Backward-looking leaders can be dangerous

East African presidents provide an interesting subject for a study in contrasting personal and governance styles.

One of them has gone missing from public view for four years and so cannot be adequately studied. Still, he occasionally comes up with some very interesting, if outlandish, proposals that, if for nothing else, indicate that he is still around.

For instance, he had himself named the Eternal Guide of his country and decreed a move of the capital from its current lakeside location to a more inland site.

Another one is so concerned with domestic matters that he hardly ventures outside the country. The energy and time thus saved are used to bulldoze things and people to get what he wants done.

But do not be fooled that he does not know what is happening in the region. He keeps abreast of events and when necessary puts in a diplomatic shift to help sort out regional issues.

The third has had most of his time taken up by the fractious politics and runaway corruption in his country that one would expect he has had little time to govern.

But he has devised ways of navigating through the political minefield and also get things done.

Sometimes he is not given the credit for holding the country together and keeping its economy functioning.

The other two are hardly on speaking terms. The older man wants to be regarded as the senior statesman in the region to whom all the others must defer. When, in his view, this deference is not forthcoming, he thinks he has been slighted and will seek to exact it by whatever means.

The other one, on the other hand, is not the sort of leader to be trifled with or pushed around. He will stand his ground and push back if necessary.

Today, however, our interest is not in all the five, but in these last two, especially as they relate to time.

Starting with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, he is a man very much of the present but perhaps more importantly singularly focussed on the future. Rarely does he go into the past (certainly not for very long).

It is not that he is not aware of it or that it has no relevance to today. Rather, it is because our lives lie ahead of us, not behind. The future is where we are headed and preparing for it is of the utmost essence.

It does not just happen or arrived at by accident. It is planned. That is how societies get transformed.

Being focussed on the future means having a vision of it that becomes your reference point.  It may, of course, be revised or adjusted as appropriate.

You must also remain engaged with the present in order to affect the future. You cannot be absent or go missing.

You must think about who will deliver that future. Can it be the people of yesterday? Surely not. More likely it will be those of today with a greater chance of staying longer in the future and influence its direction (otherwise known as the youth) and make sure they have a real role, not a token one.

In short, one must be a moderniser, and President Kagame is one, although he has never claimed the title.

The older man, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, is different. He is increasingly looking to the past which may indicate that that is where his capital is and that it has been spent, and he is either unable or incapable of reinventing his relevance in the present and for the future.

History is, of course, of great consequence, but when reference to it becomes the default position for one’s continued significance, there is a problem.

The obvious one is that retreating to the comfort of times when things were more certain is a sign of aging and loss of grip on the present and the ability to influence tomorrow’s outcome.

In such cases the temptation is to harp on the past because there is a sure, solid record.

That is why President Museveni finds it attractive to remind people of his time as a student community organiser, his attempt to transform his family and community, and later his time as a freedom fighter and pan-Africanist.

These are all things safely in the past. Trouble is, Ugandans live in the present and are keen to craft a decent future for themselves.

The present is even different from this supposed historical record. All the things he is supposed to have fought to eradicate have come back in a big way. Land grabbing by the powerful has got out of hand.

Robbery, murder and other forms of armed violence are on the rise. Environmental disasters that can be traced back to government action or inaction happen with increasing regularity. Election theft is the normal order. Corruption has become endemic. Poverty still bites very deep.

Retreating to the past is also an attempt to validate his continued stay in power. It becomes necessary when what he is doing now has no track with the population, most of whom are unaware of or are uninterested  in the history that he was once useful and may still be, or it is way off track that it needs bolstering from the past.

Or no one is listening to the message anymore and so there is need to reinforce it with past achievements.

When people lose focus and begin to seek safety in the past, they may do desperate things in order to reclaim relevance, including meddling in the affairs of others and sponsoring regional terrorism. Sadly that is already happening.

The views expressed in this article are of the authors.