It shouldn’t be the business of leaders to hand-pick successors

A leader handpicking and anointing a successor undermines the emergence of strong institutions

The push to spread and entrench the values of liberal democracy in Africa is driving a dangerous discourse. Democracy advocates are suggesting that the quality of a leader should be measured by whether or not they intend to, and are able to, hand pick and groom a successor. However, the advocates’ desperation in the face of their failing project should not lead to desperate measures.

The problems with their suggestion should be obvious. First, a leader handpicking and anointing a successor undermines the emergence of strong institutions. And here is the irony: Africa’s democracy advocates ask long-serving “Big Men” to name a successor for whom they should prepare the path to the presidency. In the same breath, they want to see strong institutions emerge as safeguards against situations whereby the most important decisions in society – like choosing a leader – are made by a single powerful individual. Clearly, the handpicking of successors by African leaders and the building of strong institutions cannot accommodate each other. Thus, if we desire for the rule of law and institutions to be the most powerful arbiters, and that no one should be above them, then we cannot at once demand for the hand-picking of the next leader.

Second, the idea that reduces good governance to the success of cyclical electoral processes during which leaders are chosen and then subjected to term limits is the cause of the failure of the liberal project in Africa: its obsession with would-be democratic processes that do not necessarily produce democratic outcomes. We ought to agree that the quality of a leader should be measured by whether he or she is driven to improve the quality of life of the people they lead.

When a good leader arises, the priority must be to ensure the sustainability of his or her achievements. How that is done must be a matter for the people concerned and their leaders who, together, should make the necessary choice.

At any rate, instead of asking long-serving African leaders to groom successors, democracy advocates should focus on, and demand for, institution building. The reasons are simple: institutions bring about a culture of predictability, consistency, and continuity around decisions and processes in the public space. As such, they bring a sense of security and reassurance to the people about what to expect regarding their own future and that of their children. Even more significantly, institutions ensure that succession processes are smooth and serve far broader interests than those of the incumbent.

For all these reasons, they need nurturing. They do not fall from heaven like mana. Nor can they be imported or donated, or even imposed. In fact, evidence suggests that the longevity in power of leaders who are motivated to improve their people’s living conditions was a factor that contributed to the emergence of strong institutions. Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, or Bostwana’s Seretse Khama are good examples.

The duty of leadership

A leadership that has not nurtured institutions must worry about the sustainability of its project. The absence of predictability in services and processes threatens the present and the future. It threatens the present because the time that should have been used to build a culture of predictability is wasted. It threatens the future because whatever has been achieved cannot stand the test of time without the shield of institutional memory within society.

Likewise, it is important to build a culture around the process of selecting leaders. For instance, it could be designed to ensure that whoever is going to rise to power is properly vetted, that his or her actions once in power can to a large extent be predicted and that institutions can intervene the moment he or she behaves contrary to established and expected standards. These are not decisions that should be taken by a single individual, however endowed with wisdom they might be. Even if it could be done right one time, there is no safeguard to ensure that similar wisdom can be found in the successor. Such a risk could be too costly, especially when there is an alternative, whereby a credible leader could emerge on their own merits via an established system.

This is what happens in relatively stable political systems, whether in presidential systems (Tanzania, the US, France, China), or in parliamentary systems (UK, Singapore, South Korea).

In these political systems, there are processes for sieving leaders. The idea is that the best candidates emerge after vetting.  Even when the incumbent has his preferred candidate, he or she must funnel that candidate through the established vetting processes because such societies appreciate the dangers of personalizing power.

Hence, democracy advocates should not expect African leaders to do everything and then apply pejorative terms to those who have succumbed to their low expectations.

The purpose of politics

As we have observed from the crisis of leadership around the world, it is not sufficient to put in place systems for vetting leaders to ensure that the best emerge. It is equally important to keep in mind the objective of leadership in particular and in politics in general.

If we understand leadership as a duty, as a responsibility and not as an opportunity to enjoy privileges, then possibly the idea of working together would be easier. This has proved difficult in Africa perhaps because we call it power sharing. If leadership was understood as sharing of responsibility, where the exercise of power is essentially about improving people’s lives, then adopting a consensual model of democracy in which former political foes work together would be easier.

This is what helped Rwanda. Indeed, coming together and working together in Rwanda’s post genocide context was more about sharing the burden of leadership and responsibility, than enjoying privileges. Our leaders understood that the best way to prevent crises was to eradicate the discriminations and exclusions that had led to civil war and genocide. Hence, Rwanda resorted to the consensual model of democracy because working together and rising above partisan interests that use political parties as camouflage is the principled choice in any circumstance, and not just a matter of necessity.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that consensual democracy is a unique model for Rwanda. Such a claim simply makes it possible and easier for critics to call it a dictatorship. Consensual democracy is in many other places in Africa even if Africans still shy away from wholly embracing it. The difference between Rwanda and others is that we have picked it as the ideal model of democracy and put it in our constitution. Otherwise, there are other forms of consensual democracy which have come in handy in times of crisis; these usually give birth to ad hoc governments of national unity.

The problem is that they are only invoked when there is a crisis. Which begs the question: if these forms of consensual democracy can get Africans out of crises, why can we not find a way of making it a permanent arrangement (institutionalize it) so that we do not have to wait until a crisis emerges? Consensual democracy allows for identifying basic principles that people need to agree on for them to be able to work together. Clearly, there is no complexity in the definition and understanding of what constitutes consensual democracy.

In the African context, these consensual models should be easy to establish since there are no ideological differences among potential political adversaries. This is evidenced by the fact that political crises are invariably defined along ethnic lines or other particularistic bases. Even when those who foment these crises organize themselves within so-called political parties, these entities do not have policy differences. They form majorities on the basis of ethnicity and ethnic coalitions instead of forming alliances around policy differences. This necessarily fuels crises, as the party in waiting is in fact an ethnic group or an ethnic alliance. This approach is nurturing institutions (political culture) that are undemocratic and where service to the people is not the objective of politics.

If consensual democracy is the appropriate shield against identity politics and political crises, then it is a suitable environment, a serene atmosphere, for nurturing institutions and choosing leaders. But ultimately, there can be no mismatch between these three things: nurturing institutions, choosing leaders and the purpose of politics, which is to improve the quality of people’s lives.


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