Bad Big Men not right diagnosis for Africa
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.