About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, May 14, 2018

Africa’s need for messiahs

Inside our belief that the salvation of our nations will come from the actions of one great man

If you follow discussions on politics in Uganda, or Africa generally, one factor is given as the cause of the slow rate of development – poor leadership. I used to hold this view but outgrew it in large part because I recognised that African leaders are propelled to power by the social dynamics of our societies. It follows that what they do with power reflects more on who we are as a people than who they are as individuals.

The blame-the-leadership argument remains powerful in large part because it has its roots in the secular religion called development. This faith sees humankind on a continuous linear path of infinite progress. I suspect this is a carryover from the Christian belief in universal salvation. But while Christianity promises salvation after death, secular faith in development promises universal prosperity on earth. The Enlightenment arose to topple religious utopias but created secular ones.

In ancient Greece, people believed forces beyond human control (fate) shaped their destiny. You find this in Homer’s `The Iliad’ and `The Odyssey’ and in the plays of the great Greek dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Plato thought contemplation was the highest form of human activity. The aim of life was not to change the world but to see it rightly. But the new secular faiths seek to change the world NOW hence the many social frustrations and conflicts of our time.

This is why whenever we face a problem we look for a villain to blame even when the cause is not a person but a combination of factors. President Yoweri Museveni attributed Uganda’s problems to the personality and management competences of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. His critics today do the same – seeing the problems of Uganda as caused by Museveni, period. Why?

Social issues are complex. British economist John Keynes suggested that ordinary people handle complexity through narratives i.e. readily digestible theories-in-miniature. Narratives spread easily and become public goods. But they can also stray far away from reality. One such stray is the claim that development of a country comes from the state, especially its president. This has created a mentality that absolves individual and collective responsibility to our countries.

I think the major constraint in Africa is inadequate human capital and a misguided ideology of the state as nanny. Look at North and South Korea. The north has a GDP of $17 billion and a per capita income of $665, the south $1.4 trillion and $27,600 respectively. The south produces such great global brands with cutting edge technology like Samsung, Hyundai, Kia and LG. In spite of its poverty, the north performs cutting-edge technological feats like putting satellites in space, manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

What we are seeing embedded in the social tissue of Korean society is high levels of human capital i.e. mastery of technological innovation regardless of income. Give North Korea market institutions and it would catch up with the south in 20 years. The economies of Zambia, Uganda, Ghana, Malawi and Kenya have not performed any serious technological feats in spite of possessing free market institutions because they have low levels of human capital. Those who believe in leadership as the source of innovation would argue we lack a president to set the innovation ball rolling. Nonsense.

Look at Africa’s most successful story, Botswana. It is hailed for having had great and visionary leadership. I am an admirer of the Botswana story. But other than managing her diamond riches well and sustaining a multi party system of government, I can hardly find anything great it has done. It has not produced any international brand like Samsung. I am not even sure they have manufactured a pin yet. Therefore, to ignore human capital and believe in the Christian principle of “seek ye first a good leader and the rest will be added onto you” may make a good political slogan but it has little analytical value.

In the 1990s Museveni argued passionately that the problem of Africa was of leaders who do not want to leave power. After 32 years, he is today one of those leaders who is clearly not leaving power. But Museveni was wrong. I believe one of the major problems of Africa is a failure of citizenship centred on individual and collective responsibility. We, especially the elite, have abdicated our responsibility to be agents of the change we want. Instead we have become passive spectators in our affairs. This has led us to always crave for leaders who can be messiahs to save us from our problems.

In many ways I find Museveni better than his critics. When he felt Uganda had a crisis of leadership, he did not sit and complain in pamphlets. He took political initiative to gain power and change the country. His critics sit in air-conditioned offices and hang out in fancy nightclubs to lament how he has destroyed the country. But if the man is incompetent in managing the state, surely we who are more competent, more educated, more skilled, more exposed should have the competence to easily kick him out. You cannot claim to be the best sprinter when you cannot even qualify for the Olympics.

So we ask for mutually contradictory things: we want a leader who can transform our nation for us in one big stroke. Yet if any leader was to achieve such a feat, she/he would need to act without restraints on his/her power i.e. be a benevolent tyrant. At the same time we want such a leader to be democratic, subject to checks and balances. That is why we cheer Barak Obama when he says Africa does not need strong leaders but strong institutions. But strong institutions mean a leader has little he can do as an individual. This is the core problem of us African elites, ideological confusion.

Listening to Ugandan (and African) elites, one is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of helplessness and powerlessness even on matters of direct personal responsibility. It is as if we have no agency to shape the destiny of our countries – we surrendered that to the mythical great leader. Every aspect of our lives is supposed to depend on leaders. This belief in leaders as saviours is detrimental to active citizenship. We need a vision that believes that our destiny can only be shaped by the anonymous actions of hundreds of millions of active, living, thinking, and functioning citizens; not a single leader.


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