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Bad things happen when leaders become detached from followers

Feb 06, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Like a tidal wave the people came, and kept coming. They had had enough, and had nothing to lose. Only a complete removal of those who led them would appease them. Day after day after day they piled into the streets. They made their own country ungovernable and froze its economy. It was only a matter of time before the government crumbled.

That describes Tunisia in recent weeks, and Egypt in recent days. It is also beginning to describe Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Sudan. The common people of all these countries have something in common: they have all had enough.

At the time of writing, Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak is still in power – just. But he has no future, and was forced to disband his cabinet and say he will step down soon. So how do we explain this sudden resurgence of ‘people power?’ Why have the citizenry of all these countries, docile and subservient for decades, now found their collective voice?

Let’s use Egypt as an example. What’s really happening there? This has very little to do with who has ‘sent’ those people, or whether they are socialists or Islamists. It has everything to do with the following facts: Egypt’s huge population of 80 million is growing 2% every year. Two-thirds of that population is under the age of 30. That age group accounts for 90% of the country’s jobless. 40% of the people earn under $2 a day. One-third are illiterate.

82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, has been in power since I was in shorts in high school. He has brooked no dissent and brutally suppressed political pluralism. Until recently, his succession plan for his country involved grooming his son Gamal for the top job. The Mubarak family’s personal fortune is estimated in tens of billions of dollars.

That’s all you need to know. Mubarak has always raised the spectre of Muslim fundamentalism to justify his repressions and earn American support. Well, the robe is tattered and doesn’t hide anything. Nothing justifies keeping your own people in poverty while your family amasses obscene fortunes. Nothing.

So far we in Kenya are just mere observers in matters Maghreb. Or are we? I eavesdropped on many an analyst asserting that these people revolutions can’t happen here. Because we are too ‘tribal’ and will never unite against our leaders, no matter how bad they get.
Really? So we can happily ‘do an Egypt’ – let youth unemployment spiral, not worry about opportunities for the young, not give our citizens the knowledge and tools they need in order to be productive? Get real, people. ‘Tribe’ will be a smokescreen if we don’t address the fundamental hopes and needs of our people – and the smoke will be tear gas.

So I hope some of our more thoughtful leaders are wriggling in their seats as they watch the events of the Arab world. We have got an enormous youth bulge on its way. There is going to be a huge army of youngsters seeking education and seeking work on our streets. To meet the need, we need to reboot this country – reinvent it from being the playground of a small elite, to an economy that is vibrant and innovative and offers up multiple opportunities for ALL its people.

Meanwhile our leaders are trapped in utter irrelevances every day. If any evidence is needed of lack of connection with the common people, it is provided by the fact that famine looms yet again – not anticipated, not prioritized. Yet again, it is apparently the Red Cross’s lonely job to mobilize resources.

Come on leaders, become worthy of your title. Your abiding responsibility is the uplift of your people. There are enormous challenges in education, employment and opportunity to be met. Stop your tuneless fiddling and open your eyes.

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