As the African Union Summit Heads of State gather tomorrow for the official opening of the 27th AU Summit in Kigali with a highly anticipated plethora of issues to discuss including the much-talked about election of a new AU Chairperson and the launch of the African e-Passport among others, Anver Versi¸ puts the African leaders gathering into perspective as he argues that exceptional leadership and governance should play a central role in achieving AU goals.
The theme of this year’s AU Summit, ‘The African Year of Human Rights – with particular focus on the Rights of Women’ could well prove to be one of those historic meetings that in time changes the political landscape of the continent forever. The theme and the timing of the theme certainly carry the potential since the theme encapsulates all the aspirations of the African citizen.
Delivering and protecting the human rights of its citizens is the cardinal responsibility of a government. The younger generation needs to be reminded from time to time that until the 1960s, most Africans had few or no rights in their own countries. We should never forget that the fight for independence and all the sacrifices that were made in that struggle were for nothing less than securing our human rights.
We should also remember that universal human rights is not simply the absence of abuse of human rights as it is often portrayed, but the delivery of a full spectrum of rights including security, employment, education, justice, freedom, health and the pursuit of happiness.
A call for governance
The theme therefore calls for excellence in governance; for a leadership that mobilises all of a country’s natural and human resources to the service of the people, a leadership that can bring together competing interests – and in Africa’s case, ethnicities and classes – together and weave them into a dynamic whole; a governance structure that rewards merit in whatever field is involved while rejecting nepotism and cronyism; a judiciary that is independent and accessible to all regardless of income; a legislature that is truly representative of the cross section of the people; an executive that cannot be corrupted and a policy making mechanism that is knowledge based and able to produce original solutions to the nation’s problems.
The fact that the Summit is taking place in Rwanda fits well given that in the area of leadership and governance there is general agreement that Rwanda has done very well.
While governance is largely technical and its effectiveness highly dependent on the human capacity available to carry it out, national leadership is a beast of another nature altogether.
The structure of all human groupings, as far as we know, involve an individual, the leader, at the top of the pyramid. This is just as true for the leader or a school football team, the CEO of say Apple, or the head of state of a nation. Of these, the most critical is national leadership because the quality of this leadership, the decisions made and carried out and the character of the leader affect the lives of millions, for better or worse.
But the phenomenon of what makes great leadership remains elusive. Are leaders born or made? Do circumstances produce leaders or do leaders bring about circumstances? “Men make history, not the other way round,” said former US President, Harry S. Truman. “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” Others say, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman),’
But for every good leader, there are scores of bad leaders. Africa unfortunately has had more than its fair share of poor and outright bad leaders who have set their countries back several decades and caused untold suffering. But it has also produced some outstanding leaders.
Some political scientists have described leadership as the ‘magic potion’, that X-factor in the human make up that can lift even the most humble of nations to unimaginable heights or dash even the most richly endowed countries to chaos and destruction. Examples of both are all around us; the media feeds on it daily and even the world of fiction is dominated by this aspect.
It is important here to distinguish between two very critical aspects of leadership. There is a big difference between true leadership and occupying positions of leadership.
Military coups are a classic example of people forcefully occupying positions of power and then hanging on for as long as possible. Wiley politicians can also manoeuvre themselves into occupying positions of power without possessing the leadership qualities such high office requires. Nepotism is another classic short cut to unearned positions of power. In most of these cases, there are severe leadership deficits which are reflected in dysfunctional states, human rights abuses, widespread suffering, poverty and massive corruption.
Fortunately, the number of African dictators and tyrants has been dwindling but the general quality of African leadership is still far from what the continent needs to make the next big development leap.
The focus on leadership and its impact on the fortunes of nations is of even greater import in the developing world where institutions are still largely weak, countries are mostly poor, education is still basic, income disparities are large, ethnic rivalries abound and the concept of nationhood is still a work in progress.
Make no mistake – these are severe challenges that must be confronted on the move since you cannot close down a country for refurbishment! In the opinion of many political scientists, the challenges posed by developing countries require far greater leadership skills than those needed in the developed world.
Failures are common and history is replete with examples of failed leaders; success, given the scale of challenges in developing countries, according to experts, often requires exceptional leadership qualities. Fortunately, there are examples of these as well to serve as benchmarks.
A question of leadership
Of these, two countries are now regarded as outstanding examples of wholesale national transformations principally through the agency of leadership qualities: Singapore and, our own, Rwanda. University students in political science and government study the leadership and governance structures of both these countries as part of their course work.
Both are small countries and both were characterised by poverty, lack of natural resources, widespread apathy and internal strife before they began their transformational journeys. Both seemed to have hit bottom before, in each case, the emergence of a brilliantly charismatic and visionary leader – in the case of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew and in Rwanda today, Paul Kagame.
In Lee Kuan Yew writings and in Paul Kagame’s speeches we can detect that both did not see political leadership as an end as many of their contemporaries did, but as a means to an end. Both eschewed trappings of power.
Both were men of action. Both had the gift of attracting some of the most talented people in their countries around them. Both were forced to rely on their own human and material resources. Both sought and found home-grown solutions to their problems. Both possessed the power to not only vividly depict a bright new future to their populace, but also to win their people’s hearts and arouse country-wide passion to make it happen.
But this is where the comparison ends. Lee Kuan Yew inherited an impoverished country and set into motion a process that has made the island state the most prosperous in Asia; but he was able to build on the fact that Singapore occupied the most strategic shipping lane in the Malacca Strait – the world’s busiest shipping route – and was also able to leverage the huge South-East Asian hinterland, including China, as an investment attraction.
Rwanda is land-locked and the majority of its 12m people are engaged in primary agriculture, although services are now the largest contributor to the GDP and tourism is the main foreign exchange earner.
Lee Kuan Yew had to resolve ethnic conflicts among the island’s Malay, Chinese and Indian communities and forge a new national identity but he did not have to fight a war to end the genocide and bring together former enemies, victims and perpetrators and forge them into accepting a new national vision. Inarguably, Rwanda, through its own systems and methods, has managed to knit together a badly splintered population and weave it into a united nation determined to work together to create a new future.
The political scientist John C. Maxwell says “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” Lee Kuan Yee has passed on but his legacy lives on. Paul Kagame is still very much involved in the African project. We in Africa have a tendency to look outside the continent for examples and inspiration. Perhaps we should dip our cup in our own rich waters whenever we can.