Why our intellectual elites need to begin an entirely new conversation about our nations
By Andrew M. Mwenda
African intellectual elites exhibit a conceptual contradiction. When economic performance is poor they argue that the major source of the problem is bad leadership. And when they talk of leadership, our intellectual elites often mean one person – the president. Their argument implies that they believe the destiny of our nations can be shaped by the actions of a single man or woman. This is the “great hero of history” thesis as championed by the Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle. It actually calls for strong man rule, unrestrained by either institutions or other societal forces. This is a call to tyranny.
At the same, our intellectual elites also argue that African leaders should be democratic and rule through institutions. Some assume such institutions to exist and, therefore, claim leaders are stifling them. The more thoughtful ones recognise the infancy/absence of these institutions and argue that leaders should create/grow them.
But whatever the premise, these arguments want a president to act as a tyrant and a democrat at the same time, to personalise and institutionalise power all at once, and to exercise unrestrained authority over the nation and yet be subject to checks and balances.
If our leaders are the problem, why is our continent singularly unlucky to produce them in large numbers? Besides our presidents and their entourage do not come from outside the continent; they are born and bred in our communities, educated in our schools and … in our churches and mosques. So they reflect the values, norms and shared mentalities of our society.
Africa has had 278 changes of government since 1960. With the exception of post-genocide Rwanda there has not been much fundamental change in governance over these 50 years and more. This implies that the problem must be more deeply structural. Indeed, how come Western nations do not produce these bad leaders?
So the belief that the problem of Africa is leadership is narrowly focused. Consequential leadership has to be diffuse. Successful nations have good leadership at all levels of society. There has to be good leadership at home level, the village, local school, and religious centre etc. There has to be good leadership at individual business and businesses associations’ level, in religious, civic and educational institutions, etc.
Look at Western society: which president transformed the USA from a poor agrarian society into a modern industrial complex? Which prime minister, chancellor or president transformed the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy or Sweden? Which political leader launched the industrial revolution and built the institutions of these societies?
Many people may refer to East Asia and point to Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping, Park Chung Hee, or Chiang Kai-shek. Yet East Asian societies had achieved a high level of social organisation by 1000AD that Europe could only envy. Introduce capitalist dynamics in these societies with their history of nationhood and statehood, their accumulated technical skills and institutional competences and you would need a short time to transform.