The late eminent African novelist Chinua Achebe, once said of Nigeria: “There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else…The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” And these famous words from Achebe simply echo a widely held belief that our greatest problem since independence has been the problem of bad leaders, leading the good people of Africa astray.

There’s a widely held belief that Africa’s greatest problem since independence has been bad leaders.

For the many commentators who share the same view, their unspoken follow up assumption is that all it will take for [fill in your favourite problem] to be solved is a change in the current leadership in Africa. That, as the thinking goes, will allow for a new set of young, educated experts and honest leaders to turn things around.

Countless Leaders Have Come and Gone Across Africa

But where does this belief come from? It is certainly not based on observable evidence. For there is very little that supports this theory in recent African history. If I was to review my own country of Nigeria and the four presidents we’ve had since the resumption of democracy in 1999, we see the same pattern of leadership: Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and Buhari—though Yar’Adua was ill in office and didn’t really govern—were all elected with great euphoria and promise. Yet they all left office disgraced and with Nigerians overjoyed to see their backs.

There is very little that supports this theory in recent African history.

Perhaps Nigeria is so complex and ungovernable that even the best leaders will struggle to give a good account of themselves? I have some sympathy for that view. But even in other African countries the problem remains the same. South Africa elected Ramaphosa to turn their country around. Now the Phala Phala scandal has changed that narrative. Nana Akufo-Addo was supposed to bring change to Ghana. However, things have only gotten worse under his leadership. Paul Kagame was for a long time cast as the ideal template of an African leader. Yet his fourth term bid to rule Rwanda has reminded everyone he has overstayed his welcome. It is the same pattern wherever we turn.

The news media in Africa have also bought into this narrative of a new sheriff in town. In the run-up to elections, the focus is usually on the outsider candidate for power that is expected to shake up things if they win. Every incoming leader is portrayed as the messiah, the one who will lead his people to the promised land. For those of us who are old enough to have lived through enough electoral cycles, the pattern is discernible.

Our Problems Run Much, Much Deeper

If the biggest problem in Africa isn’t our leaders, what is it? As Christians, we must remind people of the doctrine of the fall and human depravity. We Christians know the doctrine of original sin, which teaches us that we all have inherited a tainted nature with a inclination to sinful conduct. Therefore we recognise that the naïve division of people into broad categories of good and bad is unhelpful.

As Paul succinctly puts it: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right when he said: “The line between good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.”

Christians recognise that the naïve division of people into broad categories of good and bad is unhelpful.

As long as we misdiagnose the problem of Africa, our solutions will always be wrong. We will be quack doctors treating an HIV patient for malaria. This is why all the “reform” movements in African Christianity that have sprung up to improve governance haven’t made any difference. Dominion theology didn’t help Christians to dominate society. The seven-mountain mandate seems to have taken us rather deeper into the valley. And the New Apostolic Reformation failed to reform our countries for the better.

The central problem that is facing us in Africa is sin. Sin is an insidious disease. It’s an opportunistic infection that would manifest itself wherever it finds the opportunity. This means that the manifestation of sin that we will see in Africa will be different from what we will see in the West. Because of the weakness of our institutions, for us sin is most especially evident in the abuse of power that leads to corruption and other vices. Each of us are as potentially corrupt as our leaders, the only difference is our lack of power and opportunity.

Africa Needs Renewed Hearts More Than New Leaders

What then is the solution? It is that we teach our people about the gospel. The gospel is the only narrative that makes sense of the persistence of bad leadership in Africa because the gospel expects everyone to be bad. Yet it is only the gospel that offers the power to change bad people and make them able to do good things through the power of Christ.

As the late Tim Keller put it: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

The gospel has power to change bad people and make them able to do good things.

I believe that Africa can become better. Yet, it will not be by our shortcut methods where we think that we can microwave change. If change will come, it will come slowly. It will come through the patient work of pastors preaching the gospel to their congregations every week; by the slow work of Christians going out into the communities every week and becoming light and salt; and in evangelism and church planting, where we extend the frontiers of the kingdom of God into Africa.

Reason for Real Optimism

This is exactly what Jesus meant in the parable of the mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).

If we are faithful, Jesus promises us a harvest in Africa.

Brothers and sisters, our job is to plant tiny gospel seeds, to water them and pray for growth. If we are faithful, Jesus promises us a harvest in Africa that would be greater than anything we can ask or even imagine.