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Leaders who can’t keep lust zipped up

Oct 12, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I recently had the misfortune to witness one of the more cringe-worthy scenes I have encountered on television in the recent past.

Asif Ali Zardari is the newly elected president of Pakistan. He has no previous experience of international statesmanship, having been previously famous only for being the husband of a famous wife, Benazir Bhutto (who was assassinated recently).

Sarah Palin is the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in the forthcoming presidential poll in America. She has no previous international experience, having been the governor of Alaska and a former beauty queen. Indeed, she only acquired her first passport last year.

Ms Palin needed to get her foreign affairs credentials up to scratch in a hurry, so she went on a spree of meeting foreign leaders who had come to attend a United Nations meeting in New York. One of those leaders was Mr Zardari, and it is this meeting that constituted the unfortunate television moment.

Upon seeing Ms Palin, Mr Zardari immediately pronounced her “gorgeous”, and said he could see “why all of America is crazy about you”. When a photographer asked him to move closer to Ms Palin for a handshake, he offered to go even closer and hug her. All of this was said and done with the sort of glint in the eye and smarmy grin on the chops that one wishes not to see in one’s leaders. He looked the image of the greasy native eyeing up the white woman and trying his luck. Right in front of the world’s cameras. The clip is now all over the internet.

It seems all that Mr Zardari could see was an attractive woman, NOT a candidate for vice-president of the world’s most powerful nation. All he could see was a target for flirtation, NOT a professional peer. All he could come up with was a barroom chat-up line, NOT an intelligent discussion about world affairs.

It appeared to matter not a jot to him that his wife’s brutally assassinated body has only barely gone cold. Nor that Ms Palin is a married mother of five. The matter was reduced to man meets woman.

Let us now stay on the same letter of the alphabet but jump across the world, where another leader with an interesting attitude towards women is preparing to take power. Mr Jacob Zuma has succeeded in ousting Mr Thabo Mbeki from the presidency of South Africa, and is widely expected to become president himself when elections are held next year.

Mr Zuma’s views on women and sex became known to the world when he was on trial on charges of raping the daughter of a family friend. Mr Zuma’s defence was that he did indeed have sexual relations with the young woman, but that the act was consensual. The court agreed with him, and the charges were dismissed.

However, in his evidence, Mr Zuma said certain things we would rather have not heard. He said smugly that he could tell from the way a woman sat whether she was inviting him to have sex. And that he had not used a condom even though the woman was known to be HIV-positive, because a simple shower would reduce the risk of infection.

Mr Zuma, by the way, has at least four wives and has reportedly sired 18 children.

I am not highlighting these things in an attempt to be puritanical or sanctimonious. No one I know is without blemish, and everyone is entitled to their foibles and weaknesses. Nevertheless, character matters in leadership. Leaders carry a great responsibility in their hands: the responsibility of setting standards of behaviour, of becoming a role model, of managing the emotional climate of a nation and of the world.

What leaders do is watched and mimicked. Every word uttered by leaders is followed keenly by millions, and their actions and behaviour receive intense scrutiny. What they do can affect the attitudes of an entire nation.

That the two ‘Z’s carry this responsibility so casually and lightly is indeed very worrying. They seem to have no concern for what they are uttering, and perhaps even lack the nous to know what effect it will have. They treat the female half of their following as chattels and objects of desire. They are unable to contain their libidos, even in the most public of settings. What greatness are these two going to inspire in their followers, and what progress are they going to deliver to their countries?

This inability to keep their lust zipped up is the undoing of many a Kenyan leader, in public as well as private service. Too many elected leaders and chief executives seem entirely unable to stop taking advantage of their positions and seducing their attractive employees. Again, this highlights a set of values and attitudes that is extremely unfortunate.

Finally, a word of caution to Kenyan women leaders: please be careful how you sit and how you shake hands when Zuma or Zardari come calling…

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