principles are different from our enemies the obligation to make Africa work for its people must be on Africans themselves.

In asking the question about the utility of our leaders’ brands, we all can benefit from honest and frank answers. Any good soccer player, for instance, would not worry about what his opponents think of him but would worry about perfecting his skills and ultimately it is the spectators who are the best judges.

Africa’s future is not in the hands of leaders. A leader is just another human being and any development process that is anchored on leaders possessing all the critical answers to human challenges is fundamentally wrong. The African brand should be owned by us and not by the leaders. Should, for instance, President Mugabe have a brand position that is separate and distinct from the generality of Zimbabweans? Any leader who derives his legitimacy from the people must necessarily reflect the people he leads.

We ought to ask ourselves what we have done to celebrate or denigrate the African brand rather than focusing on the leaders. There is nothing to stop us buying, for instance, insurance from one source and yet when we are given choices we invariably end up making choices that are on the face of it detrimental to our progress.

If we make the right choices our leaders have no choice but to follow. The more confused followers are the more tyrannical our leaders become. A leader will only know what the eyes and ears that are exposed to him/her allow him and it should be our obligation to ensure that no leader can stay in power for too long to the extent that other minds are crowded out from the seat of decision making.

Human assets are the most complicated assets that God has created. Not only do you have to manage and massage egos but also with the right values, beliefs and principles you can achieve extraordinary outcomes. The real question is whether the African brand is underpinned by the kind of values, beliefs and principles that are required to generate the kind of response generally expected in a progressive society.

After raising the independence flag, we have no choice but to think deeply about the kind of brand that we need to advance our own cause. Africa has demonstrated that it can accommodate people with ideas and innovation even if they are not born in the continent. It has made many rich and yet the majority; remain in the valley.

What is required to lift Africa up? We are the consumers and yet we rarely make the choices that show that we have the power to change what we do not want to see not necessarily people in state power but even the faces of the people who produce and distribute food that we need for sustenance.

The future is our business and working together there is no doubt that we will be able to decide for ourselves how we should be governed and how we should feed ourselves. Ultimately, we have to rise above the past that blinds our choices and see the future as a shared project that need not have race as its focus but service delivery and more importantly freedom, justice and equality.

By Mutumwa Mawere