Africa: too much leadership

NAIROBI – After disputed elections with violence on both sides, President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga may become the true founding fathers of Kenya in the power-sharing deal that creates a post of prime minister.  We now hear many tributes to strong leadership--but Africans suffer from far too much leadership: what we desperately need are strong institutions.

NAIROBI – After disputed elections with violence on both sides, President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga may become the true founding fathers of Kenya in the power-sharing deal that creates a post of prime minister.  We now hear many tributes to strong leadership--but Africans suffer from far too much leadership: what we desperately need are strong institutions.

Foreigners like the idea of African leaders and Africa’s ruling political cliques just love it.  Tony Blair, the then British Prime Minister, set up a Commission for Africa, praising “a new generation of African leaders”--but a new generation is no guarantee of anything new: Blair’s praise for Commission member and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came before his police shot at demonstrations against electoral fraud in 2005, imprisoned thousands and put opposition leaders on trial for “treason and genocide.”

Sudanese cellphone tycoon Mo Ibrahim has set up a multi-million-dollar leadership prize but it is worth only a fraction of what presidents and ministers can steal while in office.  Mr. Ibrahim’s prize would provide durable effects for many, many more people if it were spent on strengthening institutions instead of Chiefs.

In fact, the idea that Africans need Chiefs smacks of racism or autocracy.  When Belgium or Italy are undergoing their frequent political convulsions we do not hear calls for strong leaders.  The real difference is that Belgium, for all its bitter tribal politics, has fairly sound institutions while Kenya at its most peaceful does not.

The 2007 disputed presidential poll revealed the underlying forces that threatened to rip Kenya to pieces: not just the exploitation of tribalism for political ends, not just the corruption, not just the varied land laws used by politicians to curry favour but also the weakness of laws, courts and the electoral commission itself.

The core problem was economic disenfranchisement because any individual in power can use our national cake at his own discretion: the politicial system itself creates monsters from the people we elect.  President Kibaki came to power promising to sweep away the corrupt system of Daniel Arap Moi but his cronies ended up using the very same companies set up by Moi’s clique.

The Kenyan situation is repeated throughout the region, hence the urgent need to promote government by the people and for the people:  Africans are tired of government by cliques and for cliques.

Kenya’s politicians must note that the post-electoral dissent emanated from villages as opposed to cities, boiling over into violence that killed about 1,000 people and displaced half a million. 

This widespread anger will not just be extinguished by a political settlement at the top, in the capital. Kenya’s power-sharing agreement must be the beginning of reform, not the end: we urgently have to reform the constitution to limit discretionary power at all levels of government.  We badly need to build the credibility of our institutions such as parliament, the judiciary and the presidency.

But the legislature’s credibility is dented by candidates on both sides bribing voters during the campaign.

The judiciary is not only inefficient but has been known to act on the whims of the executive--hence the controversial rejection by the Raila team of taking its electoral challenges to court.  And our weak institutions also include the many other administrations that maintain and enforce standards--even educational qualifications and driving licences. 

We need simpler regulations, functioning land registries, company registries and a trustworthy stock market: all those many functions that underpin all stability and progress.

To stabilise Kenya we must first ensure that grievances that fuelled post-election violence are addressed in a just process that offers an opportunity for ventilation, compensation and possibly forgiveness.

But if any country is to prosper, it also needs the most fundamental foundations of the free society: defined and transferable property rights, the rule of law (equal for all and enforced on all) and free markets.

With the rule of law and free markets, individual talent and hard work will determine success in the social and economic order, instead of the political patronage that suffocates genuine entrepreneurs--including the millions of peasants who are effectively running small businesses.

A free economy would help improve land use and release those currently shackled to the land because they are not allowed to sell it or cannot raise loans to improve their yields. This peace deal brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is a good step towards getting rid of our monarchical presidency but only the start.

If people of goodwill want to help Africans create the foundations of stability and prosperity, don’t keep sending money to corrupt and incompetent rulers:  the World Bank’s own analyses of its massively increased support for Kibaki’s government show that three quarters of the projects had “actual occurrences of fraud and corruption consistent with findings of previous forensic audits and examinations,” the Wall Street Journal reported on 6 March.

If donors cannot resist trying to help, promoting venture capital for African entrepreneurs would be the best way of creating alternative sources of national cakes.
We Kenyans must redirect the violence into vigilance and checks on discretionary power.  Only strong institutions, not faith in individuals, will save Kenya and Africa and allow us to create our own prosperity.

James Shikwati is director of the Inter Region Economic Network think-tank, Nairobi: this month, the World Economic Forum named named him a young Global Leader 2008.

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