Likewise leaders seek legitimacy through a number of ways. They may claim descent from the gods (the Kim family in North Korea best illustrates this). Indeed, historically leaders have in many societies have done this. Leaders may claim to be freedom fighters (as President Yoweri Museveni does), or cultivate a reputation as courageous (like Idi Amin) or project themselves as pious and honest (Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Ho Chi Mihn of Vietnam were very good at this) or of being generous (Mobutu Sese Seko of former Zaire and Umar Bongo of Gabon). And they may appeal to national or ethnic identity, or rely on religious creed (as in Iran) or on a political ideology (communism for example).
Leaders may allocate special benefits to some and deny them to others. Or they may work to create patriotism and sense of national identity through a common struggle (post genocide Rwanda best illustrates this strategy). Leaders may create fear of a common enemy (like demonising Muslims and immigrants by right-wing groups in the West today). In doing this, leaders rely on a specific social context
A combination of these tools is available in differing degrees to leaders in Africa, and they employ them. For instance when we see Museveni pushing bicycles in villages or Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza opening beehives, we the elite may laugh at their pre-modern ways. But they are trying to connect with their citizens who are poor.
I have a suspicion that these other strategies of legitimation would tend to be prioritised in Africa because legitimation based on delivery of public goods and services is not affordable. This brings me to the prevalent accusation of tribalism against leaders in Africa. Practically every president on our continent, with perhaps the exception of Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, has been accused of favoring their ethnic kin. This accusation is often exaggerated but it has some basis.
In his insightful book, ‘Moral Tribes: Emotions, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them’, Harvard University professor, Joshua Greene, argues that our brains are wired for tribalism. We intuitively divide the world into “us” and “them” and that this begins in infancy. If leaders have to command loyalty, they may seek to rely on cues that have historically been reliable markers of group identity and membership. One of them is language; the other is religion. In multi ethnic, multi linguistic and multi religious countries like ours in Africa, these cues get politicised.
I must hasten to add that Greene does not conclude from this that we are fated to be tribalists forever. Indeed, the aim of the book is to show that our brains can be rewired through experience and active learning. Post independence leaders in Africa have struggled to rewire us and create new tribal identities like Ugandans or Kenyans or Congolese out of our multitudes of ethnic identity. The mistake we make is to judge them too quickly thinking that such a project takes a few years to achieve.