Do politics and leadeship mix

Published: 22-OCT-04

Amidst all the debate about the state of leadership in Africa, one nagging thought remains: why do we so readily accept politicians as our leaders? How many politicians actually show leadership qualities? And how do we get our real leaders involved in plotting our futures?

Politicians are people who, by and large, enter politics as a career rather than any abiding desire to serve their people. They reach positions of power within their parties through a combination of jockeying, lobbying and influence. Then we elect them to parliament, where they evolve into a blurred grouping of people more interested in themselves than the collective. They furiously feather their own nests and disappoint the very people who are looking to them for insight, guidance and a sense of a greater good.

So we end up with so-called leaders who are arrogant enough to think they know better. Who (as happened recently in South Africa) fight public servants down to a 6.2% pay increase, and then promptly vote themselves a 7% pay rise. Who believe their time is more important than that of the people who voted for them, and are therefore justified in spending taxpayers� money on expensive cars and personal police protection.

Look at Malawi�s Bakili Muluzi, who took power in 1994 with a fanfare of expectations and promises. He expanded educational and health services, opened up the press and the judiciary and looked to improve the country�s shaky economy.

Then the curse of politics struck. Suddenly, there were special deals for presidential cronies, and the focus had clearly shifted from the people to the pocket. In 2002, Muluzi realized the end of the gravy train was nigh. He tried mightily to change the constitution to allow for a third presidential term. When Malawi�s Parliament blocked him, he bulldozed the ruling party�s executive into letting him hand-pick a successor, forced through an amendment to the party�s by-laws to make him permanent chair of the party, and retained control of its finances. Proof yet again: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Muluzi is not alone. Zambia�s Frederick Chiluba tried the same move, but was foiled by Parliament. Namibia�s Sam Nujoma was more successful, gleefully shredding his country�s constitution to happily serve a third term. As for Zimbabwe�s Robert Mugabe, he remains Africa�s textbook case of how not to lead.

Strange enough, he also started promisingly, but the taste of power soon turned things pear-shaped. Within a few years of assuming power, he had as many as 30 000 followers of a key opponent slaughtered. And while he oversaw many positive changes during the 80s and 90s, he also used the time to build his personal power base.

He pillaged the country�s reserves and resources mercilessly for his extended family. In 1998, sent 13 000 troops to the Congo in an ill-concealed bid to grab a slice of the Congo�s vast mineral wealth.

For some reason, Mugabe is widely admired for his so-called land reform programme. Indeed, it would be admirable if the landless people of Zimbabwe actually benefited from the land grabs. Sadly, most of the farms snatched without compensation from white commercial farmers are now owned by the heavy hitters of Zimbabwean politics � with some, like Mugabe�s sister and many cabinet ministers, owning several farms each.

Why do men who begin as democrats evolve so quickly into corrupt dictators? Why, for every great leader like Nelson Mandela or Seretse Khama, do we have three or four Mobutu Sese Sekos or Teodoro Obiang Nguemas? Why do we stage grand leadership conferences, where many clever people say many clever things, but not actually turn those grand thoughts and visions into reality? Why do we think it necessary to get packed conference halls to rise to their feet for people who just happen to do politics as a job?

The answer must lie partly with ourselves. We allow ourselves to be taken in by the hollow, simplistic blandishments of those seeking public office without being critical enough. We do too little to encourage our real leaders to take up the cudgels on our behalf. Ultimately, we get the leadership we deserve.

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