BusinessDay

Putin and the danger of personalist rule

Three weeks ago, in ending a two-part series on fixing the leadership deficit in Africa, I posited that empirical evidence point to two factors as largely responsible for the failure of governance, political decay and, in the case of Africa, poverty of the African state. These are weakness or failure of institutions, and second – the cause of the first – extreme personalisation of power.

While the institutional design of a well-functioning democracy provides for the smooth functioning of strong state institutions that depersonalises power and puts adequate checks and balances on the activities of all elected and appointed leaders to prevent abuse of power.

The non-democracies and even autocracies have realised the importance of these mechanisms for the growth and development of their societies. They are putting systems of accountability in place to prevent a cult of personality and personalisation of power that is so frequent and often associated with authoritarian regimes.

The images of his grilling and humiliation of officials during meetings showed exactly why he was fed false and misleading intelligence

This is certainly the case with some East Asian countries, who even though were not democracies, successfully prevented their leaders from developing personality cults and incorporated systems of accountability, responsiveness, predictability and the rule of law into their one-party or dominant party authoritarian systems.

There are at least two reasons why personality rule/cult of personality is so dangerous for any society. The first is that by surrounding himself with yes-men, the quality and flow of critical information to the leader is severely disrupted. Those around the leader give him only the kind of information he wants to hear and not the real situation. Second, institutions of deliberation, debate and consensus have been turned into echo chambers of the leader’s wishes.

Of course, policy decisions become the personal wishes of the leader. That is why leaders in personalised authoritarian systems end up making catastrophic decisions and errors that negatively affect the growth and development of their societies. No one can tell the emperor he is naked.

I gave the example of Chairman Mao, who developed a cult of personality around himself, abandoned the Chinese People’s Party’s institutions of “collective leadership” and staffed government and party institutions with his loyalists and stooges.

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This led to the disastrous Great Leap Forward policy, which led to the greatest famine in human recorded history, leading to the loss of about 45 million lives. History is littered with many other examples, but we will restrict ourselves to a contemporary example – Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Since coming to power, Vladimir Putin has gradually consolidated and personalised power in Russia. All the institutions of collective decision-making that were developed post-Soviet Stalin to prevent the cult of personality that developed around Joseph Stalin have been completely rolled back and all state institutions are staffed by his loyalists and stooges. This has severely affected the quality and flow of information, and consequently, the decisions he makes.

Take, for instance, his decision to invade Ukraine. His intelligence team gave him the impression that the Ukrainian army would crumble in a matter of days and that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian army as liberators.

His military advisors also made him believe that the modernisation of the Russian army was complete and the army possessed all the modern weaponry and sophisticated logistics wherewithal to mount a swift and decisive invasion of Ukraine.

Clearly, he made the decision to invade on the strength of the intelligence and assessment of the readiness of his military.

But no sooner had the invasion started that he realised all those information was wrong. The images of his grilling and humiliation of officials during meetings showed exactly why he was fed false and misleading intelligence. Only him makes decisions and no one dares question his orders and or decisions.

He has successfully purged all critical voices within the government circle and the work of all officials was to implement his decisions and wishes as passed down. So, no one could tell him that the Ukrainians were determined to fight to protect their motherland to death and that Russian troops would not be welcomed by roses but with Molotov cocktails.

No one could tell him that the corrupt system he fosters has embezzled most of the funds meant for the modernisation of the Russian army and that the inventory of the logistics equipment and military hardware of the Russian army he has were mainly on paper and do not exist in reality.

The bad intelligence and faulty decision-making began to show immediately the invasion started. The initial goal was to head to Kyiv, topple the Ukrainian government in days and establish control all over or in most parts of the country and deal with pockets of insurgences as they emerge.

But the Russian troops were bogged down by the determination of Ukrainians to fight and extremely sloppy and abysmal logistics that they became sitting docks for Ukrainian troops and missile strikes.

In shame, Putin had to pull back his troops and develop a new and now more limited strategy of focusing on specific areas and fighting a prolonged war of attrition to which Russia was naturally more positioned for.

Besides the military setbacks, Putin’s faulty decision-making also has other social and economic costs.

Besides the huge western sanctions against Russia – whose results will begin to show in the coming months and years, Putin has also decided on a fatal economic war of assured mutual destruction with the European Union by turning off gas supply to Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.

Europe had anticipated Putin’s actions and is in a frenzy to develop other neglected sources of gas. That task will be complete by next year and Putin has realised this coming winter is the only time he has left to realistically hurt Europe.

But by doing that, he has assured that Russia will suffer catastrophic economic collapse for years to come. Europe only has one winter to suffer from Russia’s actions.

Putin’s catastrophic decision-making, despite his longstanding image as an incredible strategist, is the problem with all personalist leaders.

By concentrating power and purging out critical voices (who, in most cases, are professionals and competent), he elevates sycophants, corrupt and incompetent officials whose main credentials for ascending to high positions is their fealty and unquestionable loyalty to the leader.

This creates an information and competency problem for the leader. And sooner than later, catastrophic decisions are made. In a democracy or highly institutionalised authoritarian system, multiple points of checks and balances exist to prevent such decisions from being made or implemented.

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