Leadership Made in Africa: Cut your coat according to your size


Sales of brand new Toyota VX SUV’s have taken a nosedive in Zambia. In April 2023, the President of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema, directed the Secretary to Cabinet, Patrick Kangwa, to execute the sale of all luxury vehicles purchased since his government came into power. In an emotional series of speeches to Cabinet Ministers and also to municipal leaders, the President challenged them to use their own personal funds to buy their luxury vehicles if they want to ride in a luxury vehicle “so badly”.

He reminded the public sector leaders that the money that they spend to buy these vehicles does not belong to them, but to the people of Zambia, and it is not right for them to spend such funds when the country is in deep debt and there are classrooms without desks and hospitals without medicines. His message and decision has not been popular among the public sector leaders in Zambia.

While citizens appear to be happy that government spending has reduced (and some people have happily taken advantage of the opportunity to buy a used luxury vehicle from the government), there is a significant group of people that are very upset, because they believe that by buying small cars the President is disrespecting them.

Civil servants are livid because they have either been directly affected by this ban or their prospects of ever being able to ride in a luxury vehicle has diminished because of the precedence that has been set. And of course, Toyota Zambia is suffering so its shareholders are not happy with this decision.

Why did President Hichilema take this decision, even though he knew it would not be popular with the civil servants and the party leaders in government? Could it be that he has come to realize that a country that cannot feed itself or pay for its own expenses is never truly free? Is it possible that, as a businessman, he has recognized that managing costs is just as important as generating revenue? Or could it be that he is tired of playing servant to the donor masters whose habit of telling their donor recipients what to do and how to govern is wearing thin on him?

Listening to the speeches given by the President over the past twenty-four months it is not difficult to surmise that all of these may be true as he expresses his opinion about such matters, sometimes bluntly, and sometimes delicately, depending on the venue. Regardless of his reasons, the decision to reduce profligate spending is a necessary and painful step towards a turnaround for any organization.

Whether one agrees with his other decisions or not, one must give President Hichilema credit due to him for having the courage to make this order and follow through with it, even within his immediate political circle. He has learned, just as Captain Thomas Sankara learned, that a country must cut its coat according to its size if a country is to find its way out of national poverty and dependency into a brighter future. The momentary pain is worth the long-term pleasure.

The ban on luxury vehicles reminds me of an extremely successful organization that also has a ban on luxury vehicles…the Church of Pentecost. The Church of Pentecost is a global phenomenon, spanning over 150 countries globally. Headquartered in Ghana, it is certainly one of Ghana’s most impactful and successful organizations.

The Church of Pentecost is currently chaired by Apostle Eric Nyamekye, an unassuming gentleman with a medium frame and a steel backbone. Financially, the Church of Pentecost is easily one of the wealthiest churches in Africa, with significant assets in all of the countries it operates and almost zero debt.

The Church of Pentecost has consistently grown over the years and has a governance structure that protects the Church from any potential blindspots of excesses of a single leader. I visited with Apostle Eric Nyamekye a few times at his office and during my visits I noticed that the offices were spotlessly clean, but were moderately decorated. If one went with appearances alone, it would appear that the organization was not very wealthy.

I also noticed that the vehicles that were parked were mid-tier vehicles (e.g., Toyota RAV 4’s) and the people there demonstrated discipline and cleanliness in their appearance and demeanor. Could this be the same church that had recently built an entire prison and donated it to the Government of Ghana? When I asked the Apostle about how the church manages its finances, his answers centered around one word: discipline.

He then illustrated his answer by sharing with me that when someone joins their pastoral staff – whether full time or part time – they are properly indoctrinated into the culture of the Church of Pentecost. One of the ways in which they are indoctrinated is in the habit of avoiding flashy demonstrations of wealth. This includes the type of vehicle that Church of Pentecost pastors may drive. Even if the pastor owns a luxury vehicle that he purchased before joining the Church of Pentecost, when he becomes a pastor, he is encouraged to sell the vehicle and buy and use a more modest one.

Why would the leadership of the Church of Pentecost espouse such “draconian” principles? What’s the big deal about driving a luxury car anyway, especially if it is your own? The Apostle explained to me that the behaviors or values that become inherent in such policies are what allow the Church to live within its means, allow the Church leaders to live within their means, and allow the Church to grow without entering into debt.

If only more African leaders would learn from this! Traveling through many African countries, I see public sector leaders flying in business class or private jets and being driven around in brand new luxury SUV’s, an unfortunate irony when one considers the fact that these leaders are occupying positions as the head of an organization or a country that is unable to feed itself or pay its own bills.

The tragedy of this phenomenon is that the funding for these luxury expenses is provided by non-Africans, who politely state that none of their funds should be used to pay for luxury goods but are tacitly aware that as long as they are providing funding to cover shortfalls in a government’s budget and the government official is making luxury purchases, they are funding those luxury purchases.

By receiving the funding for these unearned luxuries, African leaders become addicted to them and adopt the notion that they are “suites of office” and therefore cannot be lived without. The more that they cannot live without these luxuries, the less likely they are to lead their countries and communities out of poverty because they have placed themselves in a vicious cycle of debt that their organizations cannot escape.

Dear African leader, as unpopular as the decision may be with your leadership team and as difficult as it may be to subject yourself to it, make the choice to live within your means. Resist the temptation to take the easy route of donor funding to supplement your own luxurious living.  For your community and country to thrive, we, the leaders, must learn to cut our coats according to our size. The future of our children depends on our willingness to discipline ourselves and discipline our teams.

>>>The writer is a scholar and practitioner of organizational development and leadership and a leadership Coach and Facilitator. Over the past three decades, he has successfully coached and trained leaders in Africa, North America, and Europe. His passion for leadership enhancement was born out of his experiences as a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and as a military officer serving in combat in the Sierra Leone Civil War where he was shot twice. As the only Sierra Leonean with a Ph.D. in Leadership, Modupe was the founding Dean of the African Leadership University School of Business, an institution providing a Pan-African MBA degree to Africa’s mid-career professionals.  He is the Co-founder and CEO of BCA Leadership (www.bcaleadership.com), an organization that has impacted over 4000 African leaders with coaching and knowledge-sharing services. He leads a team of forty-two Coaches across Africa and he is the curator of The Made in Africa Leadership Conference.  Contact Modupe through email at [email protected]

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