The Leadership Variable in Africa: Situating Structure and Agency in Governance Trajectories

22 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 6 Sep 2009

Date Written: 2009


Academics, policy makers and opinion leaders have increasingly singled out the importance of leadership as a variable shaping the various development and governance outcomes witnessed on the African continent. In this view, the blame for development and political failures lies squarely at the feet of self-interested or misguided leaders whose choices have undermined prosperity and stability. Meanwhile, success is attributed to deft guidance by principled and high-minded policy makers at the head of the government.

The focus on the importance of leadership has intuitive appeal for any student of history or observer of contemporary politics. Clearly, the choices and actions of leaders ―matter.‖ Yet, at the same time, current discussions of leadership are somewhat problematic. While many commentaries emphasize its importance, they also adopt an excessively voluntaristic view of leaders, effectively downplaying the structural and circumstantial influences on their behavior. Perhaps contributing to this problem, political scientists have largely eschewed systematic investigation of the phenomenon. This lack of attention likely stems from the very real methodological challenges associated with studying ―leadership‖; this in terms of generating effective cross-case points of comparison and viable hypotheses to ground the inquiry. Nonetheless, the relative failure of political scientists to grapple with this issue amounts to a failure to investigate one of the most potentially consequential issues in contemporary Africa.

In the paper that follows, I consider the issue of leadership and attempt to present a framework for investigating it. I begin by considering the ways that leadership has been emphasized in past and contemporary discussions of African politics and development and then consider some of the central problems associated with the focus on leadership as a variable. While there are daunting challenges associated with studying leadership, I suggest here that it can be fruitfully investigated. The framework that I present begins by focusing on leadership behavior as the phenomenon or dependent variable that we should be studying. As part of this, I offer a schema for assessing and comparing leadership behavior along five dimensions, each of which has consequences for the governance and development outcomes observed in countries. As we capture variances in leader behavior we can more effectively address the key issue of why leaders undertake development and governance enabling behaviors in some contexts while in others they do not. Building from this, in the last section, I present five questions that can guide inquiry into leader behavior. These questions stem largely from hunches about the key factors influencing leaders choices – in some cases generating deductive hypotheses to be explored in actual research. Notably, these questions draw attention to both the circumstances in which leaders find themselves as well as their personal characteristics. Thus, the framework incorporates attention to both structure and agency in attempting to illuminate leader behavior.

Suggested Citation

VonDoepp, Peter A., The Leadership Variable in Africa: Situating Structure and Agency in Governance Trajectories (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Peter A. VonDoepp (Contact Author)

University of Vermont ( email )

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