Call in leaders with iron in their souls, for democracy has failed in Africa

Saturday November 10 2012


There is a saying that most things, including war and illness, begin in the mind. The idea is often invoked in connection with why some people are successful in life while others fail or achieve below their potential. Barack Obama’s recent successful bid for a second term at the White House got me thinking. Whatever the broad thrust of the story each of them weaves, books about President Obama tend to have a common thread running through them: From very early in his life, he never considered failure to be an option.

As a blanket claim, though, the idea that people who fail generally do so as a result of their own fecklessness and that those who succeed do so exclusively because of their own individual efforts, would be a bit of a caricature. Things are never that simple. It is, nonetheless, true that the pursuit of success, whichever way it is measured for each individual, demands of those who seek to go all the way to have that extra strength of character, that extra nerve, that “iron in the soul.”

The iron imagery is quite apt, as it conveys a sense of the robust and unbendable. Which is why it is not for nothing that people who succeed or at least those who have the nerve to pursue their visions, especially in politics, often end up with such epithets as “strong man,” “iron lady,” or “iron man”. And this is where one should not get carried away with the idea that stubborn pursuit of political visions is necessarily a good thing. We know about the monumental disasters some of the world’s iron men have visited on their own countries and humanity in general.


There are, however, some that, personal foibles aside, have left a mark because of the great, often transformative achievements they have made in their lives. To mention a few, think of Otto von Bismark of Germany, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, Deng Xiaoping of China and Margaret Thatcher.

A key factor in the success these iron people achieved was the space they had in setting themselves goals and pursuing them with single-minded focus, or the capacity they had, for whatever reason, to resist external and internal pressure to change course.

Which brings me to two questions that, if it was up to me, I would have Africans spend more time debating and thinking about critically, while taking care to neither ignore nor parrot standard, mainly imported, views. Why has Africa been such a failure over the past half century of independence? How can it be helped? About three decades ago the blanket answer was that the problem was over-centralisation of power by governing elites, and lack of elections, seen at the time as what defined democracy. The cure, it was argued, was reform by way of decentralisation that gave ordinary Africans a say in how they were governed, within competitive, adversarial political systems where election winners took everything and the losers nothing.

It is the kind of politics, for example, that has just returned Obama to the White House and sent Mitt Romney back to his businesses. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the advice and pressure behind those reforms was based on wrong-headed notions that paid no attention to local conditions and assumed that all societies could be governed on the basis of supposedly infallible universal theories.

Three decades on, some countries have successfully held elections, albeit amid acrimony that has left thousands dead or maimed. Others, however, have exploded into violence, leaving ordinary people yearning for the “good old days without elections” or when elections, though not the type recommended by “good governance” experts, would end peacefully, allowing normal life to go on afterwards.

Equally significant is that Africa’s new democracies have been almost universally incompetent at providing ordinary people with the public goods or services they need to live dignified lives. Democracy in Africa, more accurately described as “competition for power without responsibility,” has only allowed poverty to become more entrenched, even as experts and those who love mimicking them continue claiming that it has empowered ordinary citizens and placed them at the centre of decision making.

It is probably too hasty to claim that democracy as such has failed in Africa and call for leaders with “iron in the soul.” Perhaps the starting point should be to try and come to some understanding about what democracy means or should mean, whether definitions should be context-specific and therefore differ from one country or geographical context to the next. Also, given Africa’s experience over the last 30 years, does it make sense to continue believing or claiming that there is one universal answer to the question of how it can achieve success?