What is the poison that corrupts many African leaders, no matter how honorable their intentions when they take office? That was the question put to a panel of that included heads of state and government at the World Economic Forum on Africa on Thursday. The question received a surprisingly candid answer.
It was promoted as a conversation on Africa's leadership. Among those on stage were the leaders of Africa's two most populous nations - Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The conversation was routine until the floor was opened to questions from youth leaders. A young South African woman stood up to ask the question that many had pondered, but few dared to pose.
"Good day. My name is Gobano Madnamaraso," she said. "When our leaders are young - most of our African leaders - they are visionaries. They have wonderful visions for our continent. They are admirable. The speak good, they do good. But something happens to them once they are seated in those chairs of power. My question is: We want to see our continent change, but we are afraid of this power that corrupts even some of the best, most admirable leaders on our continent, and what is this poison that happens in these chairs of power and how can we prevent it? "
But perhaps just as frank as the question was the reply.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pointed to greedy foreign corporations as a main driver of corruption.
"What is the poison that leaders face when you go to national palaces, and transforms people with vision sometimes into ordinary thieves? Let's start with the total amount of loot in Africa, and what our role as leaders in that loot[ing] is," said Meles. "The vast majority of the loot[ing] is done by properly organized companies through all sorts of accounting gimmicks."
Meles said African leaders are forced to be facilitators for foreign companies who demand favors in return for their investment that might means jobs for their people.
"It's a difficult thing to manage because our bargaining cards are very limited," he said. "We need these companies to create jobs, in order for them to come to Africa. The image is very negative, so the risk is artificially spiked. And if the risk is artificially spiked, the return has to be commensurate with the risk. And so it's difficult to attract them without extraordinary returns."
The Ethiopian leader said that sometimes leaders give in to temptation.
"Sometimes we facilitate without being paid," he said. "At other times we say, 'Okay, if your family's farm is being looted, why not join in?' I think that is the most insidious form of corruption. It affects everybody, including those whose hands are not in the till."
Another question that was less confrontational, but no less pointed, came from young Sudanese woman who wanted an explanation for the lack of female representation among African leaders.
"Hello, I am Jihada Bonefice from the Khartoum hub in Sudan," she said. "It's quite wonderful to see all you gentlemen up there. But my question is: How do you envision the role of African women in shaping the future? And is there any way you are trying very hard to maybe to get African women where they belong - right up there [on stage]?"
Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba answered, saying “Women are Africa's chance for success tomorrow.” But panelists agreed that solutions to the continent's leadership gender imbalance will be difficult.
Increasing the ranks of female leaders will be among topics discussed at Friday's closing forum meetings, along with China's rising prominence in Africa.