On his return home on February 4, 2015, after becoming Chairman of the African Union (AU), Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe fell down the steps at the end his triumphant speech to his supporters. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the state of African leadership more than this single event.
At 90, in power for 35 years, running a country whose currency was rendered useless and ceased to exist, and under travel ban because of political thuggery and human rights abuses, the octogenarian is now leader of the entire continent.
Fairly or unreasonably, this state of affairs puts a spotlight on the top two leading countries in Africa -- Nigeria and South Africa. Both face severe political and economic issues at home and as a result appear disengaged in setting direction for the continent.
Imagine Asia with both Japan and China in shambles. Or the Americas in which both the United States of America and Brazil are limping. Or Europe in which both Germany and France are in doldrums. The result would be political, intellectual, and economic vacuum. And that is the situation in Africa.
What is tormenting Nigeria and South Africa that in turn renders Africa rudderless? The leadership of the two has a credibility problem. In the case of Nigeria, corruption seems to be out of control under the current president Gooluck Jonathan. Only the violence committed by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram competes with corruption for news headlines. And the two issues are linked. Unpaid and poorly-equipped soldiers reportedly due to stolen money are said to account for ineffectual response to Boko Haram terror.
The scale of corruption in Nigeria was demonstrated by the events surrounding the ouster of Nigeria's central bank governor Lamido Sanusi. Governor Sanusi had caused shockwaves at a senate committee hearing in January 2014 when he revealed that USD$20 billion oil revenue had vanished. Tellingly, there were no consequences for authorities in charge of the oil sector. President Goodluck did not help matters when in October 2014 he made what has become known in Nigeria as the quote of the century: "stealing is not corruption."
South Africa has its own ongoing sad drama. President Jacob Zuma is entangled in "Nkandlagate" controversy about R$246 million equivalent to USD$21 million of public funds used to upgrade security at his private residence in his home village of Nkandla. Zuma's defence is that decisions to spend this money were made by government officials, and that as an innocent bystander, he should not be blamed. This leads to an equally unflattering conclusion -- the head of state is not in charge of his government.
Perhaps this leadership style might explain the decline of South Africa's economy in the past four years -- from a GDP of USD$403 billion in 2011; USD$382 billion in 2012: USD$350 in 2013 and USD$341 billion in 2014. Problems in the mining sector, not least the death of 44 Marikana miners in 2012 at the hands of South African Police Service, have taken a heavy toll. South African currency, the rand has also been affected, dropping to its lowest level in four years.
The issue of corruption in Nigeria and Nkandlagate in South Africa don't seem to go away. Corruption is at centre stage in the ongoing Nigerian presidential elections campaign. The opposition candidate, 72-year-old former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, has cast himself as the man who can halt corruption and defeat Boko Haram. In South Africa, parliament has become something of a war zone, often plunged into chaos, and on one occasion, forcing Zuma to flee a chaotic question and answer session concerning Nkandlagate.
At continental leadership level both Jonathan and Zuma are conspicuously low-keyed or even absent. The South African President, for example, did not attend the 2014 European Union-Africa summit. His explanation became apparent when he was later quoted by the South African Broadcasting Service (SABC) as saying that "I think that time must pass wherein we are looked at as subjects, [and] we are told who must come and who must not come." Evidently, Zuma boycott was in solidarity with Mugabe who refused to attend the meeting because the EU lifted its travel ban against him but not his wife.
This, despite the fact that South Africa is not only a leading economy in Africa but also EU's largest trading partner on the continent. South Africa exported to EU goods and services worth USD$18 billion in 2013 against imports of USD$22 billion from the EU.
So what does the immediate future hold for continental leadership? Chairman Mugabe's victorious rhetoric before stumbling from his podium and crawling to his limousine sums it up: "We have been honoured by the whole of Africa...Our stature in Africa has risen..We might be facing problems here and there...but we will never surrender."
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