Setting the stage
As far back as my early childhood memories would allow me to recapture, the socio-economic problems in Africa have in large part been attributed to good leadership and governance (or lack of). Since independence, African leaders have been accused of leading countries on the wrong path, either as a result of corruption or incompetence. Over the years I have known and discussed with good friends who have become leaders in African countries. I remember the discussions with them about how leadership is harming Africa. We seemed to be on the same page. Now these friends are in leadership positions in Africa and are being accused of the same issues that I have discussed with them. Were these friends secretly corrupt or corruptible? What made these seemingly brilliant and incorruptible individuals become part of the group of ‘corrupt and incompetent’ leaders? or did they become corrupt upon coming into political power?
Fix ye first your corrupt leaders and everything else would be added unto thee. This seems to be the core message of President Obama’s message to African leaders in his address to the Africa Union on June 28th 2015.
I am struggling to, and avoid the thought that the African is in fact a bad leader by default. In fact I refuse to accept that. There are countless Africans leading great organisations in the continent and beyond. So, if it is not the African (person) who is a bad leader, then obviously there have to be other explanations for the perception of bad leadership being the cause of our woes in Africa. If it is not the people, then what else?
The World Bank has a good definition of governance which I would adopt for this piece:
“Conceptually, governance (as opposed to “good” governance) can be defined as the rule of the rulers, typically within a given set of rules. One might conclude that governance is the system – by which authority is conferred on rulers, by which they make the rules, and by which those rules are enforced and modified. Thus, understanding governance requires an identification of both the rulers and the rules, as well as the various processes by which they are selected, defined, and linked together and with the society generally. (The World Bank)
The United Nations offers a similar (though from a different perspective) view of Governance as:
The exercise of economic, political, and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations, and mediate their differences.” – UNDP
What seems obvious from these definitions is that governance is a societal concept. A system in which elements and institutions, formal and informal interact to promote public life , rights and interests. It could be defined as a system of relationships between various stakeholders of any given society. Governance is not Government. And it is definitely not leadership.
Government can be defined as the institution, the body of individuals charged with the affairs of a state. The body or organisation through which individuals or a body functions and exercises and exercises authority. An institution is a sense-making mechanism through which societies form rules that govern behaviour.
“A group of people that governs a community or unit. It sets and administers public policy and exercises executive, political and sovereign power through customs, institutions, and laws within a state.”
Governing – Leadership
All too often emphasis is placed on the role of the leader (or lack of) as the key individual with responsibility for ‘leading’ a country. A leader is a person who rules, guides, inspires, directs. A political leader, or a politician, can be anyone who has taken up the responsibility of governing a tribe, city, state, region or even an entire nation.
Leadership Challenge in Africa
Throughout the political history of post-independent Africa we have sung the lack of leadership song for decades. I admit that good leadership is essential in getting everything else to work. We have rulers from across Africa who were not even born at the time their countries gained independence. Yet they are accused of perpetuating the same leadership incompetence as the ones before them.
Is the African by default a bad leader?
If we accept that one of the biggest challenges of post-independence Africa has been that of good leadership then my friend would not be entirely wrong to say that the African is by default a bad leader? If we disagree with my friend that the opposite is true, that intact the African is not a bad leader by default, then we obviously have to find explanation for the leadership challenge elsewhere.
Its not the leaders stupid!
Many have rejected the fact that the African is a bad leader and suggest rather that it is the institutions of government that are to be blamed for the woes of Africa. The reasons for our leadership woes can be blamed on weak institutions. Once we are able to build strong institutions of governance, then voila our problems would be solved.
“if a country builds strong institutions we won’t even notice who the leaders are”
I agree fully that strong institutions are needed in any society. Institutions are sense-making mechanisms through which every society functions. Institutions provide us a framework – a navigational compass for developmental direction. Absolutely essential.
What would it take to build such institutions that are strong enough to make our leaders invisible?
The fact that we are not bad leaders by default may seem to suggest that it has to be the weak institutions. This leads me to a bigger question: why haven’t we been able to build such strong institutions over the years?
Maybe it is the Governance system?
“Institutions are as strong as the governance system in which they are embedded”
How much do we know about everything else apart from the formal institutions which we admit are too weak? I am not governance specialist but I do believe that at the very least the socio-cultural environment of the society would strongly impact on the nature of institutions and leadership.
Admittedly most Africa today have dual societies. On one hand there is the visible hand of the formal society in which our institutions of government are embedded. Leaders are elected in a formal electoral democracy (in most cases). Executive, Judiciary and Legislative institutions are created to ensure the smooth administration of nations. On the other hand there is the invisible hand of the traditional society (call it informal) that is as equally strong (if not stronger in some cases) than the formal society.
The result of the duality of African societies is that people in leadership (as well as those who aspire to be) tend to forget that their source of authority is formal and not the informal power that traditional authorities bestows on traditional leaders. In African traditional history leaders (kings, chiefs, village heads and even family heads) tend to have absolute power with the responsibility to take care of citizens. Traditionally they tend to have the largest share of wealth and have a responsibility to distribute them equitably among their subjects. Unfortunately with the rebuilding of formal institutions since independence, African societies have not learned, and reminded our future leaders that there is indeed a distinction between being a formal leader and a chief or King. Maybe our leaders are not even aware that aware that somewhere deep inside our psyche we forget that fact. Sometimes all we need to do is to remember this potential danger!
But wait! Indeed the leaders may forget that we are no longer in the traditional village-chief era, that formal authority is not absolute power. Maybe. But we as the citizenry have a role to play in making our leaders feel that they have absolute power? I mean we tend to have the same expectations of our formal leaders as we do of our traditional leaders. We may not realise it but most times we expect them to have the absolute power. We expect them to exhibit the power through the wealth they acquire (legally or otherwise). We expect them to “take care of us” like our family heads and village leaders did. Let’s face it we expect or Presidents, Ministers and Parliamentarians to be rich so they can take care of all our needs. Build our schools, pay for our funerals, pay for our healthcare, provide food and shelter. Wait I am not talking about the obligations of government to provide for these services. I mean here the expectations of that individual who happens to be in the institution. Its not formal. Its personal. The all powerful politicians that we create have a traditional responsibility to take care of their own. Each one for herself God for us all!!
Can this syndrome be fixed?
Indeed. It can be fixed. In a way we have come a long way from where we were 5 decades ago. We are gradually fixing it. Maybe we are not fixing it as fast as we and the world would expect. Or maybe we are just fixing it wrong? Maybe all we need to do is to acknowledge the duality of our societies, understand how our expectations of leaders are shaped by our history of traditional leaders? Maybe our future leaders need to be taught the difference between formal authority and traditional power.