Hoopla surrounded the recent cabinet reshuffle. And rightly so, given the rather extensive changes made. Those welcoming the changes pointed out that some ministers had overstayed in the same docket that the ministry under their responsibility had come to be identifiable with them. Indeed, this was a particularly popular argument that interpreted change as a good thing that brought with it the injection of new blood.
Of course it wasn’t simply about new blood. Proper scrutiny of the tenures of those making way will quickly put that thought to rest. But that is a story for another day.
Today, I focus on a phenomenon: Cabinet reshuffles in Africa. Changes in cabinet in most of Africa make for exciting news, be it among peasants in some remote village or among urban dwellers in the metropolis. They particularly make for hot rumours and all kinds of speculation that often takes a life of its own. This often take the shape of a few prying chaps claiming to have insider information about who is “going in” or who is “coming out.”
However, some will have laid the groundwork for how things eventually turn out. Most people have heard of an African country where villagers mobilise people, hire buses, and drive off hundreds of kilometres to camp at the President’s residence petitioning him “not to forget our sons” during the reshuffle.
Of course the “sons” in question are never the kind that most people think about when they think about their children. Neither are they part of the nuclear nor the extended families of those mobilised.
It turns out that since the said people are mobilised on ethnic basis and therefore believe themselves to belong to the same ethnic group, they similarly consider themselves related in another sense: By virtue of a shared ancestral connection, which also implies a biological kinship.
It is this sense that explains the clamouring of a poor peasant in the interest of the well-to-do among his ethnic group to get a ministerial position and enrich themselves even further. If only it were all harmless.
It is a logic that starts a vicious cycle and a monster that cannot be easily exorcised. It produces and justifies mediocre appointments to public office who, in turn, are responsible for gross underperformance, something that reproduces itself in a thriving sub-culture that rewards incompetence and shuns excellence.
It is such a pity that the biggest losers in this game are the same people demanding the elevation of their ‘sons’ to high office.
In Rwanda, the primary vehicle to a ministerial position is one’s track record. Sure, there are other considerations, about five of them; however, it is without a doubt that any of these is subordinated to the primary criteria of competence.
However, the truth must be told: the monster isn’t fully banished. Ours is a variant of the original. Consider this. Just moments after the new cabinet list was made public, people could be overheard wondering out loud which post outgoing so and so was “going to get next.” As if preordained, I thought.
Underlain in both the original and its variant is a sense of entitlement. For the former it is at the group level; for the latter, at the individual level. It is a corrosive attitude in both. In practice, it means that those who fail to get reappointment develop frustration, disgruntlement, and possibly a feeling of betrayal and abandonment, something that may prompt one to consider an isolating life in the anonymity of self-imposed exile, for instance.
Humility and Public Service
It occurs to me that officials at that level must be resourceful persons to begin with. I doubt that head-hunters of would be ministers go around searching for unimaginative individuals. In other words, they are capable of making a worthwhile life for themselves as private individuals. At the bare minimum, the time spent in high office provided them with the network and exposure to pursue whatever it is they choose and therefore can continue to enjoy personal success.
There’s a caveat, however. For every leader, a question that won’t be wished away is how they conducted themselves while in office. If this was done with dignity and humility, the public servant ought to return to private life with pride and a sense of satisfaction. After all, public service is both sacrifice and honour.
On the other hand are leaders, such as those reported in one of the local papers recently, who refuse to respond to concerns of ordinary people, with the latter forced to wait for an opportunity to lodge complaints to the President during his tours across the country.
At tenure’s end, these can expect a contemptuous reception awaiting them similar to the kind they dished out while in office.