Fixing the leadership deficit in Africa (2)

Last week, I tried to account for the almost blanket leadership and governance failure in Africa. Evidence increasingly points to two factors: weakness or failure of institutions and extreme personalisation of power.

Nowhere else in the world are state institutions so weak, absent or even ignored altogether in governance than in Africa. Also nowhere else is power so personalised and everything based on the whims of individuals as in Africa. As I argued last week, at the root of this crisis is the unwillingness of African leaders to have any restraint or constraints on their powers. They see themselves as the embodiment of the collective will of the people and do not need to render account to anyone or be subjected to the various institutions of restraints that mature democracies erect to prevent abuse of power.

The solution, as is quite clear by now, is institutions. Institutions are the basic building blocks of a prosperous and sustainable society. Wise societies therefore who devote time and effort to building strong institutions (read a capable state), which, in the words of Ricardo Hausmann, “can protect the country and its people, keep the peace, enforce rules and contracts, provide infrastructure and social services, regulate economic activities, credibly enter into inter-temporal obligations, and tax society to pay for it all” are ultimately successful while those that depend on rule by personalist rule, philosopher kings, moralists and so-called strongmen are not and ultimately become poor.

It is only when this capricious and catastrophic decision-making associated with personalised rule and personality cults are eliminated in Africa can Africa begin to ender growth and progress for its people

I expect some to counter with the fact that other equally authoritarian regimes have been able to engender rapid socio-economic development. This is true. The East Asian countries, even though not democracies, possessed some ‘redeeming features’ of good governance and democracy such as accountability, responsiveness, predictability, the rule of law (according to their own internal disciplines) and competition in designated spheres that helped propel their growth. But before they were able to do that, they first institutionalised their authoritarian systems to eliminate personalisation of power and solve the problem of competition for and sharing of power within the authoritarian regimes, which, absent political institutions, often descends into violence.

What is more, personalisation of power leads to the development of a personality cult, and empirical evidence shows that rulers who personalise power always end up making catastrophic errors along the line that negatively affect the growth of their societies. I will use the case of China to emphasise this point.

It is true that Chairman Mao Zedong is the father of modern China and positioned the Chinese Communist Party to fully control and maintain a stranglehold on Chinese society. However, towards the end of Mao’s rein, the Chinese Communists Party’s institutions of “collective leadership” that he helped developed were abandoned, or when they survived at all, were staffed with Mao’s stooges and loyalists such that they became ineffective and eco chambers of the leader’s wishes. China soon descended into a one-man personalised rule by Chairman Mao. This led to the disastrous Great Leap Forward policy, which was an attempt to mobilise China’s massive population to fast-track economic development in just a few years by forcing a shift from agriculture to steel mining and manufacturing in makeshift backyard furnaces.

Read also: Fixing the leadership deficit in Africa?

Most people in the CPP’s Politburo and Standing Committee of the Politburo could see that this was a foolish policy, but Mao has effectively eclipsed his colleagues and has developed a personality cult that cannot be challenged. No one could therefore tell the emperor that he was naked.

Even when agriculture and grain production was failing, provinces kept exaggerating their grain haul figures because no one could tell Mao that his policy was failing. This eventually led to the greatest famine in human recorded history, where between 1959 and 1961, an estimated 45 million lives perished due to the great famine.

The Communist Party acknowledged the problem in its resolution on Party History when it stated that: “We failed to institutionalise and legalise inner-Party democracy. We drew up the relevant laws but they lacked due authority. This meant that conditions were present for the over-concentration of Party power in individuals and for the development of arbitrary individual rule and the personality cult in the Party.”

China’s break came when Deng Xiaoping began reform and institutionalisation of the Communist Party’s “collective leadership” institutions. The reforms reflected in a new constitution of the People’s Republic of China, and as enunciated by Milan Svolik in his book The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, prohibited certain officials from serving concurrently in more than one leadership position, adopted mandatory retirement ages at various levels of the government hierarchy, and limited tenure at top government positions, including the premiership, to two consecutive five-year terms. What is more, “the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the Politburo, and the Central Committee began meeting regularly, following formal rules of consultation, division of labour, and consensual decision making.”

It was only after these reforms that allowed for rigorous debates, consultations and consensual decision-making that China began its market reforms and rapid economic growth that catapulted it to become the world’s manufacturing centre and the second largest economy in the world.

It is precisely the lack of institutionalisation of political institutions in Africa that is responsible for the shambolic performances of African countries. Most leadership – whether democratic or autocratic – are personalised and the leader acts based on his whims and caprices, making disastrous decisions that tank the economy and deepen poverty. For example, what institutions exist in Africa to have prevented an Idi-Amin Dada, Robert Mugabe or even Muhammadu Buhari from ordering their central banks to go on a currency printing spree against all norms and received knowledge? What institutions could have prevented a Buhari from ordering the closure of all land borders and the shutting of all vital with its neighbours on very flimsy excuses?

It is only when this capricious and catastrophic decision-making associated with personalised rule and personality cults are eliminated in Africa can Africa begin to ender growth and progress for its people.

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