Bad Big Men not right di­ag­no­sis for Africa

Lesotho Times - - Leader - Steven Friedman

AFRICAN “strong man” lead­ers are not the cause of Africa’s prob­lems — they are symp­toms. And some African cit­i­zens may slowly be fix­ing the prob­lem and its symp­toms.

The end of the 27-year reign of Burk­ina Faso pres­i­dent Blaise Com­paoré, Botswana’s elec­tion and the death of Zam­bian Pres­i­dent Michael Sata have re­vived a common di­ag­no­sis of Africa’s prob­lems — the com­plaint that it is af­flicted by “bad lead­ers” who care about them­selves and not their cit­i­zens.

An­a­lysts have pointed out that Mr Com­paoré was one of sev­eral pres­i­dents who con­fused their coun­tries with them­selves.

Botswana Pres­i­dent Ian Khama and Mr Sata were seen by their crit­ics as ev­i­dence that African lead­ers be­have in this way even if they are elected.

In all of th­ese cases, the crit­ics have re­peated the common wis­dom among many African in­tel­lec­tu­als that the con­ti­nent’s prob­lems stem from the flaws of its lead­ers.

South Africa is not ex­empt from this ten­dency to blame ev­ery­thing on lead­ers. Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma is rou­tinely as­sumed to be the cause of just about ev­ery prob­lem, which vastly ex­ag­ger­ates his power.

The re­cently-slain Bafana Bafana cap­tain, Senzo Meyiwa’s mur­der has trig­gered a “Bring Back Bheki Cele” move­ment, which seems to as­sume that we can abol­ish vi­o­lent crime sim­ply by re­plac­ing one head of the po­lice with another, even though Mr Cele didn’t end mur­ders when he was in charge.

Crit­i­cism of lead­ers is of­ten valid. But it ig­nores an ob­vi­ous ques­tion. Why has Africa pro­duced lead­ers who try to stay for­ever and pre­fer ex­ploit­ing their so­ci­eties, to serv­ing them?

Hope­fully no one who blames lead­ers be­lieves there is some­thing in­born about Africans that makes rulers ex­ploit their coun­tries.

But what then is the ex­pla­na­tion? The wa­ter? The cli­mate? And what is the cure? Find­ing “good lead­ers”?

But where do we find them? And how do we make them lead­ers? The “bad lead­ers” ex­pla­na­tion doesn’t ex­plain the prob­lem and so does not al­low us to find so­lu­tions.

To dis­cover what is re­ally hap­pen­ing, we must ask what de­cides how lead­ers view their so­ci­eties.

The an­swer is that this has far less to do with their per­son­al­i­ties than with whether they feel they will pay a price for not do­ing what cit­i­zens want.

If lead­ers are to care more about so­ci­ety than them­selves, they need to be held to ac­count by cit­i­zens. And that means that cit­i­zens need to be strong and or­gan­ised enough to en­sure that gov­ern­ment does what they want it to do.

If we recog­nise this, “bad lead­ers” in Africa are a symp­tom of a larger prob­lem — that cit­i­zens have been un­able for many years to hold pub­lic of­fice hold­ers to ac­count. Most African so­ci­eties moved from rule by un­ac­count­able colo­nial gov­ern­ments to rule by un­ac­count­able do­mes­tic gov­ern­ments.

So the prob­lem is not some un­ex­plained African per­son­al­ity trait but that colo­nial­ism usu­ally left African so­ci­eties with a small elite, which worked closely with the new gov­ern­ment, and a cit­i­zenry with­out the means to make it­self heard.

There are signs that this is chang­ing. The change is slow and un­even, but it does seem that cit­i­zens are be­com­ing bet­ter able to force gov­ern­ments to lis­ten to them.

Over the past cou­ple of decades, cit­i­zens in more than a few African states have forced their gov­ern­ing elites to hold elec­tions and to recog­nise their right to be heard.

In some cases, the change has been fairly smooth, as in Ghana; in oth­ers, such as Kenya, it has been more dif­fi­cult, while in Zim­babwe the fight con­tin­ues. But it is eas­ier for cit­i­zen­ries in many African states to make them­selves heard than it was a decade or two ago.

Re­search shows a growth in cit­i­zen or­gan­i­sa­tions in Africa. This is not a co­in­ci­dence — be­cause cit­i­zens are be­com­ing bet­ter or­gan­ised, so­ci­eties are be­com­ing more demo­cratic as lead­ers are forced to serve for shorter pe­ri­ods and to take cit­i­zens se­ri­ously.

This does not mean that the fight for ac­count­able lead­er­ship in Africa is over — it may have just be­gun. Some gov­ern­ing elites have be­come ex­pert at us­ing demo­cratic rules to bol­ster their power. Cit­i­zens have proved pow­er­ful enough to get gov­ern­ments to sub­mit to elec­tions, but not to get them to lis­ten and serve.

The cit­i­zens who have been able to or­gan­ise are the elite — business and pro­fes­sional peo­ple as well as ac­tivists in non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions — and most peo­ple are still not heard.

The trend is far stronger in some coun­tries than oth­ers: it is still not clear whether cit­i­zens in Burk­ina Faso are or­gan­ised enough to pre­vent a new un­ac­count­able elite re­plac­ing the old.

But, how­ever limited progress may be, it does show that there is noth­ing in­evitable or au­to­mat­i­cally African about lead­ers who over­stay their wel­come and prey on their so­ci­eties. They are a prod­uct of cir­cum­stances that can be changed. We need to bear this in mind if we want to un­der­stand where the con­ti­nent may be headed — and the so­lu­tions that might solve some of its prob­lems.

Friedman is di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for the Study of Democ­racy.

“Bad lead­ers” in Africa are a symp­tom of a larger prob­lem — that cit­i­zens have been un­able for many years to hold pub­lic of­fice hold­ers to ac­count.

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