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Meet a rare creature: the humble leader

Jul 04, 2004 Leadership, Sunday Nation

It is easy to be cynical about our leaders. Watching them is like watching some theatrical farce, one that begins as a comedy but will, we fear, end as a tragedy. The average Kenyan, who sits among the wretched of the earth, watches these leaders as they try to convince us why they need to buy vehicles that cost 10, 15 or even 20 million shillings each. Because there are many such vehicles in government in any case, says one minister. Because ordinary vehicles are unreliable, says another.

As we listen in disbelief, we are told this week that another five cabinet ministers will be inflicted on us, to bring the total, excluding the president, to thirty. All thirty require fancy cars and plush offices and round-the clock guards in order to fulfil their duties. But this new bunch will have some interesting duties indeed. “Public Service”. “Special Projects”. “National Heritage”. “Regional Co-operation”. Their joke titles tell it all. They are here to fulfil a political purpose. They will be costs without a benefit.

Is there a leader around who gets up every morning wanting to make a difference to the lives of Kenyans? Is there one who is not so consumed by his or her own ego as to remember that there’s actually a job to do? Have you met one yet who regards the ministerial salary and perks as compensation for work done, rather than reward for political favours rendered? I’m still looking.

But before we let our disappointment poison us, let me introduce you to a rather special leader who has recently come to centre stage. This man is a renowned economist, one who has impeccable qualifications from hallowed British universities. He first came to fame years ago as a finance minister, when he was credited with far-sighted reforms that laid the foundations for his country’s future success. Now in his early seventies, he was recently propelled to the leadership of his country largely by the quirks of fate and the generosity of others. Today he heads a precariously balanced coalition of political parties.

The parallels with the life of Mwai Kibaki are indeed remarkable. But it is not to him that I refer. I speak of one Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India.

There are things you need to know about this man. India’s Outlook magazine recently gave us a glimpse into his first few actions in office. Firstly, he has refused to have his picture taken by the official photographer whose job it is to produce the portrait that will be placed on the walls of all government offices. Mr Singh’s point? That the only portraits that need to hang on official walls are those of Mahatma Gandhi and India’s ceremonial president. He sees himself as a man who has come to do a job, not to be revered without reason.

Mr. Singh was next shown the fleet of six flashy BMWs that were bought by the outgoing government for the prime minister’s use in the expectation of recapturing office. Sounds familiar? The similarity ends there. Far from jumping into the cars with glee, Mr. Singh declined to use them. He tried to divide the cars between his party leader, his predecessor in office and other bigwigs. He was apparently content to be driven around in a humble Ambassador car – a modest Indian vehicle that costs less than Sh 1 million, and one that a junior civil servant in Kenya would not want to be seen dead in. It is reportedly only when his security chiefs insisted that the bulletproof BMWs were necessary for the PM’s safety that Mr. Singh reluctantly agreed to use one.

Mr. Singh has other traits that are, to say the least, unusual for the leader of the world’s largest democracy. He is said to be always on time for his meetings. He waits for visitors to his residence on the porch, and greets them personally when they arrive. He issued a personal memo to his officials to check nepotism, stating that “information, favour, relief or intervention” would not be available to those seeking them in the name of the PM, or identifying themselves as his friends or relatives.

Mr. Singh has taken charge of a country that has had its share of nasty and maladroit leaders. For all his humbleness, he appreciates the enormity of the task that faces him. In response to the pile of requests on his desk by ministers wanting to go off on official business overseas, he sent another note: no foreign trips for now. When it came to the key appointments in his own office, he consulted widely and drew up a shortlist for each post. He then surprised his aides by personally interviewing the top ten candidates, and deciding who he wanted without any further input from anyone.

Amazed? So was I. Used as we are in this country to leaders whose image must appear on currency as well as walls, whose first job in office is to construct a kitchen cabinet, who are impossible to access once appointed, we can only look on with mouths agape. Mr. Singh appears to be the real thing: a humble man focused on delivering results to his countrymen, rather than wealth and status to himself.

Have we seen his like in Kenya? Commentator Wafula Buke, writing in the EastAfrican this week, reminded us that Joseph Murumbi once declined to occupy the official vice-president’s residence; that Oginga Odinga lived in Jericho up until 1992; that Bildad Kaggia refused to accept 300 acres of land offered to him by President Kenyatta, unless the same offer was made to each of his constituents.

Are those Kenyans and those gestures gone forever? The charlatan class is firmly in charge today. All that is on offer now is the loud voice emanating from the empty suit in the showy car. Politics is a mere sideshow, theatre that keeps us distracted from our true problems.

Politics is one problem that even Manmohan Singh has been unable to avoid. He, too, has had to bow to political reality. His coalition government contains some very dubious names: some with criminal charges pending against them; others who can only be described as having intellects that are pocket sized. But those in the cabinet who speak out of turn in public reportedly receive a short phone call from the PM, urging restraint. So far, it seems to be doing the trick. Nevertheless, if there is one thing that may undo his efforts, it is the need to keep politicians of a more traditionally unsavoury mien in the folds of government.

Perhaps we too will be blessed some day. Perhaps here, too, the fates will conspire to produce the humble man or woman who will lead by personal example. Perhaps. In the meantime, let us send our good wishes and positive energies to the quiet economist who seeks to change the face of Indian leadership. If the meek shall indeed inherit the earth, perhaps the process has begun in India.

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