Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela owed his release from prison largely to the sacrifices made by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the black South African ANC leaders who suffered harassment, imprisonment, torture and exile as they advocated for the end of apartheid and the release of comrade Nelson Mandela.  He may not have become President without the sacrifices made by F.W. de Klerk who incurred the wrath of his fellow white South Africans by negotiating with the ANC and Mandela, authorizing Mandela’s release, and overseeing the end of the Apartheid system of government. Despite owing so much to these people, Nelson Mandela distanced himself from Winnie after his release when she was tried for fraud and murder and divorced her in 1992.  He angered black South Africans and ANC leaders by urging the country to support the Springboks (the South African rugby team), which was a symbol of white dominance in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela refused to give in to the desires of the black South Africans to allow them to exact revenge on the white South Africans for decades of inhumane treatment or to fill up his cabinet with ANC stalwarts. He installed de Klerk as the Vice-President, much to the dismay of many black South Africans, and presided over a government that ensured that the interests of all South Africans were equally considered in policy; a track record that led Winnie Mandela to say in 2010 that he “let us down” and agreed to “a bad deal for blacks”.  He even eased out de Klerk from the Vice Presidency after two years. The track record of South Africa’s economic progress during Mandela’s tenure and the economic progress of blacks under his rule demonstrates that Mandela made the right choices for South Africa. He understood that the people who helped him get out of prison and even helped him to become President would not be the best people to help him to govern effectively as President. 

In 2008, David Plouffe worked tirelessly as the campaign manager for the Presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama that catapulted Obama from a junior Senator to the Democratic Presidential nominee to eventually becoming the President of the United States. By Obama’s own admission, Plouffe “built the best political campaign…in the history of the United States”. David Axelrod, another giant in political elections management proclaimed that Plouffe had “done the most magnificent job of managing a campaign that I’ve seen in my life of watching presidential politics. To start something like this from scratch and build what we have built was a truly remarkable thing.” Despite such accolades, after successfully getting Obama elected, Plouffe was not rewarded with a position in Obama’s cabinet or the head of a prestigious national agency. He was simply assigned to be an outside advisor to President Obama, not even a part of the White House staff. President Obama understood that the people who helped him to get elected as President were not the same people that could help him to govern effectively as President. 

Allen Iverson and Lebron James are both phenomenal athletes who were both drafted 1st in their respective NBA drafts in 1996 and 2003. Both earned millions of dollars in NBA salaries and endorsements. In 2010 at age 35, when Iverson retired from basketball, his net worth was $200 million. Within two years he had squandered all of it in bad business deals and supporting the financial needs of a huge posse of friends from his childhood days in a poor neighborhood; he did not change his circle of advisors throughout his career. In 2022 at age 37, Lebron James became the first billionaire athlete. He became a billionaire athlete because he understood that who got him here would not get him there. Iverson prioritised loyalty over progress and eventually by hanging out with the same crowd that he had been when he was poor, he got dragged down from wealth back to poverty. Lebron changed whom he associated with to add in people (like Warren Buffet) who were where he aspired to be, and through his association with them he became more like them. 

Thomas Sankara was a revolutionary Head of State who took over the leadership of the government of Burkina Faso in 1983 through a military coup that was organized by Captain Henri Zongo, Major Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani and Blaise Campaore.  After becoming President, he launched programs for social, ecological and economic change. His foreign policies were centered on self-sufficiency and self-discipline and he rejected aid from organizations like IMF and tried to reduce reliance on aid by boosting domestic revenues. He instituted land reform, and prioritized education and public health with a nationwide literacy campaign and nationwide vaccinations. Under his leadership, life expectancy increased, infant mortality decreased, school attendance increased, and women were appointed to senior governmental positions as young girls were encouraged to stay in school. Despite these achievements, Sankara did not have the value of history to learn the presidential leadership lessons from Mandela or Obama. He did not realize that the people who helped him become President would not be useful to help him govern. Not only did they not help him govern, but Blaise Campaore organized the coup in 1987 which resulted in Sankara’s assassination. 

Africa today is replete with African Presidents who have yet to learn the lesson that the people who helped them get elected are not the ideal people to help them govern; in fact they are more likely to destroy their legacy than to enhance it.  This is a tough lesson to learn; it flies in the face of the values of loyalty and gratitude that most Africans are raised to adopt and cherish. However, for a Head of State, the position of leadership is unique enough to warrant recognition of the need to jettison these values. 

Dear African President, there are three powerful reasons why you must not surround yourself with the people who helped you get your current position. 

  1. They are entitled.  The people who helped you get elected know that without their help, you would not have become President. Thus they believe that you owe them something. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible to hold them accountable in the positions that you have appointed them to occupy because holding people accountable requires the understanding from both parties that if push comes to shove, the boss can administer punitive measures up to and including dismissal on the subordinate. This is a situation that does not exist when the subordinate believes that the boss owed him his position because “without me, you would not have gotten your job.” Here’s a tip: do not appoint them anywhere near you. Send them off to be ambassadorships in far-off countries, preferably exotic countries that they will like. The closer they are to you, the more dangerous they will become to your legacy and potentially to your life.
  2. They are not competent. The skills required to execute an electoral campaign (or a coup) are very different from the skills required to govern or run a ministry, department, or agency. Thus even if your campaign manager or party leader wants to do an excellent job at being a Minister or Cabinet member, s/he is inadequately skilled for the job. This means that even with the best of intentions s/he is likely to make far more mistakes than someone else who is qualified for the job. Put the best qualified or skilled person in the job. 
  3. They are hungry. Your fellow revolutionaries or campaign managers have sacrificed much to get you elected or installed into the Head of State position. In the process of doing this, they are likely to have dipped significantly into their savings and are broke or close to bankrupt at the time when you are sworn into your position. This means that when you make the mistake of giving them Cabinet positions you are appointing people whose first priority is refilling their emptied coffers instead of performing the jobs that you are hoping they will perform.  So do not give them positions where they can make decisions that will impoverish the country. Simply pay them off. Give them thousands or millions of dollars as a payoff for their good work to get you elected but keep them away from decision-making on matters of national importance. It will be cheaper for your nation. 

The challenge of surrounding yourself with the right people of competence and character necessary to ensure that you can be successful in your current job or mission is the most important set of decisions that a leader can make. As one of my friends fondly puts it, “one of the three most important roles of a leader is to get the right people on the bus and wrong people off the bus”. No policy that you enact, Mr. President, will have the far-reaching consequences that your decisions on the composition of your Cabinet will have. No amount of vision-casting or inspirational speeches will impact the nation as much as your courageous decision to appoint people of competence and character into key roles in your government which may be unpopular with the people who helped you to get your job.  But you must remember, Madam or Mr President, that your current job is a responsibility to the entire population of your nation, not to just your party, or just your election campaign manager or just your family. It is a service that you are duty-bound to provide to all of your citizens. It usually means you will have to become unpopular with your friends and family. Just ask President Kagame who had to sacrifice relationships with his extended family in order to govern Rwanda properly. The choice is yours. You can earn a legacy like Mandela or Kagame, or ruin your country by pleasing your friends and comrades. For the sake of your citizens, I pray you make the right choice.