Leadership and dilemmas of societal transformation

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • In my view, President Kagame wound up in the same trap of power as Museveni and other continental peers.

I have started with a rather imprecise title, so dear reader bear with me, and read on.
Earlier in the week I got into a back-and-forth Twitter exchange with Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, one of the few Ugandan academics active and consistently present on Twitter. I like to address him as ‘Kojja’, given my association with Buganda as an in-law, married to his ‘daughter’.

Dr Mutebi strongly believes leadership is decisive in a society, especially in our African countries facing enormous socioeconomic and political problems. He has choice criticisms for Western actors bent on imposing their standards on Africans particularly the liberal democracy template. 

For the most part, his views on leadership and governments are largely informed by his admiration of the Rwandan government under President Paul Kagame. Over the years I have been reticent jumping onto the bandwagon of sweeping condemnation of Kagame’s ostensible authoritarianism, but I’ve been equally reluctant to embrace the notion that he can’t be criticised because he is exceptional. 

In my view, President Kagame wound up in the same trap of power as Museveni and other continental peers. Even if he’s an extraordinary leader and has made enormous achievements, no one individual should be indispensable in a country of millions.

In our Twitter exchange, Dr Mutebi derided Barak Obama’s assertion that Africa needs strong institutions, not strongmen, rhetorically asking if institutions are wheeled in place or they fall from heaven. To which I said the same must be asked of good leaders: do they just come from heaven? What if a leader is good in one area and bad in another?

I am no fan of what Dr Mutebi calls democracy merchandisers, the army of Western actors and African acolytes lined-up in demanding ‘free elections’ even when the environment is utterly unconducive or where elections simply fuel problems and perverse incentives.  Yet, we can criticise the flaws and failings of a democratic system, especially the tendency to reduce it to routine motions of elections, but that is not to gainsay the need for a system that assures accountability and responsiveness.

A government in which good leaders can act in any way they want and face no social sanctions or public disapproval is no different from one of pseudo democracy where there are routine elections and superficial change of leaders. Both systems are hopeless and unlikely to bring about societal transformation.

The crux of any public authority and leadership is to serve the public good, to meet the needs and aspirations of society through competent and effective government. In thinking about government and managing public affairs, arguably the most enduring task is how to design a system or framework that serves the public good, speaks to wider societal interests, and where leaders perform but are also accountable to the population. 

Governing a country, especially one with a majority poor population, is patently daunting even for a genius. Leadership at the top matters a great deal, no doubt, but no one person can engineer a country’s long-term socioeconomic transformation without critical social pillars and state infrastructure to anchor things. 

An individual star-performer can produce extraordinary results during his/her time, but unless such results come through processes that are replicable and are a consequence of robust systems, once the star performer leaves the stage there may be no more stellar results and existing achievement easily get swept aside. 

Changing leaders at the top is no guarantee that you get better governing systems or a better government that serves the public good, but not changing leaders is equally no assurance of performance. 

President Julius Nyerere was undoubtedly a gifted leader, deeply committed to transforming Tanzania, frugal and incorruptible. After more than two decades in power and despite all good intentions, he realised he needed to step down to give the country a chance to test out alternatives.  Nyerere could well have ruled Tanzania to death, and maybe the country could have become better under his long rule or maybe not. The point is that leadership is only but one variable. Thus, it is reductionist to argue that a country’s problems are solved once there is good leadership at the top. 

Today, Mr Museveni believes he is an excellent leader, and his supporters fully agree he is so outstanding he should stay for eternity, precisely the same thing said about President Kagame. 

Depending on what we are referring to or which aspect of leadership one is addressing, Museveni is a great leader. But a key yardstick of great leadership is the ability to have a limited programme and to press through with a set of accomplishments after which one hands the baton to the next person.  

Historically, this has been a defining feature of societies that have become economically prosperous and socially stable. Without a viable, long-term frame for governing, short-term individual accomplishments are easily buried, negating incremental change and making transformation impossible.