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Our leadership model is costing us dearly

Feb 07, 2010 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Picture the scene. The former leader of a global power is summoned to a commission of inquiry. He spends a full day there, in front of the world’s cameras. He is grilled by the commissioners on every aspect of certain decisions he made: why he did and said certain things; what he knew and did not know; and whether he regretted his actions.

Outside the inquiry hundreds of protestors are gathered, shouting all day long, calling the former leader a liar, a war criminal and worse.

This scene was not fictitious. The leader was Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom. He was before the Iraq Inquiry, justifying his decision to take his country to war with Iraq a few years ago.

Now, then, can we imagine such a thing in Kenya? Perhaps picture one former leader: can you tell us, Mr President, how much land you amassed for yourself and your close allies? What prices did you pay, and how much do you now have? Did you appreciate the national repercussions of these actions?

Or another one: Please explain to this inquiry, Mr President, what was behind your decision to excise parts of important forests? To whom did you dish out this land, and why? What prices were paid? Were you aware of the environmental disaster you were about to create?

Now those scenes were indeed fictitious. They are never going to happen, are they? We don’t do things like that around here. Those crazy Europeans and Americans (and Indians and Japanese) may fling abuse at their leaders and haul them over the coals, but we have a different style.

Here, we elevate you to demigod status the minute you assume leadership of anything. We bow before you, run after you, ululate your praises, eliminate your enemies. Your decisions are papal, your judgements unquestionable. We swoon in your presence, bemoan your absence, and give you unlimited license. If you are the leader, you are the state and the state is you.

This model of leadership is costing us dearly, my fellow Africans. The people we elect to lead us are not gods. They are mere mortals. They are driven by fear and hope just as we are. They misjudge and mismanage. They eat excessively and go to the toilet just like anyone else. Desires, material and carnal, derange them. There is nothing even vaguely god-like going on there.

So why do we do this? Well, there’s nothing specifically African about it. Tony Blair’s land was not so long ago ruled by absolute monarchs whose word was final on everything. Every serf in the country paid taxes to support an extravagant lifestyle for the king, and tugged his forelock and bent his knee in the presence of the leader. That is the norm for most immature societies.

But the world has learned from these mistakes and moved on, and we are yet to do so. The fact that Tony Blair has to justify himself before the people and institutions of his country is a very important check on his behaviour. The fact that he has to stomach stinging criticism without the riot squads being sent in is a big factor in containing his excesses.

Should we blame our leaders and their imperious ways, then? Not at all. This is a problem not of leadership, but of followership. Our leaders behave this way because we let them. Around the world, it was not autocratic leaders who relaxed the reins of power; it was a strong-willed people who forced them to bow to the majority. Our leaders are adored and elevated because that is what we choose to do. And we must stop.

What are you, a brainless sheep or a thinking, discerning human being? Why should you follow anyone blindly, or imagine that they will unlock the riches in your life for you? We are all born with great potential in our lives, and we must utilise or overcome our unique circumstances, all by ourselves. Giving leaders messianic and monarchical status is a fool’s game. It weakens both leader and follower.

If you have elected someone to serve you, that person is a service provider. His or her leadership must produce results for you and the country around you. You must hold the leader’s feet to the fire and demand uplift for the nation. If you refuse to create the institutions and mindsets that ensure this, then don’t look around for scapegoats.

We are now all busy waiting for a constitution that will supposedly deliver us from evil leadership. It might, but only if we all fix our heads first. Britain, incidentally, has no written constitution.

Ask yourself: what do YOU do when in the presence of a leader? Run madly to be the first to receive the great personage? Grin from ear to ear? Laugh insanely loudly at every little joke? Look for little scraps and favours to be tossed to you? Then no constitution can help you.

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