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Africa can preserve dignity even in times of Covid-19

Monday April 27 2020

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Last week, CNN aired a clip about Nigerians looting food from vehicles in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

The commentator interviewed some of the young men about their behaviour and the risk they were subjecting themselves to by not keeping social distance.

The response was swift: “I’d rather die from the virus than from lack of food.”

The previous week, we witnessed similar incidences in Kibra, in a chaotic food distribution event that got international media attention. Local televisions too also aired similar incidences in Eldoret.

These kinds of scenes will continue as the crisis deepens.

In all these cases, prominent politicians were behind the chaotic attempt to feed the hungry without a proper plan.

If there is a time when Africa must respect orderly planning, it is now. The continent has to salvage the image of Africans in the face of the world. From the recent attacks of Africans abroad, there are people who relish seeing any immature practices by Africans.

Africa should chart its future with a sense of purpose in light of growing nationalism in the West. A global approach to dealing with global issues is dying, right from climate change to health and God knows what else. The threat is real and Africa should not be caught flat-footed.

There is a sense that some developed countries want to divert media attention from their failures to managing the crisis by shifting the attention to “primordial” Africa. By doing so, it will make their countries look good. Mistreatment of Africans is not an accident.

Already, the narrative in China is that Africans are the ones spreading the virus in the country. Chinese state media, Xinhua, said last week that more than 110 people from “Africa living in the city of Guangzhou had tested positive for the coronavirus.”

Some Western analysts keep referring to Africa as the new frontier of infection and that if they are not helped, they will re-infect the West.

Such narrative always has become the source of discrimination. It must be noted that the HIV/AIDs crisis started in a similar manner but it eventually impacted the African continent more than anywhere else.

To date, Africans carry the burden of shame even though they too were victims of the virus.

There is no scientific proof that Africans, because of their weak health systems, would re-infect the rest of the world. Instead, the stage is being set for further discrimination of the African people based on unfounded allegations. Indeed, the curious aspect of Covid-19 is why the infection rate in the Southern hemisphere has been very low.

One theory is that measles and polio vaccines, which countries in the south have continued to administer despite being abandoned by many countries in the west, help people develop some resistance to the virus.

It is possible that antibodies for these viruses could be behind the slow infection rate in our part of the world. There is need therefore to mobilize resources in the South to conduct tests to establish if the region has the antibodies that are fighting Covid-19.

The findings will help us decide whether we to open the economy or brace ourselves for the upcoming colder season which favours the spread of the virus.

Although most countries rarely set aside research funds, it is incumbent upon our scientists to state what they need so that we start to crowdsource funding locally.


Let me revisit the issue of chaotic food distribution by politicians across the continent. It is unfortunate that politicians use tragic moments to brand themselves.

We should thank the government for banning irresponsible donations to citizens. There are better mechanisms for reaching people in a more organised way that promotes a positive image of us across the world.

Yes, I know that in some cases governments fail to feed their people. But this happens because we as followers fail.

Followers have a key role in leadership but that role is sometimes misunderstood. Without followers, there can be no leadership.

Leaders depend on followers to be who they are and vice-versa. Organisations and people have succeeded or failed partly because of the leaders and partly because of the followers.

Let me demonstrate a case where the followers stood up to be counted. This was during the drought of 2011 which was the worst in 60 years. Our Northern citizens had no water or food. The drought had affected about 3.8 million Kenyans. Some 385,000 children under five years were affected by acute malnutrition.


Noting that the government and donor agencies were slow to act, the Kenya Red Cross Society mobilised corporate organisations and Kenyans from all walks of life to launch a rapid response in what was dubbed Kenyans for Kenya (K4K) to raise money and feed their fellow Kenyans in the North.

Within three weeks, the budget of Sh550 million had been raised, with 50 percent of that coming from those donating Sh100 and below. In total Sh1.1 billion was raised.

The extra resources were used to establish medium to long-term drought mitigation measures. The initiative proved that we have always underestimated the power of domestic fundraising.

It also highlighted the power of followership in pushing the leadership of the country into consciousness. Many other lessons were learnt from the exercise, but the greatest one was that we could restore our dignity sustainably by extricating ourselves from donor funding.

The execution of the programme was impressive perhaps because there were no boastful political leaders involved.

They, for the first time, stood aside to be led by their followers and that is the role of followership in leadership.

More than ever before, Africans must rebrand themselves in this 21st century to reverse what some people have ingrained in their brains for more than 400 years¬ that Africans are ignorant and unable to deal with their own problems, hence discrimination.

Let’s play our part either as leaders or followers to reverse the 400 years of discrimination.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.